The multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter Stephanie Lambring is back with new project produced by Teddy Morgan, as the title, Autonomy, suggests after walking away from her two publishing deals. One began with BMG Chrysalis, where she remained as a staff writer for two years. In 2012, she signed with Carnival Music, owned by producer Frank Liddell (Miranda Lambert, David Nail, Lee Ann Womack), so her talent was immediately recognized But Lambring soon got tired of the “machine-like approach to writing” and had a growing desire to sing her own songs without worrying about whether her songs were “too jarring or too sad.” If one would compare Lambring to another writer, the first that comes to mind would be Lori McKenna. In fact, they are frequent co-writers. Lambring has two songs on her Sound Cloud that were written with McKenna.
WARNING – this is heavy stuff wrapped in great songwriting, not for the faint of heart but richly evocative for those that like to delve into such matter. She describes her new album as “a deep dive into the human experience,” tackling body image, sexuality, religion, and family relationships. She wrote the first track, “Daddy’s Disappointment,” while she was waiting tables, and songwriter Tom Douglas challenged her to start writing music again. In it, she explores the impact of growing up with overcritical parents, as well as the pressure to make music based on profit rather than passion.
Each song, in its own way, is about questioning and breaking free from tradition to carve out one’s own path. “Joy of Jesus” deals with slut-shaming and homophobia in Christian communities. “ “I enjoy exploring the uncomfortable places — the uncensored, raw truths inside us,” she says. “The thoughts and feelings we’ve learned we ‘shouldn’t’ express, not to mention even have. It’s healing for me to sit with the discomfort, lean into it, shed some light on it, and in the end feel a little less alone in it.” Both “Somebody Else’s Dress” and “Save Me Tonight” extend the dialogue on rigid religion practices.
Several singles beside “Joy of Jesus” have been released in advance of the album, including “Mr. Wonderful,” an exploration of controlling and possessive relationship dynamics as expressed – “So you met Mr. Wonderful / Isn’t he wonderful? / You thought you had it all / ‘Til it all had you…Every day gets harder to crawl out of the confusion / Red flag anger, good behavior / Which is the illusion?” The album, produced by multi-instrumentalist Teddy Morgan, effectively merges country and pop as the bedrock for her poignant lyrics. “Little White Lie” is even more searing, describing a doomed marriage. “I can hear that lonely echo in the kitchen/The kind that lets you know that something’s missin’/Take one last look through the closet/behind my little black dress/And I find my little white lie.” “Fine” examines from the female point of view the not so subtle pressures of when one should get married, start a family and balance career pursuits.
Another example of her direct approach is the song about body image, “Pretty,” based on her childhood journal that she stumbled upon while preparing the album. At the end of every entry, she asked “Will I ever be pretty?” She describes her ten-year-old self as nerdy, smart, and chubby – the object of ridicule from bullies. She also had a humbling encounter in her late teens regarding image and looks as she was beginning to turn toward a country career. The gentle track contains these piercing words among others – “I stuck my fingers down my throat to fit into my skinny coat/We all pretended not to notice the water running” and the chorus “And I wondered if I’d ever be pretty.”
Lambring is a close observer too, as attested to in the closer “Birdsong Hollow” inspired by the panoramic view of the valley on Natchez Trace Parkway, about half an hour southwest of Nashville. Stretching over the valley is a double-arch bridge with an evocative sign: “There is still hope. Call anytime.” Lambring’s songs intend to connect with people, many of whom who have had similar experiences or feelings. We all have scars, fears, buried memories that are part of being human. Sure, there’s some pain that goes with it but there’s also a beauty and in some cases, newfound self-awareness in recognizing what has shaped us.
- Jim Hynes