Who is Aly Spaltro and what does she have to say?
By Will Grunewald
The drive down Harpswell Neck on a Thursday in February was full dark except for a sliver of moon, a few stars, and a faint electric-light glow from inside the old Grange Hall. Just up the way, the SchoolHouse Cafe — a tiny breakfast-and-lunch joint — looked quiet. Soon, though, a trickle of cars started pulling into the snow-covered parking lot. At the door, a woman checked names off a handwritten list as people filtered in. Tables had been pushed away and chairs set in concentric rows around the far corner of the room, where two guitars rested by a microphone and a pair of small speakers. Kids’ high chairs were stacked behind the coffee bar. Ceiling fans spun lazily overhead.
All in all, it looked like an unlikely spot for indie singer/songwriter Aly Spaltro to play a show. She’s more often found at packed theaters in Boston, New York, or Chicago than at a little cafe up the coast of Maine, in a town of a few thousand. After Ripely Pine, her 2013 debut album, BuzzFeed called the then-23-year-old “rock’s newest guitar hero,” and Pitchfork compared her to Jeff Buckley and Jack White. Her 2015 follow-up, After, had a Boston Globe reviewer gushing over her “nuanced songs, which balance intimacy and openness with a searching mind and vibrant spirit . . . a poetic power rare for someone so young.” Rolling Stone tried to pin down her singular sound, calling it “surrealist folk-rock” — as good an attempt as any at categorizing Spaltro’s visceral, abstruse, poignant songwriting.
Consider a few melancholy lines from her latest album, Tender Warriors Club, released last December:
One kiss sucks the mud clear from my soul
the neon lights that fill your eye
above Coney Island I could die tonight if I’m not
already dead, already mourning
Spaltro’s language is thoroughly interior. She often seems suspended on some cusp between fear of loss and actual loss, and she leaves you guessing at the precise reason. There’s something engrossing about that hint of withholding.
When I asked her anyway if there were any specific personal experiences at the root of this album, she replied, without elaborating, “Sure, I guess you could say that.”
Spaltro seems suspended on a cusp between fear of loss and actual loss, and she leaves you guessing at the reason.
Spaltro, who records and performs as Lady Lamb, has scored high-profile opening gigs in the past couple of years, touring with The Tallest Man on Earth and The Decemberists, but she decided to promote Tender Warriors Club with a solo tour of small, private venues. Anyone with space enough for 50 or so people could apply to host her in a living room, cafe, bookshop, or some such place. Only the general area of each show was mentioned in promo materials, and ticket buyers learned the exact location only after purchasing. Over three months, Spaltro played everywhere from Gainesville, Florida, to Missoula, Montana, to Petaluma, California. Harpswell made the schedule as a kind of homecoming show — she spent her teen years one town over, in Brunswick. (And until recently, her mom managed the SchoolHouse Cafe — she was the woman at the door checking names before the show.)
Some 75 guests eventually packed the tiny venue, squeezing two to a seat, shouldering in against the back wall, hopping up on the coffee counter, and sitting on the floor at Spaltro’s feet. A couple of guys cracked cans of PBR. Another had a water bottle full of booze. Two girls had the forethought to bring their own wineglasses. The room swelled with clinking, popping, and convivial chatter right up until the lights went down and Spaltro came out of a side room, sat down, and picked up her banjo.
“I’m so happy to be home,” she said softly.
“Welcome back!” called a woman in the audience.
Spaltro grew up in a military family, moving all across the U.S. and, for a stint, to Germany. She landed in Brunswick in 2004, in time to start high school. At the time, she neither wrote nor played music. By the time she got a job at Bart & Greg’s DVD Explosion in the basement of Brunswick’s Tontine Mall, she’d begun teaching herself guitar and asked her boss if she could practice in the rental shop after hours. Soon, she was dropping off recordings at the Bull Moose music store next door. Not sure she wanted her real name on them, she used a moniker — Lady Lamb the Beekeeper — that came to her in a dream. She recently dropped “the Beekeeper,” but the rest has stuck.
When I first saw Spaltro play in 2009, in the campus pub at Bowdoin College, she had started getting Portland gigs, but Ripely Pine — and the recognition it brought — was still a few years away. She barely murmured an introduction when she stepped onto the tiny stage, but as soon as she started playing, the depth and fullness of her singing knocked the air out of the room. She has the kind of voice that silences side conversations and, I suspect, stifles sneezes. It can’t be interrupted for any reason. Spaltro didn’t chat between songs, just kept going, stock still, picking an acoustic guitar that looked two sizes too big, insinuating her voice into every nook and cranny of the room. “The physical act of singing,” she told me recently, “is really fulfilling.”
Four years later, shortly after Ripely Pine came out, I saw Spaltro play at Schubas Tavern in Chicago, a popular standing-room-only stop for indie acts. By then, she’d moved to Brooklyn and earned herself national attention. The venue was packed. Spaltro was sick with a sore throat but didn’t hold back. The opening band backed her up on drums, keyboard, and bass, and the show took on a brash rock ‘n’ roll feel completely unlike the show at the Bowdoin pub. It was like seeing Joni Mitchell turn around and front a set for the Rolling Stones — playing her songs their way.
By comparison, the recent Harpswell show felt like Spaltro was getting back to basics. “I’m just so happy you guys are here,” she told the audience. “I can actually see you, and we can hang in this small room.” Concertgoers ran the fandom gamut, from a guy who started listening to Lady Lamb two months earlier to Bart D’Alauro, of Bart & Greg’s, who’s known Spaltro’s music as long as anyone. She played without a set list, fielding requests and sticking to her most popular songs. “You Are the Apple,” off Ripely Pine, turned into a sing-along, with laughs throughout the room at a rare instance of dark humor in Spaltro’s writing, when she wonders after a trans-Atlantic flight whether it wouldn’t have been so bad to have crashed:
I’d have been fine with that
’cause it would have saved me
yes it would have saved me . . .
It would have saved me from the look that you gave
when you left.
As the night went by, the occasional headlight glancing off the windows, Spaltro’s voice seemed to get richer and bolder. Then, before her final song, she paused to talk about the idea behind Tender Warriors Club. “There’s a concept to it,” she said. “It’s more than just a collection of songs; it’s kind of a way of life I’ve been trying to live for a while now, but I’ve just put a phrase to it.” Her voice quavered a bit and she wrung her hands, as if talking about her notion of a “tender warrior” was much less comfortable than singing about it. “To me, it’s the type of person who, through all the garbage they have going on in their life . . . finds the courage to stay open instead of shutting down.
“I have gotten a lot of comfort from the fact that I think we’re like-minded in a lot of ways,” she added. “I say this because it’s the dead of winter and we’re all huddled in a schoolhouse to listen to emotional songs . . . I wanted to make this a reminder that when I stay sensitive and open, I attract those types of people — the types of people that have courage in their emotions.”
After the show, Spaltro’s mom, Laurie, told me that her favorite thing about Aly’s shows is to watch people in the crowd singing the words to songs, seeing the connections her daughter has built with fans. Then, as we talked, a 20-something woman with heavy bangs and pom-pom earrings — a total stranger — came up and gave her a hug and told her how amazing her daughter was.
The next night, before a show at Portland’s Space Gallery, the 19th stop on a 50–show tour, Spaltro was lugging boxes to the merchandise stand near the door. In the green room, she offered tea, then brewed a cup for herself and talked a bit about the living-room tour concept. “I was nervous about the vulnerability of playing right up in front of people,” she said. “There’s less of a boundary when you’re not up on a stage under bright lights.” There’s something about the emotional intensity of her performances, I suggested, that complements the intimacy of small spaces. “They go hand in hand,” she said. “When your songs are about your anxieties and fears — I talk a lot about what I’m afraid of — it makes sense to be vulnerable when you’re performing them.”
With a capacity for 300, Space Gallery was a break from the living-room mold. “People would just be mad at me if I only sold 50 tickets for a show in Portland,” Spaltro joked. She acquired a following in town after moving from Brunswick and before moving to New York. In the bigger venue, it seemed the audience didn’t have to calibrate its behavior — they cheered louder, grabbed drinks at the bar, ducked in and out for smoke breaks — and Spaltro didn’t have to calibrate her voice. Even more than in the Harpswell cafe, she could just let it rip. But she paused before the end of the show here too, to talk about the ethos of the new album. Her voice quavered again.
“I’ve been trying really hard in my life to stay tender,” she said. She didn’t say how or why or with whom, but from the whoops of approval, the crowd seemed to understand perfectly. Then she sang one more song.