Amy Speace '90 Sings Her Way Into Stardom
Music and theater were always passions for Amy Speace. Even as a young girl, she knew she wanted to pursue singing or acting as a career. She achieved her dream by setting goals at every step along the way. “I don’t think I ever wanted to be a rock star or a Broadway actress winning a Tony,” said Speace. “Even though my visions were huge, my goals were small and in front of me.”
Speace’s passion for music began when she was three. Raised in a small town, her involvement in music and theater fostered her evolution into a savvy businesswoman in the music industry and a successful producer.
“If you’re constantly playing shows and letting people know where your shows are, you can self-produce or at least make back your investment and make a more significant fan base for your next album, like how Dave Matthews Band did it,” Speace said.
Speace has performed at New York City clubs such as the Living Room, CB’s Gallery and the Cutting Room. She is also part of a songwriter’s circle called the Urban News, a network of independent touring musicians, which includes Lilith Fair
finalists Amy Fairchild, Rachel Sage, Jenny Bruce and Joan Davidson. “[We are] a bunch of New York City songwriters kind of in the same genre,” explained Speace. “We all cite Jonatha Brooke [’84, a former Sabrina] as a big influence.”
From Small Town Girl To Big City Star
Despite her early love for music, Speace’s first professional endeavor was in acting. “A lot of people said to pursue performing,” said Speace. “[Professor of English] Barry O’Connell said to me, “If I see you in a graduate program in the next couple of years, I’m going to take you out.”
Professor of Theater and Dance Suzanne Dougan also commented on Speace’s talents in theater. “Amy was a wonderful student and was really interested in playwriting,” said Dougan. “She eventually began to see a
relationship between her musical background and her playwrighting as an art.”
Following the advice of her professors at Amherst, Speace pursued acting in New York City and is now an actress with the National Shakespeare Conservatory. “I do visiting artist workshops,” said Speace. “It’s where a public high school in New York City would hire a teacher from a theater company to get [the students] to find the language more accessible.”
Unfortunately, Speace did not find acting as fulfilling as she had hoped. “I was creatively on fire after coming out of acting school but I didn’t have the opportunity,” she explained. “I think by hanging out with my boyfriend and his band I just started writing [songs]. I think creatively I was bored with acting.”
After learning to play the guitar by mimicking her boyfriend’s hand positions, Speace and former Sabrina Erin Ash Sullivan ’91 formed a new band, Edith O, and played at Speace’s five-year college reunion. Speace and Sullivan’s group was originally called Edith of Ohio, but they changed the name to avoid confusion with another music band, Eddy of Ohio. Although they seem similar, Edith of Ohio had a significant meaning for Speace.
“It was Edith of Ohio, the name of a wild beast child from the 1800s, like a jungle book girl,” explained Speace. “But nobody who knew me in college would’ve thought that this was what I would have done.”
As a member of the Sabrinas, Speace arranged many songs, including “Breaths,” “Dog Dog,” “We Are Family” and “Miles Away.” “I was also surrounding myself with people who were composers and songwriters and I would try to do it myself,” said Speace.
There are also references to Amherst in some of her songs. “It has gotten into my music in a sideways way, like a reference to college or to the lake,” said Speace. In “Bottled Girl,” she mentions the Gristmill, a path that she would run during her college years.
Speace has fond memories of Amherst since her graduation in 1990. “It was intellectually a really creatively stimulating place to be,” she said. “It certainly made me into a writer, that’s for sure.”
Speace was actually drawn to Amherst at a young age by her grandmother. “[My grandmother] used to read me Robert Frost poems,” explained Speace. “I found out Robert Frost’s connections with Amherst, so I had always had Amherst in my mind just because of the poem ‘Birches.'”
Due to her small town roots, Speace’s ideal school was a small college fostering a sense of community like Amherst. “I do much better with one-on-one instruction than being in a large room. I would’ve just fallen asleep,” she said. “Had I come to Amherst specifically because I wanted to be an opera singer or an actor, I would’ve come to the wrong place.”
Speace pursued her musical and theatrical interests both at Amherst and in the Five College community. She sang in the Sabrinas, co-hosted a jazz show on WAMH and was one of the original members of Mr. Gad’s House of Improv. “Mark [van Wye ’90, founder of Mr. Gad’s] is the most creative person I’ve ever met in my life,” said Speace. “Mr. Gad was, I think, an elementary school teacher of his.”
Speace also performed in “Sweeney Todd” and “Ms. Julie” at Amherst and in various student productions at Smith College. “We didn’t do Shakespeare or anything classical at Amherst; we did a lot of avant garde stuff,” said Speace. “But I like the mainstream classical, so I went there [to the Five Colleges].”
Like most Amherst alumns, Speace tries to attend homecoming regularly. “My friend, Daniel Danyas, stole part of the Williams’ goalpost and kept it in his room,” she said. “But to tell you the truth, I used to go to the Amherst football games and I’d wander around with my friends and never pay attention to the games.”
The professors and unique student body are what Speace remembers most about Amherst. “I hung out with a lot of highly creative, highly distracted people,” she said. “The people I knew from Amherst were the people who became yoga instructors and bakers, not your normal legacies who follow their fathers into their law firms.”
Professor of English Andrew Parker and Dougan were Speace’s mentors in the English and Theater departments. “She was a terrific student [and was] interested in everything,” said Parker. “She was good in everything she did and since graduation, she had been trying to figure out what made her happy.”
Speace is also indebted to Professor of Theater and Dance Peter Lobdell and O’Connell, her English advisor, both of whom encouraged her to pursue performance art, she added. “Each of them helped me, Barry and Andy especially,” said Speace. “When I was graduating, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Everyone else was applying to graduate school and going on to jobs, and then all of a sudden it was the end of the year and I had to figure my life out.”
But O’Connell was not always Speace’s favorite professor. Speace excelled in her American Studies class with O’Connell but he failed her final paper. “I thought he
really admired and respected me, but I was so horrified,” Speace said. “That’s why I think he was the best teacher I ever had. He failed me, but didn’t disrespect me and he was waiting for me to see why I failed.”
Speace’s education at Amherst wasn’t limited to the classroom. Protests about gay and lesbian students at Amherst during Speace’s freshman year were shocking, according to Speace. “[It was] a very interesting sort of education on diversity-having it right in my face from day one at college,” said Speace. “It was funny because I’d go home for Thanksgiving my freshman year and demand to be called a woman and not a girl. All of a sudden, my awareness had increased tenfold.”
Also an active participant with the Women’s Center, Speace attributes the increased attention to sexuality to the rampant drinking parties on campus. “When I was there, drinking was constant from freshmen to seniors,” Speace said. “[After I graduated], they had started to card people and that really surprised me. So it’s no wonder that the big discussion on campus was date rape and sexual harassment, because a lot of people were getting tanked.”
But Speace was more concerned with
fulfilling her double major in English and theater. “I partied enough in the first semester of my freshman year to realize that you couldn’t party that much because you have a lot of
reading to do,” she said.
Surrounded by newly formed groups and theater companies, Speace became comfortable with innovation. “I didn’t have the fear of starting something new,” she explained. “It does help that, in a sense, if I fail in making a living [writing songs] I can do this as a hobby and get a good job during the day.”
Speace is producing “Restless” with her bass player, John Abbey, but she added that her husband claims to be the inspiration for many of her songs. “My husband tends to think all of the songs are about him,” said Speace. “He thinks every time I make a reference to cigarette smoke it’s about him.”
Speace currently resides in New Jersey, but a move to Amherst may be a possibility. She is a self-proclaimed “winter fanatic” with a love for snowboarding. “I’m a big winter freak so I would hate L.A.,” Speace added.
“If and when I do have children, I’d love to end up in a place like Northampton or Amherst. For a small, rural, farming town, it’s got a lot of culture,” added Speace.