STEELE INTERVIEWS: singer/songwriter Amy Speace

Singer/songwriter Amy Speace released her third album, Land Like a Bird, in March. In 2009, she released The Killer in Me and in 2006, Songs for Bright Street. Speace brings passion and depth to her folksy songs. There’s the haunting “Drive All Night”, the inquisitive “Change for Me” and lovely “Vertigo.” She recently moved from New Jersey to Nashville.

She graciously took the time to answer my questions.

Amy Steele: You were a stage actor for the National Shakespeare Company. What did you bring from that experience to your songwriting?

Amy Speace: Definitely a really clear sense of story and focus of the story. I think I draw from my life as a playwright in the writing, when I make choices about the song/story, and I draw from my work as a theater director similarly, like what is the focus of the moment I’m writing about. And then, all those years as an actor, living inside another character, especially HUGE characters like the ones Shakespeare wrote, who live in BIG passion, BIG decisions, life and death and war and love and grief, I don’t necessarily utilize the tools I have as an actor when I’m onstage singing, because I’m not playing the part of anyone but myself, but when I’m writing, I’m able to easily creep inside a character, imagine the ‘what if’ of their life, their moment, their choice, what the air feels like, etc. It’s not something I do consciously at all. When I write, I’m just writing, sometimes losing myself in the phrase or the feeling of the song, but I know that I have those tools inside me from all the years in theater, so I’m sure they inform my choices as a writer.

Amy Steele: When did you decide to focus on singing and songwriting instead of acting?

Amy Speace: At the risk of being insensitive, I know that 9/11 changed my direction in life. I watched the World Trade Center fall with a songwriter friend from the Hoboken side of the Hudson River and honestly, although we were across the river and safe, none of us knew it at the time. I’d seen the 2nd plane hit the tower from a park overlooking the river while walking my dogs, ran inside to my apartment, got my friend, a battery powered radio and a camera and we ran to the river and with a small crowd watched in awe and shock and terror as the buildings collapsed and I can honestly say, we all thought that the end of it all was about to come, that more planes would be coming and we just stood there watching, because we were stuck. I think the experience of that and the rest of that day, waiting to find news of friends, watching the zombie-like survivors who’d been ferried to Hoboken from lower Manhattan, dusted with ash, wet from being hosed off from the National Guard in white Tyvek suits, all the bars along Washington Street in Hoboken were full of silent survivors, waiting for rides to get back to their homes… it was such a quietly terrible day and it was one of those moments where it becomes crystal clear how short life is. And I booked my first tour soon thereafter, turned down a theater job. I didn’t realize I was making a long-term choice, but somewhere in me I was. It was where my heart wanted to go. It became urgent for me to pursue the craft where I was expressing my experience directly, through my own words and my own voice, without the filter of the fourth wall. I wasn’t good then. But I was willing to put the time in to figure it out and knew I couldn’t focus on that while also pursuing life as an actor.

Amy Steele: You must be very comfortable onstage due to your training as an actor. How does that translate in a live show?

Amy Speace: I’m just used to it and I went to school to develop a craft to being comfortable and finding (or creating) home onstage, to having a direct conversation with the audience. It’s not unlike a soliloquy where you have to directly address the audience and step out of the realm of the Play. In the end, a set of music has an arc like a Play, you have a rhythm to the show, and you can control the timing by how you put the songs together, where you talk and tell stories, etc. Well, somewhat…or make an attempt to control and then know when to let go… There’s crafting it and then there’s the beautiful letting go of the improv moment where what you planned doesn’t go right and you have to figure it out on the fly.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about being a performing artist?

Amy Speace: The conversation between me and the audience and that it’s a different thing each night, no matter if I’m playing the same exact songs. I never get bored.

Amy Steele: How did you end up moving from New York to Nashville?

Amy Speace: I started working with a Nashville-based management company, started coming here more often, and the close-knit community of musicians really appealed to me. I was ready for a change. I’d been in NYC area for 18 years. Disbanded my band, so I was working more solo and looking to collaborate with different musicians and looking for a bit of a change musically, and my personal life had changed. I’d gotten a divorce. I kindly and gently burnt the house down and was ready to rebuild it on different turf.

Amy Steele: What has changed since that move?

Amy Speace: Well, everything. Career wise: different manager; different label; different producer; different band; different side-guys. I live in a house with a front porch and a swing and a large backyard, not a tiny, claustrophobic studio. I don’t hear taxi horns and garbage trucks and the yelling of neighbors in different languages. I hear birds and lawn mowers. Nashville is a more affordable place to live for a singer-songwriter. I have loads of new friends and I still see my old ones, because most of them are touring and everyone comes through here. I feel a bit like I shed a lot of old skin by coming south, and at my age, I feel like I’m just discovering myself again.

Amy Steele: What’s the difference between the NYC music scene and the Nashville scene?

Amy Speace: Both scenes are little scenes within a greater context. You can’t really talk about the scene as a singular entity in either place. But both seem to have these little ‘scenes’ that form around a club. In NYC I was a part of the Living Room scene, I guess. Kind of the singer-songwriter world, but I was also really in touch with the alt-country/Americana gang that played at Banjo Jim’s or The Lakeside Lounge. In NYC, you’ve got the Williamsburg indie-rockers, the Brooklyn folkies, the Hoboken rock scene, the lower east side clubs, the jazz, the classical, and there’s a whole lot of cross-pollination. Side players play with a ton of different people and bands and come from a variety of backgrounds. Songwriters tend to not collaborate as much – that’s the big difference. In Nashville, as far as I’ve seen (and I spend a fair amount of time on the road so I wouldn’t say I’m in the Nashville ‘scene’ at all, I dip in and out), there’s the country world, the songwriters who have staff deals and write for the commercial market and come out and play The Bluebird, and there’s the 20 something scene of indie-popsters who are all extraordinary and play places like The Basement. And the Americana gang, who live in on the road, Jim Lauderdale, Mary Gauthier, Abby Washburn. I’m kind of hovering… I don’t play that much in Nashville, a few gigs here and there at The Basement or The Bluebird, but I’m finding that the collaborative nature of this town is a bit more open than NYC. I loved NYC. But it’s a harsh town and it will separate the weak from the strong fairly quickly. I’m glad I moved here to Nashville with a career already in place, because I’ll bet this town can also be daunting when you’re just starting out. I came here with a support system in place, so that was really helpful.

Amy Steele: Many of your songs are about place and relation. What inspired you on this album?

Amy Speace: Love. Falling in. Falling out. Figuring it out. Letting it go. Desperation and passion and urgency and complete confusion.

Amy Steele: Where is your favorite place to write a song?

Amy Speace: Currently in my music room in my house – where I have my piano and keyboard and guitars and a small love seat couch that’s super comfy to curl up on with a book. It’s the room Neilson and I wrote many of the songs for this record.

Amy Steele: Can you tell me about the recording process? What was it like to work with Neilson Hubbard? What approach did he bring to the production/ what did he add that other producers may have not?

Amy Speace: Neilson was really interested in getting the honesty, the real truth out, whether that means in the songwriting, the vocals, the arrangements… He’s all about integrity. He’d say, “yeah, but does it COST?” and that was our touchstone. Making it cost something. You know? He’d push me in my writing. He’d hear a song that I was working on and he’d say, ‘make it cost something to you” and then the bridge would do that in 2 words and the song would come together. He was amazing and he pushed me to a deeper place. But a place that was also more pared down and simple. And the recording process was a breeze, to be honest. We’d write the song, call the guys and get into the studio a few days later and just build the arrangement around me just singing and playing what I’d written. It wasn’t much more complicated than that. We didn’t say ‘Oh this song NEEDS strings or it NEEDS horn’, Neilson has Kris Donegan on guitar and Evan Hutchings on drums and Dan Mitchell on keys and horns and we just brought those guys in and let them do their magic and voila. And as for the difference between this and my other records, I think vocally, I got to a place I hadn’t before. We really worked on what key worked for the song. Not what key made me sing the song the BEST, but what key brought out the truth in my voice. And for the most part, I didn’t stand up in an iso booth with headphones and sing the song over and over. I recorded it at a desk as if I was just whispering the song to a lover or a friend. That was really inspiring…

Amy Steele: What do you feel are the greatest challenges as a female singer-songwriter?

Amy Speace: Whether to wear jeans or a gold lame dress and if you should shave your eyebrows and wear a mask.

That’s flippant. But I’d say that the challenges are the same for men as for women. Except that at this stage in my life, I think what is striking is if you aren’t hugely famous with enough money to tour by bus with a nanny, there’s definitely a tough choice to make in terms of whether or not you want to have children. I remember reading an interview with Jonatha Brooke about this about 10 years ago and I don’t think I was ready to even hear what she was saying, but now I am. But as the industry breaks apart and so many artists are going out independently without the tour support of a major label, but going back to touring 180 dates a year out of their van, smaller clubs, support for larger acts, we’re all eking out a living on the road, and, as a woman, if you’re at the point where you want to have a baby, that’s taking time out of this whole ride and quite possibly takes you out of it completely. I do know some that have done it successfully (Deb Talan of the Weepies, Catie Curtis) but they had to (and wanted to) pare down their touring to just weekend jaunts. And I know some great singer-songwriters that once they became mothers they quit. Happily. It’s kind of this hush hush thing that’s not talked about in those industry seminars at SXSW and CMJ and I think it’s a really valid conversation to have. What are you willing to personally sacrifice, because the pursuit of this thing is really all encompassing? For me, it’s worth it, or at least I hope it is, and I love my life but I also know that it’s been really hard to have a relationship, and I don’t have children. Yet. And I’m not sure that’s something that my male cohorts think about as much as my female singer-songwriter friends do. I could be wrong. And this could smack of anti-feminism from a very definitely third wave feminist.

Amy Steele: How have the changes in the music industry influenced you?

Amy Speace: I came into this as the whole industry was fracturing, and I was working a day job at EMI Music Publishing while starting out playing the NYC clubs, so I saw it all go to pieces. So I never expected to be a ‘major label’ artist and since I knew that going in, I tempered my expectations and that led me to a kind of freedom. Nobody was going to sign me so I signed myself and took my time figuring it out on my own from how to tour to how to write a song to how to put a record out on my own. And once I was able to partner with an indie label, I

Amy Steele: How do define a good song?

Amy Speace: One that moves me somehow emotionally

Amy Steele: How did you become involved with the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me?

Amy Speace: Jody Stephens and I met a few years back during the North American Folk Alliance Festival/Convention in Memphis when I was doing a concert at Ardent Studios. I was a Big Star fan and he heard me and we just hit it off. He’s a really amazing human being, just the nicest man and so interested in all kinds of music. Big Star was to do a concert last year during the 2010 SXSW Conference in Austin at Antone’s, but Alex Chilton died on Wednesday night of that week and the concert became a tribute and I was invited to participate and had the privilege of performing with The Posies and Evan Dando and being a part of that emotional show. I was also invited to be a part of a similar tribute at the Levitt Bandshell in Overton Park in Memphis later that year.

Amy Speace Website

Label: Thirty Tigers
Release date: March 29, 2011
PR: Conqueroo

purchase at Amazon: Land Like a Bird

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