At a recent show at the Tractor Tavern, Jamie Spiess—the young woman who performs under the name Husbands, Love Your Wives—arrived just moments before her set was scheduled to start, spent its first few minutes tuning up onstage in front of the small crowd, and then introduced her first songs thusly: "I've never played this song in public before, but I'm sure you've all had a similar experience.... The last time I played the Tractor, I had just gotten out of the hospital." The room shifted from polite to nervous silence. "And last night, I just got out again. So... cheers. You can buy me a drink later."
Between songs, Spiess—who sometimes performs solo, other times flanked by best friend Damien Jurado on guitar and Steve Norman on pedal steel—observed that the wallflower crowd was "kind of awkward," she twice asked audience members if they had "any questions about anything" and was answered each time with several beats of silence, she said she "was so sad" when she heard she had missed seeing the previous day's snowfall, and she recalled a recent reviewer who wrote that he wanted to "take the stage and take away my guitar." She added, "If any of you are having those thoughts, please do it—I would give it up gladly; this would be the best day to do it."
The shrinking (or slightly unstable) violet isn't exactly a novel stage persona in semipopular music. Countless indie-rock bands eschew eye contact and banter in favor of withdrawn shoe-gazing. XTC's Andy Partridge retired from performing due to stage fright; Nick Drake's distaste for doing shows and interviews hindered his career during his lifetime as much as it's added to his legend. Cat Power's Chan Marshall—pre–rehab and Chanel modeling—held a notorious reputation for painfully borderline performances.
Spiess fits firmly within this hallowed and awkward tradition. You almost wonder why any person so delicate would subject herself to the stage and the spotlight, but her emotional rawness seems genuine enough.
"I had a really rough year," says Spiess, sipping rose tea and smoking half a cigarette at home in the small, daintily decorated Capitol Hill studio apartment where she does all her recording alone. Spiess seems far more comfortable here than onstage, though her voice and hands still tremble faintly at times. "Since I moved to Seattle, eight people I grew up with who are my age died, and all from suicides and heroin overdoses and horrible accidents," she says. (She also recently lost her favorite childhood horse, which broke its neck trying to jump a fence. And last week, one of her two Persian cats died in an accident.) "It's been just really bizarre and intense. And this year, it was too much, finally, and I kind of just cracked."
Spiess grew up in the tiny town of Woodland, in southwest Washington. She moved to Seattle five years ago and began making music in 2006 while living in Germany and working as a nanny. Upon returning from abroad, she hooked up with Baskerville Hill Records and recorded a batch of songs with Throw Me the Statue's Scott Reitherman at an Oregon Coast beach house. "It was going to be my record," says Spiess. "But it's been so long, and everything's changed so much—it was just when I was starting out—and so we scrapped those songs, and I've just been waiting till I felt like it now."
Spiess's early efforts also attracted the patronage of veteran musician Jurado, who found her via her MySpace page; he now regularly performs with Husbands, Love Your Wives. He's recorded a cover of Spiess's song "Put the Hatchet Down," and he's also written songs for her. He seems to be something of a rock when Spiess needs something to hold on to.
The culmination of Spiess's rough year was a two-week hospital stay in the fall of 2008 to treat what she describes as "major depression and extreme post-traumatic stress disorder." Spiess had been set to begin another attempt at recording a full-length this winter, but those plans were put on hold. Instead, while in the hospital, she and Jurado corresponded by sending each other songs ("I could only write the words while I was there," says Spiess), resulting in the limited-edition EP A Tender Story of Songs Between Tender Friends, which was for sale by donation at a recent benefit show to help cover Spiess's medical bills.
Like any confessional artist, there's some amount of self-mythologizing at work here. (Perhaps tellingly, Spiess has a copy of Phil Elverum's new diary, Dawn, whose preface begins, "Hello. I'm a self-mythologizer. That's just how it is.")
As much as Spiess shies away from talking about her recent depression and hospitalization (although, she notes, "I'm not embarrassed—I think depression is a serious issue"), she's also publicized the fact with the benefit show and EP. Her songs are without a doubt sincere, but they also seem smartly self-aware. On one song, she sings, "And I won't sing about all my friends who are dead anymore/I know how that annoys you/So I will sing about all of my friends who are living." On another, she sings, "My friend Jenny says/Jamie, all your moons will align/And your friends won't die."
Spiess's songs, on the EP and elsewhere, all share a simple sonic formula: a few chords slowly, gently strummed on an acoustic guitar, her voice singing a halting melody, all recorded to a single mic with plenty of ambient hiss and hum.
"I don't even consider myself a musician," demurs Spiess, adding that she's "pretty terrified" of the music scene. "I just bought a guitar, and somebody showed me three chords—pretty much the same three chords I use on every song."
Spiess says her songs are more "like little tales," and while there's nothing wrong with her guitar playing or her winsome voice, her lyrics are by far their most arresting feature. Her stark songs are teeming with ghosts—of her friends, of her horse, of imagined and yearned for babies—and image-rich details: walnut shells, apple trees, blackberries, bassinets, cold hands, empty apartments, selfish mouths, lifted skirts.
Spiess says she might leave Seattle soon, maybe for Europe again, maybe for a slow-food school in Italy, but she'd like to record an album first, Jurado's schedule permitting.
"The music is changing," she says. "The stories are changing, and I can't really explain how. But the mood is different, which is good. I have kind of a new mindset about things, which is basically that you can make your own choices. You can choose your happiness, or you can choose your sadness..." she trails off, "sometimes."