Interview: Amy Speace on boredom and trauma as inspiration for “Tucson”

There is no such thing as writers’ block as even a 100-year-old parlor grand piano can inspire.

Amy Speace is twenty years into a career that has seen her critical stock continue to rise. Her 2021 record ‘There Used To Be Horses Here’ was viewed as a career-high, and she has followed that with 2022’s ‘Tucson’ which may just be an even better record. Amy Speace may be classed as a folk and americana artist, but ‘Tucson’ is named after the place where she attended a treatment centre after a serious bout of depression following a series of life events and the re-emergence of a deep-seated personal trauma, rather than a meditation on the dusty landscape of America’s South West. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up over Zoom with Amy Speace in her Nashville home in the presence of her 100-year-old parlor grand piano to discuss why she is currently so productive as a songwriter, the enjoyment she gets working on the Songwriting With Soldiers program, and how she believes songwriters should be able to gain inspiration from anything experienced in daily life. As well as being a renowned songwriter, Amy Speace explains why she is studying for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and why she loves poetry so much. This love of language is confirmed by the fact that it was Stephen Sondheim who first inspired her to become a songwriter. Finally, just in case anyone thought she was all about the darker and sombre aspects of the human experience, Amy Spence lets slip she would really have liked to have been a stand-up comic.

How are things now we are coming out of the pandemic?

Yeah, OK, but I’m still not convinced we won’t be hit by another wave, it’s nice to get out from time to time, and I kind of enjoyed the quiet, but things are good. I’m just writing, practicing, and getting ready to play again.

Why release ‘Tucson’ so soon after the acclaimed ‘There Used To Be Horses Here’?

Boredom, haha, when you don’t have anything to do and your means of making a living goes away because you are not travelling. A lot of people went through a lot of things during COVID, you are stuck inside with the people you love and all of your stuff is out, and the only way I’ve been able to walk through that process when my stuff is out is to write. I found myself writing these songs and it felt like one piece, and I just wanted to record them for myself, to be honest, just to have a map of that time. Once we were in the middle of recording I was like, oh I’m going to have another record, haha. I sent it to Proper Records and all the people I work with, and they all said, yes, you have another record, so I’m happy it is coming out, haha.

What is your approach to songwriting, do you take a structured formal approach, or is it just a case of when the muse comes?

I’m a disciplined writer, but I’m not a disciplined songwriter. I would say I get up every morning and write things out, just sort of purging in some way, and sometimes I go back to that for song ideas or poetry, but no, a song will come to me usually in the middle of the night or early morning, and then I kind of get to the piano and the guitar. I have like seasons, there are times when I can write six songs in a row, and then there can be long periods of time when I don’t write at all. So I kind of don’t have a disciplined approach, I just go with the flow and the muse.

Your muse is very personal. How easy is it to use yourself as a prime source for your songwriting?

I would say I’m not doing that now for my next batch of songs, I’m doing more character portraits after two completely autobiographical records I felt it was time to step away from my own story. I think great events in one’s life prods an artist to look internally, so my father died, I had my son, and then COVID and depression reared its head. With those things, I was writing my way through grief, and so they were very personal. It wasn’t hard because I was just trying to be honest, and I don’t find it hard to be autobiographical because I’m pretty much an open book anyway, vulnerability is kind of my stock in trade, haha. I’m a little bored with myself these days, so I’ve just written a song about my aunt and uncle on the farm, and I wrote a song called ‘1976’ which is about the bi-centennial when I was a kid. I’m just having more fun now than I had with all those heavy songs, haha.

‘Tucson’ relates to a very significant moment in your life. Why is 2022 the right time to bring this to the public?

I did not choose that, I didn’t choose the bringing it out. You know, a lot of people dealt with mental health issues during COVID because we were stuck inside, with like I said, our own stuff. I have a family and people’s relationships were really challenged, as was mine. Everything just sort of came out, COVID the pandemic and being shut up, shook up a lot of people. I read the statistics on suicide and it was bleak, and I know so many people who went through depression and anxiety and that was what was really coming out for me. I then went away to a treatment centre to really address that stuff and while I was there, there was this piano and I was so scared to be there, and I missed my family and really didn’t want to be there and I was a little angry with my past in some ways as I was dealing with it. I would just sit down at the piano every night and just play, and then these songs spilled out, at first from loneliness because I was without my family, and I was trying to, I guess, in some ways have a conversation with them about what I was feeling. Then it just turned into a conversation with the people there and who I was working with, knowing their stories and then falling in love with them, being friends, and really caring about them. That is what this record is about and why it is called ‘Tucson’ because the treatment centre I went to is in Tucson, Arizona, and that place saved my life.

That is a big statement.

I was very depressed, and I was depressed for so many reasons. I had post-natal depression and then my father died, and then when my father died I lost my voice and I had to cancel a lot of shows, and then I finally got my voice back and COVID shut everything down so I was unemployed. All of that just unearthed old trauma, which happened to a lot of people. At the time I didn’t realise that, I thought I was this aberration and it was really shameful to me. When I went away the treatment centre had a waiting list a mile long because so many people were having issues, and it did save my life because I was in a bottom, and I’d been in one before when I got sober, but this was different because I couldn’t run from the issues, which is why I think I went to the piano and started writing. That really helped heal the stuff, plus I was not the only one going through this in the world, and I am a writer. I think on some level writers and artists have a little bit of responsibility to speak truth so that the people who don’t write can hear their story, and I think that is part of the reason I write and put records out, to reach other people in a way that is kind of a service, and also just selfishly so that I don’t feel alone.

Do you feel you are a different person now?

A hundred percent. I’m calmer, I have tools to manage, and I’ve healed a lot of the past because I was able to look at it very clearly, and then pull it away from me so it doesn’t make me react anymore. I mean I had a really bad temper, and that came out of old triggers which I didn’t know. Now it is if I get angry my temper is tempered, because I know how it has affected my life and I don’t want to go back there anymore, plus I can feel it in my body and go that is the old stuff coming, this isn’t the present day this is old. That is what is beautiful about doing trauma healing, you really, really learn about your patterns, and I think it has made me a better listener and a calmer person.

What were the dynamics of recording with your band the Orphan Brigade, particularly with such personal songs?

Those guys know me really well. I would say Neilson Hubbard is one of my closest friends in the world, and he knows my whole story. He was definitely the person of choice to produce this because I felt safe, and then we brought in the Orphan Brigade because I had just done ‘There Used To Be Horses Here’ with them and I loved their sound and they are all close friends of mine, and what I felt I needed was an intimate space with just the people I trusted to release the songs. Danny Mitchell is my piano player, again someone I’ve done six or seven records with. So I brought in the people that I trusted and played them the songs, and they knew I had gone away to deal with all this so they sort of knew what was going on with me. They were really sensitive, and I came back in September and we recorded the record in October, so it was still pretty raw. I thought I should wait, but Neilson said no, we should do it now while it is still in your body. We all sat in one room and just played the songs and we really just took the first or second take because it was so present, and it wouldn’t have been if I had hired other players, I needed to hire my family, and those guys are like my musical family.

I was going to ask how did you manage to record 7 tracks in a day and a half, or whatever it was?

I knew the songs really well and I knew what I wanted to do with them, and you just play it for the people you trust and they play the right thing. I know those guys and they always play the right thing, and they are great listeners, and they are all songwriters and that helps as well.

How do you get feedback on your songs and how often have you changed a song based on the feedback you got?

I know when a song is done, I know when a song is true, and those are the songs I just can’t wait to record. I play songs for Neilson, my producer, partly because he is the producer and I want him to hear where I’m going with it, and also because Neilson is somebody who I really trust as a songwriter. I have one other person in my life that I will play songs to, and that is John Vesner, who is like a frequent co-writer of mine, and a Grammy award winner, and he is also a very personable and sensitive writer. He and his wife, Kathy Mattea, are part of the reason I moved to Nashville in the first place, they are family to me. So, I will call up Jon and it will be like I have a song I don’t know it’s done, but I think it’s done, but I’m not quite sure, haha. ‘The Offering’ on this record is one of those examples, and I called him and said I think it is done but I’m not really sure, and he had some ideas and so he came in as a co-writer. But honestly, they are the only two people I play songs for, Neilson Hubbard and Jon Vesner, I mean I don’t even play my songs to my husband. I’m pretty self-contained.

What is your view of your career now you are 20 years into it, and any views on the next 20 years?

No way, who does? I mean, I’m just grateful to make a living from my work. The whole point of me doing this was to have a little bit more freedom to create what I want and to create on a regular basis and get the music out, and I worked really hard to get to this space where the people I partner with for the business aspect are very supportive of me and support every project I bring in. Nobody tells me no. I’m grateful to tour and have people show up, haha, and every time I play a show and there are more than five people I’m like, “Where did you all come from?”, haha. Moving forward with my life I would like to grow that audience, and every time I go out I would like a little more people. The critical response to my records has blown me away, and you can’t ask for more than that. I’m currently writing a lot of poetry, so I’m kind of working towards something with that, which is very different from songwriting. The next 20 years, I hope I can still make a living from this, but no shame for people who have to have a support job, especially now with COVID, and I would just like to continue to make records and not repeat what I have done before, but kind of keep going and respond to the world, and respond to my life. And watch my son grow up, of course, and be there for him in 20 years, haha.

Why do you think an MFA in Poetry will give you?

I’ve always had it in my head I wanted to get an MFA, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. My husband got his Master of Arts in English, and his thesis was a creative writing thesis, a bunch of short stories, he is a brilliant writer, and I was really jealous when we went to his graduation ceremony and they put the robe on him and everything. I was super jealous of him, and I thought, man I really want a Master’s Degree, and I’d really like to have the opportunity to teach songwriting and performance at university level, and everybody I spoke to said we’d love to have you but the pay is crap unless you have a Masters Degree. So at the back of my head, I thought I will get a Master’s Degree at some point, and then COVID hit and there are a bunch of courses around the country with low residency programs where you are not full-time, so it is made for people like me who have other careers. I just threw some applications out and I got into one and found out that my favourite poet currently living is a teacher there, Maggie Smith. I ended up being in a workshop with her and now I feel like I want to be her bestie. I am just such a fangirl of her poetry, and just to be able to sit in a room with her and seven other writers, and have her comment on my work, and have her really foster my work was a dream.

The writing is different, and I think poetry is a whole different art form from songwriting. There is meter and there is rhyme, but there is a little bit more freedom and craft, like songwriting you have your verse, your chorus, your bridge, but there are not that many formulas for songs, whereas with poetry there are sonnets, free-writing, there is ballad writing, and there are modern versions of all that stuff. I’m reading a lot, learning from great poets about their craft and how they work, and then in my poetry trying out some of those things. Like Marianne Moore in the ‘20s used syllabic count, which is like seven in the first line, eight in the second line, twelve in the third line, and freedom, so I was like let me try that it seems really fun.

My subject matter comes from me, my past, but it is also melding current events, I’ve just written a poem ‘January 6thand it is really about my neighbours across the street who have a Trump flag still flying, and it is about what their house looks like and what I imagine their life to be like, juxtaposed with what happened in the United States on January 6th. Another poem of mine, which would never be a song, is ‘Baltimore 1968’ which is where I was born and when I was born, and three months after I was born Martin Luther King was shot and there were race riots in Baltimore. I was finally able to write about that period of history, not from my own lens because I wouldn’t have remembered, but placing me in the centre of that because that was where I was born, that was the culture. Two weeks after the Tet Offensive, I was born into chaos, and the reverberations of imagery in poetry I think are deeper than in song because you can read and re-read poetry, whereas with a song you hear it once and you have to get it the first time.  I’m fascinated and I’m having a lot of fun and it is the most challenging thing I have ever done, haha.

What have you learnt about yourself through your poetry course?

I’m not sure yet. When I went into it  I thought look at me, what a fluke, I’m not a good poet, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just a songwriter. I talked to them like, are you sure,  I’m just a songwriter, and they were like, no, you are a poet, don’t worry. After my first workshop, I just wasn’t sure, when I write a song I can go that is a good song, but that is 20 years into being a songwriter and knowing what works for me, and knowing what my writer’s voice is. I didn’t know what my writer’s voice as a poet was, I would say that now almost at the end of the semester, I’m learning what my writer’s voice is as a poet now, whereas I have a confidence in my songwriting voice, it is a totally different voice to my poetry voice. There are similar elements, and people have said there is an element of lyric in my poetry. It is a very modern, edgy, direct voice, not as lyrical as my songs.

How much time do you spend with Songwriting For Soldiers, and has this changed your view of the world?

I am really grateful I was asked to do it because it is a really small stable of songwriters who work with the soldiers. It has to be a certain kind of person who knows how to hold space with trauma, and not try to fix it but just listen, and then quickly in the listening come up with a song that comes from their words. So really, my job is to hear their story, find the inroad to song, and then just ask them more questions, and listen for what I call the language of lyric because everybody speaks in lyric. If you are telling a story there is always one or two that are lyric kind of lines, people will just talk and talk, and then someone will say that is a good line, and I’m always listening for that. So to be able to write their story into a song with them, and then watch their faces change, and there are the tears, the surprise of I can’t believe I did that. So for me, it has changed my songwriting, it has made me think of song as a service, not as selfish, and I just always want to work with this program because I believe in the program so much. It is such a revelation, and every time I do it I’m changed, it is the most challenging artistic thing I do because it is scary. You have two or three hours to sit with the soldier and finish a song, and I’m not a Music Row writer that does that. There are writers in this program that are Music Row writers, and it is like no problem here is a huge pop hit kind of song, but I’m not that kind of writer, and every time I do it I think I hope I get a song out of this, I’m not sure, haha. It has made me a faster writer.

You are typically halfway through your career, do you think you will ever run out of things to write songs about, or is there just a never-ending source of inspiration?

Yeah, there are songs in the air everywhere, like my next-door neighbour, or I’ve just finished a song called ‘New York City’ which is about my life in New York City, and I literally just wrote out a typical day in New York City. There are songs everywhere if you look for them, and I say to people there is no such thing as writers’ block it is just laziness, read the newspaper, listen to the news, it is everywhere, we’ve just had COVID so write a song about being stuck inside, I can write a song about my dog, I can write a song about this piano and what I imagine what history is behind this 100-year-old piano. This piano is taking up this whole room and it is driving me nuts so I want to sell it.

Don’t, haha.

Haha, I don’t want to sell it but I’ve got a 4-year-old who needs space to play, and this piano blocks everything, but it is this 100-year-old parlor grand piano that I’ve always wanted in my life, and now I’m like stuck with a parlor grand. That could be a song, ‘The Kindle That Took Up The Whole Room’, haha. Seriously I’m torn about selling this piano.

Keep it.

I know, people are saying keep it, haha.

Who were your own personal musical heroes at the start of your career, who made you want to be a songwriter?

The first songwriter who made me realise I want to write songs was Stephen Sondheim. I remember going to see ‘Into The Woods’ on Broadway and I was like, I want to do that with language. I was an actress and I did ‘Sweeney Todd’, and I studied all his musicals and I wanted to act in all of his musicals and sing that music. That made me want to write songs, and I didn’t write songs until I listened to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’  record, and what I found out from her is that you can write about your own life, and you can write very conversationally. I then got Shawn Colvin’s record, ‘Steady On’, and I was obsessed with how she played guitar, and that was about the time I picked up the guitar and started strumming. So it was like a confluence of Sondheim, Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, and then when I really started performing out was when I got ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’. I was then obsessed with Lucinda, and I then knew there was a rock element to this, and a kind of sense of humour to this as well. So that is where the first songs I wrote were coming out, out of that kind of world which at the time wasn’t even called americana, haha.

It is funny because I didn’t even discover Dylan until way later. So all the guys like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, they were a little later, but once I discovered Dylan and Leonard Cohen I was obsessed. Then Tom Petty is a huge influence on me for his hooks, if I get stuck I always say what would Tom Petty do, it is kind of where I go musically. Even though people might not notice that for me it is something I do. Performance-wise, I was in college and there was a group called the Story, which was Jonatha Brooke and her partner at the time Jennifer Kimball, Jonatha Brooke is a singer-songwriter who had a great career and still does. I remember seeing them playing guitar and singing, and that is all they were doing, there wasn’t a band it was just them and acoustic guitars. I thought I want to do that, and it took me six or seven years until I wrote my first song and started doing that, but it started with Jonatha Brooke. I got to meet her through acquaintances and I told her it was her fault that I do this, haha. I got the chance to tour the world with Judy Collins and talk about one of the best performers out there, and she gave me the freedom to tell stories and to just standstill. When I was trying to be Lucinda Williams I was playing with a rock band, which is a whole different art form than doing a solo singer-songwriter show.

From what you have said you appear to have always had an inner confidence, is that true?

No, I call it stupid bravery, haha. I don’t care if I fall on my face, so I’m not sure it is confidence because I’ll tell you I still write a song and go I don’t know if this sucks, so songwriting is the hardest thing I do. I always had a sense of play as a kid, I always wanted to be on stage, always, mostly because I want to make people laugh. Honestly, I think I would really like to be a stand-up comic, but to me, that is the scariest thing anybody could do. But I do love making people laugh, so when I first started getting on stage I wanted to do comedies, and then because I sang I was thrown into musical theatre, and then I went to New York City, and I don’t dance, so I couldn’t do musicals in the professional world so I studied classical acting and became obsessed with Shakespeare. I then started doing classical work in New York City, and then picked the guitar up and I had so many years being a performer it was like the minute I wrote two songs, I was like I’d better find a gig. Like I said it was kind of stupid bravery because I wasn’t so good, and I was terrified it was just me, but I thought this will be fun and I might as well jump in the deep end here. Confidence, I’m not sure, I didn’t have the confidence but I was like, this is fun let’s try this, it may suck but so what, haha.

What are your plans for 2022 and how confident are you they will be achieved?

I’m starting to get out and play shows, but not that often, and I had to put back my touring career a little bit because of my son, which I’m fine with. Next weekend I’m going to Chicago to do two shows, and in a couple of weekends I’m going to Florida, and we are talking to my agent about coming back to the UK, in either the fall or January. It is slowly but surely coming back, but I’m working on the next record. I’ve got a slew of songs for this next project, trying to envisage what that is going to sound like and what producer I want to work with.

But your new record is just about to be released, haha.

That is just kind of how I go, haha, also like I said, boredom. What am I going to do with COVID other than sit home and write songs, haha?

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently what are your top three tracks, artists, or albums on your playlist?

That is so hard because when I’m in the writing process I don’t listen to songs with words. Let’s see, Erin Rae is fabulous and I love her new record. I have also been listening to ‘The Lion King’ with my son, haha, and ‘Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings’ by Aretha Franklin because I’ve just seen the Aretha doc, and I listened to a lot of Aretha’s gospel records. Last one, Maia Sharpe, and her new record is fantastic.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

Yeah, I miss you guys, the UK is my favourite place to tour and I miss that I haven’t been over for so long. It was the last place I toured before the world shut down, so I do have fond memories of my last tour there.

And you are coming back hopefully at the end of the year, beginning of 2023.

It will depend on what is going on with shows, but yes, I am excited to come back. Also, thanks to Americana UK readers for buying my records.

Amy Speace’s ‘Tucson’ is released on 8th April on Proper Records.

About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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