Photo by Betsy Philips
Content Notice: This interview and the album it references contain discussions of suicide and homophobic slurs
It’s hard to sum up an album with a one-word title quite as neatly as Nashville singer/songwriter Stephanie Lambring does on her latest release, Autonomy. That’s proven useful in introducing this new body of work to listeners. “I mean, just in me telling people bits of my story,” she says. “I wrote on Music Row for five years, and then I wrote an entire record by myself, and they’re like, ‘Well, what’s it called?’ And I say ‘Autonomy.’ I think it hints at what they’re in for.”
What they’re in for is ten serious alt-country tracks on the struggle for personal independence, drawn from her own story as a professional songwriter who burned out on writing what other people wanted to hear, as well as similar-shaped narratives from those who, through the demands of social expectations (“Fine”), religious communities (“Somebody Else’s Dress”), and even the process of aging (“Old Folks Home”) are denied the dignity of making their own decisions.
Lambring doesn’t hold back in laying out the real toll of that fight, particularly in the album’s last single, “Joy of Jesus,” which relates the stories of her friends–fellow songwriter Elise Davis, who faced sexist online harassment from a self-identifying Christian Trump supporter, as well as her gay Christian friends who have suffered under the deep-rooted homophobia in American Evangelicalism. With its slow guitar fingerpicking, it’s one of the record’s barest arrangements, with no place to hide from the harsh language and harsher truth at its core.
Before the album release, Lambring spoke with The All Scene Eye about learning how to make the kind of solo album she could be proud of and wielding the double-edged sword of uncomfortable honesty.
The first song that you wrote for this album was the first track, “Daddy’s Disappointment.” What was going on in your life at that time?
When I wrote that song, it had been about a year since I had walked away from my publishing deal, and I had not written one song since then, so I was feeling kind of disheartened. The break from writing was really good for me and necessary, but I was also feeling super scared that my creativity wouldn’t come back. I was working at the restaurant–we have all sorts of singer/songwriters and country stars coming in all the time, and one songwriter I’d kind of gotten to know over my time working there, Tom Douglas, is a Grammy-winning songwriter. His song “House That Built Me” that Miranda Lambert recorded won a Grammy a few years ago. Anyway, I kind of developed a relationship with him and his wife, and he would check in on my creativity every now and then. So he asked me if I’d been writing, and I said “No, I still haven’t been,” and then he gave me a challenge. He told me, “Anybody can write a song in two weeks. Whenever you write something you love, send it to me.” And he scribbled down his email address. I think two weeks to the day, I sent him that song, which was the first one I’d written in a year.
In that song, in the course of those two weeks, you unpack years worth of stories. What was it like for you getting into that kind of compressed time?
It was super, super healing for me. It was like I could not write any other song first, you know? I’d done a couple years of therapy at that point, where I was unpacking family dynamics, my relationship with the music industry, and that’s what came out. I think on some level I knew that I was going to have to write about it one day, but then when I sat down with that determination–because if I get a challenge, I want to meet it, so when I sat down, I was like, “I’ve got to write this song”–it just poured out, and I think that that was extremely therapeutic.
You get into so much of what ends up unfolding across the rest of the album in that one song. After you had that, how did the themes of this album reveal themselves to you?
Very slowly. [laughs] Very slowly, and not in, necessarily, a direct manner. It’s funny how I can see it all working together in hindsight, you know? That’s much clearer to me. I think it was just the source of inspiration that flowed through me. When I wrote that song, I dialed into, like–those are the kind of songs that I love to write, that I feel like I got a little bit away from whenever I was on Music Row. Coming back, having the healing experience of writing that song and being like, “Oh, yeah, I love to write like this,” that kind of set the bar for how I wanted to write. I wasn’t even thinking about a record at that point–all I knew was I wanted to write like that.
And so when did it occur to you that you were making a record?
Probably whenever I had five songs that I loved. They all seemed to be dealing with hard truths, and I was like, “Well, this seems like it might all fit together.” I felt more and more connected to my creativity, and everything was feeling more and more authentic.
When did you settle on the title of this record, Autonomy?
It was towards the end of recording. I had a couple different ideas that were rolling around, but it occurred to me as we were wrapping up the record because it just seemed to be a theme. Like, it’s a theme throughout my spiritual journey. That’s an obvious thing you can draw from it. Me and the music industry, me and my parents’ expectations, just kind of thinking for myself and figuring it out, you know? Examining it. In trying to get a team around the record, I knew that I was going to have some rejection, so part of the reason I named it Autonomy was so that that would be a constant reminder of what I’m doing.
You worked on the recording and production with Teddy Morgan at Creative Workshop in Berry Hill. How did that collaboration come to be?
So, it was the summer of 2018–I guess that was about the time that I had most of the songs for the record, and that’s whenever I started looking for producers. I kept trying to put it out into the universe, “I want to meet somebody that gets it.” I had a couple meetings with producers that just didn’t feel right, so I kept saying, “Ugh, I would love to just play a show, and somebody’s out in the audience, and they get it, and they want to work with me.”
I kept saying that to different people whenever I would have a meeting with a producer that didn’t feel like it was the right fit. Then that fall, in October of 2018, I played a writers’ round at the Listening Room, and this was one of the first shows that I played where I played actual songs from my record–where I didn’t craft a setlist to please the audience, if that makes sense. I didn’t make a setlist that was like, “Oh, well this one isn’t too depressing, so I’ll throw that in there.” I just was like, “You know what? I’m going to play what I love to play because that’s what it’s all about,” and after the show, a guy comes up to me, his name’s Teddy Morgan, and he said he loved my music–in particular, “Daddy’s Disappointment.” And he was like, “I’m a producer. I’d love to meet with you sometime.” He was a friend of a friend, so he got my number from her and reached out to me a couple days later, and the rest is history.
What was it like getting in the studio with these songs after you’d gotten over that hump of playing the songs that you wanted to play in front of people?
It was so much fun. [laughs] It was a true labor of love. Obviously, we took our time with the project, but I didn’t want to have a sleepy singer/songwriter record, so I kind of knew more what I didn’t want than what I did want. We kind of went from, “Okay, we want a different sound than what I would have recorded five years ago,” you know? We leaned into each song, and we were like, “Well, what does this need?” We would start with me doing acoustic or electric to a click track, and then I’d do a rough vocal, and then we would build around it, take away from it, and then add a little bit more in, and then take away, and just listen to the mixes over and over again until the songs–the songs would tell us what they needed. We did that for every single one, and it was so much fun.
Do you have a favorite moment of that process of figuring out how to make–how to not make the record you didn’t want to make, if I can use the double negative. [laughs]
So, I love the Mellotron. I learned that. I had so much fun with the Mellotron. Teddy would have come up with this instrumental or something, and then I would be like, “Okay, I love, like, 85% of this, but I hear this note here.” It was so collaborative, and when that note was right and we were both like, “Yes,” that was so rewarding. Recording-wise, one of the most magical moments for me was when we finally figured out “Little White Lie.” That one took a lot of trial and error, and I remember one night he sent me a mix of it, and–because I kept trying to articulate, like, “I kind of want it to be like a dream,” but that’s so vague. We had just had acoustic guitar and some other stuff, and it felt too busy, and then I remember getting off work and putting on the latest mix, and I was like, “Holy cow, this is it.” Just that moment, when you’re like, “Yes, this is what I want. This is exactly what we’re going for.”
That and “Mr. Wonderful” when he did the Mellotron part. Whenever I listened to that mix, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this sounds cool. I would actually want to listen to this,” you know? So just moments like that.
You talk about the heavier subject matter of a lot of your songs, and I want to touch on that, but first, I think one of the lighter moments is “Fine,” which ties very much into the theme of Autonomy and puts a positive spin on it. Can you tell me about when you wrote that song and what was going on around you?
I wrote the first verse of that song probably a year before I recorded it, and then didn’t touch it, but I wrote that verse shortly after I was at my grandmother’s funeral, and one of my relatives said, “Steffi, now we just have to get you married.” I mean, at the funeral lunch–that was her focus. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve had a lot of anxiety around marriage and my feelings about it. I’m not anti-marriage, just, I have had a lot of anxiety about what I feel like my–at my core, I don’t really want to get married. I used to never say it out loud, and then I would test it, and I would see people’s responses, and it was like, “Oh, what?” So then I wouldn’t say it anymore.
I guess my way of dealing with that was, “Let me start this song.” But I kind of left it there for a while, and then in finishing my record, the last song that I wrote was “Birdsong Hollow,” and it’s also the last song on the record. And that thing was so hard to write that I would take breaks when I couldn’t go anymore and work on “Fine.” It was among the darkest songs on my record, and to balance that out–I was in a better place with my own feelings on marriage, and just in a more open place, so I feel like I was able to really go there and write about it more instead of just scratching the surface.
I want to talk also about some of the other side of the coin there. You recently released the album’s last single, “Joy of Jesus,” and you’ve shared on Facebook the stories that inspired that song. Can you walk me through, after you heard the initial story of your friend who had been harassed on social media, how did you turn that into a song?
Well, I was in the period of time where I was questioning my faith, and I’d started leaning into the question, so I had “Joy of Jesus” rolling around in my head. Like, I knew I was going to write a song called “Joy of Jesus.” Then I’m at brunch and she’s telling us this story, and immediately–I mean, I was horrified, and at the same time, I was like, “There’s my first verse.” I just knew it. I was like, “Yeah, this definitely falls in that category.” I had the concept, and that just fit perfectly into that concept. It was a no-brainer.
You had the framework and you just were waiting for the story to kind of slot into it.
Yeah, I do that a lot. [laughs] Like, I’m not necessarily a fast songwriter. I take a lot of time to think through things. Most of the time, I have this broad idea for a song, and then I wait for the time that I get the inspiration. But there’s discipline involved, too. Like, sometimes you just have to sit down and make yourself do it, you know? There’s a part of manifesting that you have to do on your own, but yeah, most of the time I have these vague ideas floating around and then it’s time to write about it, but that verse, anyway, was easy–like, that was it.
How about the second verse, then, when you get more into talking about gay conversion therapy?
Yeah, that one did not come as easily. I knew it was going to be about the church and sexuality, but I didn’t know how that was going to come, so that one was just kind of reading about–I have lots of gay Christian friends, and that was kind of gleaning some of their experiences, reading about conversion therapy, about the pain that people are subjected to. It wasn’t from one particular person, but I knew I wanted it to be about sexuality in the church.
There’s a lot of difficult content, not the least of which is a homophobic slur, which is spoken by a character in the song. How do you decide to take a song to that point?
You know, it’s been a–I don’t know what you’d call it. Definitely there’s some tension within myself about using that word, but that song is kind of about making people feel uncomfortable, and jarring them into, like, “Let’s actually think about this.” Deep pain needs strong words, you know? So I guess I think along those lines. To tell a story of deep pain means making people feel uncomfortable, and maybe using strong words–maybe that would help someone who’s been in that situation. Maybe they need to go there. I can also see it going the other way; I can also see it being triggering, and maybe it’s questionable that I put it in there. I don’t know. I think people will have different opinions about that.
What has it been like sharing that song with people and playing it for them?
Really weird. [laughs] I don’t know if weird is the right word. It’s been interesting because I played it at The Bluebird, which, a lot of people that go to The Bluebird are there for–well, they want to be there because it’s an amazing venue for songwriters, but also, they’re probably expecting to hear more, like, country radio. One time I sang it there and I got a really strong positive reaction, overall. One time I sang it there and people were so quiet. Some people left during the song. It was my last song that I sang. I’ve gotten some messages after it from people–not nasty, just saying, you know, “I’m a Christian and I’m not like this,” so I knew that releasing the song–some people are like, “Holy cow, my soul needed this,” too, you know? That’s also been my experience. I’ve had the song finished for, like, three years, so I’ve been playing it out, you know, before, and it usually generates a strong reaction one way or the other.
You’ve said this song is the one that you’ve been the most excited and also the most terrified to share–what excites you about sharing this song and what scares you about it?
I think the exciting part is–it’s a couple things. It feels like such an important thing for me to talk about. Like, it just feels important in my soul, and I think it’s exciting for me because also, I feel like I’m coming more and more into myself, and that I have the guts to do it is exciting to me, whereas in the past, it was more of a careful dance of not wanting to piss people off or ruffle any feathers, so personally, that’s exciting. But more than exciting, it just felt important for me to do. It just felt like, “Well, I have to do this.”
That there’s some gravity to it.
Yes, I would say more gravity than excitement, but like, a little bit of excitement because it just feels good to do what you feel like you’re meant to do, and to be bold. Scary because, you know, I’m from rural Indiana. I know a lot of–and the song isn’t about politics. I mean, okay, it probably is a political statement on a certain level, but that’s not the heart of the song. The first verse is a story. It’s not to be anti-Trump, but because I say Trump in the song–I was nervous about that, obviously. I was nervous about people that see me as, you know, the nice, happy girl that was a good kid. And that’s still a part of me, but I guess the people-pleaser part of me was really nervous. That’s the best way to put it, but it’s been healing.
So much of this record deals with things like–I mean, everything from religion and sexuality to things like body image, even the way that we treat elderly people in our society. Do you think you can write the kind of songs that you write and not be political?
Probably not, yeah. And I’ve noticed, like, even Dolly Parton is saying something. You hear a lot of times, “Just do your art,” but I think if you feel that deeply, it’s hard for that not to come out in some way in your songs.
You also also did a video for “Joy of Jesus” where you had one of your friends play a role in the video. What was it like filming that?
It was the best weekend. It was such a heartwarming experience, truly, but that he had a part–you know, that he has had experience with conversion therapy and just difficulties with coming into his own because of the church, it felt huge that he was a part of it. When they filmed that scene, we all had goosebumps at times because you could just feel the emotion. It was really powerful just to be there, and know his story, and know that when we were filming that, he was tapping into the pain that he had felt over the last decade.
It’s actually a really cool story about how he got to be in the video, too–there’s this huge full-circle thing with this video. So, the first verse I wrote about my friend Elise Davis’ experience, and she knew I had the song recorded, that I wanted to do a music video. Well, her husband is a director, so she was like, “You should talk to him about doing a video.” So I did, and probably on our second coffee meeting just brainstorming for the video, he asked me, “Do you know any couples that might want to get married in the video?” You know, a fake wedding, but–and I said, “Actually, my friend Blake would be perfect for it. First of all, he’s really good looking, and his boyfriend is gorgeous too, and also Blake has lived part of this story.”
I hadn’t seen Blake in a couple years–you know, we would correspond every now and then, but I thought, “You know what? I have to ask him.” So we’re sitting at this coffee shop, there’s this divider up on the other side of my table, so I couldn’t see anything else, but this woman barges in and announces some kind of Nissan that was parked–like, they’re really narrow parking places, and she couldn’t get into her car, so she asked this Nissan to move. Well, wouldn’t you know, my friend Blake stands up, and it was his car, so I was like, “Holy cow. That’s the guy I was telling you about.” It felt like it was meant to be. I didn’t have the guts to ask him that day, but I eventually did. He and Tim agreed to do it, and it was just such a cool experience. Elise is in the video too, so to have all of that–her husband directing it, her in the video, my friend Blake, it was a really beautiful thing.
It feels like there’s an intentional arc to this album and the way the songs flow from one to the next, starting with your own stories, opening up to other people’s stories that have echoes of your own in them, and working that way track to track.
Well, I’m glad that you picked up on that, because I ordered the album like that, you know–I had different ways that I was structuring the tracks, and that felt right. I’m glad that as a listener, you’re feeling that too. In making this record, it was important for it to not all be, like–I love that you said echoes of myself. That’s such a beautiful way of putting it. I didn’t want it to all be strictly from my life, just my experiences, but I think it was really important for me to have this arc of really diving into the human experience. I didn’t want a bunch of breakup songs, you know? I just wanted to tell people’s stories.
As somebody who worked in publishing, is that something that you think about? Those kinds of templates or archetypes behind songs? Not even structure as much as–yeah, the things that get songs written about them.
I think I definitely like to lean into things that people don’t write about if I can. As a listener, I want to hear something interesting, and as a writer, I want to write something interesting, and I do like making people feel a little bit uncomfortable because I think sometimes that makes us pay attention and think about something when we wouldn’t have. Even if something doesn’t grab us sonically, you know? If you hear a word or if you hear a phrase and you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute,” I think that’s important. In a way, it’s fun for me because it’s a challenge to think outside the box as far as subject matter goes. And also, just to be honest, for five years, I wrote breakup songs, and I got so damn tired of that. I can write a breakup song, and I mean, we will need breakup songs ’til the end of time, but for me, I want writing to be more of a challenge. I can always tap back into that, and I imagine–like, I’m saying this now. I’ll probably have a strictly breakup album someday, just for fun. [laughs] I think that I’m writing about so many topics on this particular album is a product of me really going into the breakup song vein for five years.
Which of these was the most challenging that way, or most put you outside the box in terms of subject matter?
I would say probably “Birdsong Hollow.”
What started you thinking about that subject matter of suicide?
Well, there’s this beautiful bridge probably about 20 minutes from my house on the Natchez Trace Parkway, and it’s called the Natchez Trace Bridge. The actual valley, the overlook, is called Birdsong Hollow, and I always thought that that was a beautiful name. Sometimes I’ll park, and walk over the bridge, and in doing so, one day I noticed a sign that was on one side of the bridge, and it said, “There is still hope. Call any time,” with an 800-number at the bottom. That really kind of jarred me, so I did some reading about it, and that bridge has one of the highest numbers of suicide victims in the country in the National Park system. It was eerie to me that this beautiful, beautiful place was also a place of tragedy, so again, I knew I wanted to write a song called “Birdsong Hollow.” Actually, I wasn’t planning on putting it on this record because I thought, “Well, I need more life behind me before I write this,” but then the record was coming together, and I was like, “No, this fits with this body of songs,” so that was one that I dove into and fought with to write.
Is it another place where you worry about potentially being triggering?
Yeah, I mean, a friend of mine will not listen to it, you know? I get that it’s triggering, and then sometimes, I’m like, “Can I even write about that? Did I capture it in an accurate way?” I don’t know. But I think I’m going to have to do some research into trigger warnings and all of that. I think my whole record might need a trigger warning [laughs] so, I don’t know.
I think it’s something that’s being talked about a lot more just in our culture, and I don’t know if there’s a ready-made solution for music.
It’s definitely something that I need to keep in mind whenever it does come out and in promoting various songs, for sure. Like, how do you properly warn people, but at the same time, you don’t want that to keep someone from hearing the song that might actually benefit from hearing. It’s something I have yet to figure out, and I think that there will be some trial error, you know?
With the world being what it is right now, how are you planning to celebrate the album release?
I’m not exactly sure because it’s a weird time with quarantine. I may do a stripped-down livestream, but I also might just want to have fun that night [laughs] the day that it comes out. Not that livestreams aren’t fun, but my best friend is coming into town and I imagine, like–I think I might have an outdoor gathering, invite a bunch of friends, and anybody that had a part in the record–people can stop by, we can be outside and feel relatively safe. The week after the release, I’m going to Joshua Tree for a vacation. [laughs] I’m a National Park junkie, I’ve never been before, and yeah, my best friend and I are heading out to California. We’re going to do Channel Islands, and then we’re going to go to Joshua Tree for like, three days.
What’s next for you after this album as an artist?
Probably another album. [laughs] Or EP. I’ve been in such promotion mode for this one that I haven’t been writing as much, but I think that once this is out there, I’m going to feel that, “Okay, it’s time to get on to the next work of art,” because I know I take some time. I hope that in 2021, I can snag an opening slot on someone’s tour. Like, that’s my dream right there. I want to open for everybody and promote this record and be writing and recording the next one.