(Mary Lambert on ‘The Today Show.’ Photo: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
It’s 111 degrees in Los Angeles, and Mary Lambert has had enough.
“I can be in L.A. for about three days before I start questioning everything about myself. It’s so competitive. Also, I think the sun is trying to kill us here.”
Dressed in a sleeveless royal blue top and a half sleeve of matching tattooed petunias, Lambert radiates pure transparency and exuberance. For some random reason, a lyric from the 1967 musical Hair pops into my head as she enters a Silver Lake coffeehouse:
I got life, mother
I got laughs, sister
I got freedom, brother
I got crazy ways, daughter
I got headaches and toothaches
And bad times too like you
Lambert and I sit down for an hour-long conversation. We originally met a year ago, when she was honored with an Erasing the Stigma Leadership Award by Los Angeles nonprofit Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. It’s eight days after the Orlando shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse, and three days before she would reunite with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to sing their gay rights anthem “Same Love” on NBC’s Today Show. Lambert sang the song a few days earlier at non-televised event, and could barely make it through.
I watched her sing “She Keeps Me Warm” (which incorporates the “Same Love” chorus) at a BuzzFeed live stream the day after our interview, where she replaced her “I’m not crying on Sundays” lyric with “each one of them had a name,” repeating the line like a mantra over tears until the song’s end. It was raw, spontaneous, and emotional — all of the things fans have come to expect from the 27-year-old Seattle native.
Mary Lambert is the antidote to the mindless-social-media-selfie-self-obsessiveness that defines most 21st century pop stars. She’s the anti-Kardashian – a proudly open and articulate lesbian, bi-polar, plus-sized poet/singer committed to a life of meaning and message.
But the girl also wants to have fun. Lambert’s new single, “Hang Out With You,” could be considered her summer break from her usual soul mining. Despite the opening lyrics which could easily pass as a manic-depressive journal entry (“I don’t wanna go to work/I don’t wanna go to sleep/I don’t wanna do it”), “Hang Out With You” is really a bait-and-switch into pure pop giddiness.
Lambert’s musical move into less politically charged territory is not so much a departure as a further exploration of her inner landscape.
“More and more, I’ve been trying to explore this idea of a ‘complex person.’ I think we’re all born so multifaceted and so complex. And the main motivation for so much that we do is to be understood and loved. And in seeking those things socially, we’re taught the best way to achieve that is to become ‘digestible.’”
Lambert continues on this theory, convincingly striking a tone somewhere between philosophy professor and psychologist. “What is the best way I can be perceived? So we cut off parts of ourselves. As if being a high school jock means X, Y, and Z. So ‘I don’t do this’ or ‘I don’t do theater.’ We condition ourselves to believe we are simple people — that we are just presumably not as intelligent or complex as another person. But what if we could all embrace our complexities? How much fuller could our lives be?”
It’s a tricky balance: the political, confessional artist who also wants to simply write a great pop song. Lambert is fully aware of the expectations of her audience, yet maintains the journey is all the same.
“I’m sure some people will say, ‘Mary, where’s your social messaging?’ That’s a great question. I think being a gay artist you’re inherently political, no matter what you’re writing. And it automatically sets a precedent of like, ‘Oh she’s writing about a woman.’ I don’t have pronouns in the song. But Michelle [Chamuel, Lambert’s partner and co-writer of “Hang Out With You”] makes an appearance in the video and she plays my girlfriend in the video. For me, I really wanted the visual to be instantly paired with the song. So I’m not releasing the song before the video. So as soon as you hear the song, you have the attachment. And so in that way I think that it is a bit political and it does have some messaging to it. Umm… but it’s definitely much more subversive than you know or not as jarring as the previous things I’ve done. I’m not starting it talking about my bi-polar disorder this time.”
The career changes go beyond the penning of cute pop songs. Lambert is now the CEO of Lambert, Inc. Having been dropped by her label, Capitol, and parted ways with her longtime manager, she know finds herself retiring to her independent roots.
“I was independent during ‘Same Love.’ That was how I got here. I think my biggest success was when I was independent and able to trust my instinct and say, ‘I think this is right, I’m just gonna trust my gut.’”
It’s more than just trusting her gut. Lambert’s second act finds her with a considerably higher profile than her pre-Macklemore days. She has a brand that needs investment as well as instincts.
“To be able to financially invest in myself is a scary thing to do,” Lambert admits. “But I’m also so privileged to be able to have this opportunity. It’s definitely like going to a casino and saying, ‘OK, I’m betting on myself.”
Lambert’s return to indie roots can be seen as a furthering commitment to her idealism and politics. “I think the same way that we are culturally polarized, I’d say the music industry is also polarized. You see people and you’re like, ‘Where did you come from and how do you have a #1 single that seemingly came out of nowhere?’ And sometimes it is orchestrated and it’s a big covert operation we don’t know about. But I do think there is more power to the people now. I feel like people are making what they want to make. I don’t feel like people are being shoved into doing anything they don’t want to do.”
So goes Mary Lambert boldly into her future — the Beyoncé for the disenfranchised. Another strong woman owning her message, controlling her business, and knowing her audience.
“Being a woman in this world, it’s really hard. And if I can provide a voice of visibility or some sort of invitation to live fully and live uninhibited, then that’s what I want to do. You know? And I still… just because I think I’m creating this fun pop song and going a different direction with the single, it doesn’t negate body love or same love. I just want to be able to show all sides of me.”
We wrap our conversation with a hug and a promise to meet again in cooler temperatures. I tell her she’s a bright spirit. She receives the compliment with a bit of relief. “Sometimes I go and do interviews. And people are all, ‘You are so positive and upbeat and we weren’t expecting that.’ Like I’m gonna come in this like hoodie, smoking cigarettes.”
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