There’s probably a grain of truth to Al Spx’s contention that she never expected to be where she finds herself today. The singer, who performs under the name Cold Specks, is the definition of busy. On the morning the Georgia Straight tracks her down, she’s headed toward the Canadian border, having just wrapped up a quick radio session in New York City. Recent months have seen her doing a barrage of press, resulting in glowing features in such high-profile publications as Spin, Interview, and the Village Voice.
There has also been plenty of travel and performing on both sides of the Atlantic, which is only fitting considering that her debut disc, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, was born out of time spent in both London, England, and the considerably less exotic Etobicoke, Ontario. Mostly, though, there has been the kind of critical gushing that suggests bigger things are in store for Spx, who is still in her early 20s.
So has all this good fortune been a surprise?
“I expected all of this,” Spx says, on her cell from her tour van. Laughing, she adds, “Actually, I’m just saying that.”
For proof all this has taken some getting used to, check out the interviews Spx was doing this past spring, when I Predict a Graceful Expulsion was new on the streets. Surfacing more than once was Spx’s revelation that her embarking on a music career didn’t make her the most popular of her six siblings at home. Piece those interviews together, and you’ll be left thinking that the singer—who invented the pseudonym Al Spx out of respect for her family—ended up disappointing her immigrant parents, who wanted her to do something lucrative, like become a doctor or lawyer.
Today, as her star has risen, Spx now comes across in interviews as much more guarded and savvy, going out of her way to stress everything is just fine on the home front.
“People would ask me things, and I would answer them,” the singer says of her initial dealings with the press. “Later on, I’d read interviews and other reviews and see that stories would be constructed from different things that I had said. I wasn’t comfortable with that. It was nobody’s business really, and I should have known that early on. When I dropped out of university, naturally any parent would be freaked out.”
The songs on I Predict a Graceful Expulsion changed dramatically from when Spx wrote them on guitar in her bedroom in Etobicoke. Determined not to be painted as a post-Lilith-Fair folkie, the singer would eventually get on a plane to London to work with producer Jim Anderson (Blood Red Shoes, Los Campesinos!).
“I went out in April of 2010, but we didn’t get around to recording it until September of 2011,” Spx says. “It took ages to expand on the sound we were after.”
The result is one of the most haunting, beautifully nuanced records of the year, with Cold Specks earning her self-anointed description of doom-folk on skeleton-bare acoustic numbers like “The Mark” and “Lay Me Down”. I Predict a Graceful Expulsion also drives home the point that Spx is more than a girl with a guitar, with the drama-drenched “Heavy Hands” finding the sweet spot between Lee Hazlewood and Nick Cave, and “Winter Solstice” guaranteed to please anyone who loves the gothic majesty of early Cat Power.
The only downside to the blizzard of hype? Again, Spx never expected to find herself where she is today, namely in a position where complete strangers are picking through highly personal lyrics, which often seem to document a crisis of faith.
“This record was me sitting in my bedroom and being honest,” she says. “People tend to be more honest when they think no one will ever hear what they are singing. That’s why I wasn’t comfortable having my [real] name attached to the songs. I think I was out to shield things a bit.”
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Cold Specks plays St. James Hall on Wednesday (November 21).