Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, real name Aly Spaltro, plays the sort of music that I usually find myself wanting but not finding: intense, intricate rock and roll with the sensibility and intelligence of folk music, unbound by any shackles of conventional song structure, or convention in general. And her album Ripely Pine, released earlier this year (and my favorite album of 2013 to date), delivers in a way that seems impossible for a debut, much less a debut from a 23-year-old who has only been playing music for six years.
Ripely Pine follows years of demos, early songs, and informal releases, and it sees Spaltro expanding her intimate, visceral, labyrinthine compositions into full-band assaults while still maintaining the thickness and vibrancy that got her started. For a nominal "first album," it's remarkably assured, and easily one of the best releases of the year.
Spaltro writes with uncommon skill and power; her style recalls Southern Gothic novelists as well as allusive songwriters like Conor Oberst and Joanna Newsom, both of whom she namechecks as major influences. Images like "ribs escaping your skin," "my hair grew long so I fucking cut it," "this ribcage is a staircase," "I still need your teeth around my organs," and, calling back to her name, the lyric "I'm as calm as a baby lamb that's being led / I'm as blue as blood before the blood goes red" — all have a novelist's depth and a poet's rhythm.
"I would write a guitar part and then just put the lyrics in it. That's why there's no chorus, because there's no chorus in my poems. The words go on and on and that's how the songs go," she says. "I think I've always been very into very visual writing, and there's something so textural about describing the human form, describing the feelings of when you're longing for something, and the feeling in your heart of frustration, it's very palpable. That's what I was inspired by."
Now playing shows around the United States on the biggest tour of her career so far, Spaltro just finished playing Europe, which was a special opportunity for her. Her father was in the Air Force, which led her childhood from the American Southwest to Germany, which she now gets to revisit. After Germany, her family moved back to Maine, where she lived and played music until moving to New York two-and-a-half years ago. She only started making music at 18, after she forewent college to take a service trip to Guatemala that fell through; from there, she taught herself guitar and songcraft.
"In high school I was really into art and making stuff and being really creative my whole life: painting and film and photography and collage and writing and lots of different things," she says. "I started doing spoken word poetry — like, slams — and writing a lot of poetry, and so when I started making music I had all this material, all these words to start with. That was my start, in writing, so the music was just sort of an afterthought. It was a vehicle for the words, really. And I still look at it that way: the lyrics are most important and the music kind of helps that out."
Spaltro became a film buff and a slowly-budding musician by spending all her time at the independent DVD rental store, where she worked and would practice and play after hours. The influence of her favorite films and directors — David Lynch, foreign horror, mumblecore , and so on — can be seen in Ripely Pine's hyperphysical, almost grotesque intimacy of the human body.
"It was interesting because the four years when everyone was in college, I was having my own experience, my own learning experience that was so, so separate and different from what all [the] kids my age were doing," she says. "No one that I went to school with knew that I was making music, they thought I was just living at home […] I got out of my high school relationship, and I sort of lost my closest friends to them wanting to sort of experiment with drinking which I was so far from wanting to do. I didn't ever have that phase — I never went through a party phase, I was too focused on making music."
Soon following a move to Portland, twenty minutes south of the town Brunswick, where she grew up, Spaltro earned her first 50 bucks to play a show. At 18-years-old, the experience was a revelation. She cultivated an audience in Boston for her next step, and since quitting the video store and moving to New York, she's been supporting herself entirely off of music.
Spaltro worked to nurture a very tight fan base, first in Maine, then in Boston, then in New York and now nationally. She says it's been an interesting, rewarding, and exhausting experience to discover that many people you don't know feel like they know you.
"I've learned over time that the music has helped people through something, and it could be something entirely different than what it helped me through when I wrote it. But it doesn't matter — if it can help them, that's what I want," she says.
Along with the idea of spirituality, the presence of a godlike something, and the antithesis of that, evil or the devil, Ripely Pine obsesses over the nuance of meaning. We talk about how fascinating it is that people can love something they feel is real, but have no real proof of, and it's that love and yearning that makes it real. This idea is what's behind the album's title, Ripely Pine, which is, technically, not an English phrase. "Ripely," a hypothetical adverb of ripe, is not a real word. And it feeds into her infatuation with dreams, which litter the songs — their significance, their content, the concept of dreaming itself. She even drew her stage name from a dream: Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, a lady named lamb who keeps bees. Of course, this can all lead to misconceptions when people interpret other ways of thinking: about the title, which makes many think of trees, or instinctively spell it "Ripley"; of the songs, which she says she is often told don't make sense, as though songs are meant to be legal briefs; and, especially, her stage name. But it's all part of the thing itself.
"I do really like that double meaning of Ripely Pine, and [other interpretations] don't bother me," she says. "I do get a lot of people that think Lady Lamb is literally a sheep that is a beekeeper, and I'm like, 'You guys. You guys. Get it together.'"