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If you’ve ever seen Lady Lamb the Beekeeper perform, she likely began her set by standing center stage unaccompanied and belting, “I want to love you like the monster loves a flower, disarming as a bird flying backwards,” whether in an intimate room or a Live Nation venue with a noisy bar in the background.
For almost five minutes, she’d have continued to singing in couplets – her voice a throaty, powerful noise – as the room turned to pay attention. “And what of this cacophonous – these broken strings? / And what of this, the blood red kiss, the beast in the sea? / I’ll hush it now and I will sing it songs to put it to sleep / And leave it there without a care that it might a dream.” She’d finish, barely wait for applause and then break out her electric guitar.
“I like to start with an a cappella,” Aly Spaltro (a.k.a. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper) says. “You have to win them over if you want them to pay attention. It’s a way to shock people into shutting their mouths.”
It’s hard to imagine that Spaltro didn’t start out as a singer – the passion in her voice sounds like she’s been doing this forever. But she didn’t begin writing songs or playing music until she was 18. “It was kind of an accident,” she says. “I was really into writing poetry and I’d done spoken word poetry slams in high school, but that was my main experience with performance.” When her post-graduation plans of going to Guatemala on a service trip for year before beginning photography school in Chicago fell through, Spaltro found herself stuck in her home town of Brunswick, Maine, restless and in need of a new project. “I didn’t know what to do with myself and I really wanted to be productive, so I started putting my poetry to music and recording in my bedroom.”
Her poetic background shines through in the elaborate imagery of her lyrics. Her songwriting process, especially when she just started out, was more about the words than the music. “Usually, a phrase would come to mind. It often ended up being the first line or the bridge of the song or something, but I’d think of the phrase and build off that, or structure the song around that,” she explains.
Her creativity, like that of many writers, tends to come at inopportune times. “It’s annoying because things usually come to me when I’m unable to write them down, like when I’m driving,” she laughs. “I’ll either have to pull over or I just commit them to memory – I’ll write a poem in my mind and memorize it by reciting it over and over, and I’ll edit it in my brain like I would on paper, rearranging things.”
It took Spaltro six or seven months of recording by herself to feel ready to perform, first for friends and family, then for increasingly larger audiences. As she’s become more confident in her abilities and experimented with different ways of performing – solo, with a partner, with the help of some voice looping devices and now with a full band – her process has changed. “Recently, I’ve been finding the music first and sort of creating a melody and humming it, and while I do that, I think of what the music reminds me of,” she says. “I sing the words on top of that music in the moment, often before I write anything down.”
Spaltro’s been playing shows consistently for the past two years, both by herself and as support for acts like Beirut, Sharon Van Etten and tUnE-yArDs. She’s been representing her body of work with a collection of demos titled Mammoth Swoon – an album pieced together for a farewell show when she moved from Brunswick, Maine down to Brooklyn in October of 2010. “A lot of the songs on it are taken from a live radio show where it’s just me and an electric guitar,” she explains.
The past few months, however, she’s been spending her time at the Let ‘Em In studios in Gowanus, Brooklyn, working on her first full-length LP. “This is going to be the most professional sounding thing I’ve put out,” she says. The album will feature a number of songs she’s played live but has never recorded, but the bulk of it will be re-working of the tracks on Mammoth Swoon. “These are like the fully fleshed out versions of the songs – so one of the songs might warrant drums and bass, one of them may have horns.” Some friends from Maine play on the album as part of her full band – she started working on the album back at home in November and is in the process of finishing it in the studio in Brooklyn.
Her move from Maine to New York also inspired a change in her music, not necessarily in lyrical content – but in ways of using her voice. “In Maine, I had the freedom to just be really, really loud. In New York, I have to find ways to write songs without getting in trouble,” she says. Back in Brunswick, Spaltro worked at an independent movie rental store called Bart and Greg’s DVD Explosion, where she’d stash her equipment behind the counter and work the closing shift. “I’d lock up at 11 p.m., pull out all my gear, turn it up way loud and just go crazy,” she remembers. “And that’s where I was really able to write a lot of the material I’m still playing live – those sort of distorted, projected songs – those all came from having the freedom to be loud in the store’s basement.”
Unfortunately, for all the greatness of being a musician in the Mecca of passionate artists, producers and enthusiasts that is Brooklyn, finding a practice space as accommodating as Bart and Greg’s isn’t easy. She’s managed to make the most of a new environment, though.
“Because I can’t afford a practice space in New York, it’s made me explore what my voice can do when it’s not projecting,” she explains. “I’ve found that I have more range than I ever thought. I don’t think I would have really discovered that if I hadn’t moved here.”
Along with an appreciation for the versatility of her voice, the move to Brooklyn helped her find her new album’s co-producer, Nadim Issa. When she set out to record her new album, Spaltro aspired to do it all on her own. “I really wanted to produce it myself, and I was playing a lot of shows to be able to afford the gear I needed to build a home studio,” she says. “But the cool tradeoff with what I’m doing now in the studio is that I can lay down the track, take the session home and write other parts using my MIDI keyboard, take it back in and add in the instrumentals to what I’ve written.” She thinks the album will be mixed and mastered by the end of this month, but is looking for an artist to take her on cross-country tour as an opener. “I’ve never been on a full American tour; I’m hoping that can be one of my next steps.”
Photos by Shervin Lainez