Cold Specks mastermind Al Spx revels in anonymity … while she can
Singing lines like “Don’t you wait on me/I’ll shoot you down,” her voice is enough to send chills down your spine. But once she steps offstage, the woman who calls herself Al Spx is famously shy and unfailingly distant.
“I created a stage name, and it’s allowed me to remove myself from any sort of emotional attachment to the songs,” says Spx, who records under the name Cold Specks, borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses. “Al Spx can take care of that. For me, there’s no personal element to the songs anymore, or if there is, it’s disguised.”
Two years after releasing I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, Spx is bored with most of the album. Touring is “physically and mentally draining,” and though she still performs the singles, she’s tired of feeling like a bad actress. So, she’s crafted a follow-up, Neuroplasticity (Mute), that’s even bleaker than the first, trading in the acoustic doom-folk of her debut for a richer, more expansive goth-soul that’s one-part sturm and three-parts drang.
“I made a conscious decision to write songs to perform, songs that weren’t necessarily about me,” says Spx. “I made a conscious decision not to play any instruments, because I wasn’t loving it anymore. I’m not too precious about the songs, so if I’m not a convincing player, I’ll just get someone else to do it better and focus on my singing.”
As Spx, she has no past and no present; she’s “just the girl who sings the songs.” Taking a short break between recording sessions, she claims Spx is “the nickname I’ve always had,” though seconds earlier, said was it “top-secret information,” and seconds later said it was “a way to save myself from myself.” In between, she says she “just needed a name,” that it’s “not very interesting,” that “I didn’t want my name attached to the project” and that “I don’t want it to define me.”
Apart from “no comment,” that’s all she’s ready to say. Thankfully, we already know she was born and raised in Toronto as the daughter of Somali immigrants, and dropped out of university to become a singer. Somewhere along the way, she heard the field recordings of Alan Lomax, possibly through Moby’s Play, and since recording her debut, she’s been shortlisted for the Juno Award, and guested on albums by Moby, Swans and jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who appears on Neuroplasticity.
We know the new songs were written in a cottage in Somerset in the winter of 2012 (“I probably didn’t choose the most ideal season to live there,” she says) and were recorded in Montreal, where Spx currently lives. That they were written on piano, and performed by her sometime band of “five English boys,” with an accent on portentousness, freeing Spx to deliver the songs with maximum undead theatricality. And for now, with the session about to begin again, that’ll have to do.
“We recorded Neuroplasticity over the course of a year, and I think the time I gave to the recording allowed for some growth sonically, thematically, vocally,” she says, comparing it to the 12 days spent in the studio for I Predict A Graceful Expulsion. “There was a lot of time spent avoiding surprises.”