- Cold Specks opening for Great Lake Swimmers at the Commodore Ballroom, Friday, May 11.
LISTEN to Cold Specks' debut album when you're feeling kind of blue. When you feel like the world doesn't understand you. When you just want to be alone.
"It's not a party album," says Al Spx, laughing, who goes by the stage name Cold Specks. "It's dark, dark music."
The 24-year-old singer-songwriter grew up in Etobicoke, but for the past two years has split her time between Toronto and the U.K. During that time she's worked hard to sculpt and mold her musical style, which has emerged on the album as a mix of blues, folk and indie rock, always anchored by Spx's powerful, unvarnished voice.
Spx calls it "doom soul." "It began as a joke but it stuck," says Spx. "I guess it's because the album is hard to categorize, people find, but doom soul seems to be a term that's stuck around. It's obviously ridiculous but I think it makes sense because it is full of doom, but it is also soulful."
The unassuming Spx, who grew up singing "in my house, in my basement, my walk-in closet, places I thought no one would be listening," has generated huge buzz in the British music scene. Her breakout performance on the BBC show Later...with Jools Holland in November 2011 wowed music critics and earned her comparisons to gospel blues legends Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson.
But the music on her new record, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, is a departure from the stark voice-with-guitar blues Spx showcased on Later...with Jools Holland and other performances from that time. Horns, piano, guitar and cello now fill out the edges around Spx's raw, husky voice.
Reached by phone in Nelson, B.C., one stop on her Canadian tour with Great Lake Swimmers that has included big cities and small towns, Spx says the musical transformation was a collaborative effort.
"I had all of these ideas and I didn't know how to add them to the songs, because I didn't play many instruments," says Spx.
Spx worked with musician and producer Rob Ellis, who is known for his work with British singer PJ Harvey, and other band-mates to turn her ideas into reality. She also credits her "jack-of-all-trades" manager, producer, and general cheerleader Jim Anderson.
It was Anderson who engineered her move to London, and convinced Spx to come back to London when she holed up in Toronto for six months, fed up with how long it was taking to complete the album.
"I wasn't sure whether I wanted to come back," says Spx. "It was just taking too long and I was frustrated with myself.
Spx and the band gained encouragement from a show they played in April 2011 with Canadian indie group Timber Timbre.
"There was a feeling on stage that we just needed to keep going with this," says Spx. "The next day we finished (the single) Holland, and I guess that's when we realized we could do this."
If the record puts you in a dark and existential place, it might be because the songs were written in Spx's teen years, when, she says, "I guess I was going through a morbid period. I wasn't very happy and those songs came up during that period."
Now that the album is finally finished, Spx is working on new songs, and plans to start recording material in the fall.
"The first album deals a lot with family," says Spx, but promises different subject matter for her next project: "The next record will be an anti-boy record."
On her first-ever tour, opening for Great Lake Swimmers, Spx says everything is going fine, except for one thing.
"I don't mind playing shows, it's just figuring out how to sleep on the bus that I'm having trouble with," laughs Spx.
Spx says Canadian audiences have been "really quiet and respectful and seem to be into it." This is the first time the Toronto native has stepped foot in B.C., and her tour stop in Nelson has been a gentle welcome to our West Coast ways.
"It's such a great weird kind of hippy town," says Spx. "I'd like to either raise kids here or retire here."
Cold Specks' debut album, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, will be released on May 22 on Mute Records. Cold Specks plays at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver tonight, with Great Lake Swimmers. Upcoming tour dates include the Alix Goolden Hall in Victoria on May 12 and the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on June 2.