Most video-store clerks aren't writing music in the shop after hours and falling asleep in their guitar case. But Aly Spaltro isn't most people. She was introduced to the Beatles at age 5 and had more songs to her name as a teenager than most musicians pen in a lifetime. Most of it came by the cover of night, after flipping the closed sign at Bart and Dave's Video Explosion in Brunswick, Maine. The town of 20,000, known for LL Bean and Bowdoin College, was about to get its very own indie darling.
Now 25 and living in New York, Spaltro, aka Lady Lamb, has gained a healthy following. Later this year she'll tour with indie-rock royalty the Decemberists, and she plays MusicfestNW in August. Her music—narrative-heavy and teeming with thoughtful, highly metaphorical lines—resembles that of a more sincere and soulful Courtney Barnett, or a minimalist take on Neko Case. It's pop-rock according to a perfectionist, with melodic hooks, punky jolts and breakdowns that stop on a dime and take the wind out of you.
Lady Lambâs latest record, After, features 12 imaginative and vulnerable songs that are as tender as they are catchy. While musically powerful, it is the writing that nudges After from "recommended" territory to the shortlist for album of the year. One of the songs, âTen,â offers beauty through nostalgia, childhood reflection and meticulous detail.
So easily I forgot
Lifting the sandbox in Arizona and catching
The geckos and keeping them as pets
In a Halloween candy's jack-o-lantern
Their tails would fall clear from their bodies
And we'd shriek and we'd run from them
Playing keep on playing, my sister
She is with me
Even when we are apart
We were wading through the water
Flashlights flickering in the dark
Climbing the laundry post in the tomato garden
Spying on the neighbors swimming
Laughing laughing, that night
In Maine I met my best friend
Talking 'til 7 am
Realizing we were both afraid of the notion
Of having our brains be in the body of a whale
In the ocean deep where the light don't reach
And I loved him instantly
I knew we would keep
Talking talking, on that drive
Up the winding mountain roads
From Hudson to Vermont in the season's first snow
The boys asleep in the back of the car
We were in the front we were singing along
To every word of the songs that helped make us who we are
At the top of our lungs singing singing, my mother
My mother she keeps a journal
Of her childhood memories as they return
My favorite's the story recounting when she saw an eagle with a fish in its mouth
She was ten and she wrote it down
There's a sweetness in us that lives long past the dust on our eyes once our eyes finally close.
Willamette Week: You moved to New York not too long ago. Have you found what you were after there, as a musician?
Aly Spaltro: Yeah, I mean at this point I've made all of the connections I needed to make when I moved there. I met my partner, who I make records with, Nadim. My record label is there. It's just a really good scene there. I think at this point I could move back home to Maine and all would be well but it was a really good decision, I think.
There was a lot of time between your two records and different content and context for each. Did you find yourself listening to different music as you evolved as an artist?
Nope, I wouldn't say so. My influences come from outside music, generally. When I'm writing and recording, I'm not listening to a lot of music, that's more of something I do while on tour. I'm also the type who has trouble finding new bands. I really listen to the same stuff I listened to years ago.
So how are you influenced? Where do the ideas come from?
Most of it just comes from thinking a lot. You know, observing things around me and experiencing things. Watching how people act and hearing what they may say. A lot of the inspiration is fragmented. It comes from all over the place and I try to put many different things together in one song.
I've read that some of your inspiration comes from car rides. Do you go on drives for inspiration's sake? Although I imagine that'd be harder in New York.
Yeah, I don't have a car in New York. But I'm in the car a lot when on tour and I that gives me a lot of time to think.
The lyrics really stand out in your songs. Do they come first and then you build the music around it?
Yeah, the lyrics always come first. And then I go beneath it, according to the lyrics.
With "Ten" being so stripped down, the lyrics get the spotlight that much more. Was that the intention?
Yeah, that was deliberate. Sometimes I'll write something and feel like it really needs to be intimate. With that song I consciously decided to write a wall, and I felt like the lyrics really needed to shine, so I didn't want to put anything into the music beyond verses and guitar.
When did you write "Ten?"
I wrote it a couple of years ago, I guess, and then I worked on it and reedited it up to recording.
Was there something in particular that sparked it?
I honestly don't remember, I think it was just really natural. A nostalgic piece, you know?
Looking at the lyrics, there's kind of a cyclical nature about it that I really like. You reflecting on your mom reflecting and on and on. And that really interesting point where you mention your mom's story without really telling it. Am I on the right track as far as interpreting the song goes?
Yeah, I mean, I think so. I guess I think of the song as five verses. The first four verses are actually from my perspective and my memory and then the final verse is about my mom.
There's a theme of childhood reflection here and I know you bounced around a lot as a kid. Is this a reclamation of childhood of sorts?
It's a bit of a reflection, for sure. Also the theme of that song, along with a lot of the songs on that album, is connecting with people—with my sister, with my friend, with my other friend—memories of moments in my life that were simple but really profound moments being around people that you love.
And these are real characters?
Yeah. My sister, my friend TJ who plays bass in the touring band. Henry, a musician from Burlington.
I think a lot of people, myself included, tell the same stories over and over again in order to relive them, in a futile way. I wonder if that's something a traveling musician experiences, almost as a grounding effect. You know, singing about songs about home while you're on the road.
Yeah, it's comforting, for sure. Because when I sing that song, I'm visualizing the things I'm singing about. So it's a nice, really comforting feeling.
There's a lot of water and oceanic themes in the record too. Is that the Maine in you talking?
I actually had no idea I was doing it, I can't even think of how many times I mentioned it. That must be the Mainer in me. [Laughs.]
The whale part of the song is really interesting. Does it represent anything? Is this just the wondrous side of being a kid?
That was just a real conversation I had with my friend when I met him. We were just talking about that, you know, how scary that would be. I don't know why. But that always stuck with me. That was a long time ago. I don't know, six, seven years ago.
You also mention singing songs at the top of your lungs, and songs so often put us down in a distinct memory or time and place. Are there specific formative songs you're referring to here?
Specifically, that was referencing a drive I was on with Henry, and they were in the back sleeping. If I recall, we were listening to Bright Eyes.
The last line really sticks with me and gets me teary-eyed, just reading it. Where did it come from?
Well, first of all, I think I cried the first few times I sang it, because it's so tender. [Laughs.] But I don't know where that came from. I think I just wanted to bring the song back to a sort of universal place—kinda zoom out. I think with the last line I'm just trying to say there's an energy we have that doesn't die when we die.
With songs like this that are very personal, I know some musicians are protective of them and donât like playing them as much live. Do you like playing âTenâ live?
I really like playing it live. I made a conscious decision to be more personal with this album. There's a vulnerability to it and I'm not afraid of sharing that. So, I really enjoy singing this song and hope that people get something out of it. It's a really special feeling to look out and see people sing along to it. It tickles me. I'm singing about my mom and looking out at people who are singing along with me. It feels like a really sweet homage, you know?
SEE IT: Lady Lamb plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Rathborne, on Monday, April 27. 8 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.