Mary Lambert had just quit her job as a barista when her whole life changed. An aspiring singer-songwriter who also worked as a brunch waitress and bartender, she got a call from her friend Hollis Wong-Wear, who had sung on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “White Walls.” Wong-Wear had recommended her to the duo, who were struggling to write a chorus for their new song, a marriage-equality anthem called “Same Love.” “Hollis said, ‘Ryan’s going to send you the track. You have two hours,’” Lambert recalls. “I got off the phone and ran across the street to the bar where I worked and told my boss everything. We did a shot, then I sabered a bottle of champagne with a sword. Then I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve gotta fucking write this thing.’ Priorities.”
The result is the transcendent chorus to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ double-platinum hit “Same Love,” which Lambert wrote from her vantage point of being both a Christian and a lesbian. “The song already had a brain,” she says. “I wanted to give it a heart and make a very simple statement that my love is valid, too.” Writing and singing the hook led to Lambert’s first Grammy Award nominations (for “Song Of The Year” and “Album Of The Year”), performing “Same Love” with Macklemore and Lewis on the MTV Video Music Awards, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and The Colbert Report, and joining the duo on their fall tour. It also opened the door for Lambert to sign with Capitol Records, which releases her EP, Welcome To The Age Of My Body, in December, followed by a full-length album, produced by Eric Rosse (Tori Amos, Sara Bareilles), next year. The EP’s first single, “She Keeps Me Warm,” is an extension of “Same Love” that Lambert calls “the other side of the story.” It peaked at No. 2 on the iTunes Singer/Songwriter chart. Its accompanying video sets the song to a visual of the romantic love experienced in a same-sex partnership. “The video is about visibility,” Lambert says. “I could be wrong, but I’ve never seen a relationship like mine accurately portrayed in a music video.”
In many ways, Lambert isn’t your typical major-label pop artist. Inspired by confessional folk singers as well as spoken-word performers, she is a brutally candid writer who deals directly in her art with such past traumas as being raised in a strict Pentecostal household, abusing drugs and alcohol before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, surviving a gang rape at 17, and being molested repeatedly by her father as a child. “It’s important for me to be completely and totally open,” Lambert says. To that end, Welcome To The Age Of My Body features the dark, desperate “Sarasvati,” which Lambert says she hopes “sparks people’s ability to be vulnerable and say, ‘Yeah, there have been times when I’ve thought about killing myself, too. Maybe I can talk about it.’” The EP is bookended with two versions of a partially spoken-word piece set to skittering rhythms and electronic textures called “Body Love.” Part 1 is aggressively critical about the self-destructive side of negative body image, while Part 2 comes from a softer place of acceptance. “You are no less valuable as a size 16 than a size 4,” she declares.
Because Lambert wants her art to lift people up, not take them down, she balances her presentation with healthy doses of humor. In conversation, she is upbeat, funny, and engaging. She often kicks off her live show with her saddest song, “Sarasvati,” and asks the audience, “Okay, are you ready to get fucked up?”
“The shows are really intense,” she admits. “I have a very specific poem about rape that maybe I’ll be able to release someday, but it’s really important for me to perform it at my shows. You can literally see people sobbing. And I’m sobbing. So I feel like the only way that people are going to go home and not be severely depressed is if I start telling them jokes.”
Lambert always wanted to be a performer, but figured it was a long-shot. Growing up poor in Everett, Wash., she began playing piano and writing songs at age six, taught herself to play guitar at 10, and fell in love with such folk-inspired artists as Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, and James Taylor as a teen. She studied classical composition at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts and planned to be a middle-school music teacher. “Yes, I would loved to have just sustained myself through my art, but less than one in a billion musicians gets that life,” she says. “So rather than being like, ‘I’m an exception!’, like a moron, I thought I’d get a real job.”
At 19, Lambert experienced a pivotal moment when she discovered spoken-word poetry. “I was on a manic stint for three days and partying real hard without sleeping,” she says. “There I am chain-smoking and watching YouTube videos in my bedroom at 6 a.m. when a spoken-word video comes on the screen. I watched a couple of different poets, Anis Mojgani and Shira Erlichman, and I became obsessed. I knew I had to do it, that it was another part of me that needed to be explored.” In 2008, she represented Seattle in the Brave New Voices International Poetry Competition, which was filmed for HBO. She also won Seattle’s Grand Slam Poetry Competition in 2011 and has independently released a book of poetry, entitled, 500 Tips for Fat Girls. The book is a frank depiction of rape, incest, bi-polarity, body image, and homosexuality that has, along with her music, established Lambert as a fearless and outspoken gay voice in contemporary culture.
“The fact that my work has affected people on a personal level is what I’ve always wanted as an artist,” she says. “After a show over the summer, a girl came up to me who was a pastor at her church, which was not accepting of same-sex relationships. She said that ‘Same Love’ allowed her to come out regardless of the consequences. The fact that music was able to do that? That I could have been a part of that, and that she felt safe enough to tell me? I know how strong you have to be to do that. If I can give that fight to somebody, then I want to keep doing it.”