New York-based M. Lamar is a classically trained pianist and composer who brings music and drama together to create a dark vision of humanity. We caught up with him to discuss his upcoming show in Stockholm and his recent appearance on Orange is the New Black.
Your style is a mix of many things; your vocals can be equal parts opera singer and Nina Simone, and your sound goes from classical to spiritual. What can we expect from you at the show in Stockholm?
– I’ll be performing music from all aspects of my work, he says. There will be songs from my three albums and EP, as well as sections from my longer form pieces like Negro Antichrist and my new music theater piece Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche. I think the Nina Simone thing you mentioned that you hear in my work is really connected to the tradition that we both come out of. It’s blues and jazz and gospel parts that are just in my blood, I think blending with all the classical vocal training I’ve had.
Are those your favourite types of music to listen to?
– I’m as musically interested in the long legato line of bel canto singing as I am in the blue notes of Robert Johnson or Billie Holiday. I’m also very interested in certain rock music. I’ve been crazy listening to Nightclubbing by Iggy Pop because folks have always said my song Sharecropping sounds like that song. And I’m interested in certain metal music like SUNN O))) and Burzum. Then there’s an aspect of film scoring that I try to bring into my work on the piano. It’s really just a full and complete world I’m trying to create.
It’s really just a full and complete world I’m trying to create
Do you think of yourself strictly as a musician or would you say that what you do verges on performance art?
– Well that’s a funny question, because I studied visual arts at university, he says. So I think that visual arts training must have some affect on my work in terms of process and thinking about my project as a complete vision and not just a group of songs. I’m skeptical about the term ‘performance art’ because everything that doesn’t fit into some other category seems to be placed there, and I think a lot of really bad work gets called performance art. So I would say that I’m a musician and a person who makes theater with music.
So what kind of performance does that translate into on stage?
– Because I’m very interested in operatic drama, I think what I do goes beyond like a rock concert or even a singer songwriter thing. What I’m doing with my music is about a complete and utter involvement. I think it’s like kind of method acting or about various states of possession and embodiment. For example when I’m singing about the slave ship I place myself there, and sing from a first person point of view. I feel like it’s my job to really go there so that the audience can smell what it was like. At the same time the music must also take you into a complete experience that is almost cinematic.
Your lyrics can be provocative at times. What kind of response do you get from people who have never heard your music before?
– Well, the wonderful thing is that the responses are so varied, he says. It seems that people are most often deeply moved by the work and also seem to find out something they didn’t know before. There are songs about lynching or the transatlantic slave trade, and I’ve done lots of research to write this music so there are historical facts that people were not aware of.
– People are also fascinated with my voice and how I produce the sound I do, as a black man singing so high. The experience is a lot about my voice and how it makes you feel. I guess there are more “provocative” songs like Badass Nigga, Sharecropping, or White Pussy. Those songs seem to come more from my interest in hip hop meeting the blues and bring out my very twisted sense of humor.
And why are you bringing some of your older songs back now?
– I’ve been wanting to bring back songs like Badass Nigga because I’ve been listening to all these queer black rappers like Cakes the Killa and Zebra Katz, and I just love the way they use queer black vernacular language and culture in their flow. So a lot of me wanting to bring back a song like Sharecropping that I wrote in like 2003 into my set is about saying I was using this vernacular in my own non-rap way back then, and that I’m feeling your flow, and we’re brothers, you know? It’s funny though ‘cause even my stuff that has a more bluesy edge is still a dirge. I guess I’m writing dirges of many different colors.
When I’m singing about the
slave ship I place myself there
You went down well last time you played Stockholm. Do you enjoy playing to European audiences? And do they appreciate the historical and political subject matter you focus on?
– Earlier this year I got to play the What We Do Is Secret fest at Färgfabriken in July, and in April at The International Queer-Feminist Anti-Racist Performance Festival at Fria Teatern. I love Stockholm! It’s my favorite European city. I hope that some of the folks who saw me at those festivals will come see this show at the Södra teatern where they’ll get to hear me on a proper piano with fantastic sound in an amazing theater. It’ll be a different show in that I will be doing brand new stuff as well as older material, and audiences will get to hear a different side of my work
– In terms of political and historical subject matter, I find European audiences have total access to the subject matter because I approach it from a very emotional place. Genocide and the catastrophic circumstance of lovelessness are universal. How I get there is about my history and my culture but I am singing about very human things and I think people connect.
You just appeared in Orange is the New Black as your real life twin’s pre-transition counterpart. Were you happy with the performance and would you like to go into acting more in the future?
– I have no interest in acting. I’m very focused on my music and all that it involves, which is constant research and constant study in terms of vocal training and piano work. I guess if something fell into my lap like Orange did, and it paid properly I would do it! Jodie Foster told me I was a very good actor, but the praise I have gotten from Diamanda Galas about my music and singing means much more to me. It’s the difference between a director who is hired to execute another’s vision and the writer, director producer who has his own vision and can execute it. I would rather be the latter than the former.
M. Lamar plays at Södra Teatern in Stockholm on November 18.
Photo by Blioux.