COLD SPECKS at the Drake (1150 Queen West), Thursday (July 31), 8 pm. $14. (Sold out.) thedrakehotel.ca.
Al Spx is private, mysterious and beautifully inscrutable.
For anyone familiar with her music as Cold Specks, this will come as no surprise. Her Polaris-shortlisted debut effort, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, was folk music heavily indebted to spirituals and rhythm & blues. Spx called it "doom soul" on her Facebook page, and critics pounced on the genre classification.
Today, at Luna Café on Dovercourt, her look matches that album's elegant austerity: photo-shoot-ready black dress, tights and platforms, black hair pulled back, muted red lipstick slicked on a carefully doled-out killer smile.
She's warm but reserved. Conversational but not entirely comfortable. She laughs often but does not gush or giggle. She sometimes withholds.
"People are fuckin' nosy," she says after lunch plates have been cleared. It's the most deliberate- and forthright-sounding Spx has been in the past half-hour. And the only time she curses. She doesn't sound annoyed, but I wonder for a second if she's cheesed with me for asking about her pseudonym.
"I named the project Cold Specks, and I know a lot of singer/songwriters who have band names. I only did it because I didn't want to make folk music the rest of my life, and I always knew the project would expand and grow. I also didn't feel comfortable attaching my name to it."
But people started asking, so she came up with something. Al is "kinda" a nickname she had, and it's as close as we're gonna get to the real thing. "I make art. That's just one aspect of me. I don't want it to define me. I don't allow it to define me."
It's easy to see why not. Her music has led to a lot of confused speculation about her person.
When I Predict was released in 2012, the year after Adele's pop-soul explosion, and maybe because she had been living in the same town, Cold Specks was heralded as a less polished, more raw, Canadian counterpart. Except she wasn't singing about romantic heartbreak. The songwriting was deeply poetic, wise, full of doubt and longing and rife with the kind of Christian language found in gospel music.
As well as earning her the "next big thing" tag, the album sparked a big conversation over the artist's relationship with religion. Was she leaving her faith? Going through a period of agnosticism?
Maybe, but not in the way people thought.
Spx grew up in Etobicoke and Brampton without formal musical training (she took two guitar lessons as a kid, then quit). At 16 or 17 she discovered she could sing. It's nearly impossible to believe that raspy, quavering alto lived untapped inside her so long.
Her family is Muslim, from Somalia. Most people's theological assumptions were off the mark.
"Perhaps someday Cold Specks will confidently turn her face toward a loving God who blesses her - and us all," said one Christian website. "And if so, may her uniquely haunting and gut-wrenching songs play on."
Well, they got the "uniquely haunting" thing right.
"The first music I started listening to was soul music, which comes from gospel music. But I'm not particularly religious. I mean, it's not that I'm not religious, it's just I'm not a Christian; I've never been a Christian. My parents immigrated from Mogadishu. I do like gospel music, but it's not because of the religious things the people are singing about; it has more to do with how they're singing."
The first record is autobiographical, but by the time she got around to touring it (relentlessly), that phase was long over.
"I kind of felt like a bad actress, in a way," she says.
Not this time. On August 26, Spx will release her anticipated follow-up, Neuroplasticity, on Arts & Crafts.
"The first record was recorded over a 12-day period. This one was made over a six-month period, and I think the time I gave myself allowed it to be beautifully complete," she says.
Taken aback by the scrutiny after such an honest, intimate release the first time around, Spx told NOW in a 2012 interview that her next record would draw less on personal experience. Did she succeed?
"Some of it's pretty vague; some of it's pretty damn obvious. I'm not a very playful writer, so I'm not sure I completely achieved that," she says.
"With the first record there's definitely some emotional cohesiveness. But the first line on the second record is ‘Dance darling, don't shuffle,' and the last line is ‘I've got an unrelenting desire to fall apart,' so it's an emotionally confused record."
As the title Neuroplasticity suggests, there has been a hefty shift in sound.
"I thought it implied an aesthetic change. It refers to a creative rewiring process. Thematically, the record is still fairly dark. There are points where I'm very clearly talking about things that have occurred in my life. But sonically, it's fuller, it's playful, it's a much more expansive sound than the first. I was a little frustrated with the sparseness of the first record, so I did make a conscious decision to alter that."
In the winter of 2012/13, she hunkered down in a Somerset cottage, then spent six months in a Montreal studio finishing the job, working with Jim Anderson, who produced her first record in London - "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" - and now plays bass and synths in her band along with Tim D'eon (guitar) and Loel Campbell (drums).
The edgier, louder, lusher follow-up is more reflective of her record collection (Swans, Bill Callahan, Scott Walker, Portishead, Massive Attack). A Formal Invitation is a prog rock song, while Let Loose The Dogs has new wave sheen. Lead single Absisto runneth over with clashing drums.
There is still Christian language. Her voice is still vulnerable yet stoic, unshakable yet fragile. Simple, plunked-out piano lines and sad, muffled horns harken back to her debut. But overall, the instrumental heaviness now matches the weight of her lyrics and the ache of her delivery.
I mention that a lot of the song titles signal departure, uncertainty or an aversion to commitment: Exit Plan, Let Loose The Dogs, Absisto (meaning to withdraw, or go away from), A Season Of Doubt.
"I found myself trying to figure out how to exist when I was off tour. I'd been travelling so much and looking for a city to exist in. I think it probably reflects that," she explains noncommittally. I can tell I'm not getting much more out of her on this particular subject.
But it's not meant to be transparent.
"There's no need to be spilling everything. No reason to lay it all out for strangers," she says.
Spx now lives in Montreal. But the last couple weeks here have rekindled her relationship with Toronto, where her family is.
"I'm falling in love with it again," she says. "I've successfully overcome my hometown syndrome."
But Spx won't be here, or anyplace, for long. A fall tour follows Neuroplasticity's release. After an initial period of stage fright, she's figured out a way to make live shows work for her.
"To be honest, I don't really look into the crowd or pay attention to what they're doing. I kind of switch off and get in the zone," she says.
But offstage, she is thinking about her listeners. The last track of Neuroplasticity, A Season Of Doubt, is intentionally slow and stripped down.
"I decided to give 'em what they wanted at the end of the record. It's the song that's the most like the first one. It's deeply personal," she says.
"I just thought it would be nice to have a moody broken ballad at the end. Thought it was fitting."