Feature: A Very Mary Holiday

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Mary Lambert

Mary Lambert (Photo: Shervin Lainz)

An interview with Mary Lambert on music, religion, and Christmas

Mary Lambert has a devoted following in the LGBTQ community, and it’s not hard to see why. After co-writing and singing with Macklemore on “Same Love,” the Seattle-based singer songwriter has continued to create music and poetry that speaks to those who are LGBTQ-identified as well as individuals who relate to her lyrics about body image, mental illness, abuse, and being a person of faith. Lambert, whose single “Secrets” landed on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 2014, is now focusing on becoming an independent artist and producing her own work. She’s currently finishing a variety of projects to be released in 2017.

Smart, thoughtful, and effervescent, Lambert makes conversations fun, engaging, and empowering. In addition to discussing her career and latest endeavors, we had the chance to talk about her thoughts on the music industry, getting to collaborate with her partner Michelle Chamuel on her latest single, “Hang Out With You,” and her love for Christmas and the holiday season.

How did you come to collaborate with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on “Same Love”?
I do spoken word, and that was originally how we met—through a mutual friend that was in the spoken word/hip-hop community. She linked us up—we’d never worked together before or met, and this all happened in one day. They sent me the song, I had about a couple hours, and then I went to the studio, they liked it and they recorded it and that was it.

How did that feel happening so quickly?
I felt like I had been preparing for it for my life. There was a moment in time—I want to clarify, I attempted suicide when I was 19, and I remember that moment, this nagging feeling in the back of my head that said, “You’re supposed to do something. You have to do something. It’s terrible right now, but you can’t give in, because something is going to happen and you have to be there for it and you have to show up.”

And when that call from Hollis Wong-Wear—she’s in Flavr Blue, and she sings on “White Wall,” that’s our connection—when she called me it was like the flood of all of those memories of the past years of any pain I went through [were] like, “Oh, this is it, this is the thing.” And whether or not it panned out to be a big success or not, I knew that it was something that I needed to communicate with the world that I had yet to. And as a Christian lesbian, I had struggled to find the right outlet to talk about both of those things and living in that intersection, and it was like it fell onto my lap.

Now that marriage equality is the law of the land in the U.S., how would you say attitudes toward LGBTQ people and issues have evolved in the music industry?
In general, I think it’s been favorable. I do want to commend the rapid acceptance of LGBT people within the artistic communities, but I don’t know—I feel like people have always accepted artists to be queer, people have always expected artists to be strange or to have different identities or non-normalized identities. I think if anything, we’re getting to a point where we’re realizing that we can only invent so many boxes and that the boxes are really helpful for some people that are aching for communities in some way—I personally enjoy the boxes. I enjoy saying, “I’m gay, I’m Christian, I’m bipolar.” Those things as labels are helpful for me to relate to people and relate to those communities, but I get to choose those labels, and I think we’re coming to a realization that those labels are meant for other people to pin on you and I think in the music industry, we’re finding that a lot of people are nebulous, that a lot of people are somewhere in between things, and it’s forced a lot of people to be more compassionate and more thoughtful when talking to everyday humans.

Do you think there are any ways that the industry can give more visibility to LGBTQ musicians or show more respect for those identities?
Yeah, I think in the industry, it’s easy for an executive to look at someone who’s white and sort of falls within the heteronormative sphere even though they’re gay to say, “Oh, I recognize that. That makes sense to me.” It’s being able for an executive, for someone who doesn’t consider themselves homophobic but goes into talking to an artist with some pretenses, like, “You fit these categories and this is a way that people will relate to you.” It’s hard for them to look at someone who would not normally fit in those categories and say, “People will relate to you.” They can’t see it and they can’t imagine someone that’s non-binary or queer or has a beard and wears lipstick. It makes them uncomfortable because they can’t picture it, it doesn’t fit within their norms. And so if you have executives that don’t picture that, then the public sphere is going to have a harder time finding those figures. It’s important for that visibility to be loud, and we’re just not really going to see that on a wide scale, at least for right now. I don’t really see it.

I think you have someone like Who Is Fancy, and I think Fancy has done an amazing job, and it was so much fun to do a show with Fancy because Fancy has like this amazing beard and this glitter all over his face and lipstick, and I was just like, “Yes, this is what I’m talking about!” Fancy had this huge hit on the radio [“Goodbye”] where it was the first time I had really seen somebody like that and at least in the commercial radio world that you know was like, really pushed [by] the industry. It was really neat to see it do well and to see Fancy do well. I think that was one moment where I was like, “Okay, maybe things are shifting.” But I don’t know how much lasting power that has. We have yet to see on commercial radio […] a trans Ariana Grande. We’re not quite there yet, and that’s unfortunate because I think it would be so formative and so influential to have something like that. I think what’s frustrating is that it’s not that trans people aren’t making good art or that non-binary people aren’t making art—they’re making a fuck-ton of great art but they don’t yet have the platforms to do it.

Mary Lambert

(Photo by Shervin Lainez)

You were raised as a Pentecostal and then you were active in the Evangelical Church when you were in high school. How would you describe your religious or spiritual identity today?
The relationship that I have to my faith right now—on paper terms, I don’t attend church regularly, but I still identify as an Episcopalian and I love the Episcopal Church because it’s very traditional in its liturgy but really progressive in its ideology. My parents got married in the Episcopal Church and they’ve been together for 17 years, and they’re one of the first churches to allow same-sex marriages, because that’s not what God cares about! It’s not what Jesus cared about. I’ve always felt safe and sacred in those spaces—I’ve always felt safe and understood in those spaces.

Your latest single is “Hang Out With You,” which you wrote and your partner Michelle Chamuel produced. What is it like to collaborate with your partner?
Michelle and I originally met because we were working on music together, and so that was an innate part of our relationship—that was like the impetus for our friendship—and I think once you begin working on music with somebody, it’s metaphysical. You speak the same language. And it became just really easy to be around each other, but we never ended up writing a song because we just liked spending time with each other. So it took three years to actually write something, which is great because it means we’ve had a very successful relationship. Of course, when we first started dating, I think we both wanted to remain autonomous in our own careers and not fuse in that way.

She’s been a huge inspiration for me to jump into this new sphere of taking a hold of [my] craft and not only writing a song that feels like [my] direct expression into art, it’s also hearing my voice within the sounds, and within the reverbs within the mixing, and it’s really neat to have learned that from her, to see this example of somebody that is just so brilliantly independent. It’s really inspiring.

So when we started writing “Hang Out With You,” it was when I was still with my whole team and they were just like, “Mary, we haven’t heard a hit yet,” and I was getting really frustrated because all I wanted to do was hang out with Michelle. And so we kind of came up with the song together. We wrote it together, she produced it, and it’s been such a joy to collaborate with her in that way because she’s such a talented writer but she’s also my partner. And when I’m doing these promo tours or I’m on a trip to promote [a] single, usually, I’m really bummed because I’m missing her and I want to be home, and [now] when I’m doing these promo tours, I’m like, “It feels like she’s with me,” so that’s comforting.

You’re releasing an EP called bold this coming winter. Can you describe what bold sounds like and where you see yourself going musically?
Bold is like tying up all the loose ends from what I’ve been promoting the last couple years and giving me breathing room and space to explore this next chapter of what I’m working on. I’m making this EP at the same time that I’m making the album [Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across] at the same time I’m making my collection of poetry, so there’s a lot of different ideas floating around all at the same time. In some ways, it’s very helpful because I can think of each idea and go, “Okay, there’s three places for this one poem to go—I can put it on this EP, I could turn it into a classical piece on the album, or I could just put it in text in this book,” and in that way, it’s really freeing because each work feels like its own body that I can shape, depending on the content. The EP is kind of like a much of tying the old stuff up and moving forward into the next sort of artistic direction. But it has “Hang Out With You” on it and it has three other tracks. One of the other tracks is from a JC Penney commercial about their new plus-size collection, and in the commercial, I’m singing a song that I had never released yet that I was working on, so I wanted to release that song, and I’m really excited about that one. And then [there’s] a song called “Lay Your Head Down” that I’d done a video for and then a brand new single called “Know Your Name” that is I think one of the most fun pop songs I’ve ever done. And so I’m really excited to get those four tracks out, and it’s like a proclamation of, “I do all this weird shit! I’m complex and that’s okay and I have many different ways of expressing!” but it’s still, as I’ve been forming it and we’re in mixing, it still feels cohesive, which I’m surprised by, and I just had the photo shoot for it yesterday.

What are some or your hopes or goals or dreams when it comes to your music and your career?
The biggest goal is just that it moves people, and I feel like I’ve really checked off some bucket list things that I thought were going to be the moments of “Okay!” and that I’ve made it. But being nominated for song of the year and then singing with Madonna at the Grammys, those were like bucket list things, where I think that you sort of have this idea of like, “Okay, everything’s going to be perfect when I go to the Grammys and then I’ve made it.” But then you get to the Grammys and you’re like, “Oh. Okay. Now what?” These are milestones, they’re not necessarily like the top of the mountain, and there’s different ways to relate to those milestones and how to make those next steps, and I think the majority of the industry is built on this idea of attaining fame, money. We call it “hotdog eyes”! In a cartoon, when the cartoon character gets hotdog eyes, and they’re fixated on this thing and it usually is resulting from fame, money, power. I wonder how different things would be if the impetus for people’s success and their drive for success was to create positive change—to fully express themselves, to do good in the world—what would our industry look like. I feel like it would look very differently. Though I guess the goal for me is to make sure I’m connecting and making decisions deliberately and making sure that I’m doing good in the world. I think there’s a lot of artists with songs that inadvertently harm the world and they don’t know they’re doing it.

Mary Lambert

(Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Yeah, I feel like Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer” was actually really harmful. Are you talking about songs like that harmful?
I mean, something to that effect. Where it may have started from something like, “Hey I just want to make this sweet love song,” and someone’s like, “Cool we’ll get you a hit writer in the room.” So then you get a hit writer in the room that wants to be out of there in eight hours, so they’re going to come up with the quickest way to create a hit that an executive will love, that people will like, and that will get them paid. So they’ll spend eight hours—they’ll spend less than eight hours, they’ll spend a couple hours, write down the first thing they think of, and then go! And it’s amazing, when I was collaborating when I was first on a label, of how quickly people would just plug in the first thing they thought of and then go. People don’t make deliberate decisions, thoughtful decisions in the industry. It’s very quick, it’s not thought out, and I think that’s what you find when you have organizations or activists saying, “How could you have possibly done this? Why didn’t you think about this? Who was the person who wasn’t checking? Who approved this?” [It’s] because everything’s moving so fast.

Speaking of activism and looking ahead at the fact that the holidays are coming up, what causes or charities are meaningful to you?
A big thing for me is homeless LGBT youth because the holidays are pretty tricky—it’s getting darker, [and] especially in high school, you’re spending more time with your family because school is often closed. And for some kids it’s hell—for some kids it’s like, “Yeah I’m trapped in a place where the familial love is supposed to be unending, but I’m finding out that it’s conditional because of how I identify or who I love.” I think the younger generation is being more exploratory and more expressive with being non-binary and embracing queerness and not fitting into a box, and I think more people [are] realizing how important it is to be loud about their identities, even if they’re not going to be understood—that takes real bravery, and around the holidays, I feel like you’re often in places where you maybe wouldn’t choose. So anything that really benefits the LGBT homeless youth and in Seattle, there’s a couple of organizations: there’s the Lambert House, there’s the We Need Queer Youth Space. And one thing for me was Arts Corps and Youth Speaks, which is a writing coalition for kids to be writing poetry and performing poetry and doing spoken word—that changed my life, that saved my life, writing poetry and performing spoken word in a community with kids that I think were experiencing similar things to me. So anything that really furthers the LGBT youth, because we need ‘em! And we need them to be alive. And then also, RAINN [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network], always RAINN. Anybody else that has ever gone through sexual abuse and domestic violence—I mean, it’s everything. And then puppies! They just give everything.

Are there any Christmas songs that you’d like to record someday? Would you ever put out some sort of Christmas album or EP?
I would love to do a Christmas album. A Christmas EP seems more feasible that I could do. Probably not this year, but I should totally do it next year. I would love to! And I would love to call it A Very Mary Christmas, but there’s a Mary Lambert children’s singer-songwriter that has already released a Christmas album called A Very Mary Christmas.

I saw that on YouTube.

It sucks! But I guess she was named Mary Lambert before I was, so I don’t’ have a lot of say. But I would love to. That would be a dream. The Pentatonix Christmas album is one of my favorites and if I could do anything remotely like that, that’s what I would like to do.

How does your love of Christmas manifest itself? How do you celebrate Christmas?
I go crazy—my poor girlfriend, because my girlfriend’s Jewish. But it’s kind of fun—obviously, she knows about Christmas because we’re inundated in our culture, but it’s really fun to share all of these pastimes that I have with my family with my partner, and I’ve been celebrating more Jewish holidays as well, and so it’s been neat to have an interfaith household. One of my favorite things to do is just look around and look at Christmas lights. And it sounds very simple, but I freak out and it’s actually a driving hazard for somebody to be driving with me when I’m on the passenger side because I gasp and I’m very expressive and I’m really happy for the people that have the houses and so I almost directly talk to them, and I’m like, “You did a great job!” but there’s no one there, and I’m just saying these things out loud. So I love looking at Christmas lights. I decorate our house. My girlfriend is so patient—our house is always decked out. We always get new ornaments for the tree, we got a really cool fake tree this year and we’ve been working on building a Christmas village. We have a little ice pond now. Michelle really doesn’t want people in our village—she really just wants animals and trees, so I’ve been trying to come to an agreement of how this Christmas village will operate. I think it will just have house and no people. Lots of Christmas movies—I’m almost crying right now because I’m so excited now that we’re talking about it! I cannot wait!

I’m very excited for you!

Thank you!

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