Monday 23 July 2018

Music in her genes - Merele Lambert: 'I wanted to make sure I wasn't viewed as just another blonde singer'

Multi Grammy Award winner Miranda Lambert talks to our reporter about her meteoric rise to fame, brutally honest songwriting and tracing her Irish roots

Story to tell: Miranda Lambert says she wants people to connect with her music
Story to tell: Miranda Lambert says she wants people to connect with her music
Miranda Lambert after winning two gongs at the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards
American idols: Garth Brooks (L), Miranda Lambert and George Strait sing "Happy Birthday" to Merle Haggard

Tony Clayton-Lea

For her 30th birthday, Miranda Lambert received a present of a genealogy search that would finally determine where in Ireland her ancestors came from.

Three busy years later and Lambert says she still hasn't had time to do this. This month could be it, she says, when she discovers where her paternal great-grandparents left for America. "I have a few days before heading to Ireland," she says on a clear phone line from Denver, Colorado, "so now is surely the time."

Those unacquainted with Lambert on this side of the Atlantic might be surprised to know she is one of contemporary country music's greats.

Along with three Grammy Awards, she has been honoured 13 times by the Country Music Association Awards and has won the Academy of Country Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year eight years in a row. Lambert has achieved so much at such a young age that an even more prosperous future stretches ahead of her like a vast, uninterrupted prairie. It is neatly ironic, of course, that the name of the Texas city in which she was born is Longview.

Miranda Lambert after winning two gongs at the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards
Miranda Lambert after winning two gongs at the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards

Inevitably, for a youngster brought up on the music of songwriters - and whose law enforcement officer father is himself a country/rock singer-songwriter - this was surely the only possible path. "Some people might doubt it," she says, "but I literally had no Plan B. There were occasions when I wasn't positive it would work, but I knew deep down what it was going to be. Other than music, I didn't have anything else that would make me happy for the rest of my life. My parents were on board with me, so they said they'd do as much as they could to help me - providing I worked hard at it."

Slowly but surely, the songwriters she was listening to on a regular basis soaked into her creative frames of reference. Genuine, original storytellers such as Merle Haggard, David Allen Coe, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine delivered songs that, even as a child, Lambert connected emotionally with.

"It was ingrained in me to tell the truth," she reveals. "To me, that's what songwriting is all about."

For some songwriters, telling the truth is either difficult or far too easy to do. Lambert says that it's more a matter of being transparent with who you are through your music than having to tell a lengthy story. "The first time I ever cried while listening to a song was to John Prine - his words had such depth. It didn't matter whether he wrote something sad or funny, his words always made me feel something. As a songwriter, it's my benchmark to make people connect with something in themselves."

Voted the 'Girl Most Likely To Become A Country Singer' while still at high school, come her teenage years, Lambert began to enter talent contests. In some, she didn't get past the auditions; in others, she suitably impressed the judges. It was the reaction from a few of the more positive taste makers that prompted her parents to finance time for her in a Nashville studio. It was, Lambert recalls, a mixed blessing.

"I went to Nashville to feel my way around things. At the age of 16, you're trying to figure out what you want to say, yet you don't really know that much. I recorded a few demos of songs people had written in the pop/country mould, but I just didn't feel any connection to them. After I recorded those songs, I went home and started to play guitar and write my own material. I soon realised that songs without any real story to them were not the kind I wanted to sing."

American idols: Garth Brooks (L), Miranda Lambert and George Strait sing
American idols: Garth Brooks (L), Miranda Lambert and George Strait sing "Happy Birthday" to Merle Haggard

There then followed five years of hard graft. Between honing her skills as a songwriter and perfecting her presentation techniques in a wide range of small venues, festivals and county fairs in the state of Texas (and sometimes beyond), Lambert gradually forged her own songwriting persona and performance identity.

"It was a bit tough, for sure," she says of the gig circuit.

"I remember my Mom would try to book me gigs in clubs and people would say that girls singing songs didn't sell tickets. But slowly, I'd get gigs - just a few songs - and I'd step up on stage to try to prove my point. The bar owners would generally say that I wasn't terrible and to come back for more!"

When she was approaching 20, Lambert signed to Epic Records and further shaped herself as a performer and an honest, expressive songwriter far removed from the usual cookie-cutter country acts that clog up the charts.

From her 2005 debut, Kerosene, to her most recent album, The Weight Of These Wings (which has been interpreted as her post-divorce album - from 2011-2015, she was married to US country singer Blake Shelton), Lambert has drawn in listeners who admire expressions of vulnerability and vitality in equal measure.

"Early on, I wanted to make sure I wasn't viewed as just another blonde singer," she remarks. "I also wanted to make people realise I had something to say that was different.

"I signed with the record label when I was coming to the end of my teenage years and, by then, I had already been playing in clubs for quite some time. I was writing songs in and of that environment, and I didn't want to be changed by anyone. I had strong feelings about that, to the point where I knew I'd rather not be in the industry if I had to do something I thought was false."

Lambert pauses. She admits she may have been perceived as a young woman "with guns a-blazing", but is thankful she had the right people around her, then and now, to make sure her aim continued to be spot-on. "I was wearing jeans, t-shirts, and singing country songs," she confirms in a no-messing manner. "I just wanted to keep it that way."

Miranda Lambert headlines the Harvest Country Music Festival, Saturday, August 26 (Enniskillen Airport, Co Fermanagh) and Sunday, August 27 (Westport House, Co Mayo). Tickets from harvestcountrymusicfestival.com.

Irish Independent

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