Cold Specks: Heartbreaking Soul

Music Features Cold Specks
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Hometown: London via Etobicoke, Ontario
Member: Al Spx
Album: I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
For Fans Of: Bill Callahan, Mahalia Jackson, Anna Calvi

A husky yet soothing voice echoes throughout the three floors of New York City’s famed Bowery Ballroom. Walking up the stairs, Al Spx’s soulful stir grows with weight and poignancy. On the main stage she commands a crowded room with just a microphone and a guitar.

In nine hours, Spx, the Canadian singer/songwriter and essence of the band Cold Specks, managed to transform from the unassuming, quiet 24-year-old, wearing last night’s makeup and smoking out on a patio at a coffee bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She still maintains a demure quality, but on stage at the Bowery, during in her first Manhattan performance, Spx proves she’s meant to be heard—even if it took her nearly nine years to get from her bedroom closet where she wrote her first song and onto the stage where she belongs.

Al Spx—a pseudonym combining her nickname “Al” with a shortened spelling of “Specks”—traces success back to when she was 15 years old. She grew up in a large family just outside of Toronto, Ont. One of seven children, she shared a room with her sister.

“Naturally it was very difficult to find some space of my own,” Spx says. “My sister took the room, I took the walk-in closet whenever we needed space.”

In that closet, Spx wrote an early version of “Lay Me Down,” included on Cold Specks’ debut album I Predict a Graceful Expulsion that came out earlier this year. While Spx remains private, opting not to use her real name or talk too much about her family, the album is deeply personal. Spx wrote almost all of the 11-tracks from the time she was 15 until she was 22 years old. She says the songs come from a period of serious depression.

“Lay Me Down” welcomes death with the lyrics “All I ask of you now is to lay me down…then my last breath of my soul will slip.” On “Send Your Youth” she sings, “…time to decide what is born and what is left to die.” “Elephant Head” opens with, “One thousand stillborn thoughts to cradle and hold with my mother’s hands,” and continues, “You cut me open just to see what’s within / clean up these organs, wrap your words with my skin.”

“A lot of people pick up on the references to death,” Spx says. “It’s about loss in different ways as well. There was all kinds of loss that was going on and relationships falling apart—whether it was friends, family, personal relationship with myself even, with God—that’s where a lot of the references to death come from. But also people I knew passed away.”

During those years, she attended four different high schools, dropped out of college after trying on different majors and took on odd jobs, including selling knives door-to-door, working at a meat factory and answering phones. She also dabbled in music. She played some shows as Basket of Figs but remained inactive in the Toronto music scene and uncommitted as a fulltime artist.

“The songs were incomplete ideas as Basket of Figs,” she says. “Sometimes I’d put them online. I immediately regretted it because they weren’t finished.” She ended up removing the demos from the site. She even burned a handful of physical CDs.

Everything changed when producer and sound mixer Jim Anderson gave Spx the opportunity to fully realize her songs and her voice. Anderson persuaded Spx to buy a one-way ticket to London in February 2010 after he overheard his brother playing a CD of hers that made its way across the Atlantic.

Anderson enlisted the help of producer Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey) for the project. Spx credits Anderson, now her manger, and Ellis, who produces and plays drums, for helping her complete the album. “I wasn’t a focused musician. When left to my own, I tend to start and stop. With Rob and Jim, they allowed for direction. They forced me to focus really.”

They put together a band and added orchestration and sparse arrangements built around her voice with distant horn and string accents, tender plucking, airy piano phrases and solitary drum beats. Spx dubbed the project Cold Specks, inspired by a James Joyce quote she liked.

On the debut album, Spx merges together her blues and soul influences, her affinity for Alan Lomax-era field recordings and her obsession with Tom Waits. Some of the arrangements also hint at an indie-rock influence.

“When I was a teenager, in my Converse shoes and my ripped jeans, I was listening to The Strokes and Interpol and indie-rock bands from New York,” Spx says. “As you grow older, you dig deeper and start listening to more stuff. I eventually landed on Bill Callahan and came across the Lomax recordings and stuff like that.”

Prior to and during the recording of I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, she was listening to “loads of blues.” “That’s reflected in the songs but I wouldn’t say it’s a straight-up blues record,” she says. “It’s just, I guess, my take on the blues.”

Her take on the blues has been branded “Doom Soul.”

“We had created a Facebook account and for genre we jokingly wrote Doom Soul,” Spx says. “Our other options were Morbid Motown and Gothic Gospel. I immediately erased it the next day after a blog picked up on it. It’s obviously ridiculous but it seems to make sense to people.”

You can hear the doom on “Holland.” Deep cello lines open the track and looming drumbeats cut in two-thirds of the way through, casting a dark shadow. But it also calls to mind an old spiritual, a result of Spx drawing on the sounds of the Deep South. Elsewhere on the album she embodies the authenticity of soul music and employs its gospel roots. The stark arrangements often build with choirs and string or horn sections backing up her soulful rasp, creating a sense of comfort and hope. Spx’s songs are simultaneously traditional and modern, forceful and delicate, heartbreaking and soul-lifting.

After the release of “Holland,” blogs and national media lauded Cold Specks. Spx played some shows opening for St. Vincent, scored a slot on BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland and racked up invites to festivals including CMJ and South By Southwest.

“It’s definitely a different lifestyle. It had been explained to me before, and I understood what I was getting into but you still don’t know until you start touring. I’ve been on tour for four weeks now and it’s been really fun but at heart I’d say touring’s shit. Living on a bus isn’t the most ideal thing but you’ve got to make the most of it.”

And she does. The seriousness in her deliberate vocal delivery and the dark imagery in her lyrics stand in contrast to her wit between songs. At the Bowery, she plugs her album then says, “It’s a stupidly long title but I’m a douchebag.” Prior to playing a new song she jokes, “I’m fairly certain it’s about having a sexual relationship with the devil, so here’s my ode to Satan.” She randomly asks the crowd if they want to hear a “dirty cannibal joke” and then tells it with impeccable delivery—painting a very different picture of the innocent-looking, conservatively dressed, doe-eyed 24-year-old.

In addition to her sense of humor, Spx says she’s moved past the depression and is happy with the structures in her life.

It actually doesn’t take much to make Spx happy. She misses her bathtub and her bed, and other than getting back home, she only has one ultimate goal: “I want to duet with Tom Waits. That’s all.”

Until then, she’ll have to settle for being center stage.

As she closes out her Bowery performance, Spx puts down her guitar to sing a cappella for her rendition of “Old Stepstone.” The hymnal tune turns the Bowery into a cathedral. She belts out the lyrics while maintaining restraint. She steps away from the microphone for the last few bars, and her voice still rings throughout the Bowery, washing over the crowd as it stands silent, captivated.