Amy Speace – Tucson
Proper Records – 22 April 2022 (Digital – physical to follow)
Tuscon finds Amy Speace once again accompanied by the multiple talents of Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Joshua Britt, who make up The Orphan Brigade. They are joined by Danny Mitchell on keys, lap steel player Juan Soloranzo, Dean Marold on upright bass with strings courtesy of David Angell and David Davidson on violins, cellist Carole Rabinowitz and Kristin Wilkinson on viola.
Tuscon is the follow-up to last year’s There Used To Be Horses Here, an album that pivoted around her father’s death; if anything, this is even more deeply personal and raw. Diagnosed by a grief counsellor as suffering unresolved trauma following her father’s passing the previous year and the subsequent loss of her voice, compounded by anxiety and depression brought on by the pandemic and the stress of raising a toddler, in July 2020, Speace checked into Cottonwood, a Tucson treatment centre for Trauma, Complicated Grief and Depression. Here she worked through her grief, depression and anxiety. Out of this came the strings and piano ballad title song on which (a kindred spirit to Tori Amos’ Me And A Gun), her voice cracking with emotion, she revisits and confronts the effects of being date-raped when she was 19 (“the night I can’t recall/The freshman room, the dress ripped off”), the subsequent abuse (“The famous actor on Broadway/The music man who promised fame”) and the hurt she’d carried around for 50 years, “Disguised in songs like mysteries” but now “tired of this masquerade”.
A recovering alcoholic, sober since 2013, Speace knows how hard it is to carry the weight alone and, written for a friend she made at the centre, the strummed and twangsome If You Fall is an anthemic pledge of support in time of struggle (“If you fall, I’ll kneel beside you./So I can remind you how strong you are/I know it’s hard you need a softness/A little kindness A tender heart”) because, as she says, “I can guide you/From what I know from where I’ve been/Cause I’ve been lost inside a blindness/Somehow I found my way back again”.
Set to a plaintive acoustic guitar, Little Red retells the story of Little Red Riding Hood as an allegory for living as a woman in a predatory world, addressing self-destructive pent up anger (“Throwing sticks and stones/You’re raging at the world/But breaking your own bones”), frustration (“your back’s against the wall/You keep flailing your fists/In the middle of it all”) and depression (“You’ve been fighting that dog/For too many years”), but, again a reminder, that you’re not alone.
As part of the recovery process, back in Nashville, she took an online songwriting workshop, one of the tasks being to write a blues number inspired by part of a poem, something Speace took on board as an opportunity to sing not about troubles but about finding happiness again, resulting in the Janis Ian-like piano, guitar and strings arrangement of the spare, brooding Blues For Joy where, despite loss and emptiness and the pills to ease “ the buzzing in my head”, she can celebrate “undressing in the shadows where the world ain’t so mean and hard”.
Taken from a Mary Oliver poem in the collection she took to Cottonwood, reading passages at 4am in the morning, and written in the wake of her death, Why I Wake Early is a slow swaying strum about finding a way to get by and cherishing the years as they pile up (“These days I’m doing my best to stay honest/Getting older with each passing wave/The people I love and the prayers that I promise/Mean more to me now than they did yesterday”). Oliver’s words move her “to open my arms/And pay more attention to you than to me/Love without knowing the end of the song/Watch it unfold with the greatest of ease/Know that it’s enough for me”.
The last of the self-penned numbers is The Offering, a piano-accompanied gospel-inspired reflection of how she and two others attended a non-denominational meeting on Sundays with a baptist preacher in Cottonwood, talking about the Bible, Jesus, trauma, ecstatic experience and music during which a submerged memory of the rape came up. The song was written for a friend at the centre who was self-harming and having suicidal thoughts, a common response to trauma, to let her know she wasn’t alone, asking God to “guide her through the storm/Hear her tears like a confession”, praying “Welcome my father into heaven/A place with room enough for joy/Give him the childhood he was missing/When he was a little boy” and asking “lift my soul out of this darkness/Take my pain in your hands/Whisper forgiveness like a mantra/In simple words I understand”.
Returning to the loss of a parent from the previous album, she ends by channelling her childhood through Springsteen’s My Father’s House, starting unaccompanied before building to hymnal proportions on keys, mandolin, acoustic guitar and lap steel, ending as she sustains the note on ‘unatoned’.
It’s a stunning and deeply affecting work, a catharsis for her and an epiphany for all who hear it.