Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (aka Aly Spaltro) has been quietly minding her apiary in past years, recording LPs on her eight-track in New England apartments. After a stint at SXSW contributed to her opening for Beirut, this self-taught singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist started to garner more well-deserved attention. Though she hasn’t had any formal vocal training, she displays a wide range of vocal capabilities throughout her five recordings and copious live shows. Her latest album, Mammoth Swoon, is available now via bandcamp and iTunes. Here, she opens up about lisping, paper mammoths and the difficulties of recording with a parakeet in the house.
The Rumpus: I’m really into bees, so I was excited to see that you had “beekeeper” in your name. How did you come up with that moniker?
Aly Spaltro: When I started making music three years ago, I wasn’t interested in performing, just making recordings, and I was pretty secretive about it. So I was making these recordings and I wanted to put a different name on the CD; I didn’t want my name. At the same time, I was keeping a journal by my bed, and I was trying to train myself to write down my dreams as I was sleeping. I would turn over and write in my journal and then fall back asleep. I would also train myself to write lyrics down too in the dark, and “Lady Lamb the Beekeeper” was written in really bad cursive, really messy cursive when I woke up one day. It was right around the time I was looking to come up with a moniker for my recordings, so it was perfect timing. It fit, and I couldn’t argue with it. And I had no recollection where it came from, really, but it was right there.
Rumpus: I read that you spent some time in Germany and were really affected by it. Can you tell me more about that?
Spaltro: We lived in this really beautiful village and I was really lucky because we were able to do a lot of traveling because every country was so accessible from where we were. But it was also around the time period when I was really into learning about the Holocaust and World War II and things like that, so it was just extra special and interesting to be reading about that time period or see a movie about it, and then sit outside and be in Europe and look around at all the architecture and everything and just be like, ‘I wonder who lived there in the forties. I wonder what that was like.’ So that was when my imagination first started to run away with me. I got really inspired. I started writing short stories and poetry and things like that.
Rumpus: I detected a lot of literary influences on the album and was wondering who your favorite writers were.
Spaltro: I really like Murakami; I’ve been reading a lot of his work lately. I really like a lot of spoken word poetry, some of the beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. I like some of Dave Eggers’ stuff–I don’t really like his autobiography, but he has a collection of short stories called How We Are Hungry that I’ve read a few times. I like Tom Robbins. So those are my top favorite authors right now.
Rumpus: I imagined you reading a lot of the modern fairy tale writers like Kelly Link and Aimee Bender. There’s a certain fairy tale quality to your lyrics, the whole surrealism.
Spaltro: I think it’s because I really enjoy reading books that are very colorful and metaphorical, but then I also draw a lot on my dreams for some of my material, so I think that sneaks in. I like being really descriptive in my songwriting, and also I like being a little fantastical with images from dreams I’ve had, flipping them into songs that might be dipping into reality.
Rumpus: Where did the title Mammoth Swoon come from?
Spaltro: You know, I don’t really know. I really love the word swoon. I over-use it, I think. I think it’s a really nice word, and I don’t even know why. I had a cutout of this mammoth–like the animal–and I would carry it with me to shows and put it next to my old CDs before Mammoth Swoon, and it was getting all ratty and gross because I wasn’t taking care of it. It was just this paper cutout. I think the tusks had fallen off at some point, but I kept it and I really like it. And so I was just looking at it one day and I was thinking about the word “swoon.”
Sorry, this is kind of a long story, but I have a bit of a lisp, and people don’t believe me, they’d be like ‘you don’t have a lisp!’ So I’d slow down my speech for them so I could see, and I would say my s’s very slowly for people, and I would say “swim, swam, swoon, swan.” Like I would say those four words really slowly so they could see I had the lisp. So I decided that would be the title, but I wanted it to be Mammoth Swoon ’cause I like the way those words sound together, and I thought of it as not mammoth-the-animal, but mammoth-large, like to swoon in a big way. That’s the long answer to that.
Rumpus: I wondered about songs like “Up In the Rafters” and “Aubergine” because they seemed like they’d be very difficult vocally.
Spaltro: Somehow they’re not hard for me. “Up in the Rafters” takes a little bit of extra concentration because it’s a cappella, so I’m more aware, I think, of the way my voice is acting as an instrument so I’m more conscious of trying to keep it as smooth as I can and trying to keep the beat of the song. Whereas “Bird Balloons” is a little messy, and that’s the quality I like about it, the guitar is a little messy, and I like that the voice matches it. It’s a little all over the place. “Aubergine” is probably one of my favorite songs to sing because I like the way it feels on my vocal chords. The notes are very long and need to be held and there’s a bit of vibrato and it just feels really soothing when I sing it.
Rumpus: Do you have any vocal influences?
Spaltro: I can’t say that I do. I started singing when I picked up the guitar when I was 18, and I started singing the way it was comfortable for me and the way that I learned to get emotions out, the way I project and sing. So there’s no one that I’ve said, ‘you know, I like their voice. I’m going to try that out.’ A couple female singers that I’m inspired by that I love are Mama Cass–she’s one of my favorite singers of all time–and I love Billie Holiday–and I’ve been listening to them since I was really young. Some of my earliest memories are listening to them and listening to girl groups from the ’50s like Diana Ross and the Ronettes and stuff like that. They’ve always been there in my life and I’ve always listened to them and stuff, but I can’t say I’ve ever really tried to emulate them.
Rumpus: Do you have a favorite song on Mammoth Swoon?
Spaltro: My favorite song–that’s kind of tricky–I really love the newest song on that. When I put that record together in October, the song I added to it last, it was like the newest song I had written was a track called “Taxidermist, Taxidermist.” It’s really long. It’s about eight minutes long, and I really love that. It was just such a brand new song when I put that rough recording on there that I got it a little tighter now. My favorite recording is called “The Nothing (Part Two)” and I just made it on my couch one day in about six or seven hours. I just have fond memories of making it. I finished it in a day, I was really proud of all the layers in it, and I remember my parakeet was in the room with me, and he was squawking a ton while I was playing xylophone, so I had to keep telling him to be quiet and start over, so it took me longer. If you listen closely at the end of the song, you can hear him chirping in the background.
Rumpus: Is there a “The Nothing (Part One)?”
Spaltro: There is. There is a song I wrote called “The Nothing” and it’s on the first record I put together in 2007 called The Tingly Circus. “The Nothing” is the second recording I ever made, and the version on the Tingly Circus is that version, the second version I ever made, period. And it was before I had a microphone, so I used my eight-track. I just used soundboard mics so it’s very crunchy and lo-fi, but it was based off a seven-page vignette of poems where I just circled out chunks I like and put them into a new poem. It’s partly a rap about the movie The Never-Ending Story.
Rumpus: How long did it take to record the album?
Spaltro: To be honest, it wasn’t something that I was planning to put together. I had a farewell show in Portland, Maine, when I decided to move, and it was scheduled for the end of October. And I realized that all the people would be coming to the show to see me off when I left home, already had my other record which came out in 2008. And there was nothing in the two years that I was making. I hadn’t put out a proper release for Portland. I made this as a way to give–I didn’t plan on making it available past the farewell show. I made it for fans who already had my old material who knew the new material that I was playing live but didn’t have recordings of it. It was a way to give that to them as I left home so they could have something to tide them over before my studio record comes out. So it’s more of a collection of songs I put together based on content than it is a release that I planned on putting out. Then when I left Portland, I decided to keep making it because I really wanted people who saw me at shows to have the live content rather than the old songs that I didn’t even play live anymore from the 2008 release.
Rumpus: I heard that you were opening for Beirut. How did that happen?
Spaltro: I got a booking agent. I met him when I went to South by Southwest in Texas, and when I decided that I really liked him and wanted to work with him, he called my manager back a day later and said, ‘I have these shows for you.’ And he kind of instantly proved that he was awesome. When we met, he even said ‘what kind of bands do you think you want to open for?’ And I said, ‘I think my music is versatile enough to play with lots of bands. I don’t think it has to be any one genre. I think it could work with a lot of things that you wouldn’t necessarily think to put me on a bill with.’ And Beirut was one of my examples. And sure enough, I don’t know, it’s kind of a dream that it happened.
Rumpus: Who would you pick to cover one of your songs, if you could pick anybody?
Spaltro: That’s a great question. I think I’d pick tUnE-yArDs. I love her. I think her arrangements are so great and her looping skills are so awesome. I would love to see what she could do with a song of mine that she might have a totally different vision for.
Rumpus: Are you doing videos for this record at all?
Spaltro: I have one video for it so far called “Between Two Trees.” I think the main issue for it so far is that these recordings for it so far–I’m very proud of the content; they represent me as an artist–but the recording quality is not great. And so it’s difficult to make a video for a recording that’s not awesome. I think “Between Two Trees” is the strongest recording on Mammoth Swoon, and I would love to do another video, but I might have to hold off until I have better recordings of the material. But I would love to. I would love to have a video for every song that goes on the studio release. One of my favorite things is making videos. I love editing videos too.