A Q&A with Al Spyx, a.k.a. Cold Specks

With the release of her critically applauded full-length debut, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion!, the Canadian singer/songwriter Al Spyx, best known to the world under the moniker of Cold Specks, quickly became an international sensation. In the two year period after Graceful Expulsion’s release, Spyx was incredibly busy as she spent a significant portion of that time touring to support it, and that was followed by collaborations with the likes of Moby, Joni Mitchell and Herbie HancockSwans and others. Also, during that period, Spyx was nominated for two of Canada’s best known awards – a Juno Award and a a Polaris Prize.

Amazingly, during such a busy period, Spyx managed to start working on the material that wound up becoming her sophomore effort, Neuroplasticity, which Mute Records released back in August. Partially written during a winter spent in a cottage in Wick, Somerset, UK, several songs on the album, as Spyx has mentioned in interviews were heavily inspired by her surroundings. And interestingly, the material on the album manages to be some of the most complex lyrically and sonically that Spyx had her backing band have released to date – while managing to be some of their most pop-oriented material, as well. A song such as “Absisto,” the album’s first single is comprised of choppy, almost staccato blocks of keyboard chords, jazz-inspired drumming and throbbing bass. And in some way, the instrumentation evokes the anxiety, claustrophobia and cabin fever that can only come from being stuck indoors for days at a time. But there’s also a slow-burning and irresistible sensuality just under the surface. 

“Bodies At Bay,” the second single and one of my favorite songs from the album is probably the warmest and most overly seductive song Spyx has released. Yes, it continues her reputation for writing material with somewhat sinister undertones but Spyx sings her lyrics with an unhurried yet confident sensuality that seems to say “wait, honey, let’s take our time, huh?” But i also think that the song is also one of the most complex songs she has released to date, as well as the song manages to be comprised of three distinct sections that morph, twist and turn at abstract angles before its inevitable conclusion. 

I recently caught up with Spyx in this edition of the Q&A and spoke to her about the sonic differences between I Predict A Graceful Expulsion and Neuroplasticity; her collaboration with the legendary Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock; how she strikes me as an artist who is uncompromising and refuses to be pigeonholed; and more. 

Check it out below. 

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Photo Credit: Steve Gullick

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Photo Credit: Steve Gullick

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was your calling? 

Al Spyx: My father used to sing to me as a child. He has a wonderful, warm, rich baritone. He grew up in Mogadishu. Before the war, he was quite active in the Somali music scene. Growing up around a voice like his did the trick. I probably realised it was something I could when I started making money. That probably sounds awful but it’s the truth. 

WRH: Who are your influences? 

AS: I love Kate Bush, Nina Simone, Silver Apples, PJ Harvey, Scott Walker... I could go on forever. 

WRH: Who are you listening right now?

AS: I’ve been listening to a lot of Zola Jesus actually. I’ve also been revisiting a lot of Kate Bush records. The Dreaming has been on repeat. 

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

AS: The Guardian referred to it as “A forward thinking yet nightmarish noise …” I think it was supposed to be some sort of critical take down. But I love that! 

Wild and elegant in equal measures is what I said to everyone in the studio.

WRH: You originally hail from outside of Toronto, if I’m not mistaken and you later relocated to London. What inspired the move across the Atlantic?

AS: I went to London to make a record. I stayed for a while. Although, not too long to get stuck. I ended up moving back to Montreal. I really like it here. It’s a very vibrant city. It’s also one of the only big cities I can think of where artists can afford to be productive. Cheap rent is awfully nice when you tour as much as I do.

WRH: How did you meet your backing band?

AS: Jim who plays bass produced the record with me. Loel and Tim are in a band called Wintersleep. We rehearse next door to each other. I dragged them into my space and I am never letting go.

WRH: From listening to both I Predict A Graceful Expulsion! and Neuroplasticity, I have the distinct sense that those who really get what you’re about will compare you and your work to the likes of Grace Jones, Nina Simone and Meshell Ndgeocello; in other words that they’d see a fiercely uncompromising sensibility and a steadfast refusal to be stereotyped or easily pigeonholed. And as result, you have a sound that is difficult to pigeonhole and can seem chameleon-like.  Have you had to deal with people who have tried to pigeonhole you and your work? Also, interestingly those artists have had rather interesting careers, where they wound up being artists’s artists. Is that something you’re consciously striving for?

AS: I sometimes think that because I am a black woman and because of the raspy tone of my voice I am expected to be some sort of soul singer. People feel a certain ownership of my voice and I think many fans expected something more melodic. I can only strive to create great albums. I think interesting art provokes something in people and creates conversation. In the end, you win some and you lose some. 

WRH: After the release of the critically applauded I Predict A Graceful Expulsion!, you were collaborating with the likes of the legendary Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock. How was it like to work with artists like that? And how did that come about?

AS: I was invited to sing at Joni’s birthday concert which took place at Massey Hall. I did a re-working of “Black Crow.” Brian Blade, who was the musical director of the show came across my music and asked me to participate. It was a little overwhelming but I had an incredible experience. To have sung with and for Joni Mitchell is something I had never expected. It is a memory I’ll hold on to for the rest of my life

WRH: For some artists, songwriting seems to come about easily; they can practically write a song a day, while others it’s a painful, laborious process. How does your songwriting process work? Do you have fully fleshed out material by the time you’re in the studio? Has your process changed as a result of Graceful Expulsion?

It’s different with every song. Some seem to come out quite easily (“Blank Maps,” “Bodies at Bay”) while others took quite some time (“Absisto,” “Old Knives”). I had several songs completed before entering the studio. I should say I spent about 6 months making this album in Hotel2Tango in Montreal so there was plenty of time to allow things to be conceived, fleshed out and born in a recording environment.  “A Broken Memory” was one of those songs. I can hear a sense of urgency attached to it now. 

I have a studio in Montreal at the moment and several songs written for the next record. I’m going to be incredibly prepared!

WRH: Although both I Predict A Graceful Expulsion! and Neuroplasticity are dark, very gothic albums, Neuroplasticity is a warmer, lushly arranged album that evokes a sense of claustrophobia and unease. And the songs on Neuroplasticity are much more complex. Songs seem to defy conventional song structures – and in a way that demands repeat listens to catch everything. There’s also quite a bluesy/jazzy influence throughout, such as on “Season of Doubt.” Was there a conscious decision to do things differently as you were working on the material?

AS: Yes. Sonically, I wanted it to be more complex than the first record. I got a little frustrated with the sparseness of the first record. I also felt it was a little monotonous when it came to performing the songs. I wanted each song to be very different from the next. 

WRH: How do you know when you have a finished song? 

AS: When I can’t be fucked to revisit it. That’s a usually a good sign!

WRH: How did you come up with Neuroplasticity’s title? Was it always that or were there other tentative titles?

AS: I wanted a title that would reflect change and growth. It refers to a creative re-wiring process. I thought it was fitting. It was either going to be Neuroplasticity or self-titled. 

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? What advice would you give to women – and to women of color in particular?

AS: Be decisive.  Make things for yourself and no-one else. All you can do is create the best thing you can possibly make. The rest will work itself out. 

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