Columbus musician, poet and artist Vanessa Jean Speckman spends a lot of time on the road, often touring alongside her partner, the singer and songwriter Micah Schnabel. These travels – particularly in recent pandemic years – have given Speckman a front seat to what she described as a growing weirdness palpable throughout the country.
“And I think it’s consistent everywhere, from the big cities to the small, no-name towns, where there’s an edge on everything and the social contract feels broken,” Speckman said by phone from California in late July. “Doing what we do and living the way we live, it’s hard to ignore. Especially the last three years shoved in with everything from Trump, it just really pressure cooked it all. And I feel there’s an importance in not buttering-up the message or waiting for perfection right now. What’s needed is urgency and reporting back and saying what’s going on.”
This sense of urgency drives “This Is a Stick Up!,” the aggressive, lacerating new single out today (Wednesday, July 19) from Speckman’s band Call Me Rita, which features a bevy of heavy hitters, including Schnabel, Jay Gasper, Jason Winner and Todd May. Atop snarling, ragged guitar and muscled, propulsive drums, Speckman twists generic executive speak (“You have to spend money to make money”) into a sneering evisceration of the capitalist system where even the darkly comic moments feel disturbingly rooted in reality. Witness a line in which Speckman floats death as a means of escaping debt, which actually echoes a recent article in The New York Times. Published in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plans, the feature included “death” as one of the ways a person could still have their student loan debts forgiven, which, while accurate, is also incredibly bleak.
“I was obviously writing and working through my thoughts on capitalism ... and with the student loan thing looming,” said Speckman, who adopted sharper language to match the aggressive musical backdrop that arrived courtesy Gasper. “But at the same time, it’s a plea for all of us to stop being so harsh. I think we’re all so plugged into social media and damaged from the pandemic, and I don’t think we’re showing one another or ourselves enough grace in this time. … This is me getting in the face, trying to call myself out, to call others out, and to remind us to stop cutting each other off at the knees, and that we’re all in this together.”
The ability to remain soft even amid hard times has long been one of Speckman’s abilities, reflected in a slogan the artist has imprinted on keychains and iron-on patches (“Stay Soft Stay Brave”) and even embedded in the name Call Me Rita, which emerged from a story told to Speckman by her mother, Cecilia.
Growing up, Speckman’s mother idolized Rita Hayworth. She also wanted braces, but the family couldn’t afford them. So, during recess at grade school, she would put tinfoil on her teeth and walk around the playground asking classmates to call her Rita. “And so [the band] has always been a departure from what we allow ourselves to be, and to remind us we can be anything we like at any time,” Speckman said. “This project is a reminder to me to not be hardened by all of this. And at the same time, it helps me process and allows me to express things and not hold onto them.”
Speckman’s mother was also an artist, as was her grandfather, and with each generation the trait has pushed closer to the surface. Speckman’s grandfather, for instance, was a painter who kept his craft solely to himself, filling his basement with hundreds of oil paintings that he never shared with the outside world. Speckman’s mother pushed things a step further, studying art in college before pulling back to become a mother and a schoolteacher. Now, buoyed by her mother’s encouragement, Speckman has spread her art far and wide, allowing it to take multiple forms, surfacing in poetry, artwork and, increasingly, the songs she continues to record alongside the members of Call Me Rita.
“This really started out as more of a spoken-word project, where I came to the guys with 10 poems I had finished and then we created this soundscape for it,” Speckman said. “And then I think during the pandemic I got angry. We lost so much financially and so much of our identity and so much work and momentum. And then there was this societal collapse and labor issues and racism. And there was all of this rage and anger that I was filtering through to where I started being like, ‘Hey, Micah, I think I want to write more aggressive, actual songs.’ And in that, everything shifted. … And I guess we’re going to keep writing these songs and making them as we can afford to make them. And each of these small acts of rebellious joy, it’s another day of not giving in.”