There’s something beautifully evocative about the music Cold Specks produces. It’s heart wrenching, with Al Spx’s rough and hewn voice bringing to mind epochs of Southern soul singers as her music flourishes from the more traditionally indie music scene of her Toronto home. Her story is amazingly serendipitous, as her tape was discovered randomly by Jim Anderson, a producer and engineer for the likes of Los Campesinos! Anderson then took Spx under his wing and helped manage and produce the Etobicoke native. Next month, Cold Specks’ debut record I Predict A Graceful Expulsion will be out. In advance of that, and in front of her solo U.S. tour, Al Spx took time to talk with us about her experiences making these songs, growing as a person and an artist, and how Anderson and Rob Ellis (P.J. Harvey, Anna Calvi) took her under their wings.
Who is all involved in Cold Specks?
Cold Specks is now a six piece band. There’s a guy named Peter Roberts on electric guitar. Tom Havelock plays cello. Thomas Greene plays piano, stage piano for live shows. We’re currently without a drummer at the moment, so we’ve been rotating people. There’s Chris Cundy who plays loads. He plays baritone sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet. And then there’s me. Is that six? [laughs] I think I got them all. We just a rehearsal recently!
On the record (I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, out May 21 on Mute), Terry Edwards plays trumpet and fugal horn as well as baritone sax and tenor sex. And we’re filming a couple of live sessions, and Terry is going to be playing baritone sax and tenor sax and fugal horn, along with Chris who will also be playing baritone sax and tenor sax. Rob Ellis drums on the record, and he sat down with Jim Anderson, who’s the producer, and I and the three of us worked on arrangements. I think that’s everyone.
Before you moved to London, you were doing these songs yourself?
Yeah, I wasn’t really focused. I didn’t know how to play guitar very well, and I didn’t really understand my singing voice very well. In April 2010, I flew out and worked. And I’ve been playing guitar every day since then and singing every day since then, and go better at things. Understood song structures more, as well, over the last two years.
Was it difficult getting acclimated to professional musicians?
Very difficult. It took me a very long time to get used to it. I had never played with a drummer before and that was such a mindfuck for me in the beginning. I didn’t understand song structures and wasn’t very good at counting. [laughs] It was really difficult for me, because I wasn’t a trained musician, and they’d all been playing for years and years. Pete, the guitar player, has been in bands for years and years. All of them have been in bands for years and years. It was very difficult, but I got it figured out.
Were there any moments of frustration?
Yeah. In September of 2010 I left London and I went home to Toronto for six months. I didn’t think I was going to come back. It was just taking a really and I just didn’t know if it was going to happen. So I went home and worked in call centers, realized that was shit and called Jim and said, “I want to come back!”
You’re going to have to help me out with the pronunciation of your home town.
[laughs] Etobicoke? It’s really just Toronto. It’s just a suburb of Toronto. Someone asked me in the beginning where I was from and I said Etobicoke and it just stuck.
You’re from there, but your music is influenced by the American South. Have you always been influenced by that region?
I think so. My favorite singers of all time are from the South. Well, I don’t know. When I think about it, about my favorite singer/songwriters, a lot of them are from the South. But it wasn’t really a conscious thing.
Do you feel like you have influencers from the Toronto scene?
Yeah. I didn’t start writing songs until I met this guy named Jordaan Mason and he had an album called Divorced Lawyers I Shaved My Head, and we became very good friends. I would stop and start and quit and he would always phone me up or send me an e-mail, really encourage me to write songs and play shows. He really encouraged me when no one else did. Great Lakes Swimmers, who I’m going on tour with, I have always really loved. I think they’re just fantastic. I’m on Arts & Crafts now in Canada, and there are loads and loads of bands there that are really amazing. I really loved the Most Serene Republic, and I was in high school when Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People came out and that was one of my favorite records when I was a teenager. There’s an endless amount of bands in Toronto who I really adore.
You said in an interview that the tagged that’s been assigned to your music– “doom soul”– started out as a joke. How do you feel about it being the accepted moniker now?
I don’t mind. I think it’s cool. It really was just a drunk joke. Me and Jim, my manager and he produced the album, we had come back from a recording session, pretty drunk, were at his apartment and updating the Facebook page. And for genre I think we wrote “doom soul/gothic gospel” and we just thought it was the funniest thing in the world. And then we put “Holland” online and blogs picked up on the doom soul thing and I nearly logged into Facebook and erased it, thinking “Aw, shit, I hope this doesn’t stick.” But I don’t mind. Now it really doesn’t bother me. I wouldn’t know how to describe my music.
On the record, you worked with Jim Anderson, your manager and producer, and Rob Ellis, who has worked with P.J. Harvey and Anna Calvi. How much have they contributed to your development as an artist?
I flew out to London in April of 2010. We didn’t put “Holland” out there until June of 2011. In that time, Jim allowed me to grow as a songwriter. He never really interfered, but he helped settle arrangements to songs, he helped me understand song structures. Rob did the same, really. Rob’s role on the album– he’s an amazing producer– but on this record his role was… I think in the credits we just called him “guru.” Something ridiculous like that. That’s what Jim and Rob both were for me, because they helped me grow and helped me figure out… music, really. I just didn’t understand a thing before I flew out. And together we added arrangements, we brought in band members. I didn’t know anyone when I moved out to London.
How hard was that, moving out to a foreign country with nobody you know?
Very, very hard. Like I said, I left at one point, because I had just had enough. I go back and forth now, and London’s been really great to me. To me and for me. It took me a really long time, but I guess that’s with everyone who moves to a new town for the first time. Natural frustrations. After I came back in April of 2011, we finished the record in September. Ever since September i’ve just been going. I’ve got a visa now that lets me move back and forth. Before I had to go back every six months.
Al Spx, that’s a pseudonym?
It’s just a ridiculous stage name. I’m not a prick! [laughs] There’s a reason behind it. My family, they’re religious and don’t really approve of my songs. They’re of the opinion that I should go to University and get a nine-to-five job, so out of respect for them… Really I just didn’t want them to find out about my music, so I came up with Cold Specks and then Al Spx as a stage name, because I didn’t want them to hear.
Do they know now?
Yeah, they saw me on TV! [laughs] They saw me on a TV show in Canada when they were flipping the channels.
What was their reaction to that?
I think I got an e-mail from my dad, just asking me to call. They wanted to have a word with me. “Hey, we saw you on TV, we’d like to talk.”
Did they get it, then?
Nah, they’re stuck in their ways. They’re wonderful people and I love them to death, but they’re just stuck in their ways. I don’t think they’ll ever come around.
That’s interesting, because it seems as though religion and spirituality play a role in your music.
Yeah. The whole record is really about how I wasn’t happy with where I was. I would say that a falling out with God is what it’s about. I don’t mind explaining that idea vaguely, but going into details is rather hard for me.
What did you go through to become accustomed to your voice?
I had a project before Cold Specks called Basket of Figs, which was just me on acoustic guitar, and I very rarely played in front of people and I very rarely practiced. I wasn’t focused at all. Every few months I’d knock out a disgustingly basic song, and then I flew out to London and we went off to Wales for three days and I was singing every day for three days, and I’d never done that before. I know that it was only three days, but the amount of coughing that was coming out of me, because I was singing from my throat at the time… I wasn’t singing from my gut, I didn’t understand my range. And then, over a year and a half, we brought in band members, really got Rob involved, and I was literally just singing every single day. I was in the studio three different times, we were rehearsing all the time. I discovered an entirely new falsetto range. I figured out how to play the guitar. I wrote “Heavy Hands” and “Hector” two days before we went into the studio and I had never really written that quickly before. Now I’m just banging songs like it’s nobody’s business. Jim and I are talking about album two now. I figured it out, and now they’re all just coming out.
Do you think that you learned about yourself as a person as much as you learned about yourself as a musician?
Completely. I was a scared little girl before I met Jim. Not only am I focused songwriter now, but I’m confident and I’m not terrified of trying new things.