Still, it’s Speace’s album, though Speace herself defies easy characterization. She records for Judy Collins’s label, Wildflower, but she’s not a pure folkie. She recorded a bluegrass rave-up of Blondie’s “Dreaming” for her last album, Songs for Bright Street, but nobody will mistake her for Alison Krauss (or Debbie Harry, for that matter). She sounds just as comfortable rocking a fuzz pedal as she does backed by fiddles and banjos.
As a result, The Killer in Me is truly killer — one of the finest Americana albums to come along in years. Recovering from her recent divorce and other personal calamities, Speace holed herself up in a cabin in the Catskills and emerged with songs as caustic as the title track and as bleak as “Haven’t Learned a Thing,” with its opening lyric “I have failed and I have fallen, cried ’til I was bawling / Been down so low my face was on the tiles.” But the album also has room for tracks as radiant as “Better,” which Speace says she couldn’t get just right until she, Mastro, and Easter spent some time “dancing around the control room to the Faces’ ‘Ooh La La.’” Popdose caught up with Speace last week in Cleveland, where she was about to kick off her U.S. tour.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the diversity of styles you engage in your music. So many singer-songwriters get bogged down in a sameness of sounds and tempos, but you just blow right through one genre after another. How do you account for your ability to bring such variety?
I think it’s that I just don’t give a shit. (laughs) I don’t care about genre classifications, and I’m not going to limit what I’m doing to fit into somebody’s little box of who I should be. Maybe it’s because I came into this as a second career [previously an actress and drama teacher, she once toured with the National Shakespeare Company], and never had a chance to spend much time thinking about what kind of artist I want to be. I know that ever since I was a kid, the stuff I’ve liked to listen to went from Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt to the Replacements and X.
So I figure I should just make the music that’s in my head and not pay attention to radio genres, because I’m not gonna get a lot of radio play anyway. You know, people aren’t going into Wal-Mart to buy my record. It’s people like me, who read No Depression and sit around at folk festivals all day and are constantly seeking out new shit to listen to.
It helps that James Mastro is, like, a punk-rock player who happens to have this amazing, symphonic technique. He and I had this conversation when we were getting ready to record Songs for Bright Street. We thought, “Well, we could do something commercial and hope it gets picked up by radio. Or we could say, Fuck it, let’s do what’s in our heads and hope that the people who hang out in record stores like we do will get it.” And that’s what we’ve done.
Well, it’s not hard to understand why people would want to pigeonhole you. I mean, you’re on Judy Collins’s label, you play the folk circuit …
Yeah, absolutely. You have to categorize everything in your life or it’s impossible to make sense of it. So I do understand it, and there are people I really respect — folk people, especially — who have urged me to narrow down what I’m doing. There’s this one guy who is a program director at one of the bigger folk stations — he’s a supporter of mine, but he gets on me about doing the rock songs. He says, “Why don’t you make a record like Joan Baez in 1962? It would be huge!” And I’m like, maybe someday, but that’s not what I’m interested in now, it’s not the kind of music I want to make. And why should I tailor what I’m doing to make things easier for everybody else?
And Judy doesn’t push you in any direction?
No, not at all. I’m not a pure folkie, and there are others on the scene who have more of a sound that you’d think Judy would glom onto, but she really likes what I’m doing. She’s become my friend and my mentor — she’s really changed my life. I’ve had these conversations with her about her career; I remember one day at a festival, she was headlining and I’d been on earlier in the day, and I was feeling a bit unsettled, and I said to her, “Can you just tell me how to be here when I’m your age?” She took my hand and just said, “Keep doing what you’re doing, and don’t worry about it.”
When I read about you hiding yourself away in the Catskills after your marriage ended, I immediately thought of Shawn Colvin’s song “Monopoly.” She sings about how she’d rather be happy in her old relationship than writing a song about the breakup. The line I always remember is, “And people say, well, you know, you got a song out of it.”
Absolutely! The whole purpose of doing that was really to write. After the split I had been bouncing around, sleeping on couches … I rented a house in Nashville and quickly got the hives, and decided that wasn’t the place for me. Then I was at a festival with Mary Gauthier, and we were talking through all of this and she said, “Life’s too short — write the fucking blood!”
There was so much happening around me at that time as well: relatives who passed away, my band members were going through personal stuff of their own. And one of the guys in the band heard some of the songs I had already done by that point, and he said to me, “You need to go deeper than you’ve already gone in your writing, and find a way to express all of this.” So that’s what I decided to do — I got up to that cabin and said to myself, I’m just gonna sit here in my own shit and do something about it.
Beyond getting through the breakup, were there specific advances from your past work that you were looking to achieve when you were writing songs or when you went into the studio this time?
I wanted to cut the whole thing live to tape. I had done a couple of tracks like that on Bright Street, where we cut it live and edited it down to digital. But I became obsessed with putting the band in one big room and going with the second or third take, no matter how much hiss or bleed there was. Because these songs are so stark and immediate, I thought I could put it together sort of as an echo of Blood on the Tracks, which is probably the greatest-ever breakup album. You know, it’s painful and emotional, but with some hope at the end.
I wasn’t necessarily thinking of the album through an autobiographical lens, but I conceived of it as a holistic piece — something with a beginning and a side-one ending and a side-two ending — rather than a collection of songs that had been written randomly and strung together. Bright Street was really the result of a series of demos that I’d done over time, so this time I wanted something that was thought through from start to finish.
Also, I wanted to get out of town, take the band and go someplace I hadn’t been before, and live in that environment for a while. So when Mitch Easter invited me to come down and record at his place, that was a huge deal. I’m a big fan of his, and I thought, This is great — he’s gonna be the third producer! I really wanted to work in the studio with somebody new, somebody who would add something ineffable. The other thing I wanted to do was stop worrying about being perfect, and get to a real vision of truth in my singing. My goal was not to worry about “Is this sung well?” but about “Is it sung with honesty?”
You mentioned having a side one and a side two. There are no “sides” to recordings anymore, of course. Don’t you feel like you have to point out to the listener that you’re intending that sort of effect, especially these days when people buy music online and might only grab a few songs off the album?
I actually fought for the sequencing I wanted. I had that conversation with some of the industry types, who said, “That’s a nice idea, but we’re really talking about singles nowadays.” I knew all along I wanted to open with “Dog Days,” but they said, “You should open with ‘Better’ or ‘Something More Than Rain’ — a more single-like song.” But it was really important to me to have that image in the first lines of “Dog Days” open the album [“The man in the moon is a woman in disguise / Behind the mask she has summer in her eyes”].
I mean, yeah, you’re right, people don’t care so much about sequencing these days. But I grew up with vinyl, so I care a lot. My favorite records are the ones where you can follow the thread from one song to the next. I love them because they’re not background noise: you wind up sitting there with your headphones, like a 14-year-old listening to Who’s Next. That’s what I want to do with my records, so I thought, Screw it — I’m never gonna be a singles artist, so why focus on starting the album with what somebody thinks is a single?
I’ve been a fan of Mastro’s since the Health & Happiness Show days. How did you come to work with him, and how has collaborating with him changed your music?
Most of the people who are angels in my world have come into my life purely coincidentally. I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but I definitely feel something is throwing me in the right direction. I lived in Hoboken, and as I walked up First Street to get to the PATH train I would pass this one flower shop every day. Well, one day I saw somebody putting guitars in the window instead of flowers, so I went in to meet him, and it was Jim. [The store is the Guitar Bar.] And pretty soon I started seeing these great people in the store. You know, I’d go to Matthew Sweet’s gig and he’d have Ivan Julian [from Richard Hell’s Voidoids] playing guitar with him, and then the next day Ivan would be at the shop. I thought, I want to get in on that!
I was pretty much a straight folkie at that point, so I didn’t know if Jim would have any interest in what I was doing. But I started feeding him demos anyway, and eventually, after I finished my first album [2002’s Fable], he mentioned this particular song that he thought would sound better with a different arrangement. He said, “Why don’t I give you some free time in my studio [the Pigeon Club] to redo it?” After that Jim started to suggest that we record the new songs I was feeding him, and it grew from there. I had known about his work with the Bongos, but it was only when I started working with him that I found out who he was. He’s been like a big brother to me. He feeds me records he thinks I should listen to and all that. He has an edge that I have, too, but I didn’t know I had it until he made me look for it.
Tell me more about the experience of working with Mitch Easter. How did it come together, and how did working at his studio compare with your expectations?
Unbelievably, it actually exceeded my expectations. I was intimidated by him, having grown up listening to all that music. But he’s really funny – a very nice guy, in a quiet sort of way. We met him when we were playing a gig at the Garage in Winston-Salem, and he wound up inviting us down to record in the studio, which is this fucking amazing place! I got in there with the band, and we looked around, and then we looked at each other and said, “We’ve got to do this! It doesn’t matter how much it costs.”
Mitch is listed as the engineer on the album, and usually the engineer is just sort of there tweaking knobs, but Mitch was very much part of the collaborative team. He quickly picked up on where we were coming from. We had brought in some records — the Band, the Faces, Neil Young — and we’d put one of them on, drink some bourbon, and dance around. There was a lot of bourbon around those sessions, there always seemed to be a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon making the rounds. [The brand even gets a name-check in the album’s liner notes.]
Mitch has a quiet way of encouraging you to be your best. We cut “Haven’t Learned a Thing” at two or three in the morning, and when I finished with my vocal and walked out of the booth I thought, Well, that was OK, but we’ll try it again tomorrow. So I get into the control room and Mitch says, “No, you’re not allowed to do that song again. What you were just doing is exactly what I want from you.” To get that kind of encouragement from somebody like him is a big deal.
Also, Mitch has the greatest shoes. Spectacular shoes.
Where does he get them?
I forget. I’m sure he told me, but somewhere in the blinding light of his purple lizard-skin boots, that bit of information got lost.
“Piece by Piece” is one of the most genuinely moving songs I’ve heard in a long time.
My dad called me in March a couple years ago and said my uncle Frank, his brother, had died. I said, “You OK, Dad?” and he said, “I’m fine.” I was blown away by how matter-of-fact he was about it, when this was his first sibling to pass away. I wrote that song right after we got off the phone. I was so filled with emotion, and wanting to allow my father to feel something.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told my dad directly that that song is for him. You write the things you can’t say out loud. The emotions in that song are something I could never actually say to my dad, but I can write a song about it and sing it to strangers! (laughs) I guess I feel like maybe at some point it will bounce off a wall and he’ll get it.