You know Mary Lambert. Her love, her love, her love, it keeps you warm. In 2012, Lambert co-wrote and performed “Same Love” with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Not only did the song reach double platinum in the United States and land on the top ten chart in six countries; it also became the anthem of the final fight in the battle for marriage equality in the United States. After “Same Love,” Lambert recorded and released a solo album, Heart On My Sleeve, that was nominated for two Grammy Awards, and she published a critically lauded book of poetry, 500 Tips For Fat Girls.
Lambert is as known for candid empathy as she is for her powerful voice and gutting lyrics. Over the last few years she has spoken openly about being bipolar, about reconciling her Christian faith with her sexuality, about surviving sexual abuse, and about her struggle with body positivity. Her concerts are less like performances and more like church, with Lambert inviting fans to explore their own pain as she has explored hers in her music, and to find healing in the balm of her melodies.
These days, Lambert is working on her next album and a new book of poetry while living in Seattle with her partner, Michelle Chamuel, who you remember as the heartthrob runner-up on season four of The Voice. Tonight, Lambert appears on MTV’s Faking It.
Before we started our interview, I told her that I was expecting some kind of transcendental experience. I read 20 Q&As with her the day before we spoke, and everyone who interviewed her talked about how being in her presence transformed them. They were tin men and Mary Lambert gave them their hearts! They were caterpillars and Mary Lambert gave them their wings! I was just joking, but after talking to her for half an hour, I understand why every journalist reacts to her the way they do. If I were a wizard, Mary Lambert would be my Patronus.
Tonight you are the best part of Faking It, in your very first TV role ever. You play the Hester High prom. Tell me a little bit about how this magic happened.
Faking It used “Secrets” for the promo for their first season, so that got me into the show. I thought the writing was really witty. It reminded me of when I was watching MTV’s Undressed, like being 17 and thinking I was watching softcore porn? And I was stoked about it! I would have loved this show when I was in high school, so I watch it with a bit of nostalgia. They were looking for someone to headline prom and we jumped at it.
Oh, you were a fan of the show already. That’s fun! So, are you like, “Gah! Karma and Amy, stop torturing each other!” Or do you have a soft spot for those two crazy kids?
My theory in relationships is if it ended, there’s a reason it ended — and you can go back to try to make it work, but if it didn’t go, it didn’t go, you know?
Let’s talk about your new album. Where are you in the process of birthing it?
Birthing it! That’s exactly what it is! We’re a couple of songs into it. This album, for me, is a lot more complex and a lot more work. My background is actually in classical composition, so I’ve been composing a lot of quartets. My producers and I take the songs I’ve written and rearrange them and refocus them in a different way, and I’m taking the melodic ideas and turning those into string quartets that come through the end, have their own interlude, and lead you into the next song. I’m actually freaking out about how excited I am about this album. It feels a little sacred to me, like the way I’ve always wanted to write something.
Do you feel like you have a little more time and emotional space to make this album? Because after “Same Love,” everything happened so fast.
Yes. I didn’t realize how sad I was getting, and how unhealthy, after we released “Secrets.” I didn’t get to go home, like, ever. I think I was only home for 30 days out of the entire year last year. The rest of it, I was on the road. And you just make concessions because this is what you want to do, so when the label decided not to release a second single, I was really upset. I had worked so hard! I didn’t realize at the time that this is how it works: When an album is done making money, they stop promoting it, and you start the process all over again.
So, I was forced into this mandatory resting period, which worked out really well. I started my own vegetable garden. I learned how to compost. I bought a real lamp. I’m feeling very adult-like.
Wait, what do you mean a “real lamp”? What were you using before?
Just string. A light bulb on string. No, for real. This is a real adult lamp. It’s got wood. Real wood slabs! You know what I should say? It’s a decorative lamp. It’s beautiful. I’m very proud of it.
You’re a fancy lady, Mary Lambert. You have a new poetry book on the way, as well. Is that correct?
That is correct! It’s my second collection of poetry, and you know, every time you’re doing new work, you’re like, “This work is the best! The other work sucked!” It’s called Shame Is An Ocean I Swim Across, and a lot of it is just me processing my feelings.
I read on Twitter a couple of months ago that you said you’d just ended a poem with “I’m a fucking unicorn, dude.”
I have Twitter open right now and I was just looking at that tweet, and I’m like, “What was I even talking about? What could that possibly have been?”
I’ll be honest, it doesn’t sound like you’re taking a mandatory rest. How else are you “resting”?
I’m diversifying! I mean, I am working all day every day for sure, but I’m not touring. That’s the thing that exhausts you. But yeah, I’m actually working on my own clothing line.
I knew this day would come! Tell me more.
I’m talking to a couple of different designers and companies and trying to work out whether I want to release an exclusive line with them, or create my own line and license it. It’s really fun to be drawing my own clothes like I’m on Project Runway or something. We’re actually getting two new crop tops in my store. One of them says, “Everyone’s a babe.” And the other one says, “Gender roles are gross.” Everyone loves crop tops and there are so many fat girls who want crop tops, but it’s stupid hard to find a good crop top. I’m going to make the best crop tops. High-waisted skirts. High-waisted jeans. And cute flats.
Well, speaking of perfect worlds, I want to talk a little bit about this culture of kindness and empathy you’re sowing into the universe. Our society really rewards apathy and cynicism and snark, but you are so purposefully, proactively nice. I admire that about you a whole lot.
Thank you for saying that. I think I learned at an early age that there’s so much pain and heartache in the world, and it’s perpetuated all the time, so I think as a culture we do a couple of different things. You can be really militant in your kindness, like, “You will do the right thing all the time!” And that’s exhausting. Or you can shut off, because it is hard to see all of the pain in the world. I try to balance those things, to go into situations and open myself up to what people are going through, so I can understand: Why is the culture reacting this way? What is making this happen? And what is my role in making it better?
Connection with other human beings is what keeps us from falling apart, and the only way to have true connection with someone else is through empathy.
What is it that allows you, personally, to experience such deep empathy?
Vulnerability, I think. If I can be vulnerable and real in my art and in the way I interact with people, I think I can get them to meet me halfway. I just want to be open about the stuff that’s really fucking difficult.
You have never shied away from talking about the trauma in your life.
No, and it’s because I’m always working through it. You know, I don’t think I’m ever going to get to a place where I am like, “I have defeated my sexual abuse! It is done! Behind me!” But I think there are different phases of healing and I can keep moving forward in those phases and be honest about what each new one brings. If I’m vulnerable about the pain of that, and also the triumphs I experience, I feel like I can get other people to poke their heads out and say, “Hey, she’s doing it. I can connect with her and her music and do it too.”
Connection is a theme that comes up over and over again in your art. Is that intentional?
My hunger for success is a hunger to connect with as many people as possible, and for us all to help each other along this journey. That’s what I thrive on. It makes me feel awesome. What I love about being a singer-songwriter is that I have a sacred, insular process where I sit with myself and I just write what needs to come out. I don’t perform everything I write. Some of it is just for me. But being a performer adds the extra step of sharing, and I am constantly working on: What can I share that will make the world better? What can I share that will make myself better?
I’ve read a couple of interviews where you say that a lot of the art you create is to heal a 17-year-old version of yourself.
That is completely true.
I had an interesting experience with your music. I grew up isolated in very rural Georgia. I was 27 before I came out. I live in New York now and I’ve always listened to your music here, where I am an openly gay adult who lives with my girlfriend and writes for the most popular lesbian website on the internet. I saw your concert in Williamsburg a couple of years ago, and I had a such a fun time. But the first time I heard “She Keeps Me Warm” on the radio when I was visiting home, I had to pull the car over because I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t keep driving. Your music was touching a teenage version of me who was desperately lonely, and giving me permission, across the space-time continuum somehow, to be okay with being gay.
Wow. Yes. That’s exactly it. That’s exactly why I make music. It constantly surprises me at my concerts — and you know, if you’ve been, it’s just a sobfest — that I meet these people who have never heard someone talking openly about being bipolar, or being comfortable being gay, or being comfortable inside their own bodies if they’re not a societally mandated weight or height. I think they surprise themselves how emotional they get, and I’m always trying to say, “Hey, I know you think it’s weird to laugh or cry in this moment, because we all think we’re too cool and too jaded for this shit, but we’re not. None of us are.” When I wrote “She Keeps Me Warm,” I just kept thinking about how it would have changed my life as a teenager to hear that.
And to watch that adorable video. You talk a lot about reversing shame. The shame and stigma surrounding mental health, sexuality, sexual abuse, body shame. What advice would you give someone who wants to start that process in her own life?
I think we have to talk about it. So many times, we’re scared to talk about it because we don’t know what to say or we feel like we don’t have the right language, but I think just speaking up and being vulnerable, even if it’s just to say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this” can be very freeing. And my other thing is that we have to be visible for people. It’s so easy to think you’re the only gay person, the only person who has a mental illness or has been subject to abuse, but when we see other people that we love and admire talking about these things in their own life, it destigmatizes it.
I’m all about holding hands everywhere Michelle and I go. I want us to be visible for gay people. I think we get so comfortable in our metropolitan worlds that we’re like, “Did we go back 20 years when we drove just 20 miles outside the city? Is it even safe to hold hands here?”
You’re right. It’s so easy to forget that middle America is a whole different world, and in other places in the world it can be really dangerous to be gay. TV and movies are pushing along progress, too.
Yes! We saw Grandma about a week ago. I didn’t know Lily Tomlin was playing a gay character in it. We freaked out. The writing was good and it was really funny, and then we were like, “Oh, whoa, this is about abortion. OH WHOA! Lily Tomlin is playing a lesbian!” We were thinking about seeing Freeheld tonight, but I’m just a very fragile person and you know that film is going to gut you. I need to feel safe when I see movies like that, so I think we’ll just see Goosebumps.
I do love that we’re having this moment of film visibility because usually I’m like, “Come on! Get it together! We have very few chances in our culture to pull off a lesbian movie!” And you know if one of them tanks, studios are going to be like, “Oh well. Gay people just won’t come out to see a gay movie!”
I actually auditioned for a feature film. My agent was explaining there are like these tiers: $80 million to $120 million, $200 million to $300 million. It’s insane that’s how much money is involved. They want to be as risk-averse as possible, so they’re like: What’s the formula? What works? Spider-Man! White dudes! Let’s do it!
I’m going to bring this around full circle and make MTV so proud. Are you going to use Faking It as a springboard for an acting career?
My agency is handing me some scripts and I’ve been reading for some roles. I actually wanted to double major in theater and music, but the music program is so intensive at Cornish College of the Arts that I couldn’t do it — but then I got into spoken word poetry and there’s a performative aspect to that, so I do want to explore that more. I like the idea of inhabiting another character for a day.
How long did you film Faking It? Just a day?
Yeah, yeah. Just a day. I do wish I’d brought more outfits. That’s my one regret. I’m wearing a crop top but you can’t really see the skirt, so I look a little austere. I look a little Mennonite. And you know, there were 20 ways I could have read the line I had and now I’m like, “Man, should I have read it a different way?”
No. It’s funny. It’s a good joke! And I think you look great.
Cool. Good. The other weird thing is I’m not very good at lip synching, so I just sang really loud and played the keyboard, but everybody clapped after every take, so I guess they liked it.
The best part of the joke to me is that you’re Mary Lambert — okay, you’re Mary Fucking Lambert — and you’re playing Mary Lambert on the show, at tiny Hester High, and of course no one is paying attention to you because most teenagers are narcissistic to the max, but Hester High teenagers take it to the next level. No one’s even looking at you. I’m like, “God, Karma, she’s only working through a lifetime of trauma in her music. Pay attention!”
If I played a real prom, they’d have to pay me really well and I wouldn’t care if anyone was paying attention. That’s the only way. Because when I’m playing my own shows, we’re all there and we’re in it together and it’s all very trusting, and that’s its own reward.
If you could perform at any fictional dance in history, what would it be?
I would like to perform at the first Sorting Hat ceremony for Harry Potter, just so they all felt really comfortable for the Sorting. Their lives — they went through so much, you know? I would just like to help them relax and feel okay for this first major thing.
Oh my gosh. What house would you be sorted into at Hogwarts?
I think Hufflepuff.
What about Michelle?
I think she’s definitely Gryffindor.
Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors make the best lifelong couples. I truly believe it.
I do too!
Well, you should know that I love Autostraddle. It’s pretty much the only blog I read. It’s one of my pages on my home page.
Mary Lambert! This has been pure joy. I’m very excited for your new album, Wooden Slab Lamp. And your poetry book and your clothing line and for everyone to see you on Faking It tonight.
Click here to watch a clip of tonight’s episode of Faking It with Mary Lambert. Faking It airs on MTV at 9:30 PM.