The Gospel According to Mary Lambert
Cover photo by Autumn De Wilde
Most people first heard the music of Mary Lambert when she co-wrote and performed on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ track Same Love a few years ago. Most people saw her perform for the first time on the 56th Grammy Awards in 2014, in a bang-up number that included Queen Latifah performing a marriage ceremony for 33 couples on live television, along with a surprise duet with Madonna.
That’s not too bad for a quiet girl with a degree in classical music from Cornish.
Mary’s come a long way from being a Seattle barista and bartender who dreamed of being a middle school teacher. Same Love went double platinum, and she’s since signed with Capitol Records.
Don’t expect being signed to a major label to turn her into a run of the mill pop star, though. For her, music and poetry are about tackling subjects that a lot of other artists shy away from, subjects like mental health, body image, rape, and incest. For her, it’s about being vulnerable.
“For me, vulnerability is inalienable to who I am,” she admits. “There’s no way I can not be exposed, and that’s the way I like it. I don’t think I could ever be anything other than that. I would have to learn how to not be that way. The reward for me has been so much greater when I’ve been open and hungry for connection.”
She recognizes that it’s not the standard road to fame and stardom she’s taking, but she understands that not every artist is in a place to talk about the issues that she does.
“Having been through the industry and been through the cycle,” she explains, “I can understand why some artists choose to keep more of a character or don’t want to fully expose themselves. It’s really easy for a fan to feel entitled to your experience. A lot of times people will feel a connection to you, which is awesome, but they’ll also feel like they know you and they understand you. Sometimes you don’t want someone to know or understand you. You want to keep that for yourself.
That’s not to say that she hadn’t ever considered going a more traditional route. But with the trauma she’s experienced in her life, and the healing that she’s done since then, hiding behind a false persona just isn’t in the cards.
“I always thought that I might be one of those people who has an alter ego,” she confesses, “but I can’t do it. I hunger for connection on a really basic human level with nothing blocking that. This is my whole heart, and I want to extend it out.”
Where, for other artists, a statement like that might sound pretentious, for her it’s purposeful and genuinely sincere. Talking with Mary, it’s hard not to hear her sincerity and sense of purpose. She’s thought a lot about not just what she’s saying, but on the impact that what she’s saying will have on others.
“That can come with repercussions if you haven’t done enough healing,” she explains, of being so publicly vulnerable, “or if you don’t know how to protect yourself properly. I’m still learning those things but, in general, when I talk about anything dark, or when I talk about the trauma I’ve experienced, the only reason I feel comfortable doing it is because I’ve been through the healing, and I’ve asked myself the questions. Is this exploitive? Will this trigger somebody? Will this trigger me?”
Her music is part of her therapeutic process, of course. Writing and performing are some the ways she’s developed to cope with the things she’s had to experience in life, and some of those things are pretty dark.
“I get to do all of the things that I like,” she tells me, “and people also like it. We all just have a lot of feelings. Even though the songs are confessional and deeply emotional, there’s still a lot of reprieve, at least in the performance, in the show, hopefully people don’t go home mentally and emotionally exhausted.”
“It feels like group therapy,” she adds, giggling a little.
Other people, coming from different forms of oppression, are able to see, in some ways, a different experience and can be more empathetic. It’s just about compassion. That’s all it’s about.”
It was spoken word that rescued Mary from a teenage obsession with writing “angsty, melodramatic page poetry” and turned it into a drive to be deeply personal. It was spoken word that woke that hunger to connect with others in a way that allowed her to process her pain.
“I’m so grateful for the spoken word community,” she gushes. “Especially, I mean the Seattle spoken word community, specifically.”
Her first experiences with spoken word were eye-opening, to say the least.
“When I discovered spoken word,” she says, “things really shifted for me. I watched spectacular moments of vulnerability on stage. And seeing beautiful people just light up an entire room and grab people’s souls and grab them by the throat, it was a command and invitation all at once, and I was rapt. I wondered how my story could come out in this art form. Thank god for that, because it really altered my voice and put me in the direction I was born to go in.”
Throughout my conversation with Mary, her intentionality is striking. It can be heard in the thoughtful way she composed her answers. She has a warmth and a composure that says she knows who she is, where she’s been, and where she’s going. The fact that, when she’s writing, she’s thinking about possible exploitativeness and triggers says a lot about who she is.
“The more that I’m in the public eye,” she tells me. “the more that I see how important it is to be compassionate of another person’s experience. I think there’s this big uproar of people saying censorship is stifling people’s creativity, or being too politically correct is a form of abhorring free speech. I think what it really is, finally, is people feeling comfortable enough to say: This hurts my feelings, or this is unkind and not compassionate, and I don’t feel cared for.”
There’s a clear understanding of her privilege in her answers. Her compassion even extends to those who won’t, or aren’t able to recognize when their words or actions are oppressive. It’s because recognizing that isn’t always easy, she tells me, when you don’t necessarily have any other perspective to draw from.
“I think it’s hard for a lot of people who do have that kind of privilege,” she explains, “that have never had to think about that, to begin to see another person’s experience. Especially for people with privilege. It’s illuminating for some, and it’s too jarring for others.”
That’s where voices like hers, and those of others who are overcoming their persecutions, can help.
“Other people,” she agrees, “coming from different forms of oppression, are able to see, in some ways, a different experience and can be more empathetic. It’s just about compassion. That’s all it’s about.”
Being able to be a part of an event like Lush Us, a showcase for Seattle’s Gay City and their arts program is important for Mary. She knows where she’s from, and how queer arts programs helped shape her. Again, it’s that thoughtfulness and intentionality that she’s consistently putting into her actions, coming back to Seattle to perform at a local non-profit’s arts fundraiser.
“I care so much about that scene,” she confirms, “and about it staying alive, because I know that it’s increasingly difficult for queer spaces to stay afloat. Those spaces are the reason I am where I am, and I have the career that I have, and that I am the person that I am today. The very core of my identity grew out of those queer spaces and arts spaces in Seattle. I want to be a part of that growth and not look back and say that I didn’t do anything.”
Things are changing in Seattle, of course. With a flood of corporate and tech money has come a wave of development that has, frankly, done a rather good job of displacing the very spaces that led Mary to the Grammy stage.
“Seattle’s in a really interesting transition right now,” she says, carefully, “and there’s a lot of changes happening. With the rapid gentrification that’s happening, and the effect that it’s had, especially on the Capitol Hill population, that this sort of community is needed, and it’s necessary to thrive. Any way that I can be a part of that legacy is something that I desperately want.”
Mary promises that her performance at Lush Us will include some of her work from her upcoming second album. While Mary can’t say much about it yet, she tells me that she’s put her Cornish chops to work composing several string quartets for her new album, and that she’s even written a pop song with her girlfriend for it.
Mostly, though, she’s just very, very excited about it.
“I’ve never been so excited about a body of work in my entire life,” she exclaims. “I’m bursting. At every step I just want to post it online and show everybody!”
Even through all of the excitement, though, she has an important message to tell, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to share it.
“The overarching theme of the next album is about shame, and overcoming shame,” she says. “I’m just really excited, being on a major label, and identifying the way I identify, to have that platform.”