Open Heart: An Interview with Mary Lambert
Mary Lambert is nothing if not grateful for her newfound popularity. The out singer/songwriter and performance poet’s swift and meteoric rise to fame occurred via her collaboration with the duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on the groundbreaking song “Same Love.” A YouTube sensation and hit single, the song received Grammy Award nominations, and was performed live during the Grammy telecast, featuring a mass-wedding including several same-gender couples. Shortly thereafter, Lambert released the Welcome To The Age of My Body EP, featuring “She Keeps Me Warm,” a song that expanded on her contribution to “Same Love.” I spoke to Lambert about her career and new album, Heart On My Sleeve (Capitol), out on October 14th.
Mary, I’m sure you’ve been asked about your Grammy performance with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis a million times, but now that there is some distance between that night and now, what was the experience like for you?
It’s a life-altering experience. Performing for that many people and being nominated for a Grammy is pivotal enough for an individual. But what the song stands for and what I’m singing about and what I’ve written, that to me is more gratifying. The actual content and the social impact; it was life changing for me. I feel so fortunate that this is the song that will be remembered for years to come. I feel very lucky that it’s the song for which I will be known for sure.
I’m glad you mentioned the social impact. Your religious upbringing also plays a role in your artistic life. What kind of an impact do you think your work is now having, if any at all, on conservative religious organizations such as the Evangelical church with which you have been involved?
I’m not sure if it has. I feel like I’ve been out of touch in terms of those actual communities.
Have they reached out to you at all?
I have been working with some churches. There are churches that have reached out. I do think that Christianity and the whole Evangelical sect is in a shift right now. But I don’t know if I am solely responsible for that. I do feel that there is a shift towards the idea of gay marriage.
“She Keeps Me Warm,” the full-length song that grew out of your “Same Love” collaboration with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, is featured on your Welcome To The Age of My Body EP. What was involved in deciding what you wanted to include on that disc?
I wanted to make the EP an introduction to who I am. I wanted “She Keeps Me Warm” on there. There was a push to have it in a collection of songs and to have it out and make a statement about who I am and what I do. “Sarasvati” is on there, too, and that’s very confessional, a deeply emotional song to sing. “Body Love” is on there and that’s an encompassing idea of what I do. They all speak to those different forms.
I’m glad you mentioned “Body Love,” because the EP opens and closes with the spoken word tracks “Body Love Part 1” and “Body Love Part 2,” and your new full-length album Heart On My Sleeve contains the poem “Dear One,” while the new song “Sum Of Our Parts” also puts your poetic skills on display. Who are some of your favorite poets?
I have so many! I was fortunate enough to do a little stint with Andrea Gibson, who is one of my favorite poets. Buddy Wakefield and Shira Erlichman, too.
Heart On My Sleeve opens with “Secrets,” a song that does a fantastic job of exhibiting your sense of humor. How important do you think it is to maintain a sense of humor as an artist?
I don’t think it is for everybody. I know it is important for me. I think the topics I talk about can be really heavy. I’d like there to be some sense of relief through it so I’m not making everybody cry through an entire show. There’s some joy in it, too. It’s probably because I’m clinically bipolar. Part of being an extreme person is the capacity for extreme joy. Fun, tongue-in-cheek writing also has the capacity to be vulnerable, maybe heartbreaking writing as well.
Guest rappers on tracks are nothing new and your song “Ribcage” features K. Flay and queer rapper Angel Haze. Why did you choose to work with them?
I’m a huge fan of both of those women. I met K. Flay about two years ago in Austin during SXSW. I was such a fan of her already and I was so excited to meet her. We really hit it off. I guested at a couple of her concerts and surprised the audience. That was pretty fun. She and I have been friends. I have equal admiration for Angel Haze. I think she’s one of the fiercest MCs making music today. I think she’s so on point with her writing and emotional intensity. I resonate with her. What really solidified it was her song, and video, for “Battle Cry,” which I thought was so vulnerable. It was so open of her to discuss trauma in such a way. It shook me in a really beautiful way. That was when I knew I had to have her on the track as well. Throughout the recording process I’d been asked to have multiple rappers on the tracks. I was hesitant to have any rap on because I would like to step out of that capacity in which people know me. But this felt like the absolute right thing to do. It felt so good to have two absolutely fucking fierce female MCs on it [laughs].
Hearts are a recurring theme on the new disc. You make mention of hearts in the title cut, “Ribcage,” “When You Sleep,” “Wounded Animal” and “Monochromatic.”
Wow! I honestly didn’t even realize it! I mean, I knew it was the title [laughs]. I didn’t even think about it! I talk a lot about my heart. The heart is a metaphorical thing we describe as the vessel in which we connect to each other. That’s why I write about it a lot. I’m so hungry for connection. I crave real, tangible human interaction. I believe the way to achieve that is vulnerability. The way you achieve vulnerability is to have an open heart. That’s the basis of it. An openness of your soul which I believe is your heart.
Your torch song reinvention of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” is nothing short of brilliant. You take ownership of the song! Why did you choose to cover that song?
I love that song! “Jessie’s Girl” is one of my favorite songs that has ever been written [laughs]. There’s the intensity behind it, when you break down the lyrics. When I broke it down and was trying to find the right chords to fit with it, I love that line “She’s watching him with those eyes/and she’s loving him with that body.” That line is so poetic. There’s poetry in that song. I know it’s an upbeat, angst-y kind of song, but I just thought, “If you’re a gay person, you’ve undoubtedly had feelings for someone who’s straight.” I felt like those feelings were similar. I also love the non-gender-specific name Jessie. It was so awesome to sing it. To me, the intent behind it is a little subversive, in terms of wanting to connect with the gay community in that way. But I also think taking it down-tempo and adding strings to it gave it a different kind of life.
Do you know if Rick Springfield has heard it and what he thinks of it?
I think he has heard it. I would love to have a conversation with him. I think we’re actually working on setting one up now.
Like Beth Ditto, you have become a body image advocate, most recently launching The Body Love Campaign. What can you tell me about it?
The Body Love Campaign is something I feel very strongly about. It’s just the idea of self-worth and self-care and propelling that in our culture when our culture is so invested in breaking down women; women asking for validation from men. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault, but I think it’s perpetuated by both genders. Something I really wanted to attack was the fact that it starts before you are 16 or 17. That was the peak of it for me, when I felt pressured to be somebody that I wasn’t and then feel really guilty about it. I wanted to make a declaration of “You are beautiful, just the way you are.” But I also didn’t want to smooth over it the way a lot of other people do. It has the open and close quotes and I think it’s a lot rawer than that. I think it’s about girls self-harming, drinking heavily and escapism because the pain of our bodies and our self-destruction.
By Gregg Shapiro