august 2009


Amy Speace performing at the 2009 Folk Alliance in Memphis, TN: 'I knew people could not know about the divorce and still like the record, and I think there is a lot of raw honesty in there; but I was encouraged on some level to embrace the story that already existed rather than shy away from it. I forced myself to write from the edge of it, so why hide from that?'
Photo by Paul Schatzkin
© 2009 (

What Becomes Of the Broken Hearted?

In Amy Speace's case, the ashes of divorce smolder in 'The Killer In Me,' a classic among breakup albums. But take heart: some sun peeks through the clouds.

By David McGee

If you've been reading the music press much over the past couple of months the name Amy Speace should be familiar. Scribes the land over have been falling all over themselves in praising her new album, The Killer In Me. Seizing on advance press materials that revealed its content to have been shaped by the Baltimore-born, Pennsylvania-raised Speace's experiences as her marriage was unraveling, they have read all sorts of meaning into the lyrics. One reviewer even went so far as to claim Killer works through the five stages of grief. Whereas Speace deserves all the accolades coming her way-Killer is a killer of an album, with finely wrought songs; fully engaged, emotionally rich, ringing, Ronstadt-like vocals from Speace; and a sizzling blend of rock and folk-rock musical touchstones—-the artist herself would like to point out that it's not necessarily all about her, in particular. More or less. But it does speak to what happens when the creative unconscious is in full flower.

"The thing is, the songs aren't for the most part autobiographical," Speace admits. "I don't write songs about my divorce. When I write a song, I tend to come from a personal place, then I try to take it outward a little bit. But obviously when we packaged it's kind of like you write something sometimes and you don't know what you're writing about. Then you have the finished thing in front of you and you look at it and go, 'Oh, that's what that's about.' It tells you what you've written about. So that's how the album came together-it spilled out the way it spilled out, then we put it together and went, 'Oh!' One of my favorite records of all time is Blood On the Tracks, so I was totally aware of other breakup records. But as far as going public with this, I knew people could not know about the divorce and still like the record, and I think there is a lot of raw honesty in there; but I was encouraged on some level to embrace the story that already existed rather than shy away from it. I forced myself to write from the edge of it, so why hide from that? So it wasn't really difficult once I decided to say, 'It's basically a divorce record,' but there's a whole lot of hope in it too, so I didn't feel like it was a dark, cathartic, mean record about one specific marriage-my marriage. It's kind of not really even about my marriage, but that's where I wrote the songs from."

Indeed, The Killer In Me, Speace's third album (and her second for Judy Collins's Wildflower Records, following 2006's Bright Street; her self-financed and self-released debut, Fable, on Twangirl Music, came in 2002) does chart the path of a relationship's collapse, but it also has plenty of light streaming through at times, even some bright sunshine in the shuffling country strains of the twang-and-dobro wail of "I Met My Love." And it goes to other places, too: "Piece by Piece," the somber folk ballad that grows more intense, more urgent as it unfolds, was the outgrowth of Speace hearing of her father's brother's death and wanting to reassure him of her love and support-"If you fall down, I will be there on my knees," Speace sings with a slight, affecting catch in her upper register, "if you break down, I can sing you to sleep/put you back when you're weak/piece by piece." It may be the best example of personal history transformed into universal experience as a song takes shape: "'Piece by Piece' I wrote for my father," Speace explains, "but you know it could be about anything. The kernel of the idea came from an experience with my father."

Amy Speace, 'The Killer In Me,' title track from her new album, in concert at New York City's Madison Square Park

So not only are the songs not sauteed in anger and pain; some of them are actually about trying to save something-the contemporary, driving country of "Better" does document the resentments of a partner who's being ignored ("every night you put your feet on the table/you put the TV on and tune me out/I'm not looking for no storybook fable/but a little romance would go a long way now") while at the same being a partner's plea to be acknowledged-the hope of something better is there, however faint; even a tract as blunt and emotionally wrenching as "Haven't Learned a Thing" finds her pleading, "Give me a reason not to leave." (As an aside, Speace's delicately fingerpicked acoustic guitar, supported solely Jane Scarpantoni's quietly humming cello, create a quiet tension in the atmosphere to enhance yrics both brutally personal and metaphysically poetic-"We crawl we run we reach to touch the sky/And though our wings are made of wax/We try to fly too close to the light/Trying to get it right"-in creating a mood and perspective that would not have been out of place on Judy Collins's classic late '60s albums, In My Life and Who Knows Where the Time Goes.)

In fact, "Haven't Learned a Thing" is what Speace calls the album's "center point," a song she says is unequivocally autobiographical-"Because that's what it's about-wanting to leave somebody but you also want to say to somebody, 'Let me be important enough to fight for.' Everybody who goes through a breakup feels that way."-and provides the surrounding songs a context she was shooting for as the album revealed itself to her during sequencing.

"It's funny, when I put the record together, I didn't think of it as a record that was answering to my divorce at all," she explains. "I just put the record together as the record-side one, side two, cool, little dark album. But when other people in my life heard it, they would say, 'This is really a powerful record that speaks to where you are, personally.' And it really is-I didn't think about that. In fact my ex is one of my biggest fans and continues to be a very positive influence and force in my life. We have a very good relationship now. He even said, 'Wow, this is exactly where you were.' I think it was cathartic for him to hear it."

'It's funny, when I put the record together, I didn't think of it as a record that was answering to my divorce at all. I just put the record together as the record—side one, side two, cool, little dark album.'

Truth be told, The Killer In Me is the outgrowth of two separate and distinct writing periods in Speace's life. Working with producer James Mastro (he of the Bongos and Health and Happiness Show), who's been with her since the first album, with the venerable Mitch Easter on board as "balance engineer" (effectively a co-producer), Speace had a slew of songs stockpiled following the release of Songs for Bright Street and was expecting to begin recording at Easter's North Carolina studio in September 2007. But when two of her Tearjerks band members lost parents, everything had to be put on hold. Easter was booked until January 2008, so Mastro sent Speace, then in the throes of coming to terms with her marriage's end, an email containing a suggestion: "This might sound harsh, but this is an opportunity for you. You're going through a separation and you're going through a lot of stuff on your own. I think you should get yourself out of your comfort zone and try to write some more stuff, so that we have even more material to sift through for the record." Taking Mastro's advice to heart, Speace packed up and headed to a rented cabin in New York's Catskill mountains for some serious reflection. There the emotional floodgates opened.

"Once I was up there, alone and going through all that, a lot of material came out of me then, in a really short period of time. In October and November I wrote a shitload-excuse the expression-of songs. When Jim and I got together in the late fall, right before we went into the studio with the band, we looked at the body of work that I had in front of me and went, 'You know what? Let's really address this. Let's put this together as an answer to that experience.' So we were able to sift through some of the older material-like the song 'Better' is an older song that I didn't write really about me, but it definitely works in the same vein, along with some of the older songs, like 'Blue Horizon' and 'Storm Warning,' which really didn't have anything to do with the divorce. When we compiled the material for the album, we compiled it with the thought of, I would say, 'novelizing' an album."

Most of the songs bear only Speace's writing credit, but four are co-writes, including two with the respected Grammy winning Nashville veteran Jon Vezner (Kathy Mattea's ex, who wrote "Where've You Been" for her). Despite the frank, personal nature of her material, Speace says baring her soul to her collaborators was all in a day's work.

"The writers are really good friends of mine," she says. "I would say I had written the majority of most of those songs, but I couldn't tie the ends together. And I couldn't figure out how to get from verse one to verse three in a more precise way. Jon Vezner is an amazing writer in Nashville, Tom Prasado-Rao is a great writer in the folk world, from Dallas, Texas. I didn't call them and say, 'I need to have a writing session with you.' I was at a festival and Tom was there, and I played him the song and asked, 'Is there anything you hear that's lacking in this song?' That's kind of how I wrote those songs, just asked them to come in and help me find ways of transitioning from one part to the other. So these are people I feel really comfortable with, they're my best friends in the world,; but I have done some co-writing with people who are...well, it's like a blind date, you know? (laughs) But the thing about writing is, everybody who writes usually comes from such a personal place that when you do co-write, the first hour of the co-writing session is just telling your stories to each other. So it's almost like you want to sign a confidentiality clause and say, 'I'm going to tell you my deepest, darkest secrets and you're not allowed to tell anybody else. Pinky swear!'"

Amy Speace, 'Weight Of the World.' A bonus track on her new album, the song questions the burden of responsibility placed on young people in the armed forces, and the toll it takes on them and their families. 'I carefully crafted that song so that it spoke to both sides,' Speace explains. 'Honored somebody who chose to go off but also says, 'What's the point in all this?''

There's another aspect of Speace the artist lurking within the confines of Killer, awaiting its summons to action. She is an experienced Shakespearean actress who graduated from Amherst College, toured with the National Shakespeare Company, ahas worked in film, theater, ran her own theater company and taught Shakespeare in the New York City public school system. In addition, she's always aspired to be a playwright, and still works on ideas that might make their way to the stage. But now, having made a commitment to music at the outset of the decade, she expresses no regrets about her decision. Which is not to say she won't revisit the boards some day.

"I'm totally open to going back," she says. "I had to make a really hard choice at some point when I started touring. I had a theatrical agent in New York that was trying to get me to go on auditions but couldn't reach me because I was touring in Texas. So at one point my music manager and my theater agent were pulling at me and I said this is what I want to pursue now. But I'm definitely open to the possibility of getting back to it, because I love acting. I'm still writing; I don't just write songs. I'm fooling around with different ideas, but I have a lot of time in front of me, so for right now I like being a musician.

"But," she adds, not incidentally, "if Quentin Tarantino came along, I'd drop everything to do a little part in a movie. Or I'd think about it." 

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