"I tend to lie in interviews. But I haven't lied today."
Al Spx's confession comes about three-quarters into our meeting. I can't help but laugh. So far, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Toronto has been guarded yet candid, and funny as hell. Could she be playing me? Sure, but there's such sincerity in her statement, it's like she's surprised herself by letting me in on the joke.
Spx is the bruised-but-beating heart of her own six-piece band, Cold Specks, and about to release her debut album, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion. It's a mouthful and a mind full ― and arguably among the most original records to come out of Canada since the Arcade Fire's debut almost a decade ago. It chronicles a messy number of years in Spx's young life: a falling out with God, depression, suicidal thoughts. Every single word wrenched from her bones in a last-ditch effort at preserving her sanity and sating her loneliness.
Juxtapose Expulsion's gutted honesty with the questionable tactics of some tabloid rags and Spx has had a bitch of an introduction into navigating the PR demands on an emerging rock star, hence the lying.
"This interview the other day, well, I didn't expect him to print it because it was just absolutely ridiculous," Spx laughs over coffee at a cafe in Vancouver. "The headline was something like 'Cold Specks gets her inspiration from a wooden duck and a demon named Hector.' And it ends with, 'When asked if she's going to be nervous about her upcoming shows, Specks says, "All nerves have been instructed to kiss my black ass."' They printed it!"
She's learning quickly to make the best of bad situations, mocking the laziness and casual racism she's endured at the hands of stupid people. As often as not, Expulsion has been written as Explosion. Several publications are on her shit list for that error, as well as the time she was referred as the "black Adele."
"I found that really offensive," she says, shaking her head. "I'm sure she's a really lovely person, but our music isn't very similar at all... But I've just completely removed myself from that. I don't pay attention to it anymore because I was getting really worked up over nothing. People will make whatever comparisons they want to make and I just have to be comfortable with what I've created."
Which in itself has been a challenge. Before this, Spx almost never shared her music with her friends or her parents. Her mother only recently discovered the truth about her daughter after turning the channel and seeing Cold Specks perform on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight.
"Because no one was listening initially, I'd always been brutally honest with my songwriting," she says of her unsuccessful bid for anonymity. "I didn't intend for anyone to hear the songs, so I would just sing what I was thinking. It's a pretty brutally honest album. A song like 'Lay Me Down,' it's just about wanting to die, really. I wasn't very happy. It's dark."
Any good fairy tale ending has plenty of darkness at its core, and Spx's evolution from DIY acoustic folkie to Cold Specks is worthy of a Grimm plot. Spx worked up the nerve to send her demo to a friend in Wales. His brother, record producer/engineer Jim Anderson (Los Campesinos!), overheard and after months of cross-Atlantic phone calls, eventually convinced Spx to come out and make a proper album. The result is a gorgeous and gloomy collection that could be called cold soul, though Spx's joking description of doom soul is better. Her voice is the warm centrepiece of each song, husky and glowing and solid amidst arrangements that play fast and loose with convention, incorporating horns and strings and an assortment of unusual instruments like the phonofiddle.
"It's all I ever wanted," Spx says. "The record was written mostly in 2009, and some songs were written years before 2009 even. For a long time I didn't share the songs because I knew they were incomplete ideas. I wanted to have this wall of sound but I didn't want it to overwhelm the songs. I wanted it to be subtle but still powerful."
Which turned out to be easier in theory than practice. After six months in London, Spx returned to Canada under the auspices of renewing her visa. What was supposed to be a quick trip home turned into half a year of second-guessing herself.
"It was really tough at first," she says. "I'd done everything on my own to begin with. It was tough getting used to collaborating with other people." Later she elaborates. "I didn't know if I wanted to go back. I was frustrated with myself as a songwriter. Things weren't progressing fast enough because I didn't know what to do. It took ages."
Spx says once she embraced a less-is-more philosophy, the album wrapped up quickly. Then she just had to deal with the lyrical content and her misguided hopes that using a pseudonym could keep Expulsion, which details her frustrations with religion and family, death, and sadness, from her parents.
Spx says it's simple respect for her family that keeps her from discussing specifics about them, and downplays any gossipy talk of estrangement or familial strife. "My parents are great, big respect to them," she says. "They were refugees who worked minimum wage jobs and were raising seven kids. They're amazing people. We do get along, we just see things differently."
What may help is that Spx says much of Expulsion's darkness is behind her. She laughingly admits she's "over" the songs now, which is part of why she can play them night after night. She smiles, almost fondly, remembering who she was and how far she's come. The title of her album, once hopeful, perhaps, is now beautifully prophetic.
"Yes, I was depressed. But most people in their 20s go through some strange period of natural growth. You go through frustrations; I just happened to be writing songs about it," Spx says. "I'm 24 now and I've figured some things out. I'm really happy with who I am and where I am and what I do. I'm in a different place. Next record's going to be a pop record. There'll be synths. And back-up dancers." I catch the mischief in her eyes.
"Are you lying about the back-up dancers?" I ask.
"Yeah," she laughs. "And the synths as well."