On April 30, celebrated singer-songwriter Amy Speace will release her eighth album, There Used to Be Horses Here, which features “songs that I wrote in between my son’s first birthday and my father’s death, so most of the songs either relate to my dad or my son,” Speace says. “I had a baby when I was 50 years old, so when my son was born, I definitely had that experience of, ‘My parents are not going to see him grow up.’ And then my dad died.” As a result, she says, “I think the overarching theme of the record is grief meets hope.”
There are a couple of tracks that deviate from this overall theme, however. Speace includes a cover song of Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” as a nod to what the world is enduring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The other exception is “Shotgun Hearts,” Speace’s new single, which came about when she found herself in a nostalgic mood.
“When I was in the middle of writing these songs, I was touring and playing in New York,” Speace says. As she rode the subway, on the same route she used to take when she lived in the city during her 20s and 30s and worked as a classical theater actress, it triggered memories. “I had this romance with this one guy, and we were doing a lot of theater down on the Lower East Side. We did Shakespeare In The Parking Lot. It was great.”
Because of her acting career, Speace came relatively late to being a professional musician—she didn’t write her first song until she was in her mid-twenties—but she says that previous theater work provided a crucial foundation for her songwriting. “I was always a writer,” she says. Fiction writer and a poet and then a playwright in college. I’ve always been an observer, and fascinated by what makes people tick.”
Through it all, Speace says, “I always wanted, underneath, to be a songwriter. I literally always dated songwriters. I sat in the background of those relationships and learned a lot, learned their writing process. So when I finally did pick up a guitar and songs fell out at age 25, I already had a background.” Speace also had her musical skills firmly in place by that point, having taken extensive piano, clarinet, saxophone, and singing lessons when she was growing up.
Bitten by the writing bug, Speace threw herself into her new craft with single-minded determination, attending songwriting camps, then moving to Nashville (where she still lives) and joining writing sessions with seasoned songwriters. “I stayed really open to criticism,” she says, and this willingness to learn paid off when her debut album, 2002’s Fable, was met with critical acclaim.
Speace’s career got another big boost in 2005, when “Judy Collins’ manager heard me at South by Southwest and asked me for a demo,” Speace says. “I didn’t know that Judy Collins had started a record company and was looking to sign an artist.” This was an especially appropriate development because Speace had been compared to Collins in several reviews. “Part of my career is [thanks to] obsessively hard work but also so much luck and being in the right place at the right time,” she says.
Now, even though Speace has firmly established herself as a successful singer-songwriter, she still seems to be seeking out knowledge from other masters of the craft. “I want to write a song that can stand up next to John Prine or Guy Clark or Mary Gauthier or my heroes,” she says. “I’m not sure if I have, but that’s the aspiration.”
Speace has earned herself a devoted fanbase who would, no doubt, say she has accomplished this goal. She has a theory about why her songs seem to connect so strongly with those loyal listeners: “I’m trying to write a song that expresses the honest truth in either what I feel or what I see. What I get from people is, ‘Man, did you read my journal?’ If you write a truth that is really specific it becomes way more universal and you can touch way more people than if you try to write a universal song.”
There Used to Be Horses Here shows how Speace’s songwriting and performing have continued to evolve, this time incorporating orchestration that adds a poignant element to the songs. She also has taken another significant step with this release. “What I’m most proud of what this record is that I co-produced it,” she says. “This is the first record of my own that I had a hand in the production. It’s because I had such a strong direction, sonically, for this record.” She shared songwriting and producing duties with the band Orphan Brigade (who also played on the album) because, she says, “I love their sound.”
Although There Used to Be Horses Here touches on some sad and serious topics, it also has a sense of optimism—and that is the same approach Speace is now taking as she waits for the pandemic to be over so she can go out on tour to support this release. “I’m hopeful but I’m also patient,” she says, adding that she’s using this time to write more material—and enjoying bonding with her son, who is now three years old. “The upside of the pandemic is I’m here for his life and it’s so great,” she says.
Speace is also feeling hopeful as she looks forward to releasing the album soon. “You write the songs for yourself, and then you record them so that other people can hear them. By the time it comes out, you’ve been living with it for so long, you’re just like, ‘This is going to be cool—let’s go along for the ride!’”
Photo by Neilson Hubbard