2012 Breakthrough: Cold Specks

Elisa Bray

By Elisa Bray

on 12.10.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Music of the Deep South — blues and field recordings

From: London, U.K., via Canada

Personae: Al Spx (vocals, guitar), Tom Havelock (cello), Thomas Greene (piano), Chris Cundy (baritone sax/tenor sax/bass clarinet), Terry Edwards (trumpet/fugal horn/baritone sax/ tenor sax), Rob Ellis (drums)

I Predict A Graceful Expulsion

Cold Specks

[Of all of the records that came out this year, none captured our hearts as much as I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, the stirring, evocative debut from Al Spx, who records as Cold Specks. From the moment we heard it, we knew it was something truly special. Spx mastered the art of "sense language," writing words with no clear literal meaning, but with whole volumes of conveyed feeling. It is a poem of hope for the lost and endurance for the broken. eMusic's Elisa Bray talked with Spx about the album in June. You can read their conversation below.]

“It’s a pseudonym,” says Cold Specks musician Al Spx of her adopted name. “I just don’t feel comfortable having my real name out there.” The 24-year-old Canadian always thought she’d be a lawyer or a teacher — anything but a musician. At least that’s what her parents wanted. Growing up in a large, devout family, the fifth of seven siblings, in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto, being a musician wasn’t really an option. But hidden away in the basement and in the bedroom — “wherever I could find some space” — Spx started honing a voice that recalls Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, and began writing evocative blues songs steeped in the musical traditions of the American Deep South.

Fortuitously, her demos landed in the hands of producer Jim Anderson, who persuaded the young musician to make a record, and she moved to London, U.K., in 2010, taking her band name from a line in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness.”

On her teenage love of indie-rock bands and starting to write:

When I was 15 I started writing songs. My mum bought me a guitar. I wanted to be a guitarist in a rock band like the Strokes. I was really into the Strokes and Interpol when I was about 14. I played in my bedroom, the basement, wherever I could find some space. I didn’t want anyone to hear because I guess I was a little bit shy. But I realized I couldn’t play guitar very well — I ended up realizing I could sing, so I stuck with that. I picked up the guitar again and I’ve been playing it since.

On writing her first song, “Lay Me Down”:

I was a morbid teenager and it was a result of that. Like any other teenager I’d go through ridiculous periods. It was a product of boredom; I was moving round from town to town and I didn’t know too many people. I had this old keyboard and wrote some songs.

On making the transition from solo artist to having a band:

It was very difficult at first. I was used to being in complete control. I didn’t understand musical structures. I had never played with a drummer before. It was all very new and overwhelming. But as with anything, it just took time. Now, I only play solo if I really have to.

I was completely self-taught, so my tuning was not a conventional tuning and the rhythms were all off-kilter, because I didn’t know what I was doing essentially. But I had all of these ideas and incomplete songs and had to, without any musical knowledge, find a way to translate those ideas to the band members and I think that’s why it took so long, and that’s why we spent two years on the record, because I needed that time to grow and learn and figure out how to translate all of my mad ideas.

On her musical transformation during the making of the album:

The songs changed completely. They started as acoustic songs on an acoustic guitar and my voice then we added band members and horns and cello, loads of instrumentation. I think I grew as a songwriter and a singer — I wasn’t very focused before I came to Britain and during that time, recording the album, I grew a lot.

On giving her music the term “doom soul”:

It started out as a joke! Last June, I created a Facebook page for the band. As a joke, I listed “doom soul” as our genre and it has just stuck. It is obviously a ridiculous description, but it seems to make sense to people. There are dark elements to the songs as well as soulful ones.

On writing blues songs:

I didn’t intend to. I have a husky voice. The songs are miserable and I was very limited with regards to instrumentation. I was also listening to a handful of American blues singers when I first began writing songs. I suppose all of those things helped to create a bluesy sound.

Someone sent me a collection called Southern Journey, and it really struck me. People in their own homes singing for the love of it, not ever thinking they’d make a career out of it, and you can just hear the love in their voices, a love for singing in their voices, and I was really attracted to that. When I first started recording it was always on my own. Because I was writing songs in my bedroom and basement I didn’t think anyone would ever hear it, so [they were] brutally honest songs. The songs on the album are quite personal. I think a lot of that was influenced by the Lomax stuff.

On spirituality playing a role in her music:

I think the songs started out as me questioning faith and trying to come to terms with some kind of form of spirituality. The songs are a result of that.

On Tom Waits, her greatest influence:

He’s a great songwriter, and he’s got one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. There’s a song on Orphans called “Home I’ll Never Be”; it’s a cover of a Jack Kerouac poem/song. There are two Waits versions and the one that I love is a poorly recorded version with Tom on the piano. I believe it was recorded at Allen Ginsberg’s memorial. It’s one of the most powerful recordings I have ever come across. I find his music to be completely consuming. [My biggest ambition is] a duet with Tom Waits!

On James Carr:

I love him! That voice stops me every time. As far as I’m concerned, he was the best of that era. Better than Sam Cooke. Better than Otis. It’s a shame he didn’t get as much recognition. He was it.

On inspiring literature:

I have been reading the selected letters, memoirs and essays of some of my favorite writers recently — Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf, James Joyce’s erotic letters, and Arthur Rimbaud’s selected letters. I guess I am currently obsessed with the memories of other people.