Cold Specks is the musical project of 24-year old Al Spx. A native from Etobicoke, Ontario, she is now based out of London, England, but her music could easily be dubbed as Southern gospel. The name Cold Specks comes from the James Joyce novel, Ulysses (cold specks of fire).
“What’s the definition of trust?” she asked the crowd at Central United Church last May, when she was playing a series of solo shows supporting Great Lake Swimmers. The audience was eager, hoping that the songstress would answer with something so profound and life changing, hanging on the chance she might hold the true meaning of trust: “A cannibal giving another cannibal a blowjob.” Of course, these are the jokes and situations that make life hilarious. An inappropriate joke in an inappropriate place has a way of cancelling each factor out, like a double negative that becomes positive. “Sorry about that,” she offers over the phone from Belfast and adds her suspicion that “when I am doing solo stuff, I have to toss in jokes, because the content can be so depressing.”
Cold Specks is so far from depressing, she’s inspiring. Reviews and critics draw comparisons to Adele and Amy Winehouse, with a raspy soul voice that moves through her heart from somewhere deep in the belly. Yet the songs she sings seem so much deeper than “Someone Like You” or “Rehab.” An element of struggle and perseverance has been present throughout her life as a musician, beginning from the point where her parents expressed a lack of support for her desire to follow the dream of pursuing a musical career. Her 2012 debut album, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize, in the esteemed company of other well-recognized Canadian artists Drake, Fucked Up, Japandroids, Kathleen Edwards and the eventual winner, Feist. She might have been born around the same time that Calgary hosted the Olympics, but her song writing and style seem to draw upon the experience of someone who has lived a couple lifetimes.
Before this full album was recorded, she appeared in an episode of Later With Jules Holland (a spin-off of The Late Show) and released the track “Holland.” The lyrics and atmosphere of that song seem to come across as an open letter about falling out with God. One line, “We are dust, and to dust we shall all return,” is a reference to a passage from Genesis 3:14 and it is forms a reference to the discussion in that section of the feeling that humanity is nothing without the presence of Christ. In the same song she sings that, “In the Hague, I did proclaim/Cousins, I’ll find God in the gutter/You’ll catch the dead and bury them with old words.” You don’t need to understand religion to appreciate the content of the song. When it comes to the meaning behind “Blank Maps,” it sounds like it could be about creating your own way and defining yourself, but her explanation is simpler in it’s complexity: as she reveals “It’s about a boy. A lot of people think it’s about faith, but it was about a boy and the struggles I had with my feelings.”
Spx is a stage name; her resistance to egoism is a symptom of her real appreciation for privacy and internal reflection, shying away from any questions that require further articulation of her religious background or family. Her decision to adopt a stage name was partially out of respect for her parents and family. The music she makes began secretly out of her bedroom and it was somewhat of a pipe dream career path for her. Perhaps this is why the songs sound so personal: she never really thought anybody else would come to hear them. There was somebody who did, though: Jim Anderson, a producer from the UK, and now Cold Specks’ manager, who had been hanging out with some friends in Toronto a couple years ago when her demo was playing. His younger brother, who was a friend of Spx, had already been telling him about her for a couple months. He was hooked as soon as he heard her and convinced Spx to move out to England to record. “We recorded in Wales over 12 days, but it took about two years to nail it all out.” It resulted in a newly coined musical classification of “doom soul,” a genre title that Anderson and Spx placed on Cold Specks’ Facebook page after a couple drinks one night. “It was a joke and then it stuck. It’s somewhat ridiculous,” she says.
Considering her apparent shyness, she seemed quite at home onstage here earlier this summer. “That was halfway through the tour, but the nerves are always there… I was more comfortable onstage by then.” Really, she was almost playful in her interaction and joking around with the audience. She had to do that one solo, due to the cost of touring with a six piece band. This time around, she will have her boys supporting her on a full Canadian tour.
She happily cites her influences as Nick Cave, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Callahan and Tom Waits, pointing out that “in every interview, I mention that I would love to do a duet with Tom Waits, hoping that he might catch wind of it.” Hopefully, she will get a call from Waits, or maybe someone will clone Nick Cave and the three of them could do a song together. It’s a natural combination that could bring a big smile across any face simply at the thought.
Spx is an artist with whom you can feel very comfortable. She seems like someone you’d enjoy sitting down to enjoy a pint and good conversation. Soft spoken, modest, funny and intelligent, it’s refreshing that an artist is so open about the changes that happen in life, even if it is about questioning your faith. “We all go through questioning or doubting something we strongly believed in. I just wrote about it, never really thinking anyone would hear it. I am past all of that now, but at the time I was working through it.” I Predict a Graceful Expulsion is an album that can get you through the winter months, as a soundtrack for sitting in deep thought by a crackling fire in a cabin. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?
Experience her mystique as she returns for two dates this month at the Festival Hall in Inglewood on November 23 and 24.
By Danni Bauer