an interview with Mary Lambert
Mary Lambert creates music that feels like a warm conversation with a friend: the highs and lows of life, shared and mourned and celebrated together. Mary opens her heart to her audience, and then gently asks us to take a look at our own. “What is the state of your heart? Is it concave? Are you awake?” She pushes pop beyond its socially constructed boundaries and calls the listener to a deeper state of reflection, to pull our own shame skeletons out of the closet.
By reclaiming her creative power and shedding society’s expectations, Mary is stepping into her true self, healing her heart in the process. Her power is in her vulnerability, her joy in transparency. Instead of being squashed by the issues that she’s faced throughout her life, Mary has chosen to sing along, with boldness and levity and hope, inviting others to join her. It was such a joy to talk with Mary! We hope you'll enjoy our conversation as much as we did.
Cordella Magazine: While you write and perform as a solo artist, you’re also a consistent collaborator, obviously best known for your collaboration on "Same Love" with Macklemore. Now you’re collaborating with poets and other artists on your current tour. How do you experience working individually on your art vs. working collaboratively?
Mary Lambert: For me they’re two completely different beasts. When I’m creating on my own it’s a far more insular experience, and a bit more sacred, getting in touch spiritually with what I want to communicate with the world. When I collaborate there tends to be a common goal... I want to offer space for another person to take up, for another person to express their artistic genius, and to find a balance of how people can work together. Primarily when I write pop music, I’m writing in a collaborative setting with other writers and producers, with a shared common goal of making pop music and creating something that is somewhat crafted, that has a set of constructs. When I’m writing on my own or I’m just sitting at my piano at 2am or whatever it is, I feel like it’s more divine. I feel like I’m channeling something much more spiritual.
CM: That totally comes across in your music! I know you’ve described yourself as sort of a conduit for songs to flow through you. Have you read Magic Lessons by Elizabeth Gilbert?
ML: No! I’m writing it down right now.
CM: This book totally reminds me of you and your music... it seems like you’re really tapped into this idea of Inspiration with a capital “I.” Inspiration as a divine being, channeling through you. I know it sounds really grand! But you’ll love that book.
ML: I’m excited! I’m ready. I’m buying it!
CM: I was wondering if you could tell us more about that experience, of inspiration coming to you in this spiritual, or sacred, way, and when that started for you? For me, as a creative person, I feel like sometimes I’ll have everything set up just perfectly, like I’ll have my cup of tea, I have this beautiful view, and I think inspiration will to come to me! I have the stage all set. But then it just doesn't happen. Can you speak to that experience a little bit?
ML: Totally! I was a part of something so amazing called the Hedgebrook Writer's Retreat, about 4 or 5 years ago. Normally it’s for professional writers, people who write plays or books or poetry, but they started offering this retreat for songwriters. I was there with Angel Olsen, Victoria LaGrande from Beach House, and three other Seattle artists. I was there for two weeks. You have your own cottage on like 100 acres or something, there’s a chef that prepares food for you so you’re literally just supposed to be creating, taking walks, really soaking it in. I didn’t write shit. It was like everything was laid out for me and I just don’t think that’s how I work, you know? I like to be in a comfortable place, but I find often that when I’m like “This day is gonna be for writing” it’s too much pressure, like when you say “I’m gonna find my soulmate!” It doesn’t tend to work that way. For me I work better in creating time to write. So I’ve been taking a lot of writing workshops, where there’s this expectation of me, and I tend to do well with that when someone is like “You need to have a poem written by Tuesday.” I tend to do better with people telling me what to do.
CM: Right! With your collaboration with Macklemore they gave you two hours to write the chorus, and you were like, "Okay!"
ML: If they’d given me a week it would’ve been terrible! Speaking to the divine nature of inspiration coming to you (I call it channeling God), and being a vessel for healing, that started happening to me when I was about eight or nine. The first song I ever wrote was the saddest lullaby about death and I sang it to my girl scout troop and their moms. I'm nine years old, I had learned a couple chords on guitar, and I’m playing my little guitar and I’m singing a lullaby about death (I’ve always had a pretty mature voice, so imagine my voice coming out of a nine year old). I remember looking up and seeing everybody crying. I wasn't patting myself on the back for making people cry, but it opened my eyes to the idea that music could encourage feeling, that music could be healing. It wasn’t just the fact that people were crying, but that they were all crying together. I really appreciated that shared experience, and I think that is something I continue to strive for—shared crying.
CM: Your lyrics are so vulnerable and bold. You speak about mental health, body image, sexual identity, all with such ease and also with a sense of fun and joy and levity. It seems that you’ve moved beyond the pain and now you're sharing with this deep sense of personhood. How did you come to this place of being able to share with such openness and authenticity?
ML: My journey has been very interesting. I think I always knew I wanted to do something to change the world, to heal the world. I felt a strong sense of civic duty. I wanted to figure out what my strengths were, to be a force of good. When I was a lot younger I imagined going into politics because I thought I could change the world through legislature. One of my favorite movies was, and still is, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
I had an amazing music teacher who changed my life in middle school. I played violin for about five years, but what I really wanted to do was to play cello. I walked to school, and couldn’t carry a cello to and from school because I have a weird back problem. I had to carry the cello either in one hand or on my back, and my parents were concerned for my physical health. They said I couldn’t play cello and I needed to play violin. So my teacher, Michael Clark, purchased another cello that could be kept at school. I had a cello at school and a cello at home so I wouldn’t have to carry it back and forth. For me that was big. Someone gave a shit. In the town that I grew up in there weren’t a lot of people that gave a shit, we were set up to fail. It was one of the lowest funded schools in the state, in one of the poorest counties with a lot of gang violence and crime. To have a teacher really believe in me and want to see me succeed was so empowering.
At that point I was like “I’m gonna be a music teacher! What do I need to do to be that?” I got my bachelors in composition at Cornish College of the Arts, where I focused on classical music. I was applying to graduate school when I got the call to do "Same Love." That was when it occurred to me that this was what I needed to do, and to do it in a way that was transparent. When I was thinking about being a teacher, I had decided that I would be an out teacher—I was not going to hide the fact that I was gay. I didn’t realize until after I graduated that my favorite teachers were gay. My music teacher was gay, my French teacher was gay... I think I would’ve felt less alone and less alienated if I’d have known that those mentors in my life were gay.
Transparency of this issue was really important and as I began talking about deeper issues—about incest, mental illness, body image, being a survivor of multiple rapes—the response was overwhelming, of people raising their hands going “Me too. I feel this too.” I started to realize that [transparency] is not as alienating as one might think. It gives you an opportunity to connect with others, to talk about those experiences and to heal. My biggest M.O. is to rid shame of myself, of other victims of assault, of people with mental illness with body image issues, whatever it is. Shame is not a propellor in anyway, it’s not helpful, it’s toxic, it makes people live half lives. I know from my experience of feeling deep shame for most of my life about my identity, about the thoughts I had, and who I was, caused so much turmoil internally. Once I started doing certain exercises and changing certain mental patterns, my life changed in a dramatic way. The reason I’m such an advocate for these issues is because I know the power of letting shame go.
CM: It’s so interesting to see what happens to a woman when she lets go of all that generational junk that’s been handed down and steps into her own power. In your Kickstarter campaign, you bill yourself as “Doing whatever you damn well please.” This is so important and empowering, especially for women who for generations have needed external validation from men to be successful.
ML: Totally, that’s such a huge part of it. We grow up without the understanding that the basic human desires are to be loved and to be understood. You can boil down any motivation, whether it’s money or sex or power, and the root of those desires is the need to be loved and understood. We’ve socialized ourselves to believe that the best and quickest way to achieve that is to make yourself digestible. But if we’re all making ourselves digestible, we’re not able to embrace the full complexity of our full personhood. This causes fragmented relationships and a disconnection to the actual Self, especially for men. We look at men and we’re like, “You’re a jock, you’re not allowed to cry, and there’s no leeway or allowance of complexity for a man to express himself by, like, wearing colorful clothes or different shoes." The problem is not just in how we treat women, it’s also the lack of like understanding for male complexity. It’s all interconnected.
CM: You’ve recently shared a cover of Big Yellow Taxi in support of NoDAPL. How do you think creative expression can best be used to shape political life?
ML: It’s a very touchy subject. It almost implies that every artist or creative individual should be held accountable for issues, and I don’t think that’s the case. Sometimes you just wanna fucking dance and you don’t want to to think about shit that’s going on in the world and that has to be okay. If we’re being completely thoughtful all the time, obsessively worried about humanity, we’re gonna burn out, and your needs are going to be displaced. It’s important to remember that there’s a place for everything.
What I do notice is that the balance has been thrown too far into the disconnect, and there’s not as many artists creating socially impactful music. Or it could be argued that artists are creating, but they haven’t received the spotlight they deserve due to consumerism, the music industry, terrestrial radio, etc. I could go on about what’s onerous within the entertainment industry, but I think that as people demand more thoughtful media, impactful messaging, and are quick to hold entertainers and artists accountable, I think we’ll see an influx of those sorts of things. I also have deep conflicts about artists remaining silent when there are so many issues at stake, and when there are people’s lives at stake. While I don’t think all music needs to be affecting in a socially conscious, cerebral way, I think that it's the civic duty of a public figure to be a public activist and a force of good in the world. But if an artist wants to focus on their art and be politically neutral, I understand that too. I go through this debate in my head, and ultimately I just remember that no one knows what the fuck they’re talking about, and all I can do is what’s right for me.
CM: On your recent tour, “Everybody is a Babe,” you shared the stage with a diverse group of artists and poets! Could you tell us a little bit about that?
ML: My background is in Spoken Word... that’s how I met Macklemore and that’s how I started performing. Spoken Word is in my blood. I try to always have an element of this on my records, whether it’s a poem or two, or a verse that’s spoken, to remind myself that’s part of my artistic identity. When I was on a major label, I wanted to quiet that part of me down, to focus on world domination and being the gay fat Taylor Swift. I was trying to figure out how to be digestible. This album and this tour is like a “Hell no," this is actually what I want to put out into the world. All of the poets that performed on this tour are my literary heroes, and I can’t believe they all agreed to be part of the tour. My supporting act, Mal Blum, opened for me at once a college show in Michigan, and it was the best dynamic between us both. Mal is an amazing performer, and their music is so infectious and fun and very poignant, which shares that duality and the complexity of self that I embody. It was important to make sure that I offer the lens to people who are doing impactful, powerful work. I would say that everybody on that stage embodied that.
CM: After you released "Same Love" and signed with Capitol Records, I’m surprised to see that you've self-produced your new album. Why the change?
ML: There were so many things that unfolded, it just didn’t make sense anymore for my partnership with Capitol to continue. Before I left the label I parted ways with my management which was a big deal. I had gone from having one manager to two managers, and that second manager had an entire firm, so there were a lot of people tied up in my identity and product. It was about the success of my career. So once that pressure went away, it gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I wanted to be, and instead of finding a new manager and going down that same path it was an opportunity for me to reclaim my business. Anybody that worked with me knew that I was very strong willed and pretty set on what I was going to artistically do, but I had been very disconnected from my actual business and from the extension of the music. Once I reclaimed that, it didn’t make sense for me to be on a record label anymore, particularly a label that did pop so well.
I was changing direction from doing traditional pop music. The album that I’m working on now was actually the album I presented to them about two years ago. We had lots of talks about it, they loved the music and I thought there was potential for us moving forward together. But the team I was working with was Katy Perry’s team, and there was this pressure to be a version of Katy Perry that I was uncomfortable with, particularly in my touring schedule. For a solid two years I was touring non-stop, and doing promotion and gigs and writing albums in a way that I wouldn’t have done on my own. I wanted to do it my way. If I was going to fail anyway, I might as well keep my artistic identity in tact and have fun along the way.
I realized it wasn’t fun anymore. A few years ago when I had been touring non-stop, I was exhausted and just wanted to go home. I was looking forward to Thanksgiving. It was the only time I would have at home. It had been on the calendar, and I just kept looking at it as this golden beacon of fudge and family. I got a call in September from my management that the schedule changed, and that I needed to be in Australia during Thanksgiving, to do promo and to release the album there. I cried so hard and I was like, "They’re taking this away from me and this is all I have left." I called my girlfriend and she said, “This is your life. You are choosing this. Don’t say that they’re taking something away from you. You have subscribed to this ideology and this set up. If you don’t like that, don’t do it." That thought hadn’t occurred to me. So I’ve applied that methodology to my life and my career. I’m gonna do exactly what I want and there’s not going to be a “they” telling me I can’t do something. I’m gonna do whatever the fuck I want and it’s gonna be fun. I want to find the joy again. Bold represents that and the tour was a final culmination of that endeavor. It’s me rewriting my pop story, and that’s the end of my pop chapter. I just signed a book deal for my poetry, and my next album is really fucking sad and orchestral and has a lot of poetry on it as well. I’m on a different path now, but I wanted to honor the one that I’ve been on in the best way I know how.
All images courtesy of Mary Lambert.