Fresh off a spate of European tour dates and about to embark on a U.S. tour, Aly Spaltro, better known as the mastermind of Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, is remarkably calm. She is back in Brooklyn, where she resides and where she recorded her debut album, Ripely Pine. "It was kind of a culture shock to get back to New York, but I love being home and I'm happy to be back," Spaltro says.
Given the amount of preparation and fine-tuning that went into the album, Spaltro's calm is warranted. The songs on Ripely Pine were written over the course of about three years while Spaltro was living in Brunswick, Maine, and then recorded over 10 months after relocating to her current BK digs. Now she is eager to share the material.
The careful attention paid in creating Ripely Pine can be felt immediately upon hitting "play," and the music stays remarkably fresh over repeated listenings. It is hard to believe that the songs here are the result of Spaltro's first outing as a songwriter — harder still when one considers that they were conceived when she was 19. On Ripely Pine, she emerges as a voice fully formed.
The album's 12 tracks do not traffic in vagueness. They are specific, often to the exclusion of accessibility. But in that specificity lies their value. Vivid imagery abounds on Ripely Pine, while frequent allusions to small animals and to human anatomy speak to a fascination with the natural world.
"I am intrigued by specific metaphor and very physical wording," Spaltro says. "The idea that you could describe something so specifically that [maybe] it could become a little horrific — I'm intrigued by that."
As such, the songs not only lend themselves to scrutiny, but bear it well, and Spaltro is in no rush to demystify the content. Vocally, she can whisper honey-sweet nothings or yelp vinegar yowls with uniform ease, performing every task she attempts with competence and confidence.
Spaltro's confidence in her abilities speaks to the circumstances under which the songs were written. The album took shape while she was working at Bart & Greg's DVD Explosion, an environment that Spaltro found supportive and nurturing. "It was the independent video store, and everyone in the town rented from that store," she recalls. "It was a [very] enlightened place to be. I stored my gear behind a wall [so] that no one would know it was there and I would work [after] the late shift and into the morning."
Spaltro is working in a music business that keeps its classifications neat and tidy, but she balks at the "girl-with-the-guitar" designation. "Being a girl in the industry is tricky," she says. "I've worked hard over the years to make people understand that I'm not just a singer-songwriter. I'd never use that label for myself."
On Ripely Pine, she aims to showcase her versatility. She is happy to skirt expectations and genre-specific norms when it means giving her songs the chance to reach their "full potential." "Because the structures of my songs are unformulaic," she says, "I wanted them to be full and epic, and cover the ground from minimal to lush, even in one song."
In keeping with her desire to let the content of her songs dictate their form, she accepted the help of producer Nadim Issa, with whom she'd collaborated previously. While recording at Let 'Em In Music, Issa's Brooklyn studio, the two reworked the existing songs to achieve the scope and sweep that Spaltro desired. This reimagination included adding strings and horns to the songs, which were initially written as solo pieces.
Most importantly, though, their time in the studio gave rise to structural experimentation of movements and divergences within songs that define Ripely Pine. Most of the album's dozen songs meander on tangents after false finishes and other detours. Nine of the tracks exceed the four-minute mark.
The method works to great effect; resolutions segue into epilogues, subverting the songs expected meaning. On "Bird Balloons," one of the album's highlights, Spaltro waxes nostalgic about a turbulent relationship whose nature defied definition, before arriving at a détente: "And the stars they were so still / And both our hearts, they were revealed / and you were my friend." Not content with such a tidy resolution, she jumpstarts the song with a whoop, kicking a hole out of the back end and reasserting her role in the experience: "I'm a ghost and you all know it," she snarls, "I'm singing songs and I ain't stoppin'."
Given the introspective nature of the songs on Ripely Pine, the boldness of these production and arrangement choices cannot be overstated. What could as easily have been quiet, delicate affairs are instead brassy barn-burners. "Older songs were revived in the recording process, because they went from being solo songs to [me] arranging them from the ground up," Spaltro says. "In that way I [had to] reconnect with them. I still feel very much connected to them, even if the content is a little older."
While Lady Lamb's sound bears some marks of the Americana movement of recent years — think Heartless Bastards, Iron and Wine, or Neko Case — it is ultimately distinctive, owing largely to the uniqueness of the arrangement and structure of the songs. In spite of being written piecemeal, Ripely Pine is a remarkably cohesive album, with recurring motifs, sonic and lyrical, that speak to Spaltro's passion for her subject matter. What's most interesting is that her lyrical approach is antithetical to her approach to production. The message of her lyrics is consistently one of self-reliance, yet the epic arrangements she achieves could only be accomplished through collaboration.