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A Folk Singer Sets Sail, With The Bard At The Bow

Apr 21, 2013
Originally published on April 21, 2013 5:23 pm

Before Amy Speace embarked on a career in music, the stage called her name. That's a good fact to keep in mind when listening to the actor-turned-folk singer's latest album, How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat.

It's beneficial to have a physical copy of the album in your hands as you listen because the liner notes are essential to understanding how the project came together. Each song is based on a Shakespearian quotation — and on the lyric sheet, the Bard provides an epigraph before each song he inspired. Amy Speace spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden; to hear their conversation, click the audio link on this page.

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Just a reminder, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.


AMY SPEACE: (Singing) We are the drunks and the dreamers, the criers and the cheaters, the ones you'll find down on our knees.

LYDEN: This is singer/songwriter Amy Speace. It's a song called "The Fortunate Ones," the first track from her new album, "How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat." Now, this is one of those records that benefits from having a physical copy of it in your hand as you listen - none of that downloading stuff - because the liner notes are essential to understanding how this project came together.

Amy Speace wrote each song based on a Shakespearian quotation. And on the lyrics sheet, the bard provides an epigraph for each song he inspires.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as King Henry V) We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.


SPEACE: (Singing) We are the fortunate ones, the fuel in this crazy machine.

LYDEN: Amy Speace is no stranger to Shakespeare. Before she embarked on a career in music, the stage called her name.

SPEACE: I wanted to be the Emma Thompson of my generation. And I went to Amherst College, and I was really obsessed with literature and the theater. And I ended up going to New York City right after I graduated and studied acting with the National Shakespeare Conservatory. We did a thing called "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot."

LYDEN: Everything on, of course, the great thing of the Delacorte...

SPEACE: Exactly.

LYDEN: ...Theater every summer in Central Park, "Shakespeare in the Park."

SPEACE: Exactly. It was like the low-rent version. But it was really fun because we did it at the Lower East Side on a parking lot on Delancey Street, and there was a drag queen that, you know, would rollerblade through my death scene when I was playing Juliet, things like that.

So I taught myself to play guitar, and I had always been a musician and a singer but hadn't been a songwriter, but I always wrote poetry and plays. And somewhere in that period of time, something burst inside of me, and I started writing songs. And soon thereafter, I was playing shows in New York City, and I was discovered by Judy Collins. And she offered me a record deal, and then it was time for me to choose. So I kind of put away the acting and the Shakespeare to, you know, pursue the life of a folk singer.

LYDEN: And throughout this interview, we're going to hear from actors at Washington, D.C.'s wonderful Shakespeare Theatre Company. We've asked them to come in. They'll read the quotation that inspired each song that we're going to hear. Let's begin with actress Erin Copp(ph) in the role of Desdemona from "Othello," and she's reading us into your song "Bring Me Back My Heart."

ERIN COPP: (as Desdemona) My mother had a maid called Barbary. She was in love, and he she loved proved mad and did forsake her. She had a song of "Willow," an old thing 'twas but it expressed her fortune, and she died singing it. That song tonight will not go from my mind.


SPEACE: (Singing) She sings herself to sleep when she's alone, bring me back my heart. Bring me back my heart.

Wow, that just almost made me cry.


LYDEN: You're sitting there full of emotion. We're listening to "Bring Me Back My Heart." How does the quotation relate to what you were writing?

SPEACE: I had played Desdemona. And I didn't want to write music to "Willow," that song that she quotes. For me, Desdemona is somebody who loves this man who just is treating her terribly. And there's something in there that she wants it to work so much that she's going to believe that this love is going to carry her through, even as he's killing her.

And I had this image of this woman whose lover has left, you know, potentially maybe somebody who went off to war and died and never came back, and she was going to wait it out. My grandmother was somebody who - she lost her husband in the first 10 years of their marriage, and she never met another man. And when she died at 104 years old, she died with his name on her lips...

LYDEN: Yeah. Wow.

SPEACE: ...I'm coming home, Bob. And I thought of her waiting her whole life to see my grandfather again. And I feel like that's where Desdemona is, so I wanted to write that song.



SPEACE: (Singing) She remembers every whisper promise that was shared, False to dreaming, repeating each one like a prayer. With beads she counts through fingers thin as (unintelligible). Bring me back my heart. Bring me back my heart.

LYDEN: So this is your sixth album, your first to draw on this Shakespearian background. Why now? You've been performing quite a while.

SPEACE: Yeah. It's always been in my bloodstream, but I think I was very intentional about keeping these two lives very separate. And then last year, I ended up losing my voice for about two months.

LYDEN: You lost your voice.

SPEACE: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: Now, this had to be an incredibly disruptive thing. What happened?

SPEACE: It was terrifying. You know, honestly, I woke up one day, and I couldn't talk, and it didn't come back, and it didn't come back. So I got under the care of a doctor, and it turned out to be a lot of stress. But I was told to be on vocal rest for two months, which, as a singer, that's how I make my living.

And so I was going through this period of, like, what if this is it? What if I have to do something else? And in that time period, I just started reading a lot. For some reason, I had the collected work sitting on my desk, and I started rereading these plays. It doesn't mean that, you know, the voices inside your head don't go quiet when you go quiet. So some of my own lyrics were kind of coming back at me, and they were talking to some of these snippets of Shakespearian dialog.

LYDEN: My guest is Amy Speace, and her new album is a collection of songs inspired by Shakespeare. It's called "How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat." Let's hear another example. This is actor Nick Dillenburg, and he's playing King Lear. A few excerpts from that play, and they lead into the title track of this album, "How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat."

NICK DILLENBURG: (as King Lear) Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks. When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.


SPEACE: (Singing) Red sky ahead of the morning sun. And I've heard it said that's when trouble comes.

LYDEN: Ooh, wow. This is just another really powerful piece. Why did you choose this as the title track?

SPEACE: I felt like it was - it says everything. It's the umbrella. The whole record, to me, is almost like an old-school navigation journal - how to get through something that seems so impossible to get through in order to survive and thrive. So, you know, I see this record almost like the stages of grief - letting go of a love or letting go of a life or letting go of a dream, and then coming to the other side of it a better person for having gone through it.


SPEACE: (Singing) Teach me how to sleep, how to sleep in a stormy boat.

It's not about the storm, and it's not about the water. It's really about the boat, the shell of the thing that you are and that's raging, how to sit in grief and wait it out because it'll change.

LYDEN: Well, let's turn to one of Shakespeare's great tragic heroines, and that would be Juliet, "Romeo and Juliet," and here, again, is actress Erin Copp and the song, "Hesitate."

COPP: (as Juliet) Come, gentle night, come, loving black-browed night, give me my Romeo. And when he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.

SPEACE: That passage, I love the end of that: He will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun. I have bought the mansion of a love and not yet possessed it. That's like my favorite passage in Shakespeare. And Nielson Hubbard and I, the producer, wrote this song together. And I spoke these lines to him. I said to him: I think we need to end this record with this, whatever this is going to be, you know, this idea of somebody just looking down on their life from the stars and knowing, you know, it's all going to be okay.

And to me, the end of this record is at the end, we have ourselves. And that's good enough that even with all of this pain and joy, that in the end, what we've got are our stories.

LYDEN: That's Amy Speace. Her new album is called "How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat," and you can hear a few songs on our website, nprmusic.org. Amy Speace, farewell. God knows when we shall meet again.

SPEACE: Thanks for having me, Jacki.

LYDEN: It's been wonderful. Thank you.


SPEACE: (Singing) In my dream, I can fly, above this house into the sky.

LYDEN: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down, or follow me on Twitter @nprjackilyden. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.


SPEACE: (Singing) Tell the truth of a heart so strong that beats and beats, never stops... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.