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Polaris-nominated Cold Specks back with second album featuring fuller sound

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TORONTO - Al Spx wrote her first album as Cold Specks in a closet and her second while holed up in a cottage in the dead of winter in Somerset, England. She jokingly described the resulting sound as "doom soul" and the label stuck as a succinct way to describe her haunting melodies.

So why is her music so dark?

"I have no idea — I'm trying to figure that out myself," the 26-year-old singer who goes by a pseudonym said with a laugh.

Dressed in all black accessorized with a gold collar necklace and muted red lips, she orders a lavender butterfly tea at Luna Cafe in Toronto as she talks about her latest musical offering, being released Tuesday.

"I think this record demonstrates a more realized sound for Cold Specks," she said. "It's sonically playful but thematically the record is still fairly dark."

Her 2012 record, "I Predict a Graceful Expulsion," gained popularity in the U.K. and was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize and a Juno here at home. But performing the record while touring for two years left her feeling like a "bad actress," she said.

"I got frustrated with the sparseness of the first one," she said.

Spx wanted the new album to have a fuller sound and carefully chose the first single off "Neuroplasticity" to reflect this.

"'Absisto' was the first song that I started writing and last song that I finished," Spx said. "It showed the growth of the project, so I thought it was the best song to have out first."

The single garnered critical acclaim soon after its release.

"With a sorceress's voice that recalls the seriousness of Odetta and Nina Simone, Cold Specks intones about emptied ammunition and fools not suffered gladly," wrote the Globe and Mail's Brad Wheeler. "She frightens and beckons at once — a scary young package of contradictions."

This frightening and beckoning quality was captured in the music video for the song, which was shot in Toronto by director Ian Pons Jewell, featuring military ghosts haunting an eerily lit forest.

"Directors seem to enjoy putting me in occult situations — I've just rolled with it," Spx said. "I'm not one to focus on visual elements. I just write songs."

Those songs have attracted some famous fans. She was invited to perform at Joni Mitchell's 70th birthday tribute at Massey Hall last year and collaborated with Moby on his latest album. Both Spx and Moby are on the label Mute in the U.S. and when Daniel Miller, who runs Mute, told Moby about Cold Specks, he invited her to his house in L.A. to work on a song.

"It was a very collaborative, creative, fun experience and he’s a wonderful man," she said of her label-mate.

A hallmark of her music is the poetic bent of her pen, which is partially inspired by Pablo Neruda's "Odes to Common Things" and a host of other writers she encountered while studying English literature at the University of Toronto.

“I didn't graduate, but I've done some reading,” she said.

Growing up in Toronto but now a Montrealer, Spx says she "flirted" with living in the U.K. but ultimately decided to move closer to home. Her journey to the U.K. was much like her entry into music — unexpected.

"I never pursued it really. I just kind of fell into it," she said. "I made a record and before even finishing I was asked to play a TV show in the U.K. and then I got signed, and after the record I've been touring endlessly since."

Initially not everyone was happy with her swift success.

"I dropped out of school and just went to a different country for a while without informing my parents, so naturally they were a little frustrated," she said.

"My parents want the best for me. They didn't necessarily think that music was the best for me — but it's all in good in the hood these days and it has been for years."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version erroneously identified the publication Brad Wheeler writes for as the National Post. It is, in fact, the Globe and Mail.

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