Two decades ago, a young Amy Speace came to New York to become an actor. "You know, trying to make a living as an actress in New York was difficult," says the National Shakespeare Conservatory-trained Speace. "But I had a really great time, because I was cast in a lot of Shakespearean roles."
But she found herself writings songs -- and feeling the pull to leave the theater stage behind for the stages of coffee houses and clubs. In 2006 this self-described late bloomer with a pawn shop guitar attracted the attention of Judy Collins -- who released Speace’s second album Songs For Bright Street on her Wildflower Records label. And before long she’d left the acting life behind. She even left New York behind for Nashville -- to get closer to the country and folk music world that she'd fallen in love with.
Speace thought that she’d said goodbye to the theater for good -- until life started handing her challenges of Shakespearean proportions.
Among the challenges that she faced was the sudden, and inexplicable loss of her voice, in 2011. "It was a mystery, it was such a sudden thing." she says. "I just woke up one day and my voice was gone. And I had to go through a period of two months of not singing, and wondering if I would ever sing again. And if I couldn't sing, what would I do next?"
As she faced these questions, in the midst of writing How To Sleep In A Story Boat (out April 16th), she turned to her old friend, Shakespeare --- and characters like Desdemona and Othello -- for help.
"I realized I was kind of in same ways starting a conversation with characters I knew so well, from fifteen or twenty years ago," Speace says. "And once I realized that I didn't want to tell anybody. I thought I'd keep it a secret, because I thought -- that's a record than nobody's going to want to listen to."
But there are reasons why Shakespeare has endured -- and Speace tapped into this.
"These are ordinary people in extraordinary situations, that out from their mouths, from this human moment of loss or grief or passion, or revenge, came poetry," explains Speace. "And so to have a folk song have a conversation with Othello or Desdemona or Henry V seemed strange -- until I realized that we’re all dealing with the same thing."
For the title track, “How To Sleep In A Stormy Boat,” she drew on the story of King Lear.
"I didn't take King Lear and say, 'I love this monologue' when he's raging at the winds and think, 'Oh I’ll write a song to that,'" Speace says. "I thought, 'I wonder what character this might relate to?' And King Lear, the first thing that came to mind was 'blow winds blow, crack rage.' He's fighting against so many demons at that moment -- against the weather, grief at his daughters, anger, rage. He's also fighting against his impending death. He's losing his mind in senility and he can't do anything about it -- that's what he's got. And our bodies fail us, our minds fail us, the people we love fail us -- but we still have to find a way to stay in that ship."
But for all the stormy seas, and grief and rage, the album is ultimately a celebration of perseverance and hope -- from the opening notes of the very first song, "The Fortunate Ones."
"I wanted to open the record with it rather than close the record with it," Speace says, "because I wanted it to be a little bit like the prologue. The narrator comes out before the play begins and tells you its going to be ok at the end, and then you can go through it. It's a journey, and I'm going to tell you at the start that we are going to go through some rough times -- but we're going to end up ok, because we've gone through this."
The full album -- which features appearances by John Fullbright on "The Sea & The Shore," Mary Gauthier on "The Fortunate Ones," and cellist Ben Sollee on "Lullabye Under The Window," -- was released on April 16th. Audio is no longer available for this feature.