Amy Speace, photo courtesy of Redrospective.com
Photo credit: redrospective.com

Ever since Judy Collins discovered Amy Speace, there’s been a lot of quality name-dropping. NPR marveled that the ’90 singer/songwriter’s “velvety, achy voice recalls an early Lucinda Williams.” Other critics have compared her to Rosanne Cash and Sheryl Crow. In the past 12 years, Speace has put out a half dozen folk/Americana albums, opened for Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter, relentlessly toured the States and Europe, worked with musicians tied to REM and the E Street Band, and become a darling of WFUV, New York’s cachet alternative radio station. The name-dropping even went meta when she opened for Pure Prairie League, and the band brought her onstage to help sing their 1972 hit “Amie.” 

Remember that big, shimmery, harmonic line? “Amie, what you want to do?” 

What Amy wanted to do was a lot. 

So it was from the very beginning: “I’ll tell you, I was hungry,” she tells me over the phone, laughing at her younger self. (And just to clear up the pronunciation: it’s “peace” with an “s” in front, or, as one critic couldn’t resist: “Give Speace a chance.”) 

I caught up with Speace on a sort of limbo day in March. She was waiting at her East Nashville home to hear if she could squeeze in minor oral surgery before leaving on a three-week European tour. Her rescue Redbone Coonhound, Flo, kept her company while her husband was out. (They’re newlyweds: Jamey Wood is a bluegrass musician.) In eight days, she’d be playing the Peyote Café in Milan,
followed by a dozen more gigs in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, with the finale at a Haarlem venue, built in 1597, called De Waag (The Weigh House). 

Weighing her own household of origin, this sounds like a pretty exotic life. “I mean, my father grew up dirt poor,” says Speace. “It took him eight years to get through university. He had to leave and work and leave and work.” She grew up in Williamsport, Pa., the oldest, with one sister and twin brothers. Their father sold window blinds. Their mother stayed home and then became a nurse. Today, her sister is a high-tech recruiter; one twin works for American Express, the other as an animal technician. 

Speace is the cultural outlier in her family. At age 5, she started playing piano, later adding clarinet and tenor sax. She sang, danced, acted, wrote plays. In high school, she became the girl who got the leads in the musicals, thanks to her rooftop-powerful voice and theatrical chops. After 11th grade, an instructor at a summer program decided that Speace was destined to be an opera singer. Future sealed, she began auditioning for conservatories. 

In opera, the cabaletta is the second part of a two-part aria. It’s always faster in tempo than the first part, and indeed, things turned accelerando for Speace—but in unexpected ways. It began with a member of the Williamsport school board, a Wellesley alumna, who saw something else, something broader in Speace. She suggested looking beyond conservatories to liberal arts colleges, and pointed her toward Mount Holyoke and Smith. The Speaces dutifully road-tripped their daughter to the Pioneer Valley. “I’d never even heard of Amherst College,” Speace confesses, but someone mentioned it was just up the road. Why not? They decided to take a look. 

“It was sunny out, and there were these cool brick buildings and people were outside playing Frisbee and having a barbecue,” Speace recalled. “I’d gotten into the Eastman School of Music and visited it on a rainy day. All the students there wear scarves around their necks, and speak softly, to protect their voices. I looked at the people at Amherst and thought, ‘I want to be part of that crowd.’” 

When Speace got to Amherst, though, the notes didn’t all fall into place. “I felt like I was coming in from a deficit,” she says. “I had slid through in my large public high school. But I got to college and thought, ‘Oh my God, these people have read Ulysses already.’” 

Speace would go on to double major in English and theater and dance. She sang in the Sabrinas and starred, as a sophomore, as Johanna in Sweeney Todd. I asked Speace which professors made the biggest impact. “Barry O’Connell, Barry O’Connell, Barry O’Connell,” she joked in response, but she was serious. (O’Connell saw her in Sweeney Todd: “It was overwhelming—the sheer beauty of her voice.”) Her freshman year, she took this (now emeritus) English professor’s class on Southern literature. “I was doing really well in that class,” Speace remembers. “It was the first time I felt like my writing was getting better and better.” But her final paper, on the music of the civil rights movement, earned her the lowest grade of her college career. 

O’Connell had called her out for writing from a place of unexamined white privilege. “It was so mortifying,” says Speace. “I avoided Barry my whole sophomore year. But my junior year, I went back and reread the paper and saw what he was pointing out, and I got it. I went to see him, fell apart and cried in his office.” That catharsis cleared the air. Speace took three more classes with O’Connell, who also steered her toward courses on Shakespeare, and he advised her for her senior thesis on Billie Holiday’s autobiography. “Everything I needed to learn about writing,” says Speace, “I learned from Barry.” 

Amy Speace, photo by Mark Savage

The day after she told me this story, she sent an impassioned follow-up email: “His pointing out the hard truth in my freshman year essay was one of those life events that, now, nearing 50, I am really grateful for,” she wrote. “These times in life when someone has the audacity to call you out, it’s like little revolutions, little moments that bring us to our knees and make us freak out, doubt ourselves, ask for help, and then get back up and try again.” The raw feeling in that statement reminded me of her go-for-broke lyrics. Just so: “As an artist now,” she continued, “I love these moments when the rug is pulled out from under me, because then I know chaos is upon me and that’s when real truth shows up.”

As graduation loomed, Speace wondered where that “real truth” would show up next. Andrew Parker, professor of English, suggested she try her luck with acting in New York City. Give it a few years, he said, and if it didn’t work out, he’d write her a recommendation for a Ph.D. program in English. Meanwhile, Peter Lobdell ’68, senior resident artist in the theater and dance department, put in a good word for her at the National Shakespeare Conservatory. 

Speace went on to play many parts with the NSC and beyond: Queen Elizabeth from Richard III, Catherine from Henry V and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. She acted in off-off Broadway classical rep companies and did “guerrilla Shakespeare” in Lower East Side parking lots. She had an agent and she had auditions. But even when she landed parts, they paid peanuts: “Everyone was saying, ‘You’re really good,’ but not enough was happening.” 

Then Speace bought a cheap guitar from an East Village pawn shop. Fresh off a “spectacularly terrible” breakup, she slept on a friend’s futon, listened to Leonard Cohen and wrote 10 songs in a week. “They were terrible,” she says. “But there was still something true in them.” Soon two friends asked her to sing at a benefit. She said yes, on the condition she could perform these new songs, and not covers. “I felt super shaky, because I was a terrible guitar player then. But something felt right standing up there at the mic. Like this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” 

Thus released, Speace started playing at New York folk clubs—The Bitter End, The Sidewalk Café, The Living Room. She still had one foot in acting, appearing in two forgettable young romance movies, 2000’s Chelsea’s Chappaqua and 2002’s Just Add Pepper. But music was taking the lead: In 2002, she self-financed and put out her first album, Fable

Before I called up Speace, I spent a gratifying morning watching her on YouTube, and felt struck by the confidence in her presentation; her acting background lends gravitas, a sort of emotional anchor, to her voice. I praised her for this, but she brought up the downsides. 

“When I first started folk singing, I had to kick the actor out,” she said. “I didn’t look shy on stage, so record producers would say, ‘You’re more musical theater or cabaret.’ This was the time of Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega. Radio-friendly, reedy voices with no vibrato: that was the sound.” 

Speace describes her own voice as less like something from the reed section and more like a viola (critics have also compared her to Linda Ronstadt and Eva Cassidy), and that wasn’t cool at the time. “But I did have one person say ‘Just wait. It will come around.’ That was the person who discovered me and changed my life: Judy Collins.”

Amy Speace, photo by Luke Sharrett
Photo credit: Luke Sharret

The creation story, then: In 2005, Speace was playing at South by Southwest. Katherine DePaul, Judy Collins’ manager, was there, mining for acts to sign to their label, Wildflower Records. A friend slipped Speace’s demo to DePaul when they all happened to meet up on the rooftop of the funky Austin club Maggie Mae’s. And that’s the demo that demolished Collins. 

I phone up the icon, who speaks to me from her hotel room in Phoenix. At age 77, after some 50 albums and innumerable shows, Collins was appearing at the city’s Musical Instrument Museum Music Theater to perform the songs of Stephen Sondheim. What was her first impression of Speace’s voice? “Oh, I thought it was enchanting and alluring!” Collins told me. “She has a fresh feel to her voice and her songs. She charms people, and her writing is wondrous.” 

In 2006, Songs for Bright Street became Speace’s first album for the label. It includes 12 rootsy originals (highlights: “Step Out of the Shade” and “Water Landing”) and a rusticated cover of Blondie’s “Dreaming.” That same year, the International Folk Alliance nominated her as Best New Artist. One critic praised her “uncanny knack for nailing complex emotions in song.” 

Speace’s personal life, at that time, was indeed complex. She married in 1998, but the marriage grew troubled and, in 2009, she put out her second album for Wildflower, The Killer In Me, which another critic called “a classic among breakup albums.” It featured a bonus track, the poignant “Weight of the World,” in which Speace creates a character, a sister whose brother is fighting in “some desert” overseas: “The weight of the world, too heavy to lift / So much to lose, so much to miss / It doesn’t seem fair that an innocent boy / Should have to carry the weight of the world.” Judy Collins called it “one of the best political folk songs I’ve ever heard” and recorded it herself a year later. WFUV named “Weight of the World” the #4 Folk Song of the Decade. 

Sheryl Crow once said that “L.A. to me feels like music industry, and Nashville to me feels like music community.” Marriage over, career blossoming, Speace decamped to Nashville in 2009, switched management and labels, and set out to create community. “Amy is an extraordinary, resilient risk-taker,” says Barry O’Connell. “She is exceptionally open to the world around her.” She began by working with local songwriter/producer Neilson Hubbard, “my musical soul mate,” she now says. That collaboration resulted in 2011’s Land Like a Bird. These tracks especially take wing: the sly Patsy Cline-meets-Sarah Vaughn “It’s Too Late to Call It a Night” and “Real Love Song,” a dreamy brushes-on-drums duet with Hubbard. 

Speace got her most glowing notices for a 2013 Kickstarter-fueled concept album How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat, a song cycle inspired by Shakespeare, with nods to Prospero, Lear, Juliet, Romeo and Desdemona. She was having lunch with Rolling Stone rock critic Dave Marsh when she first broached the concept, worried it “sounded snotty or ridiculous.” Marsh admired how she told stories during her shows, and knew of her Shakespearean background, and dared her to do the album. He loved the results so much he wrote the liner notes.

With vocalists Amber Rubarth and Emily Barker, Speace also recently formed the ethereal trio Applewood Road. (“Singing with them reminds me of the Sabrinas, because I’m part of the whole.”) For the London label Gearbox Records, they recorded Applewood Road, which the Times of London called “a flawless set that has to be the most haunting release of the past year.” London’s Daily Telegraph admiringly likened their harmonies to those of The Everly Brothers and The Andrews Sisters: “They savour each note until it melts in the mouth.” The trio played Glastonbury Festival and 
Cambridge Folk Festival last summer. 

For parity’s sake, I’ll also report that not all of Speace’s reviews are bioluminescent. One critic, for instance, felt Hubbard’s influence resulted in several songs that are “passive” and have a “hazy malaise.” All musicians have a triage of strengths. Bruce Springsteen is a wildly outstanding performer but has a limited vocal range. Chuck Berry was a god at melodies, vocals, lyrics and guitar—but he had lousy, near-hostile engagement with his audience. Speace is a superb singer and lyricist, a credible guitarist and a truly funny, intimate live performer, yet her songs don’t always nail the melodic hook. 

But again with the reinvention. “Amy has that ability to listen,” says Judy Collins, “to learn and to look around and see what’s happening, and her co-writing has been terrifically successful.” This bears out in 2015’s That Kind of Girl, in which the numbers she wrote with Irish-born songwriter Ben Glover stand out. Their “Hymn for the Crossing” is like Southern gospel airlifted to Belfast, and it avoids the pitfalls of pennywhistle kitsch. If you’ve ever sat by the bedside of a dying person, it will flood your soul. 

It’s all pretty dazzling, right? Days charged with artistry, communing with greats like Janis Ian and Tom Paxton (both mentors to Speace), courting and sparking albums and songs. But show me any artist, and I’ll show you fear of the wolf (or day job) at the door. “It’s a really, really hard life attempting to make money off art,” Speace told me. But not just me: she told the (then) 2,178,674 readers of The New York Times, too. “Amy Speace, a Singer-Songwriter, Just Trying to Make Do,” ran the headline in the piece Speace wrote in March 2015 for the Times’ Your Money special section. And so Speace shared the trials of buying a home in gentrifying East Nashville, where “the artist class is yielding to the nouveau riche hipster.” 

Some Amherst serendipity made that article happen. Ron Lieber ’93, the paper’s Your Money columnist, chanced upon one of Speace’s Facebook posts about buying a home. As she remembers it, when he asked her to expand on this for the Times, he half-facetiously suggested she write a song on the topic. Challenge accepted. Thus “Spent,” an original song by Speace and Hubbard, performed on video for the newspaper’s website. (“It’s not enough to hear your own song on the radio / When your credit is far below / What they need for a loan.”)

Amy Speace, photo by Mark Savage She eventually did buy a home, on a rent-to-own basis, but aren’t you curious how, exactly, Speace makes do? Inventively, with major versatility. She doubles down on touring, for instance, which Judy Collins respects. “The hardest part of the whole career is the travel,” Collins told me. “Many people are just not up to it. But Amy has taken the bit in her teeth and really run for it. Performers get paid for travel, not the work. Travel is the thing that will select out who will be the force and who won’t.” 

Back home, Speace offers private songwriting lessons in person or on Skype. She’s taught songwriting at a half dozen institutions, including Berklee College of Music and Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Song School. She works with a group called SongwritingWith:Soldiers, which helps veterans express their experiences—and thus heal—through song. She has even sold homemade marinara sauce at her gigs (a recipe from her ex-mother-in-law). For her How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat campaign on Kickstarter, she raised upwards of $30,000 by offering premium prizes, including a private concert for anyone donating more than $3,000. 

“I have to work at things like paying my mortgage and making sure there’s food on the table, and I’m earning my part for my family,” Speace says. “And that means making choices like, ‘Do I take this tour that will take me away from home for three weeks? Or am I tired of the road and do I need to develop a new skill-set that will allow me to put food on the table and have time to create?’ I live in a community full of freelancers: songwriters, guitar players, waiters and baristas in their 30s and 40s, and it’s vibrant and fun and terrifying and a tightrope walk all the time.” 

As I type this sentence, I click on Speace’s website to see where she is right now. Aachen, Germany, it turns out, for a private concert. A few days before, she emailed me from Venice, where she, like all tourists, got hopelessly lost in the backstreets. Speace takes getting lost in stride, though, whether it’s through love or song or art or fate, whether it’s in Venetian alleys or the Pioneer Valley. And because this article is going out to the Amherst community, she wanted to explain how she got from then to now. It’s only right, consequently, to give the lyricist the last word:

“I’m not famous and I’m cool with that, although that seems to be most people’s barometer for success in my world. (I get the ‘I’ve never heard of you!’ all the time.) Coming from Amherst there was absolutely no road map for my ‘career,’ such as you can call it that. My career is a day-to-day dance. I have no idea what I’ll be doing next year. I am trying to make music, write songs that speak a certain truth, sing from that place, teach as much as I can, and somehow make enough money that I’m not afraid all the time. It’s not really a career. It’s a series of choices made when the wind blew a certain way. A yes when a door opened.” 


 Katharine Whittemore is the senior writer in Amherst’s Office of Communications.


 Selected Lyrics 

Professor and fan Barry O’Connell believes that lyrics, for a writer, are as hard as watercolors are for a painter. “You can’t completely control either medium,” he says. In lyrics, “words can never be exact to feelings, but they have to make something alive. And the line has to do the work. That’s what real English training should do—make you think about words as living entities.” Here are some living entities from one-time English major Amy Speace ’90: 

Album Cover: Songs for Bright Street From “The Real Thing” (Songs for Bright Street, 2006)

This song was prompted by the bumper sticker “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” Speace wrote it after a night drinking with friends. She jokes, “I hallucinated I was Johnny Cash.”

I’m too young to know better but I’m too damn old to care
With enough tequila I might take up any dare
I’m as aloof as November and mean like July
But I can purr like a little kitten if you scratch me on the right side
I like the way I look although I am not model thin

I am the real thing 

Album cover: The Killer in Me From: “Blue Horizon” (The Killer in Me, 2009) 

“It’s from the perspective of a child if the child dies before the parent dies,” says O’Connell. “The ‘shoes’ part leaves you in wonderment and points you toward a story that exists but is not being told. Marvelous.”

If I die before my mother does
then I would fly beyond the blue
and paint the moon the color of her eyes

and give my shoes away

Album Cover: That Kind of Girl From: “Hymn for the Crossing” (That Kind of Girl, 2015)

A Celtic-inflected song about mortality: Speace wrote this, in memoriam and homage, the day after Pete Seeger died. 

Don’t speak of nights darkened by regret
Don’t speak of today’s light fading
Don’t speak at all just sit here by my bed

And sing me a hymn for the crossing

Album Cover: Land Like a Bird From: “Ghost” (Land Like a Bird, 2011)

As one critic wrote, it’s “as good an exploration of the pain of loss as you’ll ever find.”

February stole more than the snow, bringing early spring to Baltimore
She was surprised to see him after all those years of leaving out the alley door
This time would be different, he swore it with the rapture of a baptized man
His words undressed her loneliness with a gospel built on sand

Album Cover: How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat From: “Hunter Moon” (How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat, 2013) 

A delectably ominous song about love and 
murder. Think Loretta Lynn meets Kurt Weill.

Scattered on the center stone
Little pieces of my bones
Let the crows and beetles dine

There’ll be no redemption for my kind