Kurt Anderson: This is Studio 360. I'm Kurt Anderson. Musicians these days don't have to depend on their labels or critics to categorize the music they make. They can do it themselves when they upload their songs to iTunes or Soundcloud. The musician that's going by the name Al Spx invented a new genre for herself: Doom Soul/Gothic Gospel. It started out as a joke, but it stuck, and it's not really inaccurate.
Anderson: The band she's put together to play her music is called Cold Specks. They're in New York to start their North American tour. She and two of her musicians are here with me now. Al Spx, welcome to the Studio 360.
Al Spx: Hello.
Anderson: So I have a lot to ask you about, but will you start us off with a song, Send Your Youth?
[Cold Specks plays "Send Your Youth"]
Anderson: That was Cold Specks, singer/songwriter Al Spx on vocals with Tom Greene on piano and Chris Cundy on sax, performing "Send Your Youth" off their new album, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion. So as I've been listening to this music, I hear, along with soul and gospel, a distinct folk piece as well, yeah?
Spx: Yeah. I started out, really, when I in University, when I first really got into music, I was really listening to a lot of folk, like the American Anthology of Folk Music and the Alan Lomax recordings, and some newer stuff like Bill Callahan and Will Oldham. A lot of that definitely seeped into my songwriting, I think.
Anderson: Was it old Alan Lomax recordings that got you interested in the music of the American South and gospel and that kind of thing?
Spx: I think so. I didn't ever really listen to gospel music, but I was listening to a lot of soul singers who were, who definitely were heavily influenced by gospel music, and I guess it's just a sort of cycle that seeped into their music and it actually seeped into mine as well. It wasn't until afterwards that I went back and listened to people like Mahalia Jackson.
Anderson: Given that influence, and given the spiritual existential quality of a lot of your lyrics, did you grow up going to church?
Spx: Not a Christian in my family. We're not even a Christian family. We're Muslims. My family is from Mogadishu.
Anderson: Aha. So you're a Somali-Canadian, I guess? Would be the hyphenate that you would go by?
Anderson: You've said in the past that when you were writing these songs that you could barely play the guitar. It must have been scary to go into a studio with all those professional musicians, and "Here, I'm on the guitar".
Spx: It was, really. At first it was this incredibly daunting experience. I didn't know the people who were playing on the record very well. I didn't know my songs very well. There were a lot of unknowns.
Anderson: Wow. You could have failed in so many ways!
Spx: I could have! [laughs] Luckily, I didn't.
Anderson: How old are you?
Spx: I'm 24.
Anderson: So, you're fully an adult. You began writing music when you were a teenager?
Spx: Sort of. In high school, I was attempting to write songs. Just morbid, emo teenage nonsense.
Anderson: That's what teenagers do. Can we hear another one? Not teenage emo nonsense?
Spx: Yeah. Now, just adult emo nonsense.
Spx: Elephant Head?
[music - Cold Specks plays "Elephant Head"]
Anderson: That is the band Cold Specks - Al Spx, Tom Greene and Chris Cundy, performing "Elephant Head" from their album. Kind of the title track of I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, their latest record.
You talk a lot in the lyrics on this record about Toronto, where you grew up; Named particular streets and lakes and landmarks. But now you've moved to London. Not London, Ontario, but the English one. Is that--
Spx: Are you Canadian?
Spx: Are you Canadian?
Anderson: I am not Canadian. I'm Nebraskan. As close to Canada as America gets in a certain way. But no. I'm not Canadian. But I'm interested in Canadians, and Canada. Is that the reference of Graceful Expulsion, your self deportation back to the Old Country?
Spx: The word "expulsion" represents a lot of things. Moving is probably one of them, but it's also just letting go of a lot of things: People, faith in things, faith in love, faith in a higher power.
Anderson: Uh-huh. And Al Spx, the pseudonym. Why did you decide to perform with a pseudonym, rather than your lovely actual name?
Spx: I just wasn't comfortable with having my name out there. I think the artist is a separate individual from the person. And the record rides really sad at times, really morbid, and I didn't want that attached to my name. And I just thought the record was written about a certain time in my life and that's not really representative of who I am now. And I'd rather leave my name out of it.
Anderson: Keep a boundary between who you really are?
Spx: Yeah, exactly. It wasn't until I embraced the Al Spx persona on stage that I was able to play these songs.
Anderson: And I take it the real you isn't so crazy about playing shows?
Spx: The real me, if she had her way, would want to be [Jen Deck??].
Anderson: You mean, be a nobody in Nowheresville that may or may not exist?
Spx: Just make a bunch of records and put them online, but--
Anderson: This is the business you've chosen.
Spx: Yeah, and I'm going to grow up and suck it up and just play shows and attempt to sell records [laughs].
Anderson: Excellent. Al Spx, thank you so much for coming in today.
Spx: Thank you for having me and talking with me.
Anderson: Could you play us out, with a song?
Spx: Sure. This last song is "Blank Maps".
[music - Cold Specks plays "Blank Maps"]