In 2012, Mary Lambert was working three restaurant jobs when her life changed. An aspiring singer-songwriter, cellist, spoken word artist, and newly graduated with a BA in music composition from Cornish College of the Arts, Mary Lambert had begun to make a name for herself around Seattle, performing slam poetry and fusing a talk-singing style into her intimate performances. She received a phone call from a friend who was working with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on their debut album, The Heist. Macklemore and Lewis were struggling to write a chorus for their new song, a marriage equality anthem, called “Same Love”. Mary Lambert had three hours to write the hook, and the result was the transcendent chorus to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ double-platinum hit “Same Love,” which Mary Lambert wrote from her vantage point of being both a Christian and a lesbian. Writing and singing the hook led to two Grammy nominations for “Song Of The Year” and “Album Of The Year”, as well as the iconic performance alongside pop legend Madonna at the 2014 Grammys. Mary Lambert then signed with Capitol Records, where she released her debut album “Heart on My Sleeve” produced by Eric Rosse (Sara Bareilles, Tori Amos) and Benny Cassette (Kanye West). Her smash single, “Secrets” launched to No. 1 on the Billboard Dance charts, and went RIAA Gold in 2015. The New York Times called her debut album “refreshing and severely personal”. Mary Lambert’s latest release, Bold. is her first release since leaving Capitol Records, and was fully funded through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $20,000 in 8 hours, a true testament to the passionate communities she represents. Please enjoy my interview with Mary Lambert.
How do you describe your occupation?
I usually describe myself as an artist, a writer, or a musician, but I mostly feel like I am a professional feelings-haver.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
There are definitely no typical days, because the work that I do is so varied. If I am in the studio, those days are long and intense and consist of recording from 12-8pm, with lots of coffee breaks! If I am on tour, those days start early and end late, with a lot of driving or flying involved, and probably navigating some sort of anxiety. But I would say a typical day off of the road and working from home consists of waking up hilariously late, sipping on broth or tea on my front steps, and reading poetry until I feel guilty about not doing “real work”. I generally start doing administrative work in the afternoon in my office or heading to a local coffee shop. I am currently working on a new collection of poems, so I try to devote an hour a day to either writing or editing work. I take a long dinner break, and then resume creating or administrative work until about 3 am. Then I cry myself to sleep after watching West Wing! Just kidding. I don’t watch West Wing!
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I am usually reading 3-4 books at one time to keep my mind excited. I’m currently reading a young adult novel called Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff. I recently signed a publishing deal with Henry Holt of Macmillan Publishing, and my editor gave me the book to mull over the idea of eventually writing a young adult novel, which terrifies me. But reading Wolff’s lyrical prose has given me hope that I might be able to take a crack at it! I’m also reading Blud by Rachel McKibbens, which is a gutting poetry collection that is fucking me up in the most welcome way. Rachel is a dear friend and a writer that I feel deeply inspired by. I try to balance a novel and a poetry collection with something non-fiction, so I have been slowly reading The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean. I think the human brain is endlessly fascinating, and this book takes a wildly compelling examination of the history of neuroscience, and the ways in which we have studied the brain and treated illness.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
I can’t for the life of me remember the first book I read, but I know it had animals in it! I loved it! My mom would take my sister and I to the public library every Sunday, and we’d stay there for hours. I think my earliest memory of independent reading was the Amelia Bedelia Series by Peggy Parish. She was so kooky!
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Dog ears all day! I dog-ear the top page to mark where I’m at, and I dog-ear the bottom of a page if I want to revisit a passage or concept.
As a child, who influenced your taste in music?
Definitely my mom. I grew up in a strict Pentecostal home, and the only music I really remember hearing early on was worship music. My mother had a spiritual and emotional revelation when I was in elementary school, and that’s where the stuff got really good: Tracy Chapman, The Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor. My mom is also an accomplished singer/songwriter, and hearing her play the piano and sing really shaped who I am as an artist. I am grateful for that.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
I wish that Shrill by Lindy West had been written ten years ago. Lindy is an exceptional writer – not just as a comedian, but as someone that can articulate life-altering ideologies by putting the lens on herself in a way that feels universally inviting. I am eternally grateful for Lindy’s writing, and only wish that her work existed for my 16-year-old self. If I could gift 25-year-old me a book, I would give old me Ready Player One by Ernest Cline so I could have read it even sooner! It’s one of my favourite books. But if I had read any of these earlier it would throw off the space-time-continuum, and I don’t want the world to explode and kill everyone I love!
When I was 12 years old, I had my first babysitting job, and I bought Jewel’s Spirit album. I must have listened to that album a thousand times. It was super formative at the time I was starting to write songs, and I can still recite every lyric by heart.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
JK Rowling, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Suki Kim.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
I just bought Safia Elhillo’s collection of poems called The January Children. On my last tour, I had spoken word artists open each of my shows, and Safia is a dear friend.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
I love getting out of my own head, and being able to put the lens on someone else. I think reading encourages empathy in people, and I think the world needs more of that. I read a lot of poetry, and I love the power of a gutting poem – the way skilled language takes you outside of your body and causes a sharp breath inward.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I really enjoyed Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I devoured it over Summer while laying on the beach and dog-eared so many pages. I don’t want to describe it too carefully, for fear of doing it an injustice, but one of my favourite quotes is “It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.”
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, hands down.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring musician?
Absorb everything. Nothing will be handed to you. Be kind.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Honestly, I know that I keep mentioning Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, but the series began when I was just starting middle school and it profoundly changed me. I was raised in an abusive home rife with trauma, and JK Rowling’s mastery of storytelling allowed for an escape that I so badly needed. Harry Potter taught me that stories can be a means of essential survival. What a gift.
Who are the three artists you’re currently listening to most?
I can’t get enough of Phoebe Bridger’s debut album, Strangers in the Alps. I’m also really into this artist, Mahalia. Just revisited MUNA’s record while dance crying, so thank you MUNA!
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I have been slowly reading The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest, and am obsessed with her use of language – it’s so lyrical, I feel like I’m almost reading songs. Black Movie by Danez Smith is so gutting that I would kick myself if I did not mention it’s urgency. I also revisited Pansy by Andrea Gibson which feels like my actual heart is getting a hug.
If you weren’t in music, what do you think you’d be doing?
If I wasn’t involved in any arts, I think I would be bartending. I loved it.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I have been so excited to come home and read They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.