Mary Lambert: Body Love
The plus-size singing star is headlining The Dinah!
When it comes to spilling her heart and soul to thousands of complete strangers, Mary Lambert is no rookie. The singer, songwriter, and spoken word artist has a knack for digging deep and bringing forth the most vulnerable of topics, and arenas full of listeners have no choice but to let her powerful emotions wash over them. Well-known for her feature in Macklemore’s hit “Same Love,” Lambert recently signed with Capitol Records and performed live at the 2014 Grammy Awards. She is on the rise as a breakout solo artist, and is making a name for herself in a hugely competitive industry. Identifying her greatest strengths as singing and crying, the openly gay feminist is honest and up-front about everything—from love to body image to sexual abuse. Prepare to be slammed with a slew of emotions as Lambert’s voice and lyrics encompass your heart and connect with you in a way no one but your best friend ever has before. Her relationship with femininity, her body, and self-doubt intertwine with her vocals to wrench your gut while somehow embracing you warmly. Regardless of whether you need something deep and dark or an empowering message that you won’t be able to resist, Lambert has you covered. She’s a woman you can expect to hear much more from with her forthcoming full-length album, which is being finessed by the producers of Sara Bareilles, Tori Amos and Adele. Lambert will perform at the world’s largest lesbian music festival this month.
How has life changed since your success with “Same Love” and “She Keeps Me Warm”?
It hits me every day—like, is this real? Does this really happen to people? Why am I this person who gets to have all these incredible things? This gets to happen to me? I get really worked up about it. I’m just trying to take it in every day and not for one second feel entitled. I just want to feel grateful for every moment.
How did you feel while performing at the VMAs with Macklemore and Jennifer Hudson?
Stupid. All of it was stupid. It was ridiculous. I have to create this other person who can handle all this shit. A year ago I was working a bunch of jobs, I broke my ankle and was trying to figure out how to pay rent. Then I sang about social impact with Macklemore and Jennifer Hudson at the VMAs in a glittery dress and it was really beautiful. It takes time for your brain to catch up with what your body’s doing. I just don’t want to take any of it for granted. I want to be just as excited as I am right now, always. I’m really terrified that I’m going to get blasé about my life, so at the VMAs I was really trying to take in every moment. I get overwhelmed really easily, but I’ve created this person who’s like, “Yeah, I belong here. I’m fucking standing where I need to be.” I’m waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Get the hell out.”
After your performance at the Grammys do you feel more comfortable in the spotlight now?
It takes me a while to remember that I’m sort of an anomaly—I’m a plus-sized queer woman that wants to talk about body image and sexual abuse on a major label and it’s not only accepted but it’s supported by the label and the fan base and the audience. That is how it should be but it’s not always, so I feel really lucky to be in the position that I’m in. I think the Grammys sort of solidified that for me. I’m singing about gay rights and very explicitly about being a lesbian and Keith Urban’s crying at it. The beauty of the entire performance, of Queen Latifah being there, and I sang with Madonna, so, you know…I didn’t even have that on my bucket list.
Gay rights at the Grammys. Do you feel that suddenly we are making progress as a community?
I think it’s a very rapid evolution of thought at least from when I was in high school to now. Even the last three years in terms of gay rights and social acceptance, it stretches beyond tolerance—it’s actual love for your friends and neighbors and the queer community.
Madonna is known for picking hot young female musicians to perform with at awards ceremonies but in her performance with you it seemed completely heartfelt.
Yeah, it totally was. When I found out she was performing with me I was speechless. I couldn’t even believe that was happening with me. Part of me was a little worried, making sure that the integrity of the song stayed there so that it wasn’t like her previous duets on award stages. But as soon as we started having rehearsals it seemed like everything was taken very seriously. Everybody knew how important and impactful the performance would be. I know I did because I was the one crying all the time. I cried for almost ten hours straight the day before during rehearsal.
I heard she wiped your tears.
She did, she did, she wiped my tears! I remember standing there. We’re at dress rehearsal, all of the gay couples are there, Queen Latifah is there, Madonna’s standing next to me singing about gay rights and I just start crying and Madonna stands there wiping my tears and I’m like, In what world does this exist when last year I was bartending? How does it really happen?
You’ve earned it! And you’re out and a role model for our community. How do you feel about queer celebrities who don’t come out? Should we push them or let them be?
I think we should let them be. The public thinking they have knowledge of a person’s gayness, I think it’s really unhealthy. You’re not in their situation; it’s not your career that you have to go through. We’ve come a long way from Ellen DeGeneres’ show being cancelled when she came out so it’s becoming more common for celebrities to come out because there’s more of a widespread acceptance and the industry is hopefully not going to discriminate. It’s also aided by visibility. The only way that the industry will change is through visibility but I don’t think it’s anyone else’s responsibility to push somebody into accepting their own sexual orientation.
What does the hook in “Same Love” mean to you? Has it changed over time?
When I first wrote the hook I wanted it to be something that hit people emotionally. I felt like the song hit people in a very rational way and made them think, but I wanted to be able to make them feel. The good news is that I’m super-emotional. It was really easy to write this because that’s what I do. Then it sort of became an anthem for allies. People have adapted it to be a universal love song, and that’s amazing. I’ve also struggled with it. My girlfriend and I broke up, so how could I sing “She Keeps Me Warm” every night? I’m really vulnerable when I’m on stage, and those words became really lifeless and didn’t have meaning to me. I can shout all day about how I can’t change, but for me the song felt applicable because I was in a relationship. But if you don’t love anybody, then what are you singing about? Then a couple of nights ago I just felt it. It all came back. I sang the snot out of it and it felt so good. There was emotion in it and rawness and joy at the end. I’m really excited about it again.
What made it change?
I’m seeing someone. I don’t base it solely on that, though—the crowd was also amazing. The crowd was so intensely excited to see me. It was all of that welcoming energy, along with my just having signed with Capitol Records. At that moment I thought to myself, “No, I’m regaining control. This is my career.”
Some people have said that as a straight artist Macklemore is exploiting queer people by writing a gay anthem. They’ve criticized him for it. What do you think about that?
I think that we should always be critical—especially of things people are being congratulated for. But honestly, in this case, the criticism is offensive to me. It discounts me as a gay woman. It totally tosses me aside. This is my story, too. I think the beauty of the song is that we’re both speaking from our own points of view. I don’t think he’s appropriating the gay struggle. He’s coming from his point of view, which is as an ally. You can hear it in his lyrics. I think the best writers only write from their own perspective. I know that criticism is welcome in all of these avenues, but it’s also really important to validate small steps. That’s what it is. I say, “Screw ’em.”
What do you think about other people covering your work?
It’s crazy. When I watched it on The Voice, the whole crew piled into my hotel room and it was like a family thing. We were so excited. When the performer said, “I’m singing Mary Lambert,” I was like, “Shut the fuck up.” I couldn’t believe it. I don’t have words.
Tell us about your track “I Know Girls (Bodylove).”
That poem is the most important thing I’ve ever written. I wrote it at a time I really needed it—I was self-harming and sleeping with everyone who thought I was attractive. I hated my body, I was miserable, I wanted to die, and I was being reckless. Since I get to perform it so often, I have the most amazing view of my body now. It’s because I have a mantra. I love that it’s had such an impact on girls. I want the song to be big, and not just for my ego. The reason I want it to be heard and to be on the radio is because of the impact it can have. This song can do so much good. I’m pushing really hard for it to be on the radio. I just feel very lucky to be able to perform it so often.
You’ve said that you’re good at both crying and singing—are the tears good or bad?
I cry all the time. I was actually thinking last night, “How many times did I cry today?” I’ve already cried twice in this interview. I feel everything so intensely. More often than not I’m crying about how wonderful everything is because words can only express so much. The night I sang with Ed Sheeran at our show in Buffalo, he played us his new record and I just cried in Macklemore’s arms. I was sobbing because it was so beautiful—and I was a little drunk. It’s very common for people to see me crying on the tour. I’m moved really easily.
How have you coped with the changes since your last relationship ended?
I think I’ve learned some lessons through the breakup. A lot of that had to do with me being very vocal about my relationship with my girlfriend. I talked about it in interviews all the time, it was on my Wikipedia page, and there are pictures everywhere. Those will stay with her. It’s not fair for her anonymity. I’m going through some massive changes and am not the same person I was three years ago—hell no, not even close. Three years ago, I was wasted all the time and I slept in my car. I’m not that person anymore. I’m now independent and self-sufficient. I’ve never felt more sure or clear of where I am. I feel really good about that.
Your book 500 Tips for Fat Girls doesn’t actually have any tips in it. Describe the poems in the book and what purpose they serve.
The poems span my life. They are locked into the idea of vulnerability. I talk about being bipolar, about my incest, about rape, and about body image in a very honest and terrifying way. In music, you can say those things and often disguise and structure it. With poetry, you’re writing exactly how you feel. It’s much more raw. The book is just a series of experiences that have affected me, and I hope to affect other people because there are a lot of shared experiences in it.
Your poetry is so frank and honest. Was it hard for you to really go there and reveal so much of your inner life?
That’s the crazy thing—it’s not. It’s harder for me to tell a coworker, “Yeah, I was totally molested by my dad” than to say it in front of a thousand people. When I look at my audience, I know they’re there because they want to be. My audience supports me and likes what I do, and I automatically feel safe with them. That’s why it’s easier on stage. I’m very open in my personal life, too. I’ll talk about it all. You don’t want to hear that shit at dinner, though. I want to be talking about it on a larger platform.
You’ve talked about femme invisibility in the past. Now that you are an out artist, has that gone away? And if so, how does it feel to be more visibly queer?
I joke and say that people didn’t know I was gay before, and I had to constantly prove myself. I wrote this song so that I wouldn’t have to fight for myself at a gay bar [laughs]. I’m so happy and grateful to go around the country singing about how I gay I am and have people be totally cool with it. It’s crazy. Sometimes in the queer world I didn’t feel like I fit in because I didn’t have a cool haircut. And I tried. I cut my hair short and had my flannel jacket and that was fine. That was me, that was where I needed to be when I came out. Now, I’m just not that person anymore. I’ve gone through different incarnations, and I’m really happy about wearing beautiful dresses every night, and I’m proud of my femininity and my gayness.
When do you first remember feeling the pressure of having to maintain a certain body image? How has that changed since you’ve become more famous?
When I was 9. That wasn’t the first time that I cried about my body, but it was the first time that I realized I was bigger than everybody else. God, that sucked. I lost a bunch of weight when I was dancing in high school, and then gained it all back. I hated myself and tried to commit suicide for several reasons. I was miserable. I wrote “Bodylove” and then I went through a series of healing years. Now I’m in the public light. I feel like people have really embraced me as a plus-size girl, as an advocate for gay rights, and for talking about body image. I feel so accepted and loved by all communities. I’ve never felt better about my body. I feel more beautiful than I ever have before. It’s amazing.
You’ve been open about your relationship with your body when you’ve dealt with abuse and mental illness. But as an artist, your body is your instrument. Do you often think about it in that way?
I honestly think about it less than I have before, because I’ve come to a really beautiful place of understanding with my body. I’ve been practicing listening to it for so long now that we have a really good relationship with each other. I think I just care less than I have before. Writing is one of those things where you’re constantly picking apart a process. You have to sort through all that shit or you’re going to be crazy for the rest of your life, or hate yourself, or feel sad. That’s what writing was for me—exposing a lot of those parts that sucked. It also felt good—being able to talk about them and having other people to relate to.
What is the best advice you could give someone who is dealing with sexuality and body image issues?
You are in control of your own happiness. I believe that everybody deserves happiness and the absolute best. Self-worth is something that’s been depleted for so many people, and it’s the root of a lot of sadness. We forget how worthy and beautiful we are. The way I figured it out was having a really great support system. I surrounded myself with people that got me. They’re out there. The sooner you understand yourself, the sooner you can embrace yourself.
How have you felt about some of the reviews for your EP Welcome to the Age of My Body?
The cool thing is that I went to an arts college where they gave me adjudications every semester and sometimes ripped me apart and the times that I was picked apart was because it was too personal and too vulnerable, and not to say that they just don’t get it; I think that a lot of the criticisms are sometimes that it was put together too quickly. To be honest, we did put it out quickly because we wanted an introduction to who I was to the world. We wanted to get “She Keeps Me Warm” onto an EP and it made sense to do it quickly. As far as the integrity of the music goes, I’m really proud of it. If anything, I can’t wait to show you what’s next, I can’t wait to show you the other thing I’ve been working on. I’m just excited to show what’s going on in my world?
What can you tell us about your full-length album?
I’m shooting for June or July. I’ve been working really hard and I’ve been co-writing for the first time in my life. I’ve been pushing myself in ways that I probably normally wouldn’t. I feel like I’m doing a sound that I’ve never really heard before and that I’m excited about and other people will be excited about. I think it’s going really well. It’s confessional but I think it’s got a bit of edge to it too. I wrote my first sexy song and I wrote my first angry song, so there’s some range in it. I want to explore different facets of my emotional connection to my music.
You’re currently seeing Michelle Chamuel. What did you two do for Valentine’s Day?
I had a show in New York and it was a very special show, it sold out and I was so happy. It was a beautiful night and I wore a really pretty dress and [Michelle] came out to New York and we had a really nice time. You rally want to treasure those moments that you have with your partner.
How did you meet?
We were working on music together, and I think music is one of those things—it’s a really soulful connection. I thought she was wonderful, instantly. But it wasn’t in my head though. The focus was music and that’s also translated in our lives, too. I want to be really focused on my career and when we were working together that was the intention.
Do you think that new love can heal past trauma?
I think in a lot of ways, yes. But I think you have to make sure that in a relationship those wounds you’ve felt in past trauma are taken and healed by yourself and that the relationship is not a Band-Aid or a crutch—it’s not a solution to problems. But there’s definitely a comfort that someone else can bring.
Now having been witness to the big group wedding at the Grammys do you see yourself getting married?
Definitely. I mean, no time soon. I have a lot to accomplish before I settle down. I’m just really excited about everything that’s happening.
Mary Lambert performs live at The Dinah, April 2-6, Palm Spings.