Before Playing Sons of Herman Hall on Saturday, Lady Lamb Teaches Us A Thing Or Two.
Aly Spaltro found the name Lady Lamb in one of her old journals.
At the time, she had recently graduated high school and opted to take a year off to teach herself to play instruments before heading off to college. Fortunately, the manager of the DVD rental shop in Maine where she was working at the time was cool with her taking over the basement of the store after hours, allowing her to crank the volume on her guitars down there after locking up for the night.
Ultimately, the move to put off school was a gamble that paid off for Spaltro. Now 25, she's now released a pair of atmospheric, electric folk records — one under the name Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, the most recent of which, After, came out last month via Mom + Pop Records and under a shortened moniker of Lady Lamb.
And while she may have gotten something of a late start with some of her musicality, her output doesn't suffer from a lack of complexity, polish, interesting tempo shifts or, above all, any strong lyricism.
This Saturday that much will all be on display as Lady Lamb brings her live trio to perform a concert at Sons of Hermann Hall. This afternoon and in advance of that show, we caught up with Spaltro on the phone to ask her about those early years spent locked away in the basement, her hatred of cover tunes and her interest in brain diseases.
It seems like anytime anybody ever writes anything about you, they always mention the fact that you taught yourself to play instruments in the basement of a DVD rental shop, staying after hours once your shift ended each night.
I don't want to ask you about that, but I do want to ask you about learning to play instruments, in general, because it seems like you got a late start in that regard.
Yeah, I did. I was 18, and I'm completely self-taught. I think it had a lot to do with timing; it was just the right place and the right time for me to have the opportunity and the space and the time to teach myself and commit to it. It was really all I was doing at the time, so I was doing it as much as I possibly could. I was just determined to get to a place where I knew what I was doing. So, I just practiced a lot, and figured it out, basically.
How'd you go about teaching yourself? Was it a lot of YouTube videos and stuff like that?
No, I just had chord charts. That's literally all I had. I just learned the chord charts. Over time I learned where the notes were on the neck, so that I knew when I was playing barre chords what chords I was playing. I just started slowly, learned three chords, then four, five, six, that kind of thing. I started writing three-chord progressions and then moved on from there. It was a slow process of learning chord formations and that was it. I mean, I still don't truly know what I'm doing, I just practice so much. I know all major chords, but I don't read music. I've never watched tutorials or anything.
That's an interesting approach. I feel like a lot of people probably kind of grow up playing, learning cover tunes when they're young before finally deciding to start writing their own stuff a little later on in life. But it sounds like you started writing your own stuff right off the bat.
Yeah, I didn't really do covers, I just started teaching myself. I was just interested, at the time, in expressing myself, and doing my own thing. I've actually never really been interested in doing covers. Sometimes I get asked to do them for some certain session and I'm like, “Ugh! I just don't want to.” It was a cathartic thing for me to start learning how to play.
What do you dislike most about playing covers?
I just prefer to make my own music. I like to listen to other people's music, but I don't like to play it. It's hard for me to sing someone else's song and feel connected to it as much as when I listen to it.
Were your parents musical at all?
My dad is. My mom is not musical. My dad is a guitarist. Growing up, we'd always have a music nook or music room in our house and he would play drums, bass, guitar and keys and make his own records, like the way I do now, basically. Just instrumental.
That's interesting. And he never tried to rope you into that as a kid, or pressure you to join his band?
No, he did. He didn't want me to join his band, but he pressured me to learn to play. I just wasn't interested at the time.
What drew you to the banjo?
I guess it was just my love for Sufjan Stevens. I really only play it for one song. It's not my main instrument. On that one I really don't know what I'm doing, like, I just play it like a guitar, basically. I don't play it often.
What are live shows like? How do you translate the album into a live setting, and what kind of backing band are you bringing to Dallas?
For this tour, it's a trio. It's me on guitar and vocals. Then I've got a bassist who also plays keys and runs a few samples that I've rigged into the keyboard straight from the album, just for some extra textures. And then a drummer. It's pretty concise, but it's got some nice textures happening beyond just bass, drums and guitar.
So no horns this time?
There's some horn parts from the album that I've sampled into my Nord keyboard that we run for the show, that T.J. [Metcalfe] actually plays live. They are straight, real horns from the album. So there are moments of that, but no live horn players.
Do you still make a lot of the shirts and artwork and stuff yourself? Is it still a pretty DIY operation?
Yeah, I have a friend with a small T-shirt printing business work on my shirts, but I helped her. As far as artwork and album layout, I still do a lot of that stuff. All of the creative/artistic/visual sort of things you see are all my decisions. It's important to me, and it's something that I enjoy.
Judging from your lyrics, you come off as really well-read. What kinds of things are you reading these days?
To be honest, I'm not really a fiction reader. I like non-fiction. I read this amazing book called My Stroke of Genius. I like books where you learn things about people with, like, brain trauma. I like learning about people that have weird ailments in their brain that changes their brain chemistry. I'm reading one right now called Brain on Fire. I mean, it's not all I read, but I like that kind of thing. I like learning about pseudo-scientific things and history and that kind of stuff.
When you're writing and demoing new stuff, how much does technology play a part in that process?
I arrange everything in Logic. I just, essentially, have all the gear I need to do that. I arranged all the drums with a drum machine. I arranged all the horns and strings with a MIDI controller, using studio sampled strings and horns. Then, I could transcribe that to sheet music for the real musicians to come in, so it's really handy and really user-friendly. I can write a whole orchestra with my keyboard and then print out those exact charts for the players.
A lot of your songs have drastic shifts in tempo and meter. How much of that do you think about beforehand, and how much is just based on feel? And do you attribute any of that to being self-taught?
It's more of just a feeling. Sometimes I'll write a movement, then I'll write another and stitch them together at different tempos… It came from a time of wanting to keep my live show interesting when I was just playing solo — not wanting to write formulaic music, and wanting to have changes that made the song interesting.
Finally, I know you've probably been asked about this a lot, but I just wanted to ask about dropping Beekeeper from your stage name.
I came up with the whole moniker when I was 18, and I'm almost 26 now. Just over time I felt less and less attached to the moniker. I find it really clunky and pigeonholing. Lady Lamb is so much shorter, punchier and a littler broader. The connotations are more sweeping. I finally, after years of lamenting the whole name, just decided to drop it.
Lady Lamb performs on Saturday, April 18, at Sons of Hermann Hall. Tickets are available here.