Feeërieën: Cold specks of fire in the parc
Feeërieën: Cold specks of fire in the parc
(© Jim Anderson)
“Doom soul”, she labelled her own music. But the soulful folk-blues of the Canadian singer Al Spx, alias Cold Specks, is sure to set the fairy lights at Feeërieën in the Warandepark/Parc de Bruxelles twinkling.
“Oh, that was just a wisecrack, that ‘doom soul’. But now I’m reminded of it in every single interview!” The 24-year-old London-based Canadian (who has Somali roots) flashes a disarmingly broad smile on a rare sunny spring day in the heart of Brussels. The songs on her debut album, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, were written during a particularly dark period, she admits. “But it’s not all sorrow and misery. As the title points out: there is light at the end of the tunnel. I drive out my demons with my music. It is my anchor.”
Al Spx – she prefers to keep her real name to herself – is a maverick. She is very young, but in her husky, passionate voice one can hear a long history of folk, blues, and gospel. Spx grew up with indie rock, but sounds as if she has been mainly influenced by the heritage of Alan Lomax, the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, and the R&B of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A list to which she readily adds Tom Waits and Bill Callahan. On her debut she worked with PJ Harvey assistant Rob Ellis, who helped create an incantatory atmosphere.
And what about that group name, which she lifted from the Irish writer James Joyce’s book Ulysses? “Of course I’ve read the book – what did you think?”, she says in defence of her somewhat high-falutin’ choice. “I realise that some people might find something like that pretentious. Ah, I don’t give a fuck.” She has actually read Joyce’s classic of world literature several times and wrote a paper about it when she was studying at the University of Toronto. “It was obligatory stuff. At first, I didn’t think much of it, or of that stream of consciousness. But after a while it completely absorbed me. That passage, ‘born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights, shining in the darkness,’ leaped out at me. I found that contrasting image very powerful.”
You came up with a stage name because you wanted to hide your musical ambitions from your parents. Why were they against them?
Al Spx: I didn’t want them to know that I wasn’t really working on my studies. When I went to England to do some recordings there, they thought I was on a holiday. It was that too, but one I never came home from. My parents found the changes in my life and the choices I made hard to come to terms with. I thought they would condemn me if they discovered that I wanted to make a living as a musician. But we get on well now. They have accepted it.
And yet your parents played music themselves. Your mother even bought you a guitar!
Spx: True, for my fifteenth birthday. It is her fault that I’m a musician now! [Laughs] My parents got to know each other at a music school; they have always played music at home. But they never saw a career in it. And not for me either: they wanted me to have a successful job, be a doctor or a lawyer or something. I guess they wanted to suppress their own dreams.
You grew up in a family of seven children. Was it difficult to find your place?
Spx: I wasn’t on the same wavelength as my brothers and sisters and I didn’t hang around much with them. We are much closer now. We moved house a lot too, which meant I had to change school every time. That isn’t conducive to building up a circle of friends.
You have described Etobicoke, the Toronto suburb where you grew up, as a boring place. Was music-making a means of escape?
Spx: Yes, but I didn’t understand that at the time. Boredom had a lot to do with it. I didn’t have much to do, but I did have a guitar and a keyboard to amuse me.
Songs like “The Mark” and “Lay Me Down” say very openly that your life wasn’t very joyful at the time.
Spx: [After thinking it over] In the lyrics you hear honest, raw emotion. That is because I wrote those songs without realising that anybody would ever hear them. The two songs you mention are about coming to terms with a sort of end, whatever it may be. Maybe I wanted to end it all myself, however depressing that may sound. I was not happy with where I found myself and what I was doing. But look, one way or the other, I got through it and now I am here in Brussels talking about my debut. Things could be worse, right?
There is a lot of blues and soul in your music. Did you never listen to your parents’ African music?
Spx: Sure I did: I grew up with it. My father played the oud, and that is still one of my favourite instruments. But I find it hard to play like that, without any frets. I love East African traditional melodies, those lonesome voices that carry the melody.
In your music your voice is the most striking instrument.
Spx: It took a while to get used to it. It is husky and deep, and at first I didn’t like that. I was a little fifteen-year-old girl and I sounded like a man. That frightened me. But now I have come to accept it. Except for today, that is, as I have picked up a terrible cold. I sound like Bob Dylan!
Cold Specks: 28/8, 21.45
FEEËRIEËN • 27 > 31/8, 19.00, gratis/gratuit/free, Warandepark/Parc de Bruxelles, www.abconcerts.be
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