Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018 | 2 a.m.
I assumed AJ Lambert would be a bit apprehensive — if not all-out terrified — to be performing in Las Vegas for the first time this month. Lambert is the daughter of dancer and choreographer Hugh Lambert and singer and actress Nancy Sinatra, and, of course, the granddaughter of Frank Sinatra, the icon who is still linked so closely with the culture of Vegas.
But she’s not apprehensive. She’s ready, and she’s excited. And that’s probably because she’s put a lot of thought and preparation into her Vegas shows, a monthly residency at the Space stretching throughout 2018 and beginning Jan. 12. “There’s no apprehension at all. It’s so cool. Singing classic music in Nelson Riddle arrangements in Las Vegas? It’s all excitement,” she says. “And the pianist playing with me [John Boswell] is so incredible and fun. I wish I could play every day with him.”
The classic music in question is Sinatra’s epic ninth studio album from 1955, “In the Wee Small Hours,” recognized and acclaimed as one of the first concept albums, produced by Voyle Gilmore and arranged and conducted by Riddle. Lambert’s shows at the Space — the next one is February 9 — will rotate between this album and 1958’s “Only the Lonely,” carefully selected material that Lambert loves and relates to more deeply than much of his better-known material. “It’s about my relationship with him, obviously, as a kid and as an adult, what the music meant to him and what it means to me now as an adult and a singer.”
Here’s the rest of my conversation with Lambert:
How did this residency at the Space come together? I had the idea of coming up and playing here for a while, I just didn’t know what vibe to seek out because the show is such its own thing, doing album shows of these concept records. The places I do it elsewhere are really intimate club situations, supper-club type places, and I wasn’t sure where in Las Vegas I could find something like that, not in a casino where they have someone booked or a place where people are walking in and out with cups of beer. It’s not that kind of show at all. The second I went to meet [Mark Shunock] at the Space, I knew this was somebody who gets it and can see the other side of doing music here that’s not the downtown thing and not the casino thing. [The Space] is this separate entity and it’s really nice, and I don’t think there’s anything like that here other than maybe the Smith Center.
You’ve been a musician and a performer for a long time but haven’t always been a singer. I think I tried to be a singer for a while. The first stuff I did was in a [college] band, but we didn’t know what we were doing. I taught myself to play bass. I tried [singing] and wasn’t very good but it wasn’t that important to be a good singer in that band. In other bands I played drums and bass and sang backgrounds. It wasn’t until I did my EP in 2006, which I sang and played everything. So yes, this actual singing is new.
I’m sure you needed to be careful about becoming a singer given your family history. For sure, but also, I had to have a voice to use. To sing the stuff like what I’m doing now, especially, it helps to have a little life behind you. With the name situation, it always felt difficult to say, “I sing music,” because everybody would be like, “Yeah, sure.” They’re really hard on you and they should be. I purposefully never ventured too far into singing because of that. I felt like I have to be really excellent to even step into that at all.
Your mother was a singer, too. Have you talked about that with her? She tells a story about how he always told her, “Don’t do what I do. Do something else so you can have your own stamp because it’s going to be hard.” My uncle [Frank Sinatra Jr.] didn’t listen to that and I’m glad he didn’t because he was such a unique singer and really good in his own right, and Mom was unique and really good, too. The difference for me is I’m removed enough. They have the same last time and it’s hard to be under that, and they didn’t do it because they wanted to ride coattails. It’s just what you’re exposed to and what you know. If your father is a dentist, that might be what you do. We just try to find a way to do it that’s not going to be harmful to ourselves or to the legacy. For me, that’s a really big deal. I don’t want to [mess up] the opportunity. And there is a built-in fanbase that thinks it’s interesting to see this and I don’t want to disappoint those people. If you pay money to come see the show and think, “Oh, she thinks she can be an artist just because of who she is,” that would be a nightmare for me. I had to wait until I could get good enough to do it.
Why did you choose these specific albums to perform?
I didn’t want to do the typical tribute stuff even though it would be easier and people would get it quickly, because I don’t feel like I can do those songs in a way that would be honest. It doesn’t make sense to me to sing “High Hopes,” for the person I am and the singer I am and what I’m trying to communicate about him to people. Everybody knows that stuff and has heard those songs. There’s a story I can tell because I’m a family member about that music in particular, and that’s the story that doesn’t get told enough, the other side of him that’s not about volatility and moodiness and all this other [stuff] they always say about him. It’s the human side of someone who’s been caricatured and I relate to that facet of him a lot as I get older. And it’s great music! You never get to hear that stuff. I like to say it’s the deep cuts of Frank Sinatra’s catalog.
Do you have a favorite song of his? I listened more to my mom when I was younger. My initial experiences with music of his were more from his shows. But maybe the first song I really liked was “If You Are But a Dream.” I tend to gravitate more toward the really early stuff. That’s my happy place with his music because I feel like that’s the person I know best, the more innocent core of the person, that vibe. The later stuff was definitely part of who he was but I knew a very specific person and that was closer to the original voice and material.
You just finished an album that you are planning to release this year, right? I just finished it over the summer and it will be out this year. I look at [music] the same as him, I think, in that we’re song interpreters. I don’t do the same kind of music all the time. We’re doing these shows [of Sinatra music] but this record has a band and it has covers but it’s the way I listen to music, just good songs and fun songs to sing. So we have a John Cale song and a Spoon song and a TV on the Radio song, but also a couple songs my grandfather did from various times. It manages to sound like a cohesive album because we did the same kind of interpretation for everything, and it’s just a bunch of good songs that make a really cool record.
AJ Lambert performs at the Space at 10 p.m. January 12 — and continuing one Friday night each month through November — and info and tickets can be found at thespacelv.com.