The picture of a radiant Amy Speace that graces the cover of her equally radiant new CD, Songs for Bright Street, captures the Jersey City-based singer/songwriter in a candid moment, laughing broadly, her right hand either doffing or trying on a straw hat of the vaguely urban cowgirl variety.
That joy is infectious but hard earned, as the music, and the more waif-like poses on the inner sleeve of this, her third recording, suggest. Songs for Bright Street is an exciting statement, blending swagger and sorrow in almost equal measure, but with an undeniable confidence befitting the 2007 International Acoustic Music Awards winner. She is indeed, as she boasts, "The Real Thing."
Produced for Judy Collins's Wildflower label by rock classicist and guitar ace James Mastro (The Bongos, Health and Happiness Show, Ian Hunter, Steve Wynn), Songs for Bright Street puts fans of artists like Lucinda Williams, Aimee Mann, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, and Steve Earle on notice: this is a career to watch.
Whether in driving, slide-guitar fueled cuts like "Not the Heartless Kind" and "The Real Thing," the breakup songs of "Water Landing" and "Can't Find a Reason to Cry," with its shimmering chorus ("It's all been done before") or the sweet country-folk of "Two," with duet partner Gary Louris of the Jayhawks; Amy Speace shows off a robust musical artistry, combining songwriting craft, soaring, sometimes crystalline vocals, and a crackerjack supporting band, The Tearjerks, headed by producer Mastro himself. "He became a real musical partner for me. He's a songwriter and a multi-instrumentalist as well, so he brings a gift of music to the table, and a more edgy sensibility than I have, so together it works."
Fellow Tearjerks include multi-instrumentalist Rich Feridun, Matt Lindsey on bass and empathetic drummer Jagoda.
Speace's sound is distinctly Americana-ish, but with a classic pop sensibility throughout. How many records feature both banjo and mellotron on the same song? Songs for Bright Street's opening cut does: "Step Out of the Shade" fully embodies Speace's mix of smart songcraft, catchy, Bangles-y harmonies, and canny arrangements. She says, "I'm a big Beatles fan and I love their use of loops and mellotron. And the banjo was just something we tried out. Rich picked it up and started playing and someone yelled 'roll tape' and so there it is!"
"Step Out of the Shade" introduces the CD's central theme - breaking out, reinvention, sloughing off constraints: "Step out of the shade and look at the day/Out here the weather's better." Ditto "Shed This Skin" - "I borrow stories/Cause I'm bored with my own... Shed this skin/Crawl within/Get to the core of something more." The rave-up "Not the Heartless Kind" offers outright swagger: "I built this house with my own hands/I can tear it down crush these rocks to sand."
Best of all, arguably, is Amy's duet with indie legend Cliff Eberhardt on "Row Row Row." Eberhardt's husky, wizened tenor is a perfect complement to Amy's own richly expressive voice: "I've been friends with Cliff for a few years and knew I wanted him to sing on the record. "Row Row Row" is Amy's "Tangled Up in Blue," a celebration of love and possibility and the open road: "I was driving to Elmira/so I offered you a ride/You said you'd come as far as Kansas/Then you remained right by my side."
Speaking of reinvention, on Songs for Bright Street Amy retools the Blondie classic "Dreaming" into a bouncy country two-step, with Skip Crevens' moody pedal-steel: "I started really listening to 'Dreaming' and realized what a great and well structured song it is, and thought to take it apart, deconstruct it. Lately, as I've been playing it solo in my shows too, I'm realizing what a melancholy song it is."
Born in Baltimore, raised in Maryland, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, Amy Speace attended Amherst College in Massachusetts and then came to New York City to study acting. "When I was little, my Dad played a mix of records that were Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, John Denver, Neil Diamond and Jackie Wilson. Oh and Ray Charles. So whatever he played sunk into my fingers and as I grew as a songwriter. I love old country music. I love how real it is, how seemingly simple the music is, yet there's poetry in the pastoral simplicity of it all. And it's what feels most like me to me."
PBS distributor FastFocusTV features Amy Speace on their new series "Frequency," hosted by Dave Koz.
After relinquishing a budding career in the theater (including plaudits in the New York Times), Amy melded into the bohemian musical circles of Hoboken and Jersey City, where she met James Mastro: "Jim is a pretty famous dude, but I didn't know that when I first met him. I was living in Hoboken and there was this old flower shop up the street from me, that one day, was being painted and this bald guy with a hat was putting guitars in the window that used to have lilies and roses. As the store began to take shape, I noticed it was a real hang, with folks I recognized from going out to see music. Ivan Julian from Matthew Sweet's band was hanging there. Fred Smith from Blondie and Television. I was pretty intimidated, but I kept showing up and kept handing Jim new demos of mine cause I wanted to impress him."
Her first CD, Edith O., "was my first venture into songwriting. I was writing mostly about boys at the time. With her second, Fable, she was "grappling with self identity and heartache. I've grown up a bit, and country/folk seems to fit where my head/heart is headed."
So it's not surprising that the cut from Songs for Bright Street that is getting the most attention is "Double-Wide Trailer," a send-up of both NASCAR culture and of naïve urbanist fantasies of joining the blue collar country world. In this case, the narrator ends up "pregnant with our second," having "traded in my trust fund for a six pack of Bud." Amy tells the story: "I wrote that song in the car with Jagoda (my drummer) and my friend, fellow songwriter, Jenny Bruce. We'd been playing gigs in North Carolina and had a very sketchy night where we stayed in a double wide trailer with a backwoods southern guy. The guy who'd invited us to stay was kind, but his brother was very stereotypical and surprised us. We wanted to ride that politically correct, yet truthful line."
Amy's notes to Songs for Bright Street close with a nod to what she calls "the underground independent highway." She explains what the much-abused term "indie" means to her: "Indie means do it yourself. It's a more grassroots approach to art than hoping for the big major label corporate buyout. I went to acting school and the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me was never to wait for Broadway to come a-calling. To create our own theater companies and write our own plays and direct them ourselves. That art is crucial. It shows us our humanity and that's what indie is. It's a state of mind, really. A kind of old-time troubadour sensibility."
It makes sense then that Amy and Judy Collins, a troubadour from the original folk-rock nation, should have found each other. Amy tells the story: "I met Katherine DePaul of Wildflower Records when she bought me a tequila shot at Maggie Mae's bar on 6th Street in Austin during South By Southwest a few years back. I had no idea who she was. She knew who I was and had asked a person I was with what my drink was. I just thought she was some fun chick who had good taste in tequila. My friend slipped her a copy of my demos and a few months later, after playing them for Judy Collins, she came to see me play in NYC and offered to put out my record on the spot."