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On The String: Amy Speace Wrestles With What Artists Leave Behind

Neilson Hubbard

Plans change. Flash back to the early 2000s, and you'd have found Amy Speace living the bohemian life in New York, wholly absorbed in theater and comparative literature, studying to be a Shakespearian actress. Then, as she recounts in this week's String, some of her colleagues heard her sing, and it started a chain reaction.

"I ended up being invited to sing one song at the Bitter End at somebody else's show. And Kenny Gorka was there, and he's booked the Bitter End for years. He was totally old school: 'Hey kid, how many songs do you have?' I said, 'I've written four.' He said, 'write four more and come back and I'll give you a gig."


That led to gigs in every songwriter room in New York, and a career was born. Folk icon Judy Collins checked her out and signed her to her record label. The press loved her. Now star songwriter Mary Gauthier champions Speace's "absolute mastery" of the art form. Indeed, she brings a fusion of literary verve and vocal nuance that's rare even in a crowded songwriter scene.


But even highly respected artists and creatives battle with self-doubt, and Speace processed her inner existential dialogue with particular grace and poignancy on the title track of her new album Me And The Ghost of Charlemagne, coming out Sept. 6. She tells the story of touring in Europe and winding up in Aachen, Germany where Charlemagne's bones are interred at the cathedral.

"The tolling of the bells from the cathedral kept me up all night," Speace says. "And that's when I started ruminating on 'what am I doing with my life.' And those are the bells from the same cathedral that Charlemagne was probably listening to as he was trying to build his empire. And he died pretty young, and I'm sure he didn't accomplish everything that he wanted to. But here we are, how many hundreds of years later, and we know his name."

There's a lot more here: a song written from a sketch provided by a fan of his upbringing in Abliene, TX, a song depicting the fluorescent-lit details of a deeply human experience in an abortion clinic, and a song by Speace's friend Ben Glover called "Kindness," which she cut in one take as a kind of benediction for her new son.