Calling herself Lady Lamb and the Beekeeper seemed like a good idea at the time. To Aly Spaltro, anonymity was all-important: she was working right next door to the record store where a stack of her homemade CDs were on the counter.
She’d made fifty to be given away free – and they were snapped up. So she made more, selling them this time. They went just as quickly. People were comparing her music to Patti Smith, The Breeders, P.J. Harvey and Sharon van Etten, and for Aly, who was living in a small town in the US state of Maine, it was totally unexpected.
Her first official album, Ripley Pine, was an oblique, rambling record of sublime indie-folk; the sort of music you want to keep all for yourself. Now, though, she’s ditched the ‘and the Beekeeper’, and moved away from the form-defying, aimlessly wandering tendencies of her previous album to take a different, more carefully plotted direction. Her new offering After retains a poet’s eye, exploring both the inner and outer self, but it has the pop sensibilities of, say, Dum Dum Girls.
The musician beams from ear to ear at the comparison. “I find it really difficult to write a chorus which is why I wanted to write some – to be formulaic. I wanted to be excited about this album,” she says candidly as she meets TGA to promote her new release.
Spaltro explains, “With the first, my influences at the time were writing really long songs – of Montreal, Joanna Newsom and The Fiery Furnaces – and I was really drawn to that. I think I had a subconscious desire… a feeling that I didn’t have to edit. So the songs were more meandering, with different movements and tempo changes, and I didn’t stick to a formula.”
By contrast, new album opener ‘Vena Cava’ has an elevating chorus, with a shift in key and tempo – as if you’re climbing a tree almost, and you’re reaching for the highest branch with a bold swing and a whoop.
In ‘Spat out Spit’, meanwhile – a song that ponders how strange we all are (“I could be cracked open like a cartoon watermelon/Then you could see the solar system suspended in me/It’s the same one in you”) – the chorus snaps into place with an uplifting offbeat drum march.
Whatever Spaltro may say, ‘After’ shows that Aly hasn’t actually given up her wilful, artistic nature. She’s simply demonstrating an appreciation for the existence of a desire for – and joy of – ear candy.
You could say her musical progression mirrors her physical journey. Five years ago, she moved from Brunswick, Maine to Brooklyn, New York and hasn’t looked back. In that time, she’s amassed an impressive roll call of live dates and tours both past, present and future – she’s due in the UK this autumn.
It’s given her the opportunity to fine-tune her talent, and her flair for songwriting is getting noticed. Comparisons to Kim Deal wouldn’t be remiss. Hold on to your heart for ‘Dear Arkansas Daughter’ – it has a boldness and a bite as dynamic as anything The Breeders or Pixies have produced.
Aly says, “I worked with the same producer [Nadim Issa] as my last album, in his studio near my apartment in Brooklyn, but I co-produced it this time and did a lot more of the instrumentation. Last time we recorded it live with the band and played all the songs and then I layered them. This was a very concise project where I arranged everything in my apartment first.”
Of course, it makes total sense when Spaltro says she’d like to produce other artists one day. “That’s what I would love to do.” She also wants to be entirely autonomous when it comes to producing her next album: “I feel at most I need an engineer to help put the mics where they [need to] go. I very much know what sound I want to go for. I like to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.” She’s even considered starting her own label.
So far, so in control. The song ‘Atlas’ declares: “Honey, I know where I’ve come from.” Such self-assurance, but does Aly really feel she knows herself?
“Yes I do! I put that [song] at the end of the album because I feel that it’s a good book end,” she enthuses. “The song is about taking responsibility for myself and staying true to myself. It’s something I struggled with on the last album, which was more about what I wanted from other people. This one was about having the power in myself to be happy.”
She’s always had the power within herself to be happy, just as she’s always had a keen self-awareness and a curiosity about life. Rewind to a normal weekday in the still of the Arizona landscape; dry, arid, dusty. It’s playtime at Aly Spaltro’s school. She is that little girl sitting on the huge rock on the edge of the noisy playground, listening to the White Album by The Beatles on her headphones – you know, their weird record. “I had such a beautiful childhood – happy, loving, memories of eating juicy watermelons on baking-hot days. There was absolutely no reason for me to have deep feelings at such an early age, but I do remember sitting on that rock and looking up and thinking: ‘Where are we? What is life?’ And it’s carried on and I find ways to express it in my music.”
It’s an example set by her mum, a strong influence in her life: to remember the past through a child’s eyes. The song ‘10’ is about how her mum keeps a diary of childhood memories. “When she remembers something from when she was little she’ll write it down for us to read later, and it’s written from her child-self viewpoint. She’s a really wonderful woman. Doing this is so intimate and special – she’s given us this story of her life; little fragments. Sometimes they are the most simple things, like a memory of my grandmother’s hands. Other times, it’s a stand-out memory, like when she saw an eagle with a fish in its mouth.”
Spaltro’s dad was in the US Air Force so, as a child, her family moved about a lot. That’s how she ended up in Maine, where her need to write drove her will to learn how to play guitar.
“I learned two chords first and just wrote a song with two chords,” she says. “When I was ready I added a third and painstakingly taught myself. It took a lot of patience and free time to achieve but I was working the closing shift and so I was able to find the time. When a little kid comes up to me with their mum and says how they are learning guitar, I always tell them that they are one step ahead of me because I had to teach myself and I didn’t start ‘til I was 18.”
Aly is a contemporary example of grrrl power. Not only is she in control of how she conveys herself lyrically and musically but she’s also in charge of how she’s represented visually – as well as in business. And though she was unaware of it in 2007 when she started making music, she has since drawn inspiration from the riot grrrl movement. “I think I was a little young when it happened,” she says. “Now I have found respect for Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill). I think a lot of people always presume there’s a man in the background sorting out everything and that you can’t do it without some insider knowledge. But that’s just not true. You can do it for yourself.”
And do it all for herself she really does – down to designing the album covers and developing concepts for photographs. Total artistic control.
“I’m really interested in the visual aspects,” she says betraying a multifaceted creativity. “For this album I made two lyric videos – ‘Spat out Spit’ and ‘Billions of Eyes’. ‘Billions of Eyes’ [I created from scratch] and ‘Spat out Spit’ I took from former stock pictures of the Sixties, but I edited it.”
She is even self-managing. “I’ve been managing myself for almost six years,” says Aly. “I love the organisation side of it, keeping on top of things and speaking one-on-one with my publicist, booking agent or record label. I’ve found it’s important to understand what’s going on – knowledge is power. Because I’m in the forefront and answering the team, I am representing myself how I want to be represented – instead of someone else speaking for me. It’s fine if you are an artist and you just want to focus on the songwriting but I want to go and have meetings with my record label about what do next – be involved in the strategy, understand what a publishing deal is and so on; the inner workings of things. I really enjoy that process but I do find it difficult when I’m on tour.”
You might call her a control freak but for Aly, it seems simply to stem from a desire to channel her creative vision and express herself honestly. She’s passionate and wants to be understood. That’s perhaps why she is always ready to offer up a narrative of each and every track on After. She’s a poet and wants her words to mean something.
It must be hard being a poet in the 21st Century. “Yes and no,” she says. “What I’m intrigued by lately is the way that we are looking at our phones all day long and are having trouble connecting with each other – and how special it is to connect with a stranger, when normally you think it’s scary. It’s easy to keep your head down and not look up and experience people. I find that when I connect with a stranger in any way I feel refreshed by it. I feel like I have a little more pep in my step.”
‘Billions of Eyes’ is about that, she says. “It has a lot to do with anxiety and feeling a little bit overwhelmed. I was thinking, ‘What about when I’m in my room looking at my phone and there’s six million people doing the same thing, but differently?’ When you think sometimes your head spins a little bit and suddenly I’m taken into these existential topics.”
A theme of duality is evident in After. The elegant and smart ‘Sunday Shoes’ whispers of a death, but in fact it’s a response to the childhood feeling she recalled on hearing about the oncoming birth of her new baby step sister: “’My parents are never going to get back together,’ I thought. In some weird way, writing about it helped me to reconcile that.”
Often in these songs, there is a twist to the tale, such as with ‘Heretic’ and the peculiarity that strikes her about sleeping soundly as a child, in Arizona, while the most talked-about UFO sighting ever (now known as the Phoenix Lights) was going on.
She laughs. “I’m intrigued about this sort of thing. I thought it was really funny that I was sleeping as they allegedly passed overhead.”
All her recent writing reflects memories of family and friends, both direct and ambiguous yet always loving. These musings sit beside more random thoughts: seeing someone yawn – but suddenly, as if for the first time – on a train on an ordinary day spirals into a song (‘Billions of Eyes’).
“You see someone yawning every day,” she says. “But for some reason my perspective shifted on that day, I saw it happen as if I was not used to seeing it and I looked and I thought how odd we all are,” she elaborates. “That epitomises the whole record, which is much less a break-up album (like the last) and more about family, friends, things I’m afraid of or thoughts. Like, I see something and, as naturally happens with thoughts, they turn into deeper thoughts and suddenly I’m dwelling on existential topics, wondering if this is all a dream.”
Perhaps that explains Aly’s dreamy vocals, then. What’s not a dream, of course, is Aly’s success. Writing, recording and performing: Aly may be fulfilling a childhood ambition but it’s very real. And she loves that what she’s achieved inspires others.
When Lady Lamb tours this autumn, you’ll most likely see her at the merchandise stall, talking to fans. “On the last US tour, I went to the merch table every night,” she says. “Someone would always come up to me and say something amazing, like how they travelled to get there or how they’ve started to play music because of me. It [feels] silly to verbalise now but at the time, especially after performing, it’s so moving. It never gets old.”
She ends with this parting shot: “I feel very lucky. I’m fortunate to write music that really connects with people and stays with them. To me that is what it’s all about.”
After is out on 29 June 2015 via BB*Island.
Catch Lady Lamb live across Europe this September/October:
Thu September 17 – The Grand Social – Dublin, Ireland
Sun September 20 – Incubate Festival De Harmonie – Tilburg, Netherlands
Mon September 21 – Bitterzoet – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Tue September 22 – Merleyn – Nijmegen, Netherlands
Wed September 23 – Botanique, Witlof Bar – Brussels, Belgium
Thu September 24 – Blue Shell – Cologne, Germany
Fri September 25 – Reeperbahn Festival – Hamburg, Germany
Sat September 26 – Berlin Independent Night – Berlin
Mon September 28 – The Lexington – London, UK
Wed September 30 – Broadcast – Glasgow, UK
Thu October 10 – The Castle – Manchester, UK
Fri October 02 – The Hope – Brighton, UK
Sun October 04 – La Peniche – Lille, France
Mon October 05 – Pop Up Du Label – Paris, France
Tue October 06 – Bogen F – Zürich, Switzerland