Since releasing Fable, her 2002 debut album, folk singer-songwriter Amy Speace has been lauded for her deeply emotive and empathetic songs. She doesn’t shy away from examining even the most painful parts of her personal story, as she does on her latest album, Tucson, which will be released on April 8 via Proper Records. Today (Feb. 4), she’s premiering the single “Cottonwood” with American Songwriter.
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The album originated in July and August 2020, when “I was at a treatment facility called Cottonwood Tucson, and it was for trauma,” Speace tells American Songwriter during a recent call. She went there because “Things became overwhelming and it became clear that I couldn’t deal with it on my own, and I couldn’t deal with it in the context of just the therapy I was doing. My therapist said, ‘I think it’s time for you to go away to a residential treatment for trauma and dig into some of this stuff from your past.’
“The first week, I was just terrified, because I was really not sure what this was going to be about, and I was away from my son and husband,” Speace continues. “It had been a pretty emotional upheaval, and I was scared. They had a piano in one of the rooms, and I sat down and that song just came out about the truth: what was going on, what I was reckoning with. These songs, for the most part, spilled out.” She titled the album Tucson after the Arizona city where her treatment facility is located.
Though Speace had little spare time as she worked her way through the treatment program, she was diligent about jotting down lyric ideas in a journal. By the time she was ready to head home to Nashville, the songs were fully formed. “Mostly when I write songs, I spend a lot of time tinkering with them. I let the inspiration flow, and then I spend months editing,” she says.
Although Speace addresses serious topics in “Cottonwood” and the rest of Tucson’s songs, she notes that there is still a sense of optimism in them. “I was dealing with trauma that was from sexual abuse and abandonment. But the thing is, it’s not a depressing record to me,” she says, adding that this is because she had “the opportunity and the space to heal that stuff. I mean, it’s a lifetime of healing, really. But I really was lucky that I got two months of really, really intense work on it, so that not only did I understand it, I understood the behavior patterns that I had carried with me my whole life that were maladaptive.”
In the end, Speace says, “There was something really freeing about writing the songs.” She hopes that the stories she tells in them will help others, in turn. “I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘There’s just so many men and women who have gone through this that the songs would really the door opening for conversations.’”
Speace always seemed destined to connect with others through the arts. She was lucky enough to grow up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where the public high school ranks among the best in the nation for arts studies. From an early age, she took extensive lessons in voice, piano, clarinet, and saxophone. Simultaneously, she became heavily involved in her school’s theater department. She dreamed of becoming a Broadway actress or an opera singer.
By the time she went to college, though, Speace was heeding warnings about how unpredictable an artistic career can be, so she aimed for a more stable life as a journalist or professor. On the side, she continued her singing and theater activities – and it soon became clear to everyone that those things were her true passion, and her college advisers finally urged her to go to New York City and try her luck finding a more creative path. After graduation, she followed their advice, moving to New York’s bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhood and found success as a Shakespearean theater actress.
Music remained important to Speace, and she continued to sing—but it wasn’t until she was 25 years old that she finally started writing her own material, inspired by a breakup with a rock musician whose guitar she had borrowed. She wrote ten songs in quick succession. “It just kind of poured out,” she says. She threw herself into New York’s vibrant acoustic music scene, getting gigs at famed venues such as The Bitter End and The Living Room.
Landing a record deal wouldn’t prove as easy for Speace as songwriter and performing were, however: “I was doing the rounds in New York City at labels and a guy said, ‘You know, you don’t really sound like what’s on the radio. You kind of sound like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. It’s never going to happen for you.’”
Vindication came when Judy Collins herself became a fan of Speace’s work. “That was just such a weird coincidence,” Speace says. Collins even recorded one of Speace’s songs, “Weight of the World,” in 2010. Speace signed to Collins’ own Wildflower label, and they toured together, which led to other opening slots for Tom Paxton, Shawn Colvin, Guy Clark, and Nanci Griffith.
Finally confident that a music career was her true calling, Speace moved to Nashville, where her folk singer-songwriter style fit right in. With the release of Tucson, she’ll have ten full-length albums (and two EPs) under her belt. All have been well-received, both critically and by audiences at her shows across North America, the U.K., and Europe.
“I think I’m vulnerable in the way I sang and the way I write, and I think people connect to it because I’m honest,” Speace says of her success. “I’m not trying to be hip. I’m not trying to be whatever is current. I’m just trying to tell my truth.”
This approach is certainly evident on Tucson. “Addiction recovery is a huge, important part of my story,” Speace says—and this, in turn, has given her immense empathy for others, which comes across in her songs. “My depression and anxiety come from sexual trauma. A lot of women are terrified to speak up and so they hold their stories in and they become drug addicts and alcoholics, or they act out and they’re in jail. Or, people who have trauma are misdiagnosed as bipolar or borderline personality disorder or narcissism and things like that. But sometimes, it’s just trauma that is masking all the other symptoms. So on all of the materials for this record, I want to stress that there are places to go and there are people that have been through it.”
Help is available 24 hours a day at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
Photo by Neilson Hubbard / Ivey PR