Mary Lambert Won't Let Her Demons Define Her

"Maybe I was taken advantage of, or these painful things happened to me," the singer says. "But now, I get to control what happens."

Few musicians, let alone Grammy-nominated singer-songwriters, would describe their emotional state before an album release as “career hospice.” But Mary Lambert isn’t like most musicians.

Best known for her stirring, deeply personal lyrics—specifically in the chorus of the 2012 pro-marriage equality anthem "Same Love,” her collaboration with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis—the Seattle native isn't one for pretenses. When we meet to discuss her latest record, which she admits is a stylistic risk, she references her struggles living with bipolar disorder and surviving sexual violence just minutes after gushing about watching RuPaul’s Drag Race with her partner in her current home in western Massachusetts. She’s also very self-aware, admitting that her unflinching honesty, refreshing as it may be, isn’t always a selling point for an artist navigating the pop-music circuit.

“I feel like I’m defending my dissertation,” Lambert jokes, crossing her legs and clutching a coffee cup as she opens up about Grief Creature, her new LP, in the Logo offices in Times Square. It’s her first real project since her 2018 poetry collection, Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across, and her second full-length studio album overall.

“Everything has been sort of leading up to this," she adds. "I feel like it’s my thesis statement as an artist.”

Shervin Lainez

Indeed, Grief Creature stands in sharp relief from the rest of Lambert’s discography. The record was more than five years in the making, and those years were jam-packed with tension and trauma. A breakup, a devastating (and sickly symbolic) house fire, a particularly brutal bipolar episode, a painful but necessary split from her major label Capitol, and "lots and lots of therapy"—you name it, and Lambert endured it.

The album reflects those harrowing events through its song cycle—its tracks are moodier, slower, and more somber than most of her catalog, more akin to her confessional poetry than her upbeat pop songs like “She Keeps Me Warm,” which sampled the chorus Lambert wrote for “Same Love.” New cuts like “Shame,” “Trauma Is a Stalker,” and “Me, Museum” explicitly draw on her heartbreak, suicidal ideations, and sexual abuse, blending Lambert’s poignant spoken-word style with her mastery of the guitar, piano, and keyboard.

Others, like “Born Sad,” which Lambert released as a single in early November, pair lively instrumentals and breathy vocal rounds, but the lyrics take dark turns à la Amanda Palmer: “Keeping my head above water is all that I can do / Did anybody ever teach you / Some people are born sad.” It makes for a captivating whirlwind of a listening experience—as complex and unpredictable as Lambert herself.

Lambert recalls an interview she recently did for another publication in which her hardship—rather than the art she'd made while going through it—were the focus. “It was like rereading every single trauma that had happened to me,” she says of seeing the article for the first time. “It was listed in the title. I get it: It's a part of my story. It’s part of how I create and what I create, but it just felt reductive and unfair that there was not really a ton of levity.”

She shies away from rehashing those traumas in graphic detail, and who could blame her? The last thing Lambert wants is to trigger listeners who might have similar narratives, to explain her self-destructive behavior in a way that is replicable. Instead, she's looking toward the future. “Maybe I was taken advantage of, or these painful things happened to me, but now, at this point in time, I get to control what happens,” she says. “And that feels really gratifying.”

Kevin Winter/WireImage for MusiCares

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 16: Mary Lambert performs onstage during MusiCares® Concert For Recovery Presented by Amazon Music, Honoring Macklemore at The Novo at L.A. Live on May 16, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage for MusiCares)

Control was a central theme of Lambert’s creative process. The 30-year-old musician produced 16 of Grief Creature’s 17 tracks herself. She cites her desire for authenticity as one reason, and a moment of clarity about the state of the music industry as another.

“I realized in the studio that no matter how sensitive [my producer] was, my voice was always being heard through the filter of a straight white guy,” Lambert says. “Honestly, it's the same for most women making pop music. There’s a lot of gatekeeping now. But I was just like, What happens if I totally trust my creative instinct?

She’s most nervous about how fans will receive “House of Mirrors,” another collaboration with Macklemore, which she plans to release as a single. The not-quite-pop, not-quite-spoken-word song has an experimental vibe that separates it from the bulk of Grief Creature's track list. Still, co-writing it with the rapper was a “very surreal, full-circle moment” for Lambert, who admits she owes the launch of her career to “Same Love."

In 2019, certain lyrics from that song—“With a veil over our eyes, we turn our back on the cause / ’Til the day that my uncles can be united by law / Kids are walking around the hallway / Plagued by pain in their heart / A world so hateful / Some would rather die / Than be who they are“—are so on the nose, they border on cheesy. It’s easy to forget that in 2012 they were revolutionary, and indicative of a cultural shift on the horizon. By 2015, marriage equality would become the law of the land across the United States, signaling a new chapter in the fight for LGBTQ rights.

Lambert quips that “Same Love” would be a “massive failure” if it came out today. “It was just in the perfect pocket of time, I think,” she says. “I think we were sort of the soundtrack for something that was already happening, and it was something people were able to point to and say, 'This could have never have happened 10 years ago.'"

The same could be said about #20GayTeen’s queerest pop hits. LGBTQ artists like King Princess (whose “Pussy Is God” has become a queer anthem) and Janelle Monáe (whose “Pynk” is as subtle as an earthquake) are able to proudly proclaim their love of the queer sex because of the out singers, lyricists, and allies who came before them. It’s a sea change Lambert is humbled to have played a part in.

"There was a period where I really rejected [our impact with 'Same Love'] as an idea because I was like, 'That's really egotistical to think that way,'" she says. "But I do think that having a song like that on mainstream radio, and having the success that we did with it, was really representative of a shifting ideology."

While Lambert considers her and Macklemore's hit ahead of the curve, she's less concerned about her relevance these days. If Grief Creature doesn’t land her on the charts, she has a plan B. She’s given teaching some serious thought and teases that she might try her hand at acting.

“I don’t know what comes after this,” she says, “but I know this album is what I’ve been waiting for my whole career to do. Once it's released, I feel like whatever happens with my music career, I will just feel at peace.”

Grief Creature is out now.

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