The 405 meets Cold Specks
I'm probably not in Al Spx's good books. Crackling down the phone from her flat in Clacton, the Canadian singer-songwriter otherwise known as Cold Specks is noticeably agitated about the fact she has an inspection from her landlord later that afternoon. It's only later when I check my emails that I discover she politely requested we put the interview back a couple of hours. Meantime, it really doesn't help matters that my mobile signal is pants and that she doesn't understand my accent – "Are you from Somerset?" she interrupts, just as I repeat a question about her influences for the fourth time, in my most crystalline RP. Given these adversities, our brief interview seems at all times to teeter on the edge of a very ungraceful expulsion. (To understand that joke, I should probably point out that Cold Specks' debut – released last week on Mute Records – is called I Predict A Graceful Expulsion.)
A bit of background info: Cold Specks is a purveyor of dark and tremulous folk-rock – or 'doom soul', as she puts it. Her rich and brambly voice takes its cues from the great gospel dames of yesteryear, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, as well as grizzled troubadours like Bill Callahan and Tom Waits. The stage-name may refer to a line in James Joyce's 'Ulysses' – "Born all in the dark, wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness" – but the origins of the girl behind it are considerably less lustrous. Although she now resides in trendy east London, Al grew up as one of seven children in the unprepossessing Toronto suburb of Etobicoke – a place "full of good people, but there's nothing to do." Fascinatingly, when she first started playing guitar (she's entirely self-taught), she used to hide in the walk-in closet of her sister's bedroom. I ask whether this was because her family didn't appreciate the enthusiastic strumming of a then Strokes-obsessed teenager. "No, not really," she replies. "There just wasn't a lot of space. We moved around a lot, but at that time we were living in a three-bed apartment – there were eight of us." In any case, it wasn't an ideal situation, and Al recalls having to battle against the noise of TV sets to hear herself play, which may explain why her guitar tunings are a little ad-hoc: "I tune to a C minor, but the two low strings are always completely random."
The overall idea of keeping things in the closet, though, is something Al's well acquainted with. Her parents dream of her becoming a lawyer meant that she didn't actually tell them when she abandoned her studies at the University of Toronto, in order to pursue music; they found out the hard way: "I did this TV thing (a live performance on Canadian talk show George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight), and they happened to be flicking the channel that night. We had a couple of conversations, but they're alright with it now, I guess." Until she was unceremoniously rumbled, Al was doing a pretty good job of covering up the fact she wasn't really going to her Social Science lectures, but was instead working in a call centre and hitting up the Toronto gig circuit in the evenings. It's astonishing how far she was willing to spin out the facade of completing her degree: "I'm pretty stubborn, so I was happy to keep pretending. I was actually going to rent a graduation gown from a costume shop, and get a friend to do a photo-shoot with me." But surely her parents would have wanted to attend her graduation ceremony? "Yeah, someone else convinced me it wasn't a good idea," she confesses.
Fate may not have been smiling on Al the night her parents caught her on TV, but her 'break' into music was serendipitous, to say the least: while in Toronto, she became friendly with a young Brit called Noel Anderson, whose older brother, Jim, is a record producer with a CV boasting the likes of Blood Red Shoes, Anna Calvi and 2:54. When Noel returned to London to visit his family in Christmas 2009, he wasted no time in tucking a demo CD of Al's songs into his suitcase. After some gentle brotherly nudging, and maybe some Yuletide ale, Noel convinced his incredulous sibling to listen to his friend "with the amazing voice." The rest is pretty much history. In February 2010, a lovestruck Jim Anderson, "transfixed" by voice he had heard, was on the phone to Al, begging her to come to London, so that they could work on an album. But did she leap on the next available plane to Heathrow? "Actually, I was really pissed off," she says, brazenly. "I was annoyed at Noel because this was a collection of songs I specifically asked him not to show anyone." Tellingly, Al once asked a website to remove all traces of an EP she'd uploaded because she'd changed her mind about one of the songs.
Finally relocating to London in the spring of 2010, Al teamed up with a host of top musicians, including PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis, to record I Predict A Graceful Expulsion. But as someone who's coy about her art – not to mention, a self-confessed control freak – how did she adapt to the dynamics of working with a full band? "It was really good, actually," she enthuses. "Before, I didn't really understand music very much, but Rob and Jim sat down with me and really helped me to bring the songs to life. They helped me translate quite intense, raw songs into polished entities." All the while, Al found that the bright lights of London sharpened her creativity, adding worldliness to songs that were mostly born in the closet of a suburban apartment. In November of last year, she gave a career-boosting performance on Later With Jools Holland, which despite being "fucking terrifying," secured her a record deal with Mute. It's hard to tell from the footage, but she was actually suffering from whooping cough at the time. "And I lost my passport the day before," she laments.
After a gestation period of nearly two years, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion is finally ready to drop. Given Al's tumultuous yet enthralling back-story of disapproving parents, fawning record producers and "fucking terrifying," whooping cough-hindered TV performances, you can probably predict it will trigger all sorts of expulsions across the music world. It just remains to be seen whether they're all graceful ones...
I Predict A Graceful Expulsion is out now via Mute. You can read our review of it here.