Singing Sinatra: AJ Lambert Does Her Grandfather’s Tunes Her Way

In advance of her residency at The Space, the songstress talks playing grandpa Frank's music, producing her mother’s music and making her own

For most people, going into the family business means embracing the familiar, the mundane. But for AJ Lambert, it means songbooks, spotlights and applauding audiences. As the granddaughter of Frank Sinatra and daughter of Nancy Sinatra, music has always been a part of her life. But in contrast to the smooth styles and center-stage status of her progenitors, Lambert began her career playing bass in punk-rock bands. However, over the past several years, she has returned to her grandfather’s music, performing his songs in her own unique style, a delivery that is both relaxed and impassioned. This year, she’ll be doing a monthly residency at The Space, rendering Frank Sinatra’s albums In the Wee Small Hours and For Only the Lonely in their entirety. She spoke to Vegas Seven about playing her grandfather’s music, producing her mother’s music and making her own.

These songs are so well-known. How are you putting your own spin on them and making them new?

You think of Frank Sinatra as the ring-a-ding-ding kind of stuff, and I’m definitely not doing that type of thing. … Also, this is the kind of stuff that didn’t get a chance to be heard live that often, if ever. One or two of them from some of these records would be part of the set. From In the Wee Small Hours, he would do “It Never Entered My Mind” all of the time. Then, from Only the Lonely, which is another album we’re going to be doing this year, he would do “One for My Baby.” Apart from those, these are songs that you don’t get to hear live ever by anybody.

The fun thing is, also, we do it stripped-down. It’s me and a piano, so it’s super-intimate. It’s really all about the essence of what my grandfather did, which was song interpretation. He had all his other facets and stuff, but the main thing was interpreting a song.

We do it differently every time we play. … I tend to be all over the stage. I roll around on the floor and all kinds of stuff.

You’ve always been involved in music, but you started out in punk-rock bands. Was that a deliberate move away from the family business, from what people might have expected of you?

It kind of was. I didn’t have an interest in singing when I was younger: I was a bass player and a drummer, I didn’t do singing as much—I did, but it was in the service of being in a band or in the service of writing songs. When I was in other bands, it was other people’s music, so I was definitely a sideman. I was playing with other people who wrote the music; that was more what I was interested in.

Then I got more into singing. In most bands nowadays you end up singing a little bit. As I got more into it, I said, “Well, you know, maybe when I’m really good, when I’m decent enough as a singer, I’ll try that.” I feel like when you have this kind of a name, lineage situation, it’s only right to make sure you can really bring it in a decent sense before you even set foot into this kind of an arena. You’ve got to really respect the background.

Photo by Jennifer Soos

Your mom, Nancy Sinatra, was one of the original rock ’n’ roll chicks. Was she inspirational to you in terms of going into rock and punk rock?

I really, really love a lot of her music. She has been … I actually produced the last album that she recorded [Nancy Sinatra], which was so much fun because I was able to show her, “Hey, look. There are so many people in the world of music now who can definitely point to you as an influence. It’s really exciting [to] get to know these people.”

She would be recording with Morrissey, who she became really good friends with. We would do sessions with Jon Spencer. …  I put together a band that was a backing supergroup for two of the songs. It was Dennis Diken and Jim O’Rourke, Jarvis Cocker and Richard Harley, really cool musicians. It was such an eye-opener, I think, for her to [say], “Oh, OK. I can see how this is extended toward an audience I didn’t know that I had.” That was really fulfilling.

If you could have done a project like that with your grandfather, are there people today that you’d like to have seen him work with, songwriters that you’d like to have heard him sing?

I would love to see him do something with somebody like King Krule: That would be incredible. I feel there are crooners now who are actual crooners and not the Michael Bublés of the world. This guy, Archie [from King Krule], is incredible. He’s got such a unique sound and a neat voice and he really gets it. … Julian Casablancas is somebody who also has that style. There are a lot of people like that who would be incredible to sit down with him. … I think Elvis Costello would have been a perfect match for him.

You must have visited Las Vegas quite a bit as a kid, given how often your grandfather played here.

Obviously I’ve spent a lot of time there in my life. I’ve seen it go through several different permutations. I’m 43, so I’ve seen it go from that late-’70s, early-’80s no man’s land into the family-friendly, and then it went away from that and went more adult. … Everything is very curated now in a plotted-out kind of way. Back then it wasn’t meant for kids, but it also wasn’t prohibitively adult either.

Vegas is so identified with Frank Sinatra. What is it like to be doing his songs in the capital, so to speak?

Who wouldn’t want to play in Vegas? And I feel like it hasn’t been done in a while. My uncle [Frank Sinatra Jr.] was the last person to be doing this stuff. We lost him a little while ago—I really felt like I want to keep it going. I want to do that music. … I want to try to be authentic as much as I can with this stuff, be sure that I’m paying tribute in the best way that I can that’s honest. It’s exciting. It’s never not an honor and a privilege. I never forget I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for him, and then I’m just very, very grateful.

Friday, Jan. 12 at 10 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 10 at 10 p.m., $35, The Space, 3460 Carvetta Ct.,