Let there be Cold Specks.
On a sun-splashed spring afternoon, a possible out-of-nowhere new big thing is sitting on the patio at the Horseshoe Tavern on a bustling Queen Street West in Toronto. She's pulling on a Corona in between drags of a Marlboro, and none of the passers-by have a clue who she is. Because she hasn't fully happened yet.
Cold Specks is the professional moniker used by Al Spx (which isn't her real name either – such mystery). Her music is marked by elegantly stylized field hollers and deep, despairing blues – "doom-soul" as she calls it.
She was born and bred in Etobicoke, Ont., but Brits know her better. Last spring, her song Holland was leaked to a few ground-level U.K.-based blogs. Hyperbole ensued. Someone associated with the BBC's Later... With Jools Holland picked up on it, resulting in Cold Specks's smashing debut on that show and even more attention.
On Thursday, Spx is to play one of the most talked about gigs at Canadian Music Week. She gained exposure as the opening act for a tour last year with the indie-darling St. Vincent, but it wasn't so long ago that she toiled unnoticed, as an earthy folkie called Basket of Figs, at small rooms such as the Tranzac, here in Toronto. Her highly anticipated debut album, due out on May 22, is called I Predict a Graceful Expulsion. But, really, who can predict anything?
"I think things happen for a reason sometimes," says the diminutive Spx, not a big talker. "But my route has been strange." I had asked her about destiny and her brooding, cello-driven ballad Blank Maps. "I struggled," says the 24-year-old, garbed in a conservative blue dress, oversized black shirt and dark leggings. "I didn't know what to do or how I was going to do it."
She once fancied becoming a guitarist. "I had this husky, deep beast," she explains, describing her voice. "I didn't know what to do with it."
Spx attended college, switching majors before dropping out to sell knives door-to-door and work in a meat-packing place. At a call centre, she was required to use a common-place handle. She became Chris Johnson. So what's in a name?
Cold Specks took her stage name from James Joyce's Ulysses: "Born in all the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness." Actually, Spx is the opposite of that. Which is to say, darkness shining in the light.
"We wanted to launch her in the U.K., to appear from nowhere with someone from another country," explains Cold Speck's young sparkly-eyed producer Jim Anderson, also having at a Corona. Once launched in London, where Anderson is based, the excitable British music press would spread the news quickly. "I knew Canada would look at that and take notice."
And so Cold Specks is sold as something exotic on both sides of the ocean.
A couple of years ago Spx had passed a few demo tracks to a friend who split time between Toronto and England. The friend had an older brother, who was Anderson.
Long story short, Anderson took this diamond in rough – "I didn't want her to be another Canadian folkie; she's more than that" – and polished her song sketches into a blue-silver gloom and hue. There were stops and starts, and the forming and arranging of Spx's original material took almost two years to do, all told. "There were so many points where it could have gone wrong," says Anderson.
Spx wasn't comfortable with the process initially – she had no musical training, and struggled with working alongside bandmates. "I had a hard time figuring it out," she says.
But now she couldn't be happier with the results. "I'm disgustingly pleased," is how she puts it. And she never saw it coming.
Cold Specks plays March 22 at Toronto's Music Gallery, with a Canadian tour to follow in May.