The writer and visual artist explores a new creative dimension on 'Confessions and Culpabilities,' her spoken word debut with band Call Me Rita

Artist and writer Vanessa Jean Speckman recently experienced a whirlwind few weeks traversing the U.K. with partner Micah Schnabel as the musician opened a string of February Frank Turner dates that unfolded just as the world dominoed into coronavirus-driven shutdowns.

“We were fortunate to get out of the U.K. right before the U.S. went into lockdown,” Speckman said recently by phone of the abandoned tour. “We flew out of Heathrow [Airport], and our layover was in Chicago … and I think by that point both of our nerves were pretty shot and everything felt like survival mode. It was like, 'Let’s get through customs. Now let’s get through the CDC. Let’s get our bags. Are we going to make our next flight? How do we get home from the airport? Do we ask a friend? Call an Uber?' There was a lot of moral compass conversation. There was no right or wrong, but we could only make the best decision for ourselves and everybody else in that moment.”

In a way, the experience serves as a nice summation of Speckman’s new spoken word poetry album with band Call Me Rita, Confessions and Culpabilities, released in late March, where early pieces centered on anxiety and turmoil gradually reveal hidden promise, highlighting those moments of beauty that manage to scratch and claw their way to the surface amid the terrible swirl. Witness the album-closing “Wildflowers,” a “Rear Window”-esque exploration of the life unfolding outside of a campus-adjacent apartment, Speckman writing of trash (piled up by departing Ohio State students) and tragedy (in one stanza a man gets murdered in the alley) before dialing in on the wildflowers that spring up amid the chaos and clutter. “Everything is possible and it’s all happening,” Speckman recites atop the driving, intuitive musical backdrop, crafted by a crack band of players that includes guitarists Schnabel and Jay Gasper, drummer Jason Winner and Todd May on synthesizer.

Other moments on the album have taken on added dimensions in light of current events. “I’m socially isolated via life choices,” Speckman states early on the eight-track, 13-minute-long Confessions, which was recorded in Gasper’s North Side studio in mid-February, weeks before self-isolation became government-mandated policy.

“I was listening back, as well, and there’s a piece with N-95 masks, and I didn’t even know what those were until the California fires last year … where the air quality was so bad, and I had parents at risk, so we had to go get masks for them,” Speckman said. “So some things do take on whole new context. … This is my first record. I’ve always been in print media or visual art, so having something exist in this way where you can come back to it is exciting and different, like, ‘Oh, shit, that means something totally different to me now.’ It’s a new paintbrush in my closet.”

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While new, the progression to spoken word is a natural evolution for Speckman, who traced her fondness for language to an early interest in the alphabet, which she described as “radically free.” “All of humanity has access to it, which fascinates me,” she said. “It’s the bassline for so much art and creativity.”

This includes a portion of Speckman’s work as a visual artist, which can build around simple words or phrases that carry a comparatively massive emotional weight, T-shirts, keychains and patches emblazoned with phrases such as: “Stay soft stay brave”; “You are a radical weapon of mass construction”; and “Passionate vulnerability and ferocious benevolence is a form of resistance.”

“It’s something I was struggling with within my art, like, 'OK, I’m a visual painter, but I’m also a writer and how can I incorporate that into my visual work?'” Speckman said. “I’ve always explored how to use words, and I think it’s just constantly been developing. [Making an album] is just the next natural phase for me.”

The record loosely started with Speckman reciting words at home atop Schnabel’s casual acoustic playing, but the artist knew early on that she wanted a fuller sound “with a beat and some dance to it,” as she described it.

“I didn’t want it to be some dramatic, boring piece where you’re just feeling the heaviness of the words,” she said. “I wanted it to feel like I do when I listen to music, or when I read poems or even pages in a book, where I can hear and see things in my head. … That's what I wanted to capture with the sound and music, where there’s a sweet bassline and a poppy drum beat and you’re like, ‘What am I swinging my hips to right now?’ You don’t have to associate [the words] with sadness or somber sounds. It can be a celebration, or a roller coaster, where you’re feeling all of these emotions. And I guess I hope that’s where those eight tracks in 13 minutes take you, making you explore those feelings and hopefully leaving you where you know that maybe we all feel that way at some point in time, and that it’s all OK.”