This Los Angeles singer/songwriter releases albums at a pace that makes both Axl Rose and Kate Bush seem prolific. Wow and Flutter, Spicer’s first studio release since her sophomore album, Seamless (2003), plays like a greatest hits of songs that have been entrancing audiences for much of the past decade. When Spicer first hit the scene in 1999 with her debut, Like an Engine, she was kinda hard to peg. Folk, Rock, Americana and Country all swirled around in her dark and haunting mix, as did influences from her travels through Southern California’s canyon-based music scenes (Topanga, Laurel and Beachwood).
Spicer’s songs are never in a rush to go anywhere fast, they just live brilliantly in the moment while rewarding your full attention. Spicer herself is spellbinding, in concert and on CD. Unlike many pop songs that deliver a fleeting rush of flavor, Spicer’s timeless compositions linger in the ears and soul the way a fine aged whiskey warms the tongue and throat as it slow burns down to the fingers and toes.
Wow and Flutter certainly makes it worth the wait for longtime admirers; it’s also a compelling entry point for new fans and one of the best albums, any genre, of the past decade. The album arrived a few weeks ago; raising the bar for a year, while politically maddening and globally warming it way to the gates of Hell, is delivering some of the century’s best records.
During the week Wow and Flutter took flight, NPR named ‘Fill Me Up’ to their “Heavy Rotation: 10 Songs National Public Radio Can’t Stop Playing”. Folk Alley’s Elena See says, “Thanks to the way Spicer lets her mellow alto rise, fall and slip-slide its way through verses and choruses, this angsty song strikes a powerful chord.”
Malcolm Burn mixed all but one of the tracks. Working his way up to Spicer, he got his start mixing scrappy little discs like Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, The Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, Red Dirt Girl by Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois’s Acadie and Chris Whitley’s Living with the Law. David Kalish mixed ‘What I’m Saying”.
As you, the dear Popdose reader, are probably saying by now, “all of this sounds fucking fantastic, but what does any of this have to do with center of the known universe, Dave Grohl?” Well, Petra Haden (from Foo Fighters’ Skin and Bones acoustic concert album) contributes violin to ‘Down to the Bone’ while current Foo Fighter, Rami Jaffe, tickles the Hammond B3 organ on ‘What I’m Saying’:
The album includes heavy hitters from Spicer’s live set, like the slow-build anthem, ‘Harlan’, the forever-mesmerizing ballad ‘Windchill’, the not-a-Stones cover ‘Wild Horses’, and joyous showstopper ‘Shine’. Newer tracks include ‘Fill Me’ which is one of her most spot-on, full gallop country songs to date. ‘This Town’ strikes the same rhythmic pay dirt that her classic ‘I Knew a Man’ did all those years ago; when the full band clicks into gear just past the minute mark, it sets the heart in motion as swiftly as it does your dancing boots.
I was rendered so speechless by the album, I decided to avoid a Chris Farley Show style interview by just getting Spicer to share some stories in her own words…
POPDOSE: Your songwriting seem liberated from the verse/chorus/verse limitations of pop and folk music, sojourns and left turns surprise the listener throughout. Your writing seems to follow a fearlessly creative and inventive muse, but the songs are also immediately compelling, memorable and hummable (as opposed to avant garde faire that yields “difficult listening” on purpose). Your lyrics borrow from the Johnny Cash playbook; your authentic characters have lived lives, covered in dirt. I would love to peek into your creative process.
AMILIA K SPICER: Well, let me start by saying that any comparisons to Johnny Cash are happily received. And, I can attest to the dusty trails my songs have traveled — my favorite pair of Noconas has a hole on the bottom of them, and they’re filled with Texas Hill Country dirt as we speak. I grew up in a rural area, surrounded by cornfields and farmland, and I think the sonic equivalent of those scenes is what I instinctually have been looking for in my writing and recording.
I like space, textures. Film and music are in constant collusion in my head, so I’m drawn to the dichotomy of shadow and light, and each permutation of that within — fierce grit, tender grace. Perhaps I’m in constant wonder of these opposing forces because it’s all a metaphor for living life successfully, which is to find balance.
Many artists are linear writers; their stories follow a straight line from A to Z. I’m more of a crooked writer — soul stalking in the shadows and detours (she laughs).
Fill Me Up
I wrote ‘Fill Me Up’ the first time I picked up a banjo. That tone, that slightly out of tune twang, inspired me to find a few chords, and next thing you know I have a song. Like, in an hour. It’s about the dark want of needing something you don’t have. But, I hope, it reflects a sense of power and awe, too.
Looking to the skies to find what’s within can be very cathartic. I wanted to make a music video that reflected the movie in my head, something that evoked a dreamlike quality. I shot it in the woods close to my childhood home and am happy with how it turned out. My favorite comment about the video has been that it reminded someone of Lord of the Rings. Who wouldn’t like that?
I wouldn’t have written ‘Harlan’ if I hadn’t decided to teach myself guitar half way thru this record. Playing an instrument for the first time meant a whole lot of songs came pouring out in a different way than I’d written before. Some might have found their way eventually on piano. But ‘Harlan’ would have remained silent had it not been for guitar. I think it had been waiting for me.
You go through your childhood, and likely some time after, not really caring where your parents are from or how they grew up. They try to tell you, earnest in their knowledge that you should care, but your eyes glaze over, because it seems irrelevant to your concerns.
But, somewhere up the road, if you are lucky, you realize these stories are important, that they tie you to the cosmic strand. My record took a big shift when I realized that all the stories I’d heard about my father’s birthplace of Harlan, Kentucky, were mysteriously weaving themselves in to my musical DNA.
When I went to record a simple harmony to it, all of a sudden these other voices started arriving, and I just followed. Harmonies are my favorite thing to record, and I’m quite used to stacking them and experimenting with counter melodies. But this was different; my heart was actually pounding when I sang those layers. They were coming from a place I hadn’t accessed before.
Shake It Off
If you don’t make a record quickly, you run the risk of getting punk’d. I wrote ‘Shake if Off’ right before Taylor Swift’s came out, and I so bummed when I heard that title on the radio and it wasn’t my song! I thought “She stole my phrase, man!” Guess we’re all shaking a few things off, though. It’s possible that her version will be counted as a teeny bit more popular than mine, but that’s OK. I lived my own version.
Feeling like a superstar, walking down the boulevard
The water’s deep with whiskey here in Echo Park.
Tiger Tiger in a tree, why you always watching me
I get the bends tending to what’s history
‘Shake It Off’ was the very last song I added to the ever–changing/expanding track list on my record. It didn’t really fit, production-wise, because it’s far more sparse than most of the record. But I stubbornly pushed in on the collection anyway, because it was a poetic bookend for me. Plus, it made me dance. The bigger question was where to put it in the song order, because even though most folks just make his or her own playlists, I was still trying to make a cohesive album from start to finish and I obsessed over that roadmap.
Then again, I did so with every aspect of this record, so I’ve had plenty of practice.
Photography courtesy of Virginia Conesa.