Photos by Shervin Lainez.
Two weeks ago I met up with Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (Aly Spaltro) for coffee in Brooklyn to talk about her debut record Ripely Pine, which is out now on Ba Da Bing. Having listened to it, I can tell you right now that you’re going to want to grab a copy. (I can also tell you that you’re going to want to catch her live show @ Black Cat tonight) Apart from talking about the record, we chatted about Aly’s musical background, her ’93 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (RIP), and (perhaps most importantly) SO MANY DESSERTS. So learn all about that here, and when you’re done, find Lady Lamb the Beekeeper on Facebook and Twitter to stay afloat of all the haps. HERE WE GO:
So you’ve been doing this about five years, yeah? When was the moment that you decided that music was it for you?
It seemed to happen out of nowhere, honestly. The catalyst, though, was that I’d just graduated from high school, and I was enrolled to go to school in Chicago but immediately deferred because I wanted to take a year off and go to Guatemala; I did that a couple of times in high school and wanted to spend a full year there. So that was my plan, and I just didn’t plan for it very well; it was so expensive, and at the last minute it fell through financially. So I was sort of faced with being at home in Maine for a year, and I had nothing to do. I mean, I didn’t even have a job because my plans had been so different from that. So I actually started working pretty immediately at this independent DVD rental store in my hometown that I’d been renting at for years and really loved. And then that’s how I started playing music.
It’s hard looking back to pinpoint exactly when or why, but I did a lot of spoken word poetry in high school and was into writing, so I already had all these potential lyrics, and it was sort of this idea I had to spend the year challenging myself to learn an instrument and start singing out of nowhere, putting the words to music. The video store I worked in happened to be in a basement, so I had the perfect place to practice and learn, and that’s how that started. Then when it was time to go to school, I was too invested; I’d been spending a year on it, and it wasn’t like a hobby, it was more like, “This is what I’m doing forever, and I’m not going to college now.” It wasn’t even a question, it was just something I needed to do.
Right. Well, and I mean, if you’ve got such a strong feeling about something and know that it’s what you want to do, I don’t know that college would necessarily help you at that point, anyway, as far as a creative endeavor would be concerned. That’s cool, though! Now, how long have you been living here?
I guess technically April will be two years. Two Aprils ago right after SXSW, it was this weird thing where the timing was such that I played SX for the first time and my car broke down; I was toying with the idea of moving to Boston first, because I’d sort of built a support group there by playing a lot. But then my car broke down (and it was winter), and I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that…” No offense to Boston, but I didn’t really feel like being there without a car; I’d planned to live with friends and have that as my home base, and then keep traveling and touring, but I was like, “What the hell? Without a car I can’t do that.”
I have a lot of really dear friends who’ve ended up here, like friends from my childhood and all different sorts of people, so I had a support group here, too, and I just figured it was good timing. I said, “Okay, I know I could do music in New York for a while without a car, maybe even make a little money (who knows) but I’ll see.” So I got a sublet for two months starting in April, and right after Texas I moved here. But before Texas I was between here, Boston and Maine, playing shows and living out of my car. And I am so bummed about my car; I don’t consider myself to be a very materialistic person, but I loved my car. My car was a ’93 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, and it was so sexy; it was white, just this gigantic boat, and it was not a thing that a twenty-year-old girl should be driving! I felt so good in my car!
Totally! And just having the freedom to kind of go when you want to go…not that you WOULD necessarily go anyplace, but just knowing that you COULD.
Oh I know, and I still feel that way even though I don’t have a car now. Honestly, even just the feeling of pulling up to a venue to unload, and the venue people coming out and I’m in my Cadillac, like, “‘Sup?” (Laughs)
Oh, I’m sure that was way more glamorous than rolling up off the subway or whatever.
But then of course I came to find out that I was conned; I’d only had the car for a year, and it was like the frame was completely rotted. They’d sold me a bad car, and that was why.
That’s so shitty! At least you have the memories, though. Now, did you find this was a hard scene to break into at first? I know you said you had a support group in NYC, but…
It was pretty simple. I had some really good help; for instance, my first Brooklyn show was a phenomenal opportunity, because it was the opening of the Rock Shop with tUnE-yArDs and Sharon Van Etten. It just so happened that the booker (this guy Skippy who now lives in Texas) was a fan, and he put me on this bill, which was just the most amazing way to start playing in New York. Sharon Van Etten’s manager and label person is now my label, and he saw me that night, so two and a half years later I’m on that label.
I don’t know how I did it; I just played a lot of shows and was around, was just really active and really working, so I didn’t find it to be a challenge. Before I moved to New York, though, I was like, “Okay, Aly, you’ve got to grow some thick skin. Everyone’s going to literally spit on you…New York’s a tough place, man.” So then when I moved here, I found out that pretty much everyone is from the Midwest and is nice, you know what I mean? Everyone is from somewhere else, and it’s not the way that I thought it would be.
Yeah, it’s funny that you say that; you would think New York would be that way and not necessarily other places, but I was talking to a band who told me they love to play shows here, but not in Nashville, because it’s a very critical, competitive-feeling scene to outsiders, apparently.
I got that from Nashville. But it’s actually not that bad. I’ve found New York to be a very welcoming, supportive place. Like the people coming to shows are there to support, and then they bring their friends the next time. You know, I’m still playing modest shows, but I can’t complain; I love the shows and where I play, and I feel at home, I feel really good about being here.
That’s great! Now, when you were a kid…you’re dad’s in the Air Force, right? So I’m sure you moved around a lot…
Yeah, every three years.
Did you find that to be difficult?
No. Or…yes and no.
Well, three years is kind of a solid bit of time; my mom was an army brat, so they moved around much more frequently than that.
Right, so was my mom. I mean, it was tough, but it also taught me to be very adaptable, which is actually kind of scary, because it became a thing where my coping mechanism for moving was sort of shutting off; you knew you had to leave, and you knew there was nothing you could do about it. So you’d say goodbye to your friends, but there was nothing you could do. I literally moved from Las Vegas to Germany; I mean, what could I do? I had my box of things, and would have to go decorate my room in this new place. I’m actually grateful for that lifestyle, though, because it made me adaptable to traveling a lot and touring. Not that I feel like it’s “Sayonara!” to every place I go, and don’t think about it ever again, but I’m okay with moving to the next place and situating for the time I’m there, even if it’s just for a day.
Yeah, I’m sure it’s been really useful to have that mindset. Now, I was watching an interview with you from 2010 or something, and you’d mentioned that at first you hadn’t planned on necessarily pursuing the performance aspect of a musical career, because you were kind of content with just making music for yourself. When did you decide you were going to do your first live show?
Well, I spent a good month on my own just not playing shows, doing recording and things, and I was just very nervous; I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was really fulfilled by making recordings, but I was even too scared to share them. But I finally shared them with my boss at the video store (who’s a dear friend of mine and is still a huge supporter) and he was so encouraging; he said, “These are a little weird…” (because they were; I didn’t know how to play instruments, so they were very experimental and strange), and he said, “They’re a little heavy-handed, but keep trying, you’re doing great.” So then from there it happened slowly.
As a side-note, I was randomly living with my dad for a year after he retired from the Air Force; we were roommates, kind of like two pals living together, and he’s a musician, so he sort of encouraged me to do an open mic down the street in the town we where we were living. So I did that, and there were about six people there (basically just the musicians) since it was the dead of winter; after a couple of open mics, one of the musicians (who was from Brunswick) booked he and I a show at this tea house in Brunswick, and he said, “You have a month to get ready. You’re doing this.” And so I did, and it kind of went from there.
That’s awesome! So were you a very musical kid, then, if your dad plays music, too?
Not as far as playing. My dad tried to get me to play (he plays lead guitar, bass, drums…lots of things) but I was too stubborn, you know, that thing of rebelling against your parents. I even rebelled against the music that was in my household, which now I love! Like CCR and Journey…I love that shit now. But it was a thing where it was like, “No, dad, I’m going to learn by myself!” So I’d bang on his guitars and that’s it. And because I was too stubborn, I just thought, “This is boring!” because I didn’t know any chords, and so I just never learned it until I was an adult. But there was always a ton of music in my house; my dad had a music nook with guitars and electronic drum sets you could plug into headphones. He would record records, and do what I started doing, which was just layering tons of things without singing, and just making records for his family and friends to listen to. So I think that definitely played a part in how everything turned out.
It is really funny how you kind of reject those things your family does; my dad’s side of the family is super into horses, but my sister and I refused to learn to ride. Anyway, you’ve got a record coming out on the 19th, yeah? If you had to sum up the vibe or the theme, would you be able to do that? If you can’t it’s fine…
That’s always a tough thing, but if I had to put a theme on there I’d say that it’s really palpable, pulpy songs of longing. Even the title, Ripely Pine…I made it up; ripely’s not a real adverb, but to pine for something ripely, you know? So it’s really that, but it progresses from my voice on the record being really angry about not having what I want, and then sort of settling into realizing (lyrically, overall) that what I thought I wanted I could have given myself, that you don’t need to seek things from people and you have the power to give yourself what you think you need from people. Musically it’s very “me” throughout, but the songs I treated separately (structurally and instrumentally); some of them have weird arrangements I made for tuba and horns and strings and things, and some are more solo and stripped down, depending on what I felt the song really wanted. They’re very diverse in that way, but thematically and sonically, they’re very “me” at certain levels.
So do you think that that will be difficult to translate live?
Yeah, for the release shows (I’m just doing three what I would consider “hometown” shows, which are in Boston, Portland and New York), those are going to be with a full band playing the record arrangements; I’m still working out how to actually orchestrate that, especially just with the small logistics of getting people on and off the stage without too much time in-between and choreographing how to make it go smoothly…that kind of thing.
But honestly, I don’t feel finished with playing solo; the record is so full, and I think that’s the way the songs begged to be, definitively, but I’m so happy to still tour solo. And I really feel confident that my solo performance still carries, that people aren’t going to be outraged that the record is full and I’m alone. I’m confident that it will be okay to have the two be so different and still get the same point across, because I feel really confidently that the record arrangements are really earnest, that the approach was to make them as raw and energetic and honest solo, and that that sort of translates. So I want to keep playing alone until I can have a band and make that really feasible and realistic down the line. But for a while, I’m okay with it.
That’s cool, because not everyone is super confident being up there all by themselves. So then what do you think was maybe the biggest challenge, or even the easiest thing, about the writing and/or recording process, if there is even one to speak of in the first place?
Honestly, everything was a challenge! (Laughs) It was very difficult. The reason why it was so difficult is that a lot of these songs have existed for a few years, and this was me finally defining them and saying, “Okay, this is what they are, this is their full potential.” I think it took me so long to make it because I was afraid of how to do it; I know these songs so well on their own that trying to wrap my head around hearing them with more things was impossible. But it was actually physically painful for me to try and figure out, because it was like, “I know that they want more, I just don’t know what they want, and I don’t know how to start.” So I was actually so afraid that I would put it off, and I would make excuses for myself…I would be like, “Yeah, I’ll make a record soon, but I don’t have the money…” and I had all these excuses, but really it was just that I didn’t know how to treat the songs, and I wanted it to be right; I didn’t want to hurt them, and I wanted to respect them.
So I finally got to a point where I started to actively figure out how to do that, and it took a lot of trial and error (a lot of ruining the song) to make it right. My producer Nadine was amazing in that we were both on the same page; we both had the same instincts about something being wrong, even if we couldn’t initially pinpoint why. We recorded this whole record based on that, based on the feelings we got. So it was a challenge just messing up the music to find out how to make it work, and that took a year, you know? It took a whole year of figuring out what the songs wanted, and learning how to take your ego out of it, learning how to step back and let the song speak and tell me what it’s asking for.
Yeah, I totally get how difficult that is. For myself with writing…it’s just really hard to take that step back. And it’s even harder to know when you’re done! You definitely get a feeling when it actually is done, but it’s just getting to that point that can be agonizing.
Yeah, there’s a feeling, but with this, too, it was that whole scary thing of questioning yourself at the very end, like, “IS it done?” and just having to be like, “Okay, it is. There’s nothing more we can do or I’m going to butcher this. It’s done.”
Well, I was listening to it and it sounds done to me!
So how do you end up writing things? Do you have to carve out a space in the day for it, or is it much more organic than that, like just when the mood strikes you?
It’s only really when the mood strikes; there’ve been instances where I get the urge to play music and I try to write, and it’s just not happening. But when it happens, it happens pretty quickly. That’s why the record process was so different, because I’ve never spent more than more than a day on completing the recording or writing of a song, and I’ve made dozens and dozens that way. And in a lot of instances, a song has been written or recorded in an hour; there’s a song of mine that has a video called “Between Two Trees,” and that song was recorded in forty-five minutes, start-to-finish done. So it’s always very in the moment for me, and when I find that it’s just not happening, then I stop.
Right. Well so what do you do when you’re not making all this music? I know that’s kind of a broad / difficult question, but…
Well, I feel like I’ve been pretty consistently busy for the year; I just came off a tour, and I’ve had a couple of months to really prepare for this record, which has been priceless. Not a lot of bands have time before the record comes out where they have nothing, and where they just get to work at their own pace on what they need to get done before it comes out. So I’m kind of in that zone right now. I do kind of boring things…I really love to go on really long walks, and it’s kind of a hobby of mine. Like, in New York, I love exploring different parts of the city, going to the park and getting lost in it, taking really long routes to get to places if I have time, and really just listening to music, getting a coffee, bundling up if I have to. I also write lyrics in my head, so that can be pretty productive at times, but mostly I’m just looking for cake; that’s what I’ll do, honestly, is be like, “Today I want to find a pie,” and that will be the final conclusion of the walk. (Laughs)
No, I was reading an email interview with you where you were asked to tell what your mom would say about you if asked, and one of the things was that you really like good barbecue and pie. What’s your favorite kind of pie? It’s so hard to pick, right?!
It’s SO hard to pick, but I really love pecan pie.
Oh my god, me too!
With a cup of coffee, no sugar…god I can’t even talk about it. The other day I really felt like having a cheesecake, so I looked up the best cheesecake in New York, and I went uptown to 77th or 78th, I think, to this bakery called Lady M; I just got the most decadent cheesecake I’ve ever had in my life, and then this other slice (which was a crepe cake) that was made up of the thinnest crepes I’ve ever seen, layered beautifully and delicately (like, twenty layers of them) with pastry creme in-between each layer. It was the most stunning thing I’ve ever looked at. There’s also a really good (now we’re just talking about cake) fried cheesecake I get around here, and it’s like, melted inside.
Oh, whoa. Where do you get it from?
Chip Shop. It’s on 5th Ave at 6th Street, and it’s a British fish ‘n chips place that does things like fried Reese’s cups and Snickers. It’s amazing. But yeah, I really like to go on long walks, and I’m also really into movies; I watch a lot of movies.
So what’s the best one you’ve seen recently?
The best movie I saw recently was…do you know the performance artist Marina Abramović? Her documentary is called Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, and it’s about the time when she did her big thing at MoMA called The Artist Is Present, where people could sit across from her. It’s the most amazing thing, and I don’t even know how to explain it; even if you don’t know about Marina Abramović, it’s still a beautiful, beautiful documentary. I highly recommend it.
I’ll have to check it out. And so are you into any specific genre, then, with the movies you watch?
I’m really into documentaries. The other night I watched Man on Wire for the first time…do you know about that one? It’s amazing, it’s on Netflix. It’s this French guy in the ’70s who’s a tightrope walker, and he and his friends rigged a tightrope between the two Twin Towers and walked across; the documentary is about how they made that happen.
That’s nuts! I’ll have to watch that one, too. Okay, now, obviously this is what you want to do as a career, but let’s pretend for a minute that music doesn’t exist, like we don’t even have any concept of it; what would your Plan B be?
Oh, god! (Laughs) We’d be walking around like, “Why am I so sad? I can’t pinpoint it!” I’ve always been really into art, and I wanted to be a film editor; that’s what I wanted I wanted to go to school for, was analog photography and film editing. So I’d probably end up doing something with movies, but also for some reason my other passion is interior decorating, so that would be the other thing. I’m big into decorating; I’ve painted every place I’ve lived in, wallpapered my room…
That’s really cool! Now, would you be able to give anyone advice who’s just starting out musically?
The two things that were the biggest for my development, and most necessary, I think (and this is going to sound so cliche), was, first of all, to practice. I think the only way I was able to learn an instrument was by fully committing myself. I mean, I was busy, I had a job, but I found the time; if you really want to do it, you’ll find the time. The only way that it was possible for me to get out of my room and do anything was just by being determined, and it takes a ton of patience, especially if you’re going to teach yourself, but it’s possible; I’m completely self-taught, I’ve never taken a lesson, and I learned by practicing tabs and chords endlessly.
The real other thing (I think) is that a lot of times artists get really anxious about how they’re going to be received, and they become really concerned with image, like, “I need to have a gimmick, have something that stands out about me.” The thing that I’ve found, personally, is that the only thing that’s worked for me is just being myself, and not getting caught up in the image and what you think the audience wants from you. I really think that honest performance and being earnest really comes through, and that is so important in people caring about what you’re doing. I’ve seen bands that I can instantly tell are confused; as they’re performing they’re confused about their point and their message, and that is a hard thing for me to connect to. But even if I don’t like an artist’s voice or they mess up or something, if they’re coming from a really honest place I’m in love; it’s so easy for me to connect with them. So another cliche sentence besides “Practice makes perfect,” is “Just be yourself.” (Laughs)
But it’s true, though!
Especially in New York; I think it’s so easy to get caught up in what you think you need to be doing.
Yeah, I think it’s especially important now, because people get so pigeonholed these days.
Yeah, and I think that if you look at people who’ve had really long-lasting careers, they have an identity, and it’s a very straightforward identity. It’s like, they’re doing what they’re doing and are very individual, but not in an overly strange or quirky way.
Right, not in a forced way.
Not in a forced way; in an honest way.
Exactly. Okay, last question: if you had to give yourself a motto, what would it be? Like a mission statement of sorts, I guess. Can you think of one?
That’s tough. I know what I want to say, but I don’t have a phrase for it. My whole approach is taking your time. If an opportunity comes up for me and it’s not the right time, I don’t take it; just politely decline and go back to it when the time is right. I feel like that’s really helpful to longevity. My mantra is really longevity, and for me, anything that points to being able to do this for a very long time, I make the choice for that. I’m comfortable with a slow pace and a slow burn, which is why it’s taken me five years to make my first studio record. I feel like the timing of it is perfect for me, and again, living in New York and being in any music scene, it’s easy to want to hustle and get to someplace, like, “Oh, I need to be the band of the week on this blog…” you know, that’s all fine, but I’m just not interested in that as the main goal; my whole thing is wanting to do this for as long as I want to do it, which is (I feel) a very long time. As much as I can control it, I want it to be a slow burn. That sticks with people longer.
Well, we certainly hope it’s a slow burn, too. Remember to grab a copy of Ripely Pine, and catch Lady Lamb the Beekeeper live at the Black Cat tonight.