Amy Speace digs deep to find her authentic songwriting voice on new material

amy speace interview

NEILSON HUBBARD

AMY SPEACE

The Nashville-based singer-songwriter Amy Speace recounts her experiences with love, loss, resilience and mothering in her intensely intimate, poetic album There Used to Be Horses Here, which she wrote while reflecting on the 12 months between her son’s first birthday and the death of her father from pancreatic cancer. Diagnosed in 2019, her dad died four months later, leaving Speace with grief, longing and some unfinished business.

Speace’s songs are well-crafted and direct and her voice rich and confident. She offers a space to connect with bereavement, hers and our own, and to celebrate the promise of a new day through art and love.

Her ninth album, There Used to be Horses Here, was recorded with the Nashville based-band The Orphan Brigade (Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Joshua Britt) on Proper/Wind Bone Records. It follows 2019’s Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne, whose title track was named International Song of the Year by the Americana Music Association U.K.

In January, Speace will release another album, Tucson, which features songs about her mental health struggles during the coronavirus.

“I came face to face with depression and I ended writing a bunch of gospel songs out of it, gospel songs to depression and rage … it’s another one of those records that seems depressing, but it’s super uplifting … This is kind of like my Nebraska,” she said. “Postpartum depression kicked my ass and continued longer than postpartum and then I realized maybe I’ve had this my whole life.

She described her challenges as “the subliminal rumble of darkness.”

The cover of Amy Speace’s album with The Orphan Brigade, “There Used to Be Horses Here.”

Speace has been making music for more than 20 years and has found that her most authentic songwriting voice emerged on her last two albums, she said in an interview on a steamy day in June.

After turning 50, she grew less concerned with making an album that sounded like someone other than herself. “I believe in these last two records more than anything I’ve ever done,” she said. “I think it’s ’cause I just let go.”

You can hear her stirring songs and evocative singing at The Loft at City Winery in New York, July 18 at 7:30 p.m.; visit citywinery.com.

James Mastro will accompany Speace and also open the show, performing an acoustic set of songs, including those featured on his soon-to-be released album. A prolific musician who has played with The Bongos, Ian Hunter and others, the Hoboken- and Jersey City-based Mastro produced two of Speace’s albums, Songs for Bright Street (2006) and The Killer in Me (2009), when she lived in New Jersey.

“Working with Amy over the years has taught me there’s poetry in truth, and no matter how tough the truth can be, it’s best to face it head on like she does,” Mastro said. “If you’re looking to have your heart broken, listen to an Amy Speace song. And then, when you need a ray of hope to put it back together, listen to another one of her songs. Whether she’s telling her story or someone else’s, her writing and singing voice are directly connected to the same deep well that we all drink from.”

For a taste of the heartbreak Mastro references, listen to Speace’s incredible song “Grief Is a Lonely Land.” She sings in a hushed voice:

You were my father
I’m still your daughter
I was the last one to kiss your brow
If you could have told me or known how to show me
Maybe I’d feel differently now
I’m sad and I’m mad and I’m missing you, Dad
Trying to understand
Grief is a lonely land.

STACIE HUCKEBA

AMY SPEACE

Mastro owns Guitar Bar, a music store in Hoboken, where he and Speace first met. She “noticed that James was putting guitars in the window (of a space that was formerly a flower shop),” she said. “I was living down the street and walked into Guitar Bar and found Ivan Julian hanging out there.” After listening to her demo, Mastro offered to produce her in 2005, and they have been friends ever since.

Speace said that achieving sobriety over the past nine years makes it easier now to reflect upon difficult days that she lived through in her 20s living in Hoboken and later Jersey City, and playing in New York venues. (In “Shotgun Hearts” from her latest album she addresses those days, singing: “Delancey and Broome and a bottle of single malt scotch/There were holes in that night to fall in where the spin wouldn’t stop/We wandered the cobblestone streets in our costume sin/Late for our lovers and lying about where we’d been.”)

We talked about her profound and moving song “Ginger Ale and Lorna Doones” (from Me and The Ghost of Charlemagne), which is about a woman in her 20s having an abortion. Speace, too, had an abortion as a young woman at a clinic in Manhattan.

“I clearly remember — I was 25 years old, terrified, alone, hadn’t told anybody because I was super ashamed,” she said. “It was a decision I made which I’m still comfortable with but I remember I had to walk through a throng of old white people holding placards with bloodied fetuses.

“Twenty-five years later was the first time I said out loud that I had an abortion.”

She wrote the song from the point of view of a woman as she walks by anti-choice protesters to get an abortion. “I never heard the abortion story from a women’s perspective who was actually walking through the process,” she said. “I’ve heard a handful of stories about abortion by men, supporting their women. And I thought where are the women’s voices?” She was thrilled when Planned Parenthood Southeast asked her to play it at an event in Atlanta.

“I have never been so moved to see so many politicians and activists in one room talking openly about abortion,” she said. “It’s a subject I’m used to tiptoeing around and it was being embraced by the entire community.”

When she wrote “Ginger Ale and Lorna Doones,” she said, she realized that “this is exactly the kind of stuff that I want to do from now on, write a song that can serve another purpose than just entertainment.”

The songs on There Used to Be Horses Here are understated and soulful, and serve as a tribute to her father and son. Her pain is palpable, but her circle-of-life stories have an inspiring, spiritual dimension (listen to “Hallelujah Train,” on the video below, a gospel song that Speace said is a “funeral song about going to a better place.”)

NEILSON HUBBARD

AMY SPEACE

Speace gave birth to her son Huckleberry a month after she turned 50. Her father was present for the birth, but Speace knew he would never watch him grow up. He was 81 when he died. “In the year between my son’s birth and my father’s death, these songs spilled out of me,” she said. “I grieved in writing. I wanted to illuminate my father and his stories,” she said in press materials.

Speace started a blog when she was pregnant that she expanded into a book titled “Menopausal Mommy.” She is now looking for a publisher for it.

She found few people discussing parenting at her age, so she filled the gap by doing so herself. “I gave voice to it because I couldn’t find that voice,” she said. “Sort of like ‘Ginger Ale and Lorna Doones.’ I was pregnant when I was 49. I was looking online for any writing from a woman my age about pregnancy and I couldn’t find any.

“At my 50th birthday party I was nine months pregnant, playing Cards Against Humanity with my friends. I never expected to have a baby at 50. I was the only one I knew … my experience of it was lonely and isolating. When my kid went to daycare, all of the mothers are in their late 20s, so I wrote my way through it almost like a way to give myself companionship.

“I thought having a baby would stop creativity or put a hold on it, and it didn’t. I just wrote and wrote and wrote.”

After she started writing “Menopausal Mommy,” she adapted some of the content into songs. “Mother Is a Country” (from There Used to Be Horses Here) was originally a poem for her book. Supported by violin, viola and cello, she sings in this gorgeous song:

Mother is a country
A whale beached in the brine of the shallows
Counting her breath while laying on her side
And the needle drips and the voices blur
The pull of bones and he slips to Earth
She knows she’ll grieve the separating life

“It’s about the process of birthing my child,” she said. “One of the last verses is the beached whale, which is a pregnant woman. It was a poem that came out of this exercise that I teach in songwriting where you make a list of 10 people, places and things on one side of the page and on the other side of the page you make a list of either nouns or adjectives and then you go across so it’s like ‘daddy is a tree’ … and then you put in a joiner word. So, I wrote ‘mother is a country.’ ”

The line, she said, arose from her observation that “I am everything to this little being.”

The There Used to Be Horses Here song “One Year” (see video below) started as a blog post. She said that the first year of Huck’s life was like a dream and the song describes her experience nursing him, “sitting on the porch when he had just turned 1, watching a robin feed her newly hatched babies. I was writing about my son … and then my dad got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.”

In the stunningly moving There Used to Be Horses Here song, “Down the Trail,” Speace recounts a dream that her father had the night before his identical twin brother died, where he went for a drive in the early ’50s on a sunny afternoon with his mother and brother through the rolling fields of Elkton, Md. He tried to catch up with his brother and mother, but his brother told him they had to go down the trail without him.

Speace said her father’s last words before dying were, “I’m heading down the trail.”

“When I wrote the song,” she said, “I thought, ‘This is an honoring of my dad’s stories,’ and as sad as that last verse is about my dad leaving and telling me that he’s dying, I felt like, ‘Wow, how amazing was it that I got to actually watch my dad’s last breath and hear his last words.’

“I still have a lot of sadness. I talk to my dad all the time. Right now, I think he’s more present for me dead then he was for me alive. My big sadness is that he didn’t get a chance to know my son Huck so that Huck would remember him.”

In “Down the Trail,” she brings you to his death bed and sings:

Daughter, my heart is steady
Daughter, I’ve got to go
Daughter, my heart is ready
For that trail to take me home
I’m heading on down the trail

The There Used to Be Horses Here title track (see video below) has a simple, beautiful arrangement, and its poetic images connect us to the pain and beauty of life and its inevitable changes. Driving up a winding road to get to her parent’s log cabin in Frederick, Md., she was welcomed by beautiful thoroughbreds. During the last week of her father’s life, she noticed that the farm had been sold and gutted for condos, and that the horses had vanished. She wrote the song after her father died, mourning his loss, the end of her childhood, and the loss of the horses.

Capturing the longing for what is lost, she sings:

There used to be horses here, where the grass was left to grow wild
Behind the white picket fence that seemed to go on for a mile
There used to be horses here on the way up Yellow Spring Road
Beautiful amber manes with the sun gleaming off of their coats
And I wanted to see them that day in October, running fast up the hill to the sky
I wanted to see them in perfect formation one more time

The album brings Speace comfort. “It’s that sort of side of grief when you finally do cry and it feels like such a relief,” she said.

“Father’s Day” was the first song she wrote on the album. “I wrote it right after he was diagnosed,” she said. “I was intending to play it for him but I couldn’t do that.

The cover of Amy Speace’s 2019 album, “Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne.”

Then she kept on writing. “I didn’t know I was writing a record, because I had really just put out Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne,” she said. “I expected to have a couple of years before I put out another record. But then I was touring in England in January 2019 and I wrote ‘River Rise’ and ‘There Used to Be Horses Here.’ I wrote (‘There Used to Be Horses Here’) backstage and then I played it that night onstage. It flowed out of me in 30 minutes and I’m somebody that edits the shit out of my songs. I spend a long time in the crafting process. But this one just came out of me. When I played it that night onstage, I had people crying.”

That’s when she knew she had a title track for a new album.

Speace said she writes best when she’s “thinking back to a very recent emotional state and I drop like a method actor into the truth of what it was, rather than try to make it super poetic or stand aside and comment on it. … Not all my songs are autobiographical. This record was. But what I do is start a song from emotional truth and then I’ll decide the story around it, whether it’s partly true or completely made up.”

She said she asks herself “What story will make that more universal?” and “How specific do I have to get about my experience to bring other people in?”

Her writing style for prose and songwriting is very conversational, she said. With poetry, she allows herself to be illogical. However, songs get different treatment and are less obtuse.

“I like my songs to make sense so that people aren’t lost,” she said. “Whereas with poetry, I’m fine if people are a little lost.

“I tend to write melodies while I’m walking and I’ll find a lyric … melody is informed by lyrics. There’s an inherent rhythmic melody in any sentence and you just follow the natural shape of the word. So to me, it’s like when you say something like ‘Mother is a country,’ it comes out like you’re emphasizing ‘mother.’ So if I’m attuned to that, I can find the melody and then I go and put chords on it.

“I’m constantly journalling so I always have lyric shards here and there … I just wrote a song literally kayaking. I was kayaking at dawn. And I came back and said I was kayaking at dawn, having a conversation with God … actually I said to a friend it was kind of a pissing match with God. And I just took that and I wrote everything I saw.”

We talked about her interest in writing songs that are of service to others in difficult situations.

“I was not always like this,” she said. “I have been self-centered in the past. When I got sober — I stopped drinking nine years ago — that journey led to a spiritual awakening which proved to me that I was very selfish, self-centered, very concerned with the fame ladder. I thought I was a good person, but like everyone in the music industry I was like, ‘What can you do for me?’ I think the process of being sober was a great transformation and a little death — you go through it to hopefully have a new take on life. The new take is that the only way I can keep my own sanity is to give away what I have learned. My sobriety depends on getting out of self and helping somebody else.

“So whenever I am in a really shitty place and really sad, I have learned the tool of calling somebody else up and asking them how they are. I’m not great at it. I’m no Mother Teresa … but it’s a practice like mediation. My husband is very much the same way. He’s an eighth grade English teacher for a really economically challenged neighborhood in Nashville. He’s trying to be an inspiration to them in a way they don’t have in their family life. When we got together it was our intention to be like that … my husband said, ‘I want to raise Huck to be the kid who, when somebody is being bullied, Huck goes right over to that kid and makes friends with him.’

“There’s a quote that acceptance is the answer to all things. That’s my motto. It’s like the power of now. If you’ve got one foot in the future and one foot in the past, you’re pissing on the present. And whenever I get squirrelly, I realize I’m not in the now. Everything is fine right now … but if I start thinking about yesterday, I start thinking what’s going to happen tomorrow and I get really anxious. I’m a meditater and it does not come naturally to me. Service doesn’t come naturally to me. What comes naturally to me is thinking about myself and being depressed so I have to work hard when I get caught up.”

Amy Speace’s 2006 album “Songs for Bright Street” was released on Judy Collins’ Wildflower label.

Speace was discovered by Judy Collins in 2005 and signed to her record label, Wildflower Records. She has enjoyed touring with Collins, Tom Paxton, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark and others.

Working with Ian Hunter — who sang two duets on her The Killer in Me album — was a thrill. “I loved touring with Ian Hunter,” she said. “I think Ian Hunter is the most underrated writer of that era. He’s a poet. I love his solo albums and the Rant Band. James (Mastro, a member of the Rant Band) is perfect in it.”

Speace — who mentors songwriters and founded the weekly writing workshop, East Nashville Song Salon — said Collins is her own main mentor. “She was the first person to say yes to me when I was banging my head against the career wall,” she said. “And I had a lot of label people tell me my voice was too much like Judy Collins and Joan Baez so it was super serendipitous that Collins found me and signed me to a label.”

Collins told her, she said, to “just be you.” “She’s given a ton of advice over the years,” Speace said, “like how to have a career with longevity, how to use makeup for stage, and she’s kind. She’s got to be very protective because she’s that kind of famous and she can’t let a lot of people into the inner circle, but if you’re lucky enough to have her mentor you, she makes you feel like you’re one of her family.”

Speace also says Kathy Mattea and Mary Gauthier have been important mentors to her, and that Patti Smith is a “guiding light.”

“She’s so free,” Speace said. “And also, she doesn’t give a shit about what she looks like onstage and that’s so freeing as a woman in my 50s, watching someone playing who is in her 70s and she’s not playing the sexy game. And then, as a mother, she quit. She got off the road to raise her kids and it didn’t stop her creativity and it didn’t stop her from coming back with a vengeance.

“That is unheard of. Most of the time, a woman who has a baby brings a nanny on the road or they just stop and do something else. Patti Smith didn’t. She just did it differently and redefined what a rock star is like.

“It’s hard ’cause I don’t want to tour like I used to. I can’t. I don’t want to miss my son’s life. It is hard because this world demands that you’re on the road all the time, doing concerts, and I’ve had to say no to a lot of stuff. And I’m hoping it doesn’t change things for me. So far it hasn’t. But my child comes first.”

Speace discussed her concerns that she and some women confront in their careers. Men in music, she said, often have someone at home caring for their children and don’t compromise their career path for family. She hopes to adapt her touring schedule so that she can remain Huck’s caretaker, along with her husband. “The travel part of it makes me anxious,” she said. “Being onstage is like flying, no fear, I love it. But the logistics make me anxious.”

In 2018, Speace attended the Americana Music Festival & Conference in Nashville with Huck. She had taken some time off from performing but wanted to network at a few parties. “I was nursing him so I couldn’t leave him with a babysitter,” she said. “I strapped him into a baby carrier. Went to a cocktail party and I don’t drink.”

An industry person approached her and, she said, asked, “Oh. Amy, are you still here?” Later she told him, “Never say that to a new mother who has a career … no one ever asks men about touring and being a dad.”

She said the music industry is “just so patriarchal and it’s a long slog to get any attention, especially in Nashville. Look at the festivals: It’s three women to 20 men. The folk community is better. It’s not driven by sexuality and fame and it’s not an ageist community. (But) I do find folk festivals are male-heavy.”

She thinks the folk community has made some progress and has noticed that smaller venues are not dominated by men and have promoters and owners concerned with “giving voice to women, and LGBTQ voices, and voices of people of different races and cultures. I think the folk world is way ahead of the curve. Americana, calling out my own genre … is an all boys club.”

STACIE HUCKEBA

AMY SPEACE

Rivers have played a prominent role in Speace’s life. She loves paddling on rivers, including the Tennessee, where her in-laws have a house. She grew up near rivers and included a song about rivers on her latest album.

When she paddles on the Tennessee River, “it’s church, it’s where I connect with God, it’s meditative,” she said.

The night her son was born, she laid him on her chest and started to sing “Moon River” (which she has always loved) to him, without realizing what song it was.

“My husband started videotaping it from the beginning, and when I get to (the lyrics) ‘my Huckleberry friend,’ I started singing it to him,” she said. “She has sung it to him so frequently that he recently started parroting the words and singing along.

The coronavirus challenged many people’s mental health and “it certainly challenged mine,” said Speace. “I had to grapple with all of that. I’ve been in therapy for a long time, but I doubled down on trauma therapy and came face-to-face with some truths and some old stuff and I had to wrestle them down, and that’s what the songs are about.”

She ends her album with a hopeful message for pandemic survivors through a cover Warren Zevon’s song “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.” In February 2020, weeks before the pandemic shut down all venues, Speace was scheduled to play this song at a Zevon tribute concert in Nashville. The concert was cancelled when a tornado ripped the roof off the club the day before the gig.

The lyrics seem prescient now and offer a blessing to all:

Don’t let us get sick
Don’t let us get old
Don’t let us get stupid, all right?
Just make us be brave
And make us play nice
And let us be together tonight

For more information, visit amyspeace.com.

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