Feature: Cold Specks

Published in the March 22-29 issue of NOW Magazine.

Exodus seems to be a two-way inevitability of life in the suburbs: it’s an aspirational end point for many and the starting point of bigger dreams for others.

“I felt like a stranger in my own town,” says 24-year-old Brampton girl Al Spx, who also lived in Etobicoke and kicked around Toronto before heading to London, UK, where she’s made a serious impression.

Spx fronts Cold Specks, newly signed to Arts & Crafts, and is on the phone from SXSW – her first time at the festival. An expat for just two years, she’s already developed a slight anglo lilt. And like her delivery onstage (she’s played the estimable Jools Holland Show and George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight), she speaks hesitantly, her thoughts conveyed in brusque but not unfriendly fragments.

Her diffidence lends a purity of intent to her forthcoming debut album, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, out in May and which features drummer and long-time PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis. Some of the naïveté in her approach comes from her dad, she thinks. “He always had such an honest approach when it came to singing [around the house], and that’s something I picked up on as a child.”

Written on a wonkily tuned guitar in an Etobicoke bedroom, her songs are prosaic tales of suburban disenchantment brimming with pathos and Biblical allusions. It’s impossible not to be transfixed by the gilded ash of her voice. Like an old soul come back to haunt us, it conjures Mahalia Jackson’s measured force and the weary realness of a new-day Tracy Chapman.

“When I first realized I could sing, I was horrified by my voice. It was deep. It was husky. It wasn’t anything like any of my favourite singers.”

Spx grew up singing in school choirs and started writing songs as a 15-year-old Strokes fan, and she says her aural touch points were pretty, soft voices like Edith Piaf’s.

“It wasn’t until I got into field recordings and soul music…. Like, Doris Duke is an amazing soul singer who never got the recognition she deserves. I became obsessed with her and people like Tom Waits and James Carr. That’s when I realized it wasn’t so bad to have a different voice.”—ANUPA MISTRY