Seattle singer-songwriter, poet and spoken word artist Mary Lambert is best known as the female voice singing the chorus on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's gay rights anthem "Same Love." In fact, the first time she came to Toronto on tour with Macklemore, she wasn’t even allowed inside the MuchMusic building with the rapper. Now it's her turn doing interviews in support of her recently released debut full-length album "Heart On My Sleeve."
Between "Same Love" becoming an unexpected mega-hit and recording "Heart On My Sleeve," Lambert released two solo EPs ("Letters Don't Talk" and "Welcome to the Age of My Body"), a book of poetry ("500 Tips For Fat Girls"), and got signed to Capitol, which has helped propel her into settings normally unlikely for a politically-charged, openly gay performer.
Her intensely personal lyrics tackle body image issues, sexual abuse, depression, and her struggles reconciling her sexuality with her Christianity. Despite the heavy themes, in person Lambert is warm, bubbly, and extremely friendly. Similarly, her intimate piano pop confessionals also feel more uplifting than the subject matter might suggest.
Lambert is certainly aware of the struggles she faces moving beyond being "that girl from the Macklemore song," but also acutely aware of the big bump in profile the hit has given her career, not to mention the larger platform for issues that are close to her heart.
Was "Same Love" your first time working within a rap context?
I was really active in the spoken word community, and in Seattle the music community in general is really communal. Spoken word and rap are closely related, so Macklemore and I knew each other through Hollis Wong-Wear, who sings on "White Walls" with him. She and I did poetry together, which was the common thread.
At the time I was writing a lot of songs about being gay and being Christian, and she suggested me to him for the song. Honestly, I think I was the last resort: they tried a lot of other people before me. She called me and told me I had two hours to write a song, and I was like "got it, done."
Did you get the sense they were looking for someone that could sing from more of a first person perspective on this issues?
I think so. I think they really recognized their privilege, and that they were coming from a white, heterosexual, male perspective talking about gay rights. I think they wanted someone that was in the community, which felt like a perfect entrance for me, given that I represent both: I still consider myself a Christian, and I've been straddling both worlds for my whole life.
There have been some queer musicians who've commented that it felt like Macklemore was trying to speak for the gay community as a straight guy. Does those complaints overlook your contribution?
When that first started coming out I had a moment where I felt, like, "Wait guys, what about me? I'm here too, waving in the background!" But I do recognize where that criticism comes from, and I think it's always important to critique any form of pop culture, and especially one talking about a marginalized segment of society.
However, I also believe in the power of intention, and I believe that the intention of the song was good. I don't believe that Ben or Ryan spent any time trying to appropriate someone else’s culture on this song, and I think they came from a point that was very thoughtful.
They very carefully worded their point of view as allies, and gave me the opportunity to speak from my point of view. They credited me on the song and brought me to all the award shows, and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that song.
Whether or not it came from a straight white dude doesn’t matter: the fact is that this song exists and this song has changed a lot of people’s lives.
I feel like in metropolitan areas we get a bit spoiled in terms of what the norm is. We don’t think about what it means to someone in Iowa, or some remote place in Canada. What it's like for someone else who's coming out and doesn't have the luxury of holding hands with their partner and not being persecuted for it.
It’s easy for us to say in big cities that we’re over it and it’s easy to be critical. I think the little victories are really important, and this was a victory for sure.
In your own work, are you trying to speak more to those marginalized people who don’t have the resources that a city like Toronto or Seattle provide?
I think there’s a way to get them both. I do go into specifics with my writing, but it’s nice to say universal truths in each story of the songs. There’s a way to reach people on a superhuman level.
Universal truths aside, is it still fair to say that your songs are mostly first-person based?
Absolutely. I have a really hard time writing outside of my own person. It’s actually something I’d like to work on: writing from someone else’s point of view. I feel like as a writer it’s important to know your own experience and write from your own experience. You’re constantly seeing something in the world and relating it to yourself.
Is there a big difference between how you’d approach a poem and a song?
Yeah, in that I don’t conceptually think of a song before I write it. I just sit at a piano, and whatever needs to come out comes out. In that way, songwriting feels more divine to me. This might sound clichéd, but I really do feel like a vessel, in that there’s something that needs to be communicated from God, and I know how to relate it to myself, and hopefully connect to humanity with it.
When I’m writing poetry, it’s a much more calculated thing, and I’m thinking very thoughtfully about language. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think the same way with music - which goes through its own editing process - but with poetry there’s definitely an intention before I start writing. It’s a difference in intention.
Do you get the sense that a lot of the crowds coming to your shows are there mostly for the Macklemore connection?
When I’m headlining, people know my work and are familiar with it. But when I’m opening for other acts, there are lots of people who only know me from "Same Love." It’s an awesome opportunity for me, because I can play "She Keeps Me Warm" and people recognize the chorus, but then here’s also a poem about body image that's really important to me, and then here's my new single that’s about unapologetically being who you are. I think it's an awesome bridge to that.
Do you think there are aspects of your own music that surprise people who only know you through that song?
Yeah, I think it's a lot more intense than they expect. There have been multiple times that I've cried on stage. I think it's really important to have that human connection with people and to be vulnerable. It’s important to cry, and I think that crying is really healthy.
The two EPs were mostly written five years ago when I was going through a really dark time and trying to figure my life out, as well as processing a lot of grief. But over the last two years I’ve had so much joy: I met the woman of my dreams, I'm on this amazing tour, I get to do exactly what I love and get paid for it. It would be silly to not share that joy, too.
People are always confused when they meet me because I’m a really positive person.
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