The Ms. Q&A: Singer Amy Speace Doubles Down on What She Believes

The Ms. Q&A: Singer Amy Speace Doubles Down on What She Believes In
(Neilson Hubbard / WMOT)

The day before our scheduled interview, folk singer Amy Speace’s hometown of Nashville, Tennessee was hit by a tornado. She immediately found a way to contribute to disaster relief by providing childcare for survivors and first responders.

Her inclination toward empathy and service isn’t just demonstrated in her community. Her seventh studio album, Me and The Ghost of Charlemagne, is full of conviction, and was released nationwide this fall. 

A few days after the tornado, Speace spoke to me over the phone. The songwriter, 52, has been in the music business for twenty years. Her latest record, which she recorded in the final term of pregnancy with her son, includes characters singing in solidarity with Standing Rock, women’s rights and in pursuit of daily rituals.

The album’s pro-choice song, “Ginger Ale and Lorna Doones” has made the album hard to promote.

“It’s been frustrating not to have the chance to share the video through the usual music circuits,” Speace confided. “But I knew that was a risk.”  

Speace spoke with refreshing authenticity, especially about dreams and success. She had the quality of a grown woman who is confident in who she is—and knows how to invite others into that freedom through music. Her history of mentorship with budding song-writers is extensive, including work with military veterans in Songwriting with Soldiers.

During our interview (which occurred pre-quarantine) I was struck by Speace’s commitment to inclusivity, artistic evolution and her refusal to trade in beliefs for commercial viability. 


Emily Sernaker: What was different about the experience of making this album?  

Amy Speace: Most of the songs were inspired by the overarching question, “What is a dream, and what happens when the dream changes?”

In the midst of writing the record, I got pregnant. And then I recorded it a couple of weeks before I gave birth. So literally, I was nine months pregnant when I was recording. I was really committed to having it recorded before Huck was born, because I didn’t know how being a mother would change my life.

A couple singer-songwriter friends who were also mothers told me, “Do it before you give birth, so that when you’re ready to pop back up into the world, you’ll have a project completed already that will remind you what it is you did before you had your son.”

ES: Can you speak more about having a dream that changes?  

AS: The whole record is centered around the title track, “Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne.” I was on a European tour in Aachen, Germany, staying in this little town where the emperor Charlemagne was born and died. His bones are interred in the cathedral. I was staying in a place that was right next to the cathedral. The bell tolled and kept me up all night. 

At that time, I had just gotten married. I make my living away from home, [which was getting harder]. I was reaching my late forties and kind of thinking, is this all there is? When you start doing anything, you think,” I want to be the best in the world at this. I want to be a master of this thing.”

And what if you’re not? What if you’re just a working-class musician? Where you have a good career but you’re not famous. You’re making a small impact. I was asking myself, is that enough? 

That’s what this song was about. I was saying: Look at the sky. It’s the same sky, whether you’re a king or not. Every song kind of veers towards that … somebody has a certain dream that either isn’t working out, or they get what they wanted [and are disappointed]. How do they respond to that?  

ES: In the album, characters sing about different causes like Standing Rock and women’s rights. How intentional was it to name injustice throughout the album? 

AS: Anybody who is doing creative work and putting it out into the world, that seems to be like a mission statement. We’re choosing to write about the things that are really important to us—and naming them. It’s like, if I die tomorrow here are the things that caught my attention and aroused my curiosity while I was on this planet. I’m putting them down and singing them out loud in front of people, so that somebody else can nod their head and go, me too.

That’s sort of what performing is like. You get people who come up to you and say, “Oh, my gosh, you just put my journal into words.”

And then you feel like: Okay, I’ve done a good thing for the day. 

ES: I understand that you mentor other songwriters, and Judy Collins was instrumental in mentoring you. 

AS: Judy was my first mentor. There are people who are the icons of this world who will pat you on the back and say, “Yes, keep going. What you’re doing is not insignificant.”

So when I have a young woman who comes up to me—and it’s mostly young women who will ask me. “Can I play you a couple of songs. I just need to know, is it worth it for me to do this?”

I give them all of the information I have. I’m happy to welcome them to the table and to invite them into the party. And I warn them, too. Because it’s not an easy life and it’s not a financially lucrative life. Give it a go but, you know, you need health insurance.

ES: What response do you get from singing “Ginger Ale and Lorna Doones?” Do women come up to you?

AS: Yeah, it’s actually been almost overwhelming. I will be singing that song and there’s a moment when everybody knows what it’s about. At first most people are like, “I don’t understand the song,” because it starts with the chorus. But the minute I sing, “Men and women holding signs,” I see people go, “Oh, God, I know what she’s talking about.”

There’s always one or two women I see in the front row who are probably around 50 or 60. Their eyes just well up and a friend holds their hands. I see it happen every single time I play the song. It took me a while to kind of get used to that and to look them in the eye and kind of nod, saying I get it, I know what’s happening to you right now. 

ES: I read that you felt there was an absence of a female narrative talking about this.

AS: Yes, I personally know of two pro-choice songs. Darrell Scott has a song about abortion, and Ben Folds wrote “Brick” a long time ago. And it’s not like I was looking for this song. I just started thinking about the topic and I thought, well, the only way to approach it is to put it in the eyes of the woman as she walks through the process, and just name the things she sees. And it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard that song yet. 

I write and teach in a program called Songwriting With Soldiers. It’s for either active duty and retired veterans and their families and they’re all suffering from PTSD. I’ve found that the only way to write with them is to just witness the truth. Somebody said to me, ‘You can’t really write about the whole war. You can only write about one soldier.’ And that’s how I approached that song. It’s just: Let me just sit behind this woman’s eyes as she walks down the hall. What does she see? 


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ES: When did you know it was connecting with people? 

AS: The first place I played it was a house concert in Atlanta—unbeknownst to me, the hosts of the house concert were board members of the Southeast Planned Parenthood. They asked me immediately to play it again so they could videotape it. Afterwards they said, “We just sent it to our CEO.” I had no idea. So that was the first time I ever performed it in public. Because of their unbelievable support, it gave me some bravery. They told me it was a really important song. And that’s when I said, ‘This has to be on the record.’

ES: I’m really interested in your earlier comment about making a small impact. Can you share more about that opportunity, even without a massive platform?

AS: Everybody wants to be famous. Everybody wants to get a smash record deal. Be the next Adele, Mumford and Sons, and tour the world with Bob Dylan. There’s a lot of musicians and singer-songwriters out there. Only 0.00001 % ever get the major label. What we call the golden ticket. 

On my end of the spectrum, I’m 52-years-old I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I am now in this state of complete gratitude. Maybe what I have is enough. It doesn’t mean I don’t reach for more. But I get people who come up to me and say, ‘Wow, thanks for writing that. That really helps me feel something.’ And the truth is, I did have an abortion when I was much younger. I can write that song because I saw the signs and I experienced it by myself. I will say that to Ms. Magazine. I don’t say it that often because I don’t want to internalize it. And I don’t want people to start making judgments, or feel sorry for me. 

I was able to have my son at 50 years old. I had him when my life was not a train wreck. I’m a recovering alcoholic and I’ve been in recovery for 7 years. When I got pregnant [the first time], I was single. It was not the right time, and I stand by that choice. And rather than stand on stage and say, “I’m a progressive, liberal, feminist, New Yorker who had an abortion, and this is why you should support Planned Parenthood”—which is really what I want to say to people—I just say, “I got a song to share with you.”

Not everybody gets to be Emmylou Harris or Tracy Chapman. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue the creative arts because fame didn’t chase us. Maybe we have something else to do. That’s a meditative practice. That’s what I tell myself on a good day. 

ES: The theme of kindness comes up in the record as a counter to some of the problems in the world. Why was that an important anchor? 

AS: I think it’s the greatest compliment you can give somebody. I was married before and I remember asking my ex-husband—who I’m really good friends with—why he loved me. I remember all the things that he said, which were all lovely. But I really wanted him to say you’re kind. When Jamie and I got together, I didn’t ask him. But around the time we decided we would get married, he said, ‘You’re one of the kindest of people I know.’ I just burst into tears because it was something that I’d always wanted to hear and didn’t believe about myself. 

I’m drawn to truly kind people. I don’t always consider myself one — it’s definitely a practice. I try to surround myself by those people so that I can learn how I’d like to be. I want my son to be kind.  

ES: Are there other things you hope for your son? 

AS: Yes, I want him to be of service. I don’t care what he’s good at and what he’s not good at. But my husband and I both want to instill a sense that it’s important to be of service to other people. 

When there’s a tornado, no one’s asking who you voted for in the last election…or what your stance is on abortion…or if you’re Christian or atheist or Jewish. No one cares. They’re just trying to fix a house. Yesterday, I was with neighbors who were helping each other. I heard one say, “This restores my faith in humanity.’ I hate that it takes a natural disaster to see this, but sometimes that’s what it takes. And kindness is at the center of it.


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About

Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.