Lady Lamb the Beekeeper: The Reluctant Artist

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Hometown: Portland, Maine
Current Release: Ripely Pine
For Fans of: Marnie Stern, Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent

Nestled just north of the Casco Bay, the coastal town of Brunswick, Maine, resides 20 minutes from Portland and a two-hour drive north of Boston. Home to over 20,000 residents plus the esteemed university Bowdoin College, one of the town’s cultural centers is Bart & Greg’s DVD Explosion, an indie video-rental store. It was here, in the late nights between her shifts, where a teenaged Aly Spaltro would strap on her guitar and teach herself how to write songs.

This year marks a big one for the former video-store clerk. Now touring and performing under the moniker Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, Spaltro’s debut album, Ripley Pine, hit shelves in February and garnered positive coverage from the likes of Time, Pitchfork, SPIN and NPR in the process. Hailed as an exceptional new voice, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper mixes the biting, intimate lyricism of Sharon Van Etten with playful sonic experimentation of St. Vincent.

Yes, much has changed for Spaltro in the past few years. And though she now lives in a lovely neighborhood in Brooklyn, Spaltro’s memories of Maine remain a topic close to her heart.

“Starting to make music in Maine was really essential to how I turned out,” Spaltro recalls. “Everyone there has a house with a basement for a practice space. The places to play music are countless. It was the perfect place for me to really take my time and figure out what I was doing without any stress or pressure.”

An Air Force brat, Spaltro was born in New Hampshire but—per the demands of her father’s position—lived in a multitude of locations over the years, including South Carolina, Arizona, Nevada and Germany. Finally, when Spaltro was 14, her family settled in Brunswick, where she spent her formative years.

A bright and creative student fascinated by film and photography, Spaltro planned on attending college in Chicago after spending a year in Guatemala. Subsequent financial issues, however, forced her to cancel her trip at the 11th hour. While many of her friends departed for college, Spaltro found herself stuck at home, having deferred her enrollment.

Desperate for a project, Spaltro turned to music as an outlet. It was an easy enough conclusion given that her father was an accomplished guitarist who had spent much of Spaltro’s childhood trying to convince her to learn guitar. And while Spaltro was nothing if not a music fan, making mix tapes and listening to her headphones on the playground, she continually shot down her father’s well-intended suggestions, citing a rebellious “stubbornness” as the driving force.

Now finally, at the age of 18, she was ready to learn.

Musically, Spaltro found herself drawn to the unconventional songwriting approach demonstrated by the likes of Joanna Newsom, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel and of Montreal.

“[Those artists] I felt gave me permission, based on what they were making, to not edit myself or not feel like a song needs to be verse-chorus-verse-chorus,” she explains. “I really connected to the fact that they could write 11-minute songs if they felt like it and it was no big deal.”

An equally powerful inspiration came from Spaltro’s history as a film buff. Benefiting handsomely from her status as a video-store employee, she consumed the works of Stanley Kubrick, Todd Solondz, David Lynch and Wim Wenders, with particular emphasis on Wenders’ 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas and its legendary score by Ry Cooder.

“I was writing all these songs surrounded by movies,” she says. “I saw everything visually and I was really drawn to music that was written very visually. I think that was just a naturally step for me to take to write lyrics very detailed and descriptively.”

Putting together several home recordings, Spaltro was eager to share her music with an audience. The problem? Everyone in town knew her by name. Wanting to lend her highly personal recordings a bit more anonymity, she distributed the CDs under the moniker Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. It was a phrase she found scribbled in a notebook after waking up one day after apparently jotting it down in a dreamy haze.

Besides helping her launch a career free of judgment, Spaltro also felt the name would help create a separation between her stage persona and her actual self.

“It was a really helpful way for me to keep a small part of myself separate from it,” she explains. “Even though I would say that I’m being entirely myself when I perform, I find it helpful to have a moniker to put all that creative energy into so that I can just retain a little of my privacy.”

Eventually, when her yearlong break from college began to wind down, Spaltro decided that her newfound love for songwriting was taking her on an entirely different career path. With support from her parents, the next few years saw Spaltro building a name for herself in Portland, Boston and, eventually, the greater New York area. As a performer, she regularly received press for the sparse, emotionally charged nature of her live shows.

Following several smaller scale releases, Spaltro and Brooklyn-based producer Nadim Issa spent the better part of 2012 (or, as Spaltro recalls, from one Thanksgiving to the next) hashing out the songs and arrangements for her first official LP. Contrary to the stripped-down nature of her shows, Spaltro had specifically written her songs with the intention of expanding upon their sound with drums, horns and even strings. In a nutshell, she sought a poppier production that would help counterbalance the heavy lyrical content.

“I wanted to define these songs forever as songs you could—for lack of a better word—let the listener off the hook a little bit. I wanted to make arrangements that were more fun that you could maybe dance to or bob your head to,” she explains. “I want the experience to be really fun and loose.”

As an example, Spaltro offers up the album’s second track, “Aubergine.” Centering on a seemingly tumultuous relationship, the song nevertheless incorporates danceable drum parts and an exuberant horn section. That’s not to say Spaltro has abandoned her penchant for intensity. “Crane Your Neck,” one of the album’s major highlights, is punctuated by several howls that stretch her voice to the point of breaking.

“The most important thing to me over anything was to make a record that was very true to me and very raw and honest and, no matter how the arrangements came out, that it still had its earnestness.”

Never one to drag her heels, Spaltro is already formulating plans for a second album. In addition to writing new material, she also looks forward to possibly bringing songs that she wrote a long time ago “back from the dead.”

Asked if her father ever commented on the irony of his daughter—once resistant to even learning an instrument—now making a living as a professional singer/songwriter, Spaltro lets loose a chuckle.

“Oh yeah, he’s like, ‘well, putting Beethoven through the headphones to your mom’s stomach while you were in there definitely did it’s thing.’”