Thanks to sobriety, singer-songwriter Amy Speace lives for the journey

Thanks to sobriety, singer-songwriter Amy Speace lives for the journey

Since the dawn of humankind’s emotional awareness, men and women have found themselves in the horse latitudes of life’s currents, forward momentum stilled by a lack of wind, staring out at a seemingly endless horizon and asking themselves, “Is this all there is?”

The Ties That Bind UsNashville-based singer-songwriter Amy Speace isn’t exempt. Despite her recovery, despite her modest success, despite the network of strong women whom she considers part of her tribe, she, too, occasionally questions the meaning of this earthly existence. Her new album, in fact — “Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne” — stems from such a place, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I wrote the title track in April (2017), on the road in Germany and Holland right before I was about to come home and have fertility treatments to have my son, who was born in March,” she said late last year. “I found myself asking, ‘Is this all there is?’ That sounds really lame to say, because I feel really lucky to have the career I have and to be able to go to the places I’ve been and have 100 people show up to hear me, but I couldn’t help but wonder, what else is beyond the dream?

“So I wrote this song, and it kind of solidified some other ideas I was leaning toward that are all about people who are reckoning with a dream they’ve had that didn’t give them what they thought they wanted, or they never got it. Mary Gauthier and I like to joke, when we talk about the music business and people younger than us who are really on fire, ‘Don’t they know the dream is dead?’ And that’s no insult to them; it’s just that sooner or later, we all find ourselves asking that question.”

Recovery, however, grants her and others who choose that new way of life a perspective that offers a sense of contentment. It doesn’t completely satiate the hunger, but that’s OK, she added — the hunger can drive her to do more, accomplish more, write more. But sometimes, the answer is simply, yes — wherever you find yourself, this is all there is.

And that’s OK.

“When you realize there’s no there, there, then you can really get to work rather than doing what you think the industry thinks is going to be the next cool thing,” she said. “You stop caring, and you just start writing songs, and that’s when the writer’s voice shows up. In a sense, that’s what this new record is about — that this is all there is. There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow, so just enjoy the rainbow.”

What It Was Like ...

A classically trained actress, Speace was born in Baltimore. Music and sports were integral parts of her childhood.

“I started playing piano when I was 3, and it was just a language I understood, and it reflected the way I felt,” she said. “I knew I belonged in music.”

Heavily involved with music, theater and literary magazines in high school, she graduated from Amherst College and moved to New York City afterward to study acting at The National Shakespeare Conservatory. While there, she worked odd jobs (as a baker, a waitress, a bartender, a teacher) to make rent. A short-lived membership in an Indigo Girls-style folk duo led to label interest before falling apart, and Speace then hit the road with the National Shakespeare Company, performing across America and shelving her singer-songwriter career for a while.

Alcohol, however, was increasingly a constant companion.

“My first drunk was when I was 16, and I drank everything in my parents’ liquor cabinet and blacked out, and that was the first time I could be out of my skin,” she said. “I wanted to be elsewhere my whole life, Here I was, this good little Catholic girl who was suddenly allowed to be the bad girl, and it was the most freeing thing I had ever felt. I did that all through my drinking career — it allowed me to do things that I knew weren’t right, and yet (afterward), I could say, ‘I was just drunk.’”

Internally, however, she carried a great deal of guilt and shame, much of it tied up in her identity as “a good little Catholic girl who doesn’t lie,” she said. It all came down to discomfort — the dis-ease of alcoholism, and the desire to shed her skin and her identity for personas and personalities that weren’t her own.

“It was just me not being comfortable in me,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was. I thought I was inherently flawed, or that I had fooled everybody.”

She drank in college but graduated with high honors; the blackouts and overindulgence were part and parcel of the college experiences for many of her peers, so it didn’t seem like a problem at the time, she said. When she lived in The Village in New York City as an actor and a musician, late nights and bars were part of the deal. She began a cycle of spiraling part way down into the abyss and pulling her life together, but because the theater scene was replete with heavy drinkers, it still wasn’t something she identified as a problem at the time.

It wasn’t until she moved to Nashville and was forced to reckon with a pattern of failed relationships over a 20-year period that she sought help, she said.

“My therapist would ask, ‘How’s your drinking?’ And I would say, ‘My drinking is fine!,’ because I didn’t want her to take away my wine,” she said. “I often wonder, did I turn into an alcoholic or had I always been an alcoholic? I don’t know, but I was always restless, irritable and discontent.”

What Happened ...

Music became the one thing that anchored her to reality. She released her debut album, “Fable,” in 2002, and ever since, her wheelhouse has been somewhere between the languid songs of heartbreak and the hope that love will help put that metaphorical organ back together again. Her most recent record, 2015’s “That Kind of Girl,” was written early in her sobriety, semi-inspired by Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern” but owing more to the traditions set forth by Lucinda Williams.

It’s an atmospheric, moody album with hints of languid jazz, scorned-woman country, gut-bucket blues and feisty rock ’n’ roll all thrown into the mix, and it’s all tempered by Speace’s ability to dissect an ill-fated relationship that led to her finding her way to a recovery program, she said.

“There was one night where I drank a ton of wine with a friend who was listening to me tell a toxic saga of a relationship with someone who was unavailable and on whom I was codependent, and it was killing me,” she said. “I was saying, ‘Why won’t he choose me or just leave?’ And my friend said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ But I was really stuck and unable to. I was sitting there in the car with my friend after I’d driven him home from a party, and I just looked at him and said, ‘I am done. I can’t do this anymore.’ I was so tired, I finally became willing to go to a meeting and try something new.”

For 11 months, she gave it a try, but it wasn’t until a relapse that the light came on. There’s a cliché in recovery that you only have to change one thing — and that’s everything; for Speace, that realization was the catalyst that led her to redouble her efforts.

“Until then, I had been doing it not rigorously honestly,” she said. “I was going to meetings, I had a sponsor, I was calling someone, but I wasn’t 100 percent honest. I had stopped drinking, but I didn’t let go of other behaviors, because I thought they were different things. So I went back out, but it wasn’t with alcohol; it was drugs.”

She called her sponsor and got honest, committing to give sobriety 100 percent of her efforts. Her first task? Ridding herself of the relationship that was poisoning her spirit and robbing her of her sobriety. The rooms, she began to understand, weren’t just there to solve her drinking problem; they offered a blueprint for a better way of life.

“Before, I had been trying to work a program without realizing I was acting out by smoking pot or getting into debt or staying in a relationship with an unavailable man,” she said. “I thought I could solve alcoholism in the rooms and solve the rest on my own. I gave lip service to a Higher Power, and I think I really did think that I could do the program, solve the alcohol thing and some day be able to drink again. I didn’t really surrender until that day when I said, ‘OK, I get it. This is really bad.’”

What It's Like Now

As she’s put together days and nights and years in the program, Speace occasionally surprises old peers and acquaintances with the accomplishment. She was never a public drunk, and she rarely overindulged in front of other people. But alcoholism isn’t about the spectacle anyway, she pointed out.

“What I’ve learned about me is that it’s not so much about how much you drink, but what it does — the behavior,” she said. “I was never a sloppy drunk, and my drinking didn’t really escalate until the very end. But I tried to fix everything — the suicidal tendencies, the lack of self-esteem — with yoga or therapy or meditation. And I didn’t think the alcohol had anything to do with it.”

Her journey followed in the footsteps of so many others in recovery who went before her, and it’s all been a process of self-discovery. The whole Higher Power concept, she pointed out, was at first wrapped up in her Catholic sense of guilt and shame; through the Steps, she began to understand that she didn’t have to set forth rigid standards for God, only to admit that he might be able to help.

“I just had to think that maybe there was one, and if so, possibly, I could be helped,” she said. “I remember that moment, crying and praying, ‘I don’t know if you’re out there, but if so, please do me a favor and help me.’”

Some acquaintances who didn’t see her alcoholism on full display wondered if she might be overreacting, she added, but when she chose to get honest with the ones she respected, they began to understand. Her mid-40s unhappiness was more than just a midlife crisis; it was an existential ache of the soul that couldn’t be medicated with relationships or booze.

Shrugging off the shackles of opinion has granted her more than just freedom of the spirit; it’s allowed her to find her niche as an artist as well, she said. Being true to herself, whether it’s motherhood (a journey she chronicles in her blog, "Menopausal Mommy") or sisterhood or in the studio, has given her the serenity for which she’s searched since adolescence.

“My give-a-(damn) is gone!” she said with a laugh. “But there’s a freedom in it. I don’t ever want to be one of those people who is cynical about the industry I’ve chosen; I love music, and I love the practice of getting music down so people can hear it. But I don’t want to care about who’s the cool person of the moment going to SXSW, and whether I’m one of them. That’s a younger person’s game, and God bless ’em, because I was young once, too, but I can be here, now.

“When I am on the road with artists who are not in recovery, no matter how old they are, I hear a lot of angst about what other people think about them, and that gets hard to hear, because it triggers all this old (stuff) in me. It makes me drunk on ego and all that stuff, but the beauty of recovery is the journey of killing the self, of being of service to something greater. If I start to fizzle out in my own ego and start to think that I suck or that I’m old or irrelevant or worry that my record didn’t sell as much and maybe I should cut or dye my hair, I have to call another artist who’s sober who remind me, ‘You’re hanging out with people who are not in recovery, and that’s why those conversations are happening.’”

The journey matters more than the destination

Often, that turns out to be Gauthier, another recovering singer-songwriter (and Ties That Bind Us alumna), whose openness about her own sobriety journey serves as an inspiration to Speace.

“I can be backstage freaking out, wondering, ‘What is my mission?,’ and Mary will tell me, ‘Your mission in life is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety,’” Speace said. “It comes down to that. I can get all (messed) up in my head, even if I’m on stage trying to sell records, but my mission is still the same — and I now try to do that through music and performance.”

And as Gauthier serves as an inspiration, Speace looks for opportunities to be of service to others who seek the new way of life she’s found. She still goes to meetings, she stays in touch with her sober network and she reaches out in times of stress and just to check in. And when the occasional newcomer takes her first tentative steps toward recovery, she has a simple way to share with them.

“I tell them to come with me to a church basement, where you won’t think you’ll belong, but you won’t believe all the amazing people you’ll meet,” she said. “I make meetings as much as I can, I call my sponsor every single day, I say the Third Step prayer every single day that I remember to say it, and I meditate as much as I can. Having a baby has really challenged that, because I used to go to meetings every single day, and now I can’t get there that often, and I’m usually kind of wonky when I get there.

“When you’re there every day, it’s like how your teeth get clean, but when you don’t brush as much, it feels like you have fuzz on your teeth. That’s how it feels when I don’t get to a meeting as often as I’d like — ‘Ah, there’s fuzz on my heart.’”

Still, the life she has today is infinitely better than it was while she wandered the wastelands. Her muse still comes to her in new and exciting ways (“Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne” was written on the piano as opposed to the guitar, and she plays more piano on the record), and she’s less focused on writing for radio than on penning songs that feel true. Record labels and publicists will undoubtedly ask in the weeks to come, “What kind of record is this?,” and while there’s no easy answer, there’s only one answer that matters.

“I don’t know — but I know the songs are ones I love, and these stories are ones I want to tell,” she said.

Some questions, it seems, have no answer. What’s at the end of the rainbow? That’s the wrong question, Speace believes. Instead, sobriety allows her to ask what the rainbow looks and smells and feels like as she’s traversing its tapestry of colors.

“It’s just so amazing! The rainbow is beautiful, the journey is beautiful,” she said. “I hate clichés, but when it works, it works. The whole thing about my mission is simple: I don’t have to be a rock star. I can just enjoy the fact that I wrote a song yesterday. I get to go play a show, and there will be people there. I may not be Patty Griffin, but how lucky am I to go to a town I’ve never been to, and people will show up?”

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