Actress turned Singer-songwriter Amy Speace is out on the road promoting her latest album The Killer In Me, her second national release following Songs for Bright Street released in 2006. She’s recently played at Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and will be opening several shows for Nanci Griffith in October.
She took some time to answer our questions between dates on her busy touring schedule.
Q: So you started in theatre, how did you end up in music?
A: I’ve been a musician my whole life and I’d been singing and playing piano in various things my whole life so I was always a musician I just wasn’t a songwriter.
While I was in New York being an actress and director, I was dating a guy in a rock band so I would borrow his guitar and I kind of taught myself chords just by watching him. And I was always a writer so I was always putting stuff to music, but I thought they were sort of… bad.
A friend of mine who had a theater company, he was doing a benefit for this company and he asked me if I’d come and sing, come and sing jazz or some musical theater stuff and I said, ‘You know, I’ve started writing songs, I think they’re kind of bad but maybe I could try it out.’ So I took that opportunity and presented three of my first songs and people seemed to like them and I was encouraged to start hitting open mics.
I went to my first open mic and got a gig out of it. That’s kind of how it happened for me, musically. It’s like I’d been pounding the pavement as an actress and doing pretty well, but it’s a hard road in New York. And pretty much the first time I went out an played at a club for an open mic, the booker was there and said, ‘I’ll give you a gig on Sunday night,’ based on two really bad songs, I thought. He was like, ‘How many songs have you written?’ And I think I had written five at the time and he said, ‘Well, write five more and you’ll have a set of music.’
That’s how I started doing it and the transition was based on, well, I was touring the country with the theater company but I was also playing out in New York City and people were saying, ‘You should be playing out more, you should be touring, you should make a record.’ And I realized I just couldn’t, both fields demanded so much time that there was no way I could pursue both with the same energy so I decided I would choose for the moment and I chose music thinking, ‘If this doesn’t work out in six months I’ll go back to pounding the pavement as an actress.’ And it just started to work really well.
Do you still play those original songs?
No! Not those two, I know them. Yeah, no. That was about ten years ago.
Q: How is this album different or similar in comparison to your previous albums?
A: To my first national release, Songs for Bright Street which was the one that was previous to this, I would say that the same cast of characters – I’m using the same band and the same producer and I think it sits in the same kind of genre, that sort of Americana-rock place.
It’s different because Songs for Bright Street was really a series of demos and I recorded that record over the course of two years, very piecemeal. I was just doing demos of songs and then I got signed to a label and I ended up putting all that material together as an album.
With The Killer In Me, the new release, from start to finish I could see the whole album and once I wrapped my brain around the story of the album as well as the songs, Jim, my producer and I decided we wanted to record it live to analog tape. So we ended up doing it very old-school style, the whole band in one room and we recorded it in a real short time, over five days from start to finish.
Q: What is the story in The Killer In Me?
A: I think it’s a journey, people have talked about it as a break-up album and I think it is a break-up album, it’s definatley the story of somebody kind of finding their footing, but it also has a ton of hope in it and it also has a lot of weather. I would say that the story of The Killer In Me is dark, light, storms and sunshine and falling in and out of love.
Q: Do you have a song writing routine?
A: No, I don’t. I try to write every day as much as I can and sometimes what I’m writing is lyric and sometimes what I’m writing is just journal babble to get out what’s in my head. Then maybe I’ll go back to it and I’ll find a phrase or a sentence or a metaphor that I can pull out for my songwriting. There’s two parts to it and I think every songwriter feels the same way, like that first part where the inspiration just comes and it flows and then that second part where you come back at it as an editor and try to craft it and make sure that it makes sense. I try to stay in that first part as long as I can and sometimes that first part just throws a song entirely at me in a half-hour and then sometimes songs it takes me years to finish.
Q: You’ve said that “Better” is something you wrote with someone like Shania Twain in mind, can you talk more about that process?
A:”Better” to be honest, my first draft at that song was with my friend Jenny and I did write it, kind of joking around thinking I was trying to write a contemporary country song, almost like an exercise, like, ‘Can I do that lyric twist?’
But then, a couple years after I’d finished writing it, I just didn’t feel right about it because it felt a little cheesy, I took it too a good friend of mine who’s a great songwriter in Nashville and he looked at it and helped tweak it so that it rang more true. So there’s three writers on that song and that song took about three years to craft. And now I don’t necessarily feel like it’s an exercise in a country song, now I feel like it says something true about maybe where I am or about where any woman might feel themselves. The rest of the songs, for the most part, just came out of my regular writing, not trying to write a song for Carrie Underwood or something like that, which I never really do.
Q: Where were you when you heard yourself on the radio for the first time?
A:Oh! I remember that clearly, I was in a truck in Wyoming. It must have been 2003, sometime around then, maybe 2005. I have no idea what year it was but I had written a song that has never been put on a record but it got picked up by the State of Wyoming to be used in a radio and television commercial for tourism. The song is called ‘Why Not Wyoming’ and it’s about somebody who’s dissatisfied with their current situation and is fantasizing about running away, so the hook of the chorus is ‘Why not Wyoming?” And they ended up using just that line for their tourism campaign and then that sparked an interest in me getting out there and touring so I made a single of that song and we sent it to Wyoming radio. I ended up going out there and doing a tour, while I was driving around in this truck it came on the radio and I almost crashed the truck.
Q: Besides your instruments, what are the things that you must have while on the road?
A: I feel like I’m always on the road, so it’s hard for me to separate tours. What I remember more are the two days in between tours where I get to come home for a minute, pet my dog and do my laundry and repack.
One bag of clothes that I usually overpack with too many shoes, because I like to wear boots and they’re heavy. My Gibson acoustic guitar named Rosalie comes with me every where I go. And, a scented candle for the hotel rooms that smell bad. And a good book.
Q: What would be on your mix tape?
A: If I was making a mix tape, right now I would put Bob Dylan, ‘A Case of You’ by Joni Mitchell, ‘Winter Birds’ by Ray LaMontagne. I’d put Stevie Wonder, anything from Songs In The Key of Life, Aretha’s ‘Respect’ or ‘Natural Woman,’ Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue,’ Arvo Part, a composer, classical composer, and Jonathan Byrd, a good friend of mine, he’s a songwriter from North Carolina that people don’t know about and should. And some Rolling Stones, and definitely the entire George Jones catalog.
Q: If you could sit down for an hour and play with any musician, alive or dead, who would it be?
A: And they would be nice to me? Bob Dylan.
You don’t think Bob Dylan would be nice to you?
He seems like he might not be so nice, I don’t know. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy but he’s Bob Dylan, he’s the patron saint of all songwriters. Can you imagine? I’m sure he’d be nice, but here’s the thing, it’s not so much being nice, but I would want him to pay attention to me. I wouldn’t want him to just be kind of cranky and like I’m just some fawning, adoring songwriter. I’d want him to take me seriously, and hang out with me.
And I’m not sure I deserve that, that’s the other thing. I don’t think that I deserve to sit next to Bob Dylan, I still feel like I’m sitting at his feet, gravelling.
If I could answer that with a second person, somebody that I feel like I would love to sit on equal footing with is Patty Griffin. I just adore everything she does. She’s just, forget it, when I was younger it was Joni Mitchell and now it’s like, ‘I’m sorry, I love Joni Mitchell but I think she’s taken a back seat to Patty these days for me.’
Q: What have you always wanted to learn how to do?
A: Mostly I feel like what I want to learn to do, I take a stab at it and either I fail miserably or I keep going. I really, really would love to be an amazing piano player, I’d like to be able to sit with a band and just sort of jam as a piano player. And I can’t do that, I’m a good piano player but I’m not great at it.