Mary Lambert's story is practically begging to be turned into a Hollywood screenplay: There's the early and ongoing struggle with anxiety and depression. The coming to terms with society's attitudes toward sexuality and body image. The challenge of being a contemporary artist who places emotional honesty above pop pretense.
And then there's the triumphant ending, which, in Lambert's case, is only the beginning.
The singer-songwriter, who turned 25 last month, was supporting herself as a bartender when a mutual friend hooked her up with fellow Seattle musician Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty. The subsequent studio session could have been like any other — were it not for the much-celebrated double-platinum single that came out of it.
With Lambert writing and singing the chorus, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Same Love" was quickly hailed by many as a gay and lesbian marriage anthem. The hip-hop duo — who were still playing 500-capacity venues like the Black Sheep three years ago — went on to win Best New Artist at this year's Grammy Awards.
Meanwhile, with just two EPs and a book of poetry under her belt, Lambert also found herself onstage at the Grammys, performing alongside Queen Latifah and Madonna as 34 gay and straight couples exchanged wedding rings.
Since then, Lambert's career has kept moving in the right direction. "She Keeps Me Warm," which was included on her Welcome to the Age of My Body EP, recently passed 3.5 million views on VEVO. The new song incorporates the chorus of "Same Love" into a heartfelt ballad that could make fans of Adele and Tracy Chapman swoon, including a "not crying on Sundays" refrain that suggests the conflicted emotions of growing up in Pentecostal and evangelical churches.
In late May, Lambert was added to Gavin DeGraw and Matt Nathanson's 15-city national tour, which will be making its way to the Pikes Peak Center this coming Monday. But in the weeks leading up to the tour, the singer lost her voice and, on doctor's orders, canceled all pre-tour interviews.
In lieu of a phone conversation, Lambert agreed to an exchange of questions and answers by email. As befits an artist known for the emotional intimacy of her performances, her responses convey a warmth and candor that's rare among artists who've spent time in the public eye. In the interview that follows, she talks about love and gender, pre-performance panic attacks and tongue-in-cheek tips for fat girls.
Indy: There's been a long tradition of straight-washing cover songs — where genders get flipped from "he" to "she," or vice versa — in order to avoid any suggestion of homosexuality. How weird will it be for you when a female singer changes "She Keeps Me Warm" to "He Keeps Me Warm"?
Mary Lambert: Hmm. A very sweet contestant on "The Voice," Kat Robichaud, sang the song and changed the lyrics to "you," which I thought was a tasteful way to do it. I am just happy people want to sing it and see this as a universal love song. That's more gratifying than anything else.
Moving on to your poetry, I want to ask about 500 Tips for Fat Girls, which would also be a pretty great name for a self-help book. Was that title and concept kicking around in your brain for a while?
Haha, the title is sort of tongue-in-cheek. I felt like I was always reading "Tips to Make Your Stomach Flatter" and "5 No-no's for plus-size figures," and I found it so infuriating. The title comes from one of the poems in the book. In the poem, I describe, sarcastically, ways that our society tells us to navigate the world as a plus-size woman. "Don't be a bitch. Don't be a fat bitch. Throw up. Always turn off the light." The book itself, though, is a collection of poetry that spans a lot of topics.
Did you start writing poetry around the same time you began playing music?
I was writing songs in my head as a kid and singing them out loud. As soon as I started writing lyrics when I was 9 or 10, I realized there were some things I could say in poetry that I could not say in songs. Since then, the two have my equal love and attention.
Katy Perry and Jill Sobule have each written songs called "I Kissed a Girl." If you had no choice but to listen to one of them every day for the rest of your life, which would it be and why?
Katy Perry!! I really enjoy Katy's song for a couple of reasons. When I was 17 and I came out, "I Kissed a Girl" was released in the same month. It was a huge deal for me. I remember singing it at the top of my lungs, feeling so liberated! And, of course, my girlfriend is my favorite human being on Earth and sang Katy's version on "The Voice."
You've been more upfront than most artists about your experiences with being bipolar. How are things like performing on the Grammys with Madonna and Queen Latifah affecting all that?
It all comes back to self-care. Before this year, I was a smoker and a heavy drinker and I ate terribly. My career means everything to me. I want to be the best at my profession, and that means taking really good care of this vessel.
Which isn't to say that I haven't had bad days. At SXSW this year, I suffered two pretty serious panic attacks, and it's easy to get caught up in what everyone is asking of you. At the end of the day, I know my own body and mind and I have to be aware at all times.
At this point, which questions about Macklemore are you most tired of being asked? And how do you respond to them?
I know that people are just curious! And I would be too — I mean, truly, how the hell did a curvy lesbian bartender write and sing the hook on a double platinum rap record? Hollis [Wong-Wear], who sings on "White Walls," is a dear friend of mine and thought I would be great for "Same Love." Ben and Ryan are my brothers, and I love them very much.
Your love songs come across as more genuine and sincere than a lot of what's currently being written. Of course, that can be either uplifting or depressing, depending on the individual listener's circumstances. Are there any songs by other artists that have resonated with you so much that you can hardly bear to listen to them?
There is a girl I listen to on repeat, Courtney Marie Andrews — her songs are so thoughtful and her lyrics hit you right between the eyes. I've been a fan of hers for a long time. Feist and Madi Diaz are a couple of my favorites. Death Cab for Cutie have those songs that say exactly what you wanted to say, but didn't know how.
So sad songs don't bring you down?
I feel like, in our culture, we are always begging for a distraction from sadness, or things that are uncomfortable. Sad songs are an important part of life. I believe in writing and listening to songs that are parallel with human experience, and everyone has gone through something shitty. It is nice to listen to a song you can completely relate to on a human level.
You've put out two EPs so far. Do you feel any pressure, either from yourself or others, to get an album out while you're now so much in the public eye?
Oh totally! I just wrapped up a full-length! So I succumbed! But gladly — I wanted to make a full-length record that was unlike anything I've written before. Establish a new chapter in my life, and move forward with the platform I've been granted. It is a gift.
500 tips for fat girls
— From the poetry collection, 500 Tips For Fat Girls, by Mary Lambert (available at http://marylambert.bigcartel.com)
When we were in 6th grade,
everyone was reading "a child called 'it'"
even the kids who could barely read, loved that
i swallowed the pages whole because i wanted my abuse
if my tortures were more extreme, i could write a book and then
everyone would love me and hold me like a child or kill my father or bury me already
Once when I was 7 I took scissors to all of my clothes in the closet. I don't know why. I made little slits in them.
maybe Oprah would give me a new life or a pair of jeans
but then i realized
everyone's dad or uncle or brother or neighbor fucked them up
in some way
so here we are, reading 'a child called "it'" coping for our shit, saying
"at least he didn't use the stovetop and burn my limbs" but i think we realized he might as well have
i wish i could make little slits in the years of my life
or put them in a book or something