Fans of Diamanda Galas, Nina Simone, Antony and the Johnsons need to make sure they’re aware of M. Lamar. I’ve been a fan of M. Lamar for a few years now and have watched Lamar evolve from a sex symbol to a deeply provocative singer songwriter. A few months ago he played a show at my old place in Oakland; Ariel Goldberg and Debutante shared the bill. His intricate grotesque lyrics and his Klaus Nomi esq delivery demands your time. His new album “The Black Death” has just been recorded; he has been kind enough to give us an interview and a few MP3′s to check out. Watch his website for future updates.
SS: I love your look, especially your hair – what fashion movements have you taken your cues from? Favorite designers?
M. Lamar: I love the book Subculture: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige. In that book he focuses on emerging musical subcultures like mod and punk and glam in the late sixties and sevenities in the UK reflecting alot on how race and class help form these group. I have always been interested in the political history of punk goth and glam style and the way I dress comes from that. I really have no interest in designers but in subculture and history.
M. Lamar: My name does not draw from Sophia Lamar and M. Lamar Keene. It come from mother and my old band name. I was born with the middle name Lamar. my mother gave it to me. I always like it as my last name so in college I started using Lamar as my last name and not my middle. The M comes from my old band mutilated mannequins. In that band we all call ourselves mannequin whatever I last name was So I was Mannequin Lamar. Since I started the band and was its leader I was often referred to as Master Mannequin Lamar. This also echoed alot of the plantation themes in the music. When I went solo I wanted to honor that period in my life so the M remained. I guess it should really be MM Lamar which is sort of sexier. Though I feel like the glam thing with the mannequins doesn’t really reflect anything I am doing now. Even though I still do songs that I wrote in the mannequins I feel like music and that feeling have nothing to do with what I am doing now.
SS: Billie Holiday tackled the issue of hangings and sexuality in her songs, what is your connection with her?
M. Lamar: Ironically when Billie Holiday was asked to sing that sexy song about bodies hanging from trees by a white woman in new york she refused to sing it. I don’t think Billie Holiday thought she was singing a song about sexuality and lynching only lynching. In fact I think rightly she was very offended by the idea that some one could ignore the horror of the song and just see it as a little sexy number.
That Is precisely where my work lives; in the place where whites and blacks and asians can see horror violence and genocide as sexy. Indeed in order to reproduce it self and its effect white supremacy has to keep every one convinced that there undoing is Hot and sexy.
I am more interested in Nina Simones reading of strange fruit not because I find it more emotionally compleing but because of the way it exsist in a larger body of protest songs often performed at protest against racial injustice in the sixties. In the case of billie holiday that song is a lone moment of outrage in a career filled with Gershwin and Cole Porter. I mean I love That music and those composers and I get that people have to feed themselves and their drug habits. I am not hating I just find the Simone context for that song more inspiring in terms of what I want to be about in forming bodies of work.
SS: One of my favorite songs is the one about the boy who is hung. As he is pulled into the tree his soul begins to climb up through his body, the tree, the sky and lastly enters into a celestial world. The song begins in such a dark place but transforms into something really beautiful. How do you envision the heavenly place he evolves into?
M. Lamar: I think you are talking about the tree? I see that song as all about claiming the lynching tree as a place of worship. I am drawing on James Cones idea of taking back the tree as a site of redemption, renewal, recovery. In this case I feel quite christian and normally I feel quite the opposite. Cones sees the lynched man very much as like jesus christ. so when I use projections of trees or lynching in my show I feel I am using them in the way you would go to church and see images of jesus hanging from a cross. It is about wanting to know and wanting to remember knowing that this could bring you closer to yourself.
SS: What is your relationship to spiritual hymnals? What got you interested in incorporating them into your work? Did you grow up singing in a Baptist church?
M. Lamar: I grew up in the AME church which – compared to the baptist church – is way more laid back in terms of performance, of getting the spirit. It should be stated that what you call hymns started as field songs sung by slaves. This is what is interesting to me about this music, that there is such hope in such despair. This is what interest me in accounts of the holocaust in Germany and that book Mans Search for Meaning. That such hope can be found in such despair.
Yes I grew up with this music and sang briefly in our church youth choir. But the deep relationship I developed to this music was through Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman. They are African American opera singers who sing this music and because I have for some reason always had a love of western operatic singing. It has always just resonated with me. The classical music world doesn’t resonate with me I am just to puck rock for all that but that sound just transcends everything for me. From a very early age I wanted to make that kind of sound.
SS: Your music has been described by many as dark and haunting while bent on tackling dense issues such as race, religion, politics, and sexuality. But you seem like such a playful person. Was your intention to provoke controversy or are people looking too deeply at the message as your soaring vocals fly all over the place?
M. Lamar: Way before I started focusing on music I was a painter. It was that kind of process which really formed my creative practice. I have always thought of painting as this very romantic pursuit that is so much about isolation. When I am alone making song and singing I am often having a really good time. There are certainly days when it is not fun but being an artist is about playing around with form so of course I am playful. But I am also very serious about whatI am doing and what I am saying and i want people to read deeply into what I am doing and think and feel about it. I don’t write disposable pop song that are about getting your grove on or some silly like that. The work is ment to be deep engaged.
SS: As a black musician, and since current treads lead the majority of Americans to think African Americans who make music make hip hop, what is your relationship to the hip hop community? Do you have any idea the type of reaction someone like P.Diddy or Snoop Dogg would have if they were given your album?
M. Lamar: I really never think of such things. I have friends who do more indie hip hop that is concerned with justice and politics and those friends are very engaged by what I do. I really don’t think folks who are so commercial and so capitalist in there focus could really see some one like me. Of course I hope I am wrong, not because I want to kick it with P Diddy or Snoop but because I hope what I am saying and the way I say it is powerful and crosses boundaries. When I stopped being in a band I stopped wanting to make loud music that was about escape I want to get people to sit within a quiet place inside themselves.
I was very interested in hip hop for a time but not so much now but you know I am wrong. I went to see Erykah Badu last year in the part and she is really deep and in the tradition. So I guess when the shit is deep I am interest no matter the form.
SS: Any interest in mixing genres and incorporating your work into something dancey? Have you ever worked on music in the past that was more dance/pop driven?
M. Lamar: I really have no interest in doing anything dancey. In fact that is the last thing I want to do. I have been beginning to make more theatrical shows But there is nothing about people dancing that I find interesting.
SS: Where have you lived?? What has it been like to make music in Brooklyn? How has the live music scene around you inspired you? Who around you are you really digging?
M. Lamar: I have live in Alabama San Francisco and New York. I have been in Brooklyn For three years and I think when I move here What I found myself in musically was the anti folk scene. But what is most commonly associated with that seen isn’t what i respond too. It was folks like Debe Dalton and Elizabeth Delvin who inspired me. Debbie plays banjo and Elizabeth play autoharp. They are both single instrument and voice performers who do very intimate stuff. In Debbies case she is also angry and pissed off with a bad attitudes. I find all these things very endearing.
I also kick it with a band called Soft Black. they write awesome songs and have great drugs.
SS: You have toured all over America a few times already. Where were your favorite places to hang out/ play?
M. Lamar: I love New Orleans! I have always had a great time going there and playing there. It is certainly one of the greatest cities in the world.
SS: Do you have any upcoming tour plans?
M. Lamar: I want to do a European tour next year with the album as well as do some more west coast stuff. we will see with all that.
M. Lamar – Let Darkness descend