On her new album Songs for Bright Street, New York-based singer/songwriter Amy Speace demonstrates why she's quickly become one of her adopted hometown's most celebrated emerging artists. Possessing a commanding voice, a distinctive melodic sensibility and an uncanny knack for nailing complex emotions in song, Speace makes music that's both illuminating and effortlessly accessible.
From the rustic rush of "Step Out of the Shade" to the bittersweet lilt of "Water Landing" to the gentle acoustic intimacy of "Two," Songs for Bright Street's 12 original compositions (plus a slyly countrified reading of the Blondie classic "Dreaming") showcase Speace's unique gifts, offering catchy Americana with indelible hooks, sharply observed lyrics and a gritty urban edge. Among those impressed by her sassy songcraft is legendary folk-pop songstress Judy Collins, who chose Songs for Bright Street to release on her new Wildflower label.
Songs for Bright Street was produced by multitalented veteran James Mastro (of Bongos/Health and Happiness Show/Ian Hunter fame) and features Speace's longtime backup combo, the Tearjerks, along with guest appearances by Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris, noted troubadour Cliff Eberhardt and fiddler Soozie Tyrell of the E Street Band.
Amy Speace has already won a loyal grass-roots fan base, thanks in large part to live performances that merge warmth, humor and emotional immediacy, and to a tireless touring schedule that's already taken her across the United States. She's also won considerable critical acclaim, with The Village Voice observing that Speace is "taking her Americana away from twangy contemplation toward tangy confrontation" and noting that she's "not another of those breathy would-be child poets, but a real singing writer of songs." Time Out New York stated, "Amy Speace plays sweet, twangy folk music with a clear voice and an innocent vulnerability," while The Nashville Scene noted that she "balances wry humor with open-hearted honesty." And renowned Nashville critic Robert K. Oermann, writing in Music Row, dubbed her a "new star."
Speace's vividly drawn songs reflect the wealth of experience that the artist has packed into her young life. The Baltimore native spent much of her youth in Minnesota and rural Pennsylvania, and studied piano, clarinet and saxophone. While attending Amherst College, she acted in student stage productions while pursuing a passion for opera that led her to study classical voice in New York City. After graduating, she moved to Manhattan, where her acting talents won her a spot with the prestigious National Shakespeare Company (her portrayal of Katherine in Henry V won a rave review from the New York Times) and roles in various off-Broadway production and several independent films. She also wrote and directed plays while running her own theater company in Manhattan's East Village, taught Shakespeare in the New York City school system, temped, waited tables and even did a stint as actress Lainie Kazan's personal assistant.
After teaching herself to play a $50 pawn shop guitar, Speace began setting her poetry to music. Following a painful breakup, she "got over a depressing summer by writing a slew of songs. Looking back, they were all terrible; I think they were all in the key of D. But I do remember how thrilling it was. I'd acted on stage and in film and written poetry and plays, but when I finally wrote my first song, it felt more exciting than anything I'd ever done."
Bitten hard by the music bug, Speace soon began performing as half of the female acoustic duo Edith O. That twosome released a CD, Tattooed Queen, that received a fair amount of local attention until her then-partner quit to raise a family. Speace continued undaunted, performing as an acoustic solo artist. Her first performance at the historic Village club the Bitter End turned into a monthly gig, followed by a popular residency at the Living Room. In 2002, she released her solo debut, Fable—recorded with $5000 donated by fans—on her own Twangirl label. Giving up her hard-won acting career to embrace music full-time, she hopped into her car and hit the road, booking herself into every club, café and college that would have her.
The artist's D.I.Y. diligence paid off. Her roadwork won her a national audience, and her travels found her sharing stages with the likes of Alejandro Escovedo, Steve Forbert, Lucy Kaplansky, Ricky Skaggs, as well as her future label patron Judy Collins. She's won several notable honors, including awards from the USA Songwriting Competition and the John Lennon Songwriting Contest; she was also named a Finalist in the Kerrville Folk Festival's competition for new artists. She was also featured in Epiphone Guitars' 2005 "Women Who Rock" Calendar. She even emerged as a civic booster of sorts when her song "Why Not Wyoming" caught the attention of that state's tourist department and was featured in its 2004/2005 national TV and radio ad tourism campaign.
By the time Speace began the two-year creative birth cycle that yielded Songs for Bright Street, she'd evolved from her original acoustic sound to focus on a band-oriented electric approach. She'd also moved across the river to New Jersey and began working with producer/guitarist Mastro, whom she'd met when she began frequenting his Hoboken instrumental emporium the Guitar Bar. She first tapped Mastro to produce one track on Fable and to play lead guitar in the Tearjerks, which also includes guitarist Rich Feridun, bassist Matt Lindsey and drummer Jagoda. "It's a really cohesive band, not just the typical singer-songwriter backup band of session dudes," Speace notes.
Songs for Bright Street marks a substantial leap forward for Amy Speace, both in the lyrical insight and melodic craftsmanship of her songs, and in the passion and confidence of her performances. In contrast to the confessional introspection of her prior work, her new tunes offer a rich gallery of memorably drawn characters and universal emotional dilemmas.
"The songs on this album follow a thread," Speace explains. "I'm trying to unearth something true about relationships, maybe a darker side, self-doubt, the angst involved with long-term partnerships, marriages, friendships. Not twentysomething wide-eyed innocence, but maybe a harder-earned clarity. I think that most of these songs are about a search for contentment. And I framed the record with two songs that bring it back to the positive—the bright street, I guess."
The eloquence of her songwriting makes it easy to understand why Amy Speace traded one established career for the riskier prospect of pursuing her musical muse.
"I loved acting, but I never felt comfortable with the auditioning and the schmoozing," she asserts. "But with music, I never had a problem calling clubs and convincing them to let me play. I never got nervous auditioning, and I loved meeting and talking with other singer-songwriters. It's not that I thought I was any better a songwriter than an actor; it just felt more like me. It's me being me, not playing a part. And to watch the immediate reaction—to feel the audience's response in the moment to my words and my voice—was a gift. To get to go on that journey together is really a thrill ride for me."