When an artist makes a record that speaks of uncomfortable truths and the everyday anxieties of real life, it might sound from a distance like the kind you'd shy away from. But when it's Autonomy, delivered via the compellingly inclusive songwriting of Stephanie Lambring, it’s no wonder that it would in fact end 2020 with a trove of year's-best eulogies from NPR to Rolling Stone.
An Indiana-native, Lambring has been an adopted Nashvillean for 15 years, having moved to the city at the age of 19. After releasing an early and formative record in her own name in 2009 (and overcoming the learning curve of two publishing deals), Autonomy sees the songwriter return to her artistry with a more mature and assured grounding in who she is. Often using rootsy modern rock as its sonic base, the record addresses subjects that others might tiptoe around - from the agonies of self-image to religious extremism and the stigma of old age - and continues to turn heads with its lyrical realism.
Holler sat down with Lambring, an artist whose emotional honesty is making her such a name to note, to discuss the inspiration behind her fearless songwriting.
Autonomy is not a record that fits snugly into the country or even the Americana box. How do you describe it?
After I finished the record, my publicist asked me, “What genre would you call yourself?” In my mind, I was indie rock. I don't feel super country, but I've been labelled as country and Americana. I definitely have country influences, so I'm sure that comes through. But something I've really realised through this process is how accepting the Americana genre is, and I love that. In country music, you see women fighting to be heard, and I don't think you really see that in the Americana world. I love that a lot of writing looks inward and then puts it out into the world - it might sound contradictory, but I think sometimes the more specific you get, the more universal it becomes.
What people are picking up on is the broad range of challenging subjects you face head on.
I think I cover so many topics because, first of all, I love leaning into the human experience. Whenever I wrote songs for a living on Music Row, I pretty much only wrote breakup songs. I remember planning set lists and getting tired of “Here's one heartbreak song, and here's an even sadder heartbreak song”. When I left my publishing deal, I was like, “I can't write another breakup song right now”. I just had to write about every other thing that was weighing on my mind.
Some of these lyrics are so specifically descriptive, it feels that they must be about you. Is that right?
Yeah, there are definitely pieces of me woven into each song, and some of them are straight-up autobiographical. 'Daddy's Disappointment' and 'Pretty', the first two songs, are straight-up my life.
With 'Pretty', the narrator is in fifth grade and being cruelly taunted about her weight. Was that cathartic to write?
It's definitely cathartic, because the experiences I wrote about in 'Pretty' have haunted my brain for decades. I think that writing it out was a step of the healing process. Instead of [just writing] “I'm beautiful how I am”, I wanted to go to the root of it. Why do you feel this pressure to be a certain way? Or why is this still showing up in your life when you're in your 30’s? Women of all ages have related to it.
The song that affected me more than any other on Autonomy was 'Old Folks Home'. It describes the realities of old age and dementia with such piercing truth that it's almost quite hard to listen to.
I've heard that a lot about this one, and people saying they can only listen to it once. My boyfriend says, “It's really good, but I can't listen to it”. Both of my grandmothers spent time in nursing homes, and the first line of the song, “621 South Sugar Street, that’s where they’re taking Josephine”, is where she spent her last several years. My other grandmother spent time in that one too, so that felt very important to write about. I think a lot of people are guilty of disconnecting from the humanity of someone who's ageing. I have been too.
'Joy Of Jesus' tackles the intolerance of extreme religious beliefs, particularly towards gay people.
It's such a painful thing that I've seen so many friends experience. I have gay friends who would give anything to be straight; just because of the really conservative, evangelical upbringing they had. It's so complex, I just felt it needs to be spoken.
The word that crops up a lot about your songwriting is “fearless”. Is that a compliment?
It's really validating for me. I love that that's the word. It makes me want to continue doing what I do and lean into other things that people maybe don't talk about.
When you moved to Nashville, did you do so with the traditional dream?
Yes, but I didn't have a clear vision of what I wanted to do. When I went there, I had just started writing songs, but I didn't really know what was in store. I graduated from college in 2009, then I released an album called Lonely To Alone, which had some plays from BBC Radio 2. Bob Harris played me on his programme, and that opened the door for some touring in the UK, so I graduated and did a month-long tour there in 2010. But I just wasn't ready for the artist thing then. I didn't know it, but I didn't have that motivation to keep going. So, I started looking into other ways to make money, and through a chain of events I ended up getting my first publishing deal at BMG. I wrote there for two years, then I signed a deal with Carnival Music and wrote there for three years.
After everything, did it take some self-persuasion to go again?
It was more like digging myself out, recovering my confidence in what I could do, and learning to trust myself. It was learning that doubt's always going to be there. Now, I'm like, 'I love this album that I made, can I ever write anything good again?' But I understand that's just part of it. I think it was always in me.
Stephanie Lambring's latest album, Autonomy, is out now via Tone Tree Music. Watch Stephanie's latest live performance of 'Joy of Jesus' below.
Photography by Betsy Phillips