Right When It’s Right: An Interview with Brian Lambert

I’m not sure how long I had been following singer-songwriter Brian Lambert on Twitter when I really started to take notice of him and his work, but over the past week or so, something about his posts really started catching my eye. Maybe it was a reference to Brian Eno’s oblique strategies. Or his recent cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas.” Or the fact that he once played the part of Buddy Holly onstage. Or his yearlong quest to write and record a song a week for a full year. Then again, maybe it was just the overall theme of kindness and generosity that pervades his tweets that made me want to learn more about him. Whatever the case, I’m glad I did, because his big-hearted indie rock reflects an impeccably crafted blend of eclectic interests. 

What inspired you to embark on your fifty-two week song challenge, and how is it going?  

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the challenge and things music and social media.  The fifty-two week Song Challenge was born out of a desire to showcase what is hard to show – talent, specifically the ability to write a lot of songs.   I write anywhere from thirty to fifty songs a year, but that was a hard thing to demonstrate.   The idea of showcasing that process one week at a time and taking people along for the ride seemed the way to do it.  Also I had never felt like I had really ever made a great recording.  Pre-pandemic I was performing three to five times a week and heard “you’re much better live than in your recordings” so much that I wanted to finally get the magic down on tape, so to speak.  Throw in the obsession for mixing and mastering that came as a result of lockdown and a Fifty-Two Week Song Challenge is born.

Has anything about writing and recording a song a week surprised you? Have you learned anything interesting about yourself – or about songwriting – from the experience?  

I think I was surprised by how much I still have to learn and will probably never stop learning.  Probably the biggest songwriting and performance lesson has been about the connection between melody and really hitting the right notes, both from a pitch sense but more about how certain melodic experiences create an impact for the listener.  One of the questions I find myself asking now that I didn’t before, but is the foundation for all I do now, is what do I want the song to do?  What I mean is, how do I want it to make people feel?  Lyrics have always been my focus, but people don’t pay attention, myself included, until the music makes them feel something.  Once you have someone’s attention, they can really hear what you’re trying to say.  

You definitely got my attention! Early in the challenge, you mentioned that your sense of patience was evolving as the challenge progressed. Can you say more about that? Why is patience so important for songwriters and creative people in general? 

Music is right when it’s right.  You don’t have to think about why your favorite songs are your favorite songs.  When it comes out of the speakers, it hits you.  I think as a songwriter you hear a song in your head but getting it to come to life requires sitting with something and listening until it tells you it’s ready.  Getting that right alchemy of beat, rhythm and melody can take time and so can capturing a performance that conveys the meaning you want.  Guitar parts matter, vocal parts matter, and you can’t edit them into existence.   Early on it would sometimes take three hours to really nail the feel and that can be frustrating.  Being patient with the song and taking an attitude that you’re exploring until you find what you’re looking for was a challenge.  Now I’m much more intentional about really asking the question “What am I going for?” before I start. Listening to takes and asking what is missing or what needs to be left out has drastically reduced that time because you can definitely suck the life out of song by overdoing it.

I’ve been guilty of that myself sometimes! One thing that strikes me about your songs, though, is that you’re not only releasing a lot of music, but you’re releasing a lot of good music. These aren’t just toss-offs for the sake of meeting a quota, and you’re clearly thinking about producing a final product as opposed to a demo. What is your process like? What guides your approach to music production?

I’m definitely trying to improve every piece of work that I put out there.  The goal of this is to make a living off my recorded work going forward, so it all has to be good.  All killer, no filler.

My desire is to make music as good as the best music being made and the music being made today is exceptional.

The process really has evolved over the course of the project.  Recently I’ve been doing single mic acoustic recordings, which involves doing takes until I have the feel I want.  For my other work I usually start with some rough guitar and vocal to find a beat, then come back to create a bass line you start with the foundation of the song.  Then it’s a matter of putting down guitar until it’s the right feel, then vocals and solos.  I’ll ask myself, does it need synths and depending on where I am with things add those.  Then mix and master.  It’s not that exciting but when you’re producing a song a week where you’re performing the parts, you really just have to get down to it.

And come up with an attractive way of packaging it! I love the line drawings you use as cover art. Are those your drawings? 

Actually they are my fourteen-year-old daughter.  She really has a talent.  It’s ironic, I’m not particularly good at drawing but my dad is an amazing artist and was the head of an art department at a small college in south Texas.  My wife and both my children are really talented when it comes to the visual arts.

“Shade of Blue” cover art

Your song “Small Mercies” is extremely powerful, and the chorus, “Sometimes small mercies will make all things right,” reflects the sense I get from many of your Twitter posts that the world can use a little more kindness and generosity, especially when it comes to social media. Why do you think it’s so important to share that message right now? 

Once feelings start to get hurt like they have been over the last few years, you notice that the small courtesies or giving the people the benefit of the doubt start to erode.  When that happens meaningful communication can’t happen.  I think there was a missed opportunity with social media to practice kind communication.  Part of that was not connecting that there was a real person typing the words.  We thought words don’t matter but as we have seen though they do and can cause real damage.  The real opportunity that exists with social media is the opportunity to be thoughtful.  There is an opportunity to read a comment and question your own opinions/thoughts/motivations/feelings before sharing them out into the world and that opportunity is still here.   Social media has shown us there is pain in the world that needs healing but it won’t be healed in one big action.  It will heal with small consistent acts of kindness.

A lot of your earlier music has a bit of a country lilt, but your recent work has taken on more of an indie rock feel. What’s behind this shift? 

Honestly, the shift is back to what I was doing before I made “Country Music Jesus.”  Being from Texas I just have that accent and that’s how I sing.  My favorite band is Spoon, and indie rock is the music I love. That being said, I listen broadly to  music. I love Latin American pop and rock from the ‘00s, experimental artists like Brian Eno and Can, as well classic country and what is being called Americana these days. The move to country music was a career move. I live in Texas, so that’s what shows are available to play and get paid for. I have the right voice and can write classic country and story songs so it seemed like a good fit.  It was not. Country Music is a club and I wasn’t ever going to be a member, mostly because my heart wasn’t in it. The music I am making now is the most honest and true to my own musical tastes.

Speaking of “Country Music Jesus,” you sing in that song that you “ain’t got nothing against beers or trucks or America or being with your baby on a Friday night,” but you worry that contemporary country music tends to reduce its fans to stereotypes. I’m guessing this isn’t just true of country music but of all genres. It’s easier to sell music—or any commodity—to a narrowly defined market than to an audience with diverse and complex interests. Is there a way out of this trap, for lack of a better word? 

I believe this is a result of an algorithm driven world.  If things don’t fit neatly into a box then the algorithm doesn’t know what to do with it.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve submitted for playlists and gotten the feedback, “Great song, love the feel, it’s really good but doesn’t fit in with the other music on the playlist.” Well that’s because I’m trying to make something that you haven’t heard yet. If you want to listen to music that’s already been made, it’s already there. I don’t copy it. To overcome this trend, artists must continue to be brave and make different music. For the listener, I’m not sure how you build an awareness that they need to hear a diversity of music. I believe it’s the same as for any process, a diversity of backgrounds, viewpoints, and stories creates better outcomes. Music is the same.

Your most recent release is a cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas.” What attracted you to that particular holiday song?

That’s easy. It’s my wife’s all time favorite Christmas song.  Of course I don’t not have the gorgeous voice of George Michael, but it’s a well written song that lends itself to a different interpretation. Guys who like crunchy guitars get their heart broken too.

And just because I love Buddy Holly, when did you play the role of Buddy, and what was that like?

That was a lot of fun and a lot of work.  They basically came to me and said we need a tall skinny awkward guy from Texas who can sing and play guitar.  Can you do that?  It was funny afterward because people would compliment on the work it took to get Buddy Holly’s awkward dance moves down and I just said thank you, knowing that I was just doing me.  Musically it was an awesome experience because I had to learn 20 Buddy Holly songs and was able to do a deep study into what made his work tick.  It really improved my own songwriting and approach to doing music.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Brian! I really appreciate it!

It’s been my pleasure! I’m looking forward to chatting again soon!