By CARLY LEWIS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, January 13, 2018
On a frigid Toronto day in late December, the artist known as Cold Specks wraps her bare hands around the stems of a bushel of Baby's Breath, blazing a stare into a photographer's camera as BMWs and delivery vans weave around her. She wants to get the CN Tower into the shot, a tricky feat given our location: the parking lot of a chichi new restaurant plunked across from a chocolate factory in a quiet industrial stretch of the city's west end.
In vertiginously high platform boots, she determinedly strides from the parking lot to the middle of the road to a nearby alley, her head-to-toe black ensemble - fur coat, baseball cap - and statuesque grace all but crowning her the 6ix Goddess as she scans the skyline for the most quintessentially Toronto view.
"I've been wearing these clothes for three days," she divulges, her elegance uncompromised. Cold Specks has just returned - a day ago - from a performance in Dubai. Before that she was in New York. In a week, she'll fly to Vancouver to perform her last concert of 2017.
In between, she'll go to Chicago, to open for comedian Hannibal Buress, who booked her after becoming a fan at one of her recent shows. (When Buress was arbitrarily arrested in Miami last December, he was wearing a Cold Specks shirt.)
"I am beautifully unhinged right now," she says, citing extensive touring since the September release of her third album as a cause for deep exhaustion. "Initially, it was very exciting. But I was over it by week two. Being in a new city every day is a recipe for mental breakdown. It's emotionally draining. It's physically draining.
... It's excruciating on the mind."
Constant motion, she says, however tiring, is a necessity for her livelihood.
Cold Specks' talent and style - a mosaic of goth-adjacent rock and slow, nourishing soul - have proven difficult for music journalists to define over the years, resulting in an image of exaggerated perplexity. But being interesting and a little enigmatic should not be read as indecipherability.
"My music isn't accessible pop music," she explains. "It's weird, the arrangements are strange, it's not immediate. So I have to work very hard to get my music heard. ... People don't review my records, so I have to hit the cities to get press. That's how I get heard."
Born to Somali parents, Cold Specks grew up in Etobicoke and moved to London, England, in her early 20s. It was from there that she released her 2012 debut, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, which was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. Her 2014 followup, Neuroplasticity, made the award's long list. To many, she's a household name. But Toronto is not a city known for supporting its artists adequately enough that they can stay.
"I first moved away from Toronto because I wasn't getting to where I needed to go as a musician," she says of her London era. "I became successful in the U.K., and suddenly people wanted to write about me in Canada.
... It's my third album now, you know? I'm not the hot new thing here any more."
Cold Specks' most recent album, Fool's Paradise, was written slowly, over the course of several years, and recorded in Toronto. She moved out of her condo in the city before going on tour last summer and has yet to relocate, although Los Angeles is on her mind. "I don't live anywhere," she says. "I'm just on tour." Most nights she crashes at the studio where she's been plotting her next album, writing arrangements in the dead of night and waking at 5 a.m. to play guitar. "I'm very productive," she says, adding that she wants her next album out in 2018.
Herein lies the commotion of Cold Specks - the need to work and the need to rest, which seem in tectonic conflict with one another. She's exhausted, but no less ambitious, feeling weathered but still gets up before the sun. "I've learned to do this dance really well," she says. "Music is so much a part of me, I'm just constantly doing it."
She's a laborious perfectionist; that's clear in her work. But she's sensible enough to shrug things off sometimes. "I hate my first album," she says. "It's a traumatic collection of songs. It's a quarter-life crisis trapped in time. I think this one is, like, Saturn Return. The content is dark, but sonically it's hopeful." I ask how old she is. Twentynine: indeed her Saturn Return (the astrological period of one's life when Saturn completes its orbit around the Sun, normally at 291/2 years). "Look at me," she says with a laugh, gesturing at her fur, her drink, her jet lag, the sprigs of Baby's Breath beside her, and tucked behind her ear.
"I'm deep in my Saturn Return."
"I saw an interview with Amy Winehouse recently, where she talked about how writing deeply personal songs came naturally to her. For me, it's an excruciating process," she says. "I cut myself open and extract emotions and I mould them into melodies.
Some people like it, some people don't. I don't care. ... But I do think I'm underrated."
The word "excruciating" comes up again when we discuss the burden of discussing. "Some of the songs on the album reflect on where I come from, a reaction to seeing my country on the news, but they're not political songs, they're just reflections," she says. "Me celebrating my heritage, how does that turn into a political narrative? I want to be able to celebrate who I am without feeling like I'm feeding vultures ethnic meat to chew on or giving people opportunities to sloppily convey otherness. A great deal of press around this record has felt like that. ... I just want to exist."
Cold Specks's tenacious, sibylline essence is such that her sublunary qualities add to her splendour. She knows where to get good Baby's Breath, cites Drake's More Life among her favourite albums of 2017, groans over the restaurant's slow service and elects to go get pho instead of ordering from the menu that has at last been placed in front of us. She wonders if the doorman has an extra cigarette. (He doesn't, so we ask the cook.)
"I'm not trying to be famous," she says. "I'm just a weirdo Aquarius artist."
Canadian musician Cold Specks is seen in Toronto on Dec. 21, 2017.
COLE BURSTON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL