When I spoke to Brian Lambert back in December, he was well into his 52-week song challenge. Designed to showcase his skills as a songwriter, the challenge has also given Lambert a showcase for his ever-increasing skill as a music producer. Songs like “We Are OK” and the more recent “Heroes at the Dawn of Time,” “In Your Face,” “Kids,” “Hang Out with You,” and Lambert’s cover of the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” reflect a wide range of influences while allowing his craftsmanship to shine. As he nears the finish line, I thought I’d drop him a line to see what the year-long experience has meant to him.
Fifty-two songs in fifty-two weeks! How does it feel?
Thank you, Marc, for this opportunity to talk about what was a pretty epic adventure in music making. As you can imagine there is quite the range of emotions: relief, excitement, a bit of sadness. Overall, I‘m very proud of climbing this mountain I set out to climb. In some sense, though, I’m really still so close to it that it’s hard to really put into words what the whole experience means. I don’t know if I can until it’s a bit further in the rear view mirror.
Yeah, I guess it’s hard to have perspective when you’re still so close… Were you ever tempted to give up? What kept you going?
I don’t know if I was ever tempted to give up per se. There were some outside pressures with money that made me question whether finishing this was the right thing to do, but by that point I was almost at the end and people were cheering me on. It didn’t make sense to stop then. More than that was the question of whether I could get the music done in time to keep on the song-a-week schedule. I took a fall and injured myself which caused me to get behind. The music takes the amount of time it takes to make and it created some anxiety around being able to complete it in the time I had set out for myself. It was important to finish though, and working on music is the one thing I can do regardless of my mood or disposition.
I’m curious as to whether the parameters or even the purpose of the challenge changed for you over the course of the year. Did you go in expecting one thing and getting another?
I was intentional at the beginning about being loose with the parameters. It was such a huge undertaking I wanted to give myself as much grace as possible. The purpose was to realize my potential in terms of songwriting, performance on a recording, and my production/mixing mastering skills. I knew I wanted to write new songs in new ways, I knew I wanted to do some cover tunes and write a couple of instrumentals, but besides that it was really get a song a week out to the world every week for 52 weeks straight. I view things a bit differently now, but do feel confident about my ability to express myself in the studio.
What did you learn about yourself as a result of this challenge?
One, I love music. There were times where I had to sit down and play when I wasn’t feeling it but afterwards I was almost always glad I did. I’m not tired of music and am ready to start working on new music. I suppose the biggest thing is that I don’t have to be perfect, that I’m perfectly alright just the way I am. Not sure how I came about that realization in the process, but I do feel that way now. The other part is becoming less cerebral about the whole process. Thinking doesn’t make good music, it’s more of a feel thing. I honestly don’t remember how I did much of the last part of the challenge. There was a lot of just hitting record and letting it rip. I think that’s how you get the right feel, loose and free.
What about your evolution as a songwriter?
I’m definitely more of a melody/music first songwriter now than I was before. There were lots of times during the process later on when I would have all the music but no vocals or lyrics and then come up with them listening to the track. Before this I would need a fully composed song on the guitar before starting. This has been freeing in a lot of ways and allows me to kind of compose lyrics to the overall vibe of the track as opposed to feeling like I have to be able to sit down with a guitar and play the whole thing out.
Listening to your most recent tracks, I’m struck by your exponential growth as a music producer. What are some ways you’ve evolved in that regard? Any tricks or tips you can share with readers?
I think that is a result of listening with the mindset of an objective listener. After doing so many tracks, it gets easier to notice when you start to get bored with the song. Like a more passive than active listening where if I start to lose interest, I think about what I can do to keep my attention. So much is about what you take out at certain parts than what you put in. Creating subtle dynamics with volume or eq is one way to do that, but I’ve found arrangement is probably the most effective way to keep listeners interested over the course of a song.
I’m also thinking about the sheer number of songs you’ve released. Do you think of them all as being of a single piece—like one massive album—or do different songs fit into different categories and represent different sides of who you are as an artist?
I think of the project of going through some distinct phases. Phase one was just getting a sense of things and experimenting, I’d say up to about up to “On Your Side,” which was song 16. I really just kind of played around with different approaches and ways of doing things. Phase two was definitely an indie pop/rock stage which is most encapsulated in the We Are Ok album that I released only on Bandcamp. By that time I felt like I had a specific method and was going for more or less a unified sound with an album in mind. Next I decided to explore one-mic recordings and getting a great performance without hiding behind production. It seemed to me that was the element that was still lacking for me. I had always been told I was way better live than on recordings and I wanted to finally get over that hump. So I basically just sang take after take until I got it right. The last phase was the last 12 songs which to me make up an album and was really me taking everything I had learned and putting it all together. There is a bit of a grungy aspect to some of the songs because I was just feeling that. The last 12 saw me do a collaboration, wink, a co-write, and three of the songs were inspired by Twitter friends. I was really happy with how all of them came out and really feel like the best work was right there at the end.
What do you think about this body of work that didn’t exist a year ago?
I feel great about it and, ironically enough, about the work I released prior to it as well. This process was about growth and learning to accept myself, and I accomplished that. It’s still really a ton to process. I wish I had some really great insight that I could share about the whole experience, but I think whenever you do something this big, the scale of what you’ve done won’t make sense until a little further down the road. I guess in a rambling way I’m saying I’m still too close to it to have perspective. I know that for the first time I listen to my own work and really enjoy it and for me that’s a huge win.
Definitely a huge win! What’s the plan now that you’ve met the challenge?
Gosh, I need to figure out the whole how do I make a living thing. I’m looking at ways to do it from art but the reality that I need to add some dollars to the bottom line is ever present, so figuring that out is a priority. Artistically, I have a remix that I did for Scoopski coming out soon and then another collaboration with Marc Schuster* that I am super excited about. I need to release some of the songs in album form. I’d like to do more collaborations and just contribute to other projects and help people realize a bit more of their own visions, but nothing concrete as of the moment.
Do you think you’ll do it again?
No, not intentionally in any case. I’ve proven what I need to myself in terms of my ability to write and produce quality work. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in time working with other people that I surpassed that output but as for creating challenges that have to do with a volume of work in a set amount of time that challenge has been met.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Brian!
It was my pleasure Marc, thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the huge journey that I just completed.
*Hey! That’s me!