We’ve had our eyes and ears on Aly Spaltro, the self-taught musician behind Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, since she was just heading for pastures outside of her Maine home. Now, she’s finally released her studio debut in the form of Ripely Pine, a 12-track collection that met our exceptions and left them behind in a trail of Top-Star dust. Her poetic and honest lyrics, delivered with raw emotionalism, are simply captivating, especially coming from such a young artist. That’s to say nothing of how she can, as our own Alex Young puts it, make a guitar be “everything a guitar wants to be.”
On the day her album dropped on Ba Da Bing Records, just a few days prior to her big record release show, I called up Lady Lamb at her Brooklyn apartment. We chatted about what went into the album, from expanding the sound on early demos, to arranging instruments she doesn’t play, to how an intercontinental childhood impacted the songs. We also delved into her affections for Cher and pie.
You’ve been sitting with this material for at least three or four years, probably more, now. Was Mammoth Swoon always meant to be the precursor to Ripely Pine? So many of the songs on the debut are really from there.
Mammoth Swoon was actually kind of an accident. Initially, I made that specifically for Portland, Maine, for when I moved out of Maine to New York and held a “Farewell, For Now” Lady Lamb show. Up to that point, a lot of songs that are on Mammoth Swoon had not existed as any recordings; they were only random, scattered pieces. So I put that together as a way for my Portland fans to have the content of what they were seeing performed live when I left Maine.
Up to that point, Portland – and it still is my most loyal fan base today, it’s my sort of hometown fan base, so I just really wanted them to have the songs they were hearing live. By that time, I really didn’t have proper recordings of most of the songs. Some of them I considered to be finished bedroom recordings, but a lot of them were honestly mish-mashed radio recordings or live recordings; just any version that existed as an MP3 that I could put on this CD. So I always considered it as a demo album, just something that people could sit tight with. And something that I could easily distribute at shows.
I love the version of “Regarding Ascending the Stairs” that’s on Mammoth Swoon because of that little spoken word bit with you doing laundry in your basement and your fingers are freezing, and you can hear the dryer going behind you. It kind of feels like you wrote that song right in that moment. Is that true?
I actually had written it about three or four hours before that in my living room. When I realized it was going to be too loud to record there later that night, I decided to move to the basement and record it, right next to a washing machine.
On the studio version, there’s this sound of someone opening a door and walking into a room, and I’m assuming you sitting in a chair, picking up a banjo and playing it. Was there any reason why you decided to keep the home recording background noise?
There were two reasons just in terms of the tracklisting on the record. One reason was that I wanted the song to directly follow “Bird Balloons”, which really is such an aggressive song. Not in a bad way, just sonically it’s so aggressive and there’s a lot going on and it’s overwhelming. So those footsteps were A) a good way to reset the listener for the next song without jumping right into something new. I thought that would be a really helpful thing on the ear to have a minute to reset there. Also, I wanted it to be very clear that it was a live recording. The noises in the beginning were just my way of saying, “This is me walking into a room, picking up the banjo, and this is me playing the song,” and how it is an in-real-time track, not something that was pieced together on a computer.
Normally when I hear demo release like Mammoth Swoon and then hear those songs later on a studio release, there are some lyrical or constructive changes. I don’t hear too many of those changes between the demo and the studio record. Am I just missing them?
No, you’re right, there’s nothing that’s really changed because all of the songs on the record have been finished forever. Some warranted more instrumentation because they were asking for it, and they had the potential to have it. Every song that you hear on Ripely Pine, the spine of the song is exactly how it always was initially written.
That’s pretty incredible! I’m not sure that I have ever seen a musician be that confident in the first take of a song and to let it last that long.
Well, I suppose it has to deal with performing solo for years and not feeling within myself that I was lacking anything. I’ve been performing solo for so many years, and I’ve never once felt like, “Oh God, I need a band. This doesn’t feel right,” or, “I feel naked up here.” I’m perfectly okay and confident in playing by myself, which makes the songs feel more completed. Definitively, sonically they could have more going on, so I made space for those changes during recording. One of my favorite things to do with music is to see the potential for tempo changes and building and taking away sounds with new dynamics. Any fan that knows the songs as I play them is only going to be surprised by arrangements, and they’re never gonna be like, “Oh weird, she changed the tempo. This line of lyric is switched around.”
I think that might end up playing in your benefit, because when I do hear those changes I always pull out for a second.
I agree, I’m the same way.
How much was the album’s producer, Nadim Issa, involved with adding that extra instrumentation and flushing those sounds out?
For the entire year, he and I worked together every single day. There was never a time when he worked on stuff without me or I worked without him. We were definitely a partnership in terms of being in the studio actively together. What ended up happening was that we were so on-point in working together that there was no disconnect with the ideas we both had for the finished product. For example, when it came to picking the right tracks for vocals or guitar or whatever, we both had the exact same idea. There wasn’t a single disagreement, which some people find hard to believe. We were finishing each other’s thoughts on a daily basis, even several times within a 15-minute period. It was funny at times.
So, the majority of the arrangements were made me, and Nadim had a beautiful way of knowing what was too much or maybe not the right take emotionally. It was all about making decisions based on feeling and energy and heart rather than anything else. That’s why I feel that the final product is very honest and the purest representation of the songs and who I am. I can get behind it 100% because I know that no decision was made out of artifice, it was really sincere. He is the perfect partner, and we’re basically two peas on this record. I don’t know if I can ever duplicate that exact experience, so I got very, very lucky.
Would you potentially go back to him for the next record because of that?
Absolutely. In a heart beat.
I know that you’re a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, which I think is extremely impressive as someone who can barely bang a tambourine on time (Editors note: this was exaggeration). You did the arrangements on this record, but you don’t play all of these instruments. Was that difficult for you, and how do you do that?
It’s actually pretty easy because I arranged a lot of it on guitar or using a MIDI keyboard, so I knew what sounds I wanted without actually playing the exact instrument. For the songs “Mezzanine” and “Rooftop” on the finished record, I used almost to a tee the exact same arrangement that I put together in my apartment prior to working with Nadim. Before I went into the studio, I went through a stint where I was convinced that I could make the record all on my own in my apartment just using a computer, so that’s how I prepared everything. All I needed to do was upgrade my equipment and try to find players to come in and play the brass sections over my MIDI tracks.
Another example, the whole quartet on “You Are the Apple”, with the acceptation of the sort of Philip Glass-y, arpeggi-ed quartet at the end – Nadim wrote that part – but every other part was written with a electric guitar in the studio while dinking around and playing the song over and over again on a loop to see what sounded good, writing it on guitar, and then transcribing it to charts.
You teach yourself a lot of instruments in order to expand your repertoire. What was the last instrument that you picked by yourself?
The last thing that I picked up that I want to be good at is bass. On the album, I play the bass on three songs, and all of the other bass parts are played by my friend Henry Jameson, who came down to New York from Portland. But “Rooftop”, “Mezzanine” and “Regarding Ascending the Stairs”, that’s all me on bass. It’s something that I really want to get better at and have the right touch for. It’s certainly different than playing guitar, so I’ve been practicing it a lot lately to get that touch.
I looked through some of your journal pages that you posted on your website, and some of them include German lyrics. You lived in Germany for awhile. Have you ever thought about putting out a song in German?
It is something I’ve thought about. Unfortunately, I haven’t lived in Germany for 9 years now, so I haven’t spoken the language actively for a while. It’s really scary how quickly you lose a language if you’re not using it. It comes back to me in spurts, especially if I’m watching a German movie or hear a German on the street. At this point, I have a really difficult time answering people in German, so if someone were talking to me, I would just freeze. It is definitely a daydream of mine to eventually do a German song. In fact, the song that you see on the website, those lyrics are the song I’d want to do. It’s a really early song, and I’m really interested in rerecording that. I just have to brush up on it. But it’s definitely also a dream of mine to be good enough at German by the time I go to Germany again to play that I could speak German from the stage. That would be really exciting for me.
You’ve moved around a lot in your life – Germany, Maine, out west, New York now – especially because you’re only 23. How do you think your traveling history affects your music?
I’ve given that some thought, and I don’t know that it’s actually affected the music. I think it affects touring for sure though, but definitely in a good way. Moving every three years or so when I was growing up forced me to adapt quickly, so I would get to a new place and I would instantly put all my things in a box in my new room. And it wasn’t too hard for me to settle in and make friends, because I would just be like, “Op, okay. You live here now, so live here now.” To some degree obviously, because I mean I was still a little kid, it was still emotional for me. But it was pretty easy for me to pick up and leave a place, and I’ve found that as an adult that through touring that whole thing has manifested in really positive ways and I can really easily adapt on tour. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate where I am. I feel like I really experience each place to the fullest and, at the same time, reset myself for the next place.
You took a deliberately slow approach to building your fan base and expanding your market, which started in Maine and moved slowly down to Boston, and then New York. How do you feel that process benefited you?
It certainly has done nothing but benefit me because this is the pace that I feel comfortable at. The timeliness was very deliberate in moving from place to place and eventually getting a record deal. I’m in no rush, I’m trying to enjoy myself and not get caught up in what I fear a lot of bands get caught up in, like worrying about which blogs will cover me or whatever. That’s all very flattering, but it’s surely not my main goal. The slow-going pace is really my way of trying for longevity because I don’t want to be burnt out. I want to be respected, be taken seriously and appreciated, which definitely is associated with how you present yourself. I don’t feel desperate to force people to listen to me. I am perfectly okay with people getting to know me at their own pace and that’s how I feel most comfortable.
Well it’s funny, because during my research I came across a post at UGHH.com, Underground Hip-Hop.com. I don’t think that anyone could mistake you for a hip-hop artists, but they were advertising and linking to Ripely Pine. And there was this one comment from a dude from Copenhagen, Denmark. And he said, “This sounds amazing. Nothing to do with hip-hop whatsoever, but she’s got a fantastic sound. Buying this!”
For someone who really took your time on purpose, what’s it like to just suddenly have this guy from Copenhagen find you on a hip-hop website, of all things?
That’s amazing! That’s so cool. [Laughs]. Wow, I love that. Honestly, I’m the type of person who takes awhile to find bands that I like. I’m not often scouring the Internet for new music. I’m personally the type of music listener who really savors the things that I love and then stumble upon something and not realize I did and fall in love with it. I really don’t see anything wrong with that approach. I think that there’s value in sort of standing back a little. And that does not mean I’m not one for promoting myself or being strategic, it just has to do with not being overly in your face all of the time and being overexposed too soon.
That was just a funny coincidence! The first song I did was actually how I met [Nadim] because he produced it: “All I Really Want to Do”, which is technically a Bob Dylan song, but I performed the arrangement that Cher did. And I must be a little naive because I know and appreciate Dylan, but I didn’t actually know that was a Dylan song initially. But yeah, one day one of my good friends, Shervin Lainez, who’s a photographer in New York, we were driving and that song came up on his iPod. And he said, “Oh I really think you should cover this,” and that’s where that came from.
The same thing happened with “Believe”, it was actually Shervin and I again. We were walking in the rain and for some reason we were singing “Believe”, and I was trying to imitate her voice, lovingly mocking it. And Shervin was like, “These lyrics are actually really sad. You should slow it down.” And we were roommates at the time, so he was like, “Here’s a challenge: When we get home, go to your room and record it, slow it down.” And so I did. Brought it back out to him in an hour or two, and he really liked it, so I put it out on the Internet. So those covers are just coincidences, they aren’t a true odes to Cher, even though I do love her. Actually, I will probably go back into the studio where I made the new record and record “Believe” properly and release it.
That’s funny, I actually just worked with Shervin on a Cover Story about Jim James.
Oh, that’s cool! He’s my best friend, he’s done all my press photos.
Yeah, you’ve got these creepy sort of creepy press photos of like an American McGee’s Alice-version of Alice in Wonderland eating pies. Why those photos?
I came up with that idea probably a year and a half ago while I was living with Shervin. We would do shoots just when the mood struck, so a lot of the photos that are now press we did at three in the morning and with no props, just sort of inspired to do them. The pie thing stemmed from this running joke with us where I am a pie hound. I have this weird ritual with myself that’s kinda taken out of Parks and Rec where there’s this thing called “treat yourself day”. So on any rainy day, I would get my umbrella and walk like a mile from my apartment to a pie place, and buy myself a pie and coffee and sit and eat it really slowly. From that, Shervin and I had an ongoing joke where he’d text asking where I was and I’d say “pie place” and he’d just say “typical.”
During that period, I had the idea that it’d be really funny to take press photos while I was having my own pie eating contest. The idea was to have a 30-second promotion video for the record of me going to town on a pie by myself with a really tight shot, so it would look like I was at a big pie eating contest with other people, but it was just me eating all the pies. And I decided to sort of run with the pie theme, so for my first music video it’s the same sort of idea there. I kidnap my friends wearing a full fencing costume and force them to have a pie eating contest.