Mary Lambert’s Open Secrets
The “Same Love” star on reconciling her faith, her sexuality and her humanity
Before July 18, 2012, few people outside of Seattle’s hip-hop and spoken word scene knew who Mary Lambert was. That changed when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis collaborated with the singer for their “Same Love” single. A year-and-a-half later, Macklemore, Lewis, and Lambert were on stage at the Grammy Awards, along with Trombone Shorty and Madonna, singing the marriage equality anthem as Queen Latifah presided over the weddings of 33 couples. It was a tremendous moment, by every possible standard.
Flash forward another year, and Lambert has her own album out on the heels of two previous singles—“She Keeps Me Warm” and “Body Love.” Filled with confessions and communiqués in the guise of pop songs, Heart on My Sleeve finds the singer wearing her heart and, indeed, everything else on her sleeve.
Cuepoint: Let’s get right into it with some God talk, shall we?
Mary Lambert: Okay, done. I’m in!
What is it going to take to get the hardcore Christians to just Golden Rule it when it comes to us queers?
[Laughs] I’m not totally sure. For me, I try to think from my old perspective—I grew up in the Pentecostal church and then was Evangelical in my high school years—so I really do believe the intention is good. The intention is of love. It’s “I just want to save you from going to hell. I just love you so much that I don’t want you to go to hell.” Albeit skewed and extremely dysfunctional and harmful.
So, I guess my belief is that you can debate about it all day and you can talk theology, but, really, the only way you can ever reach somebody is through their heart by making yourself human and including their humanness, as well. That’s kind of my goal within my music — that vulnerability and being like, “Oh, by the way… I’m gay.”
[Laughs] Right. It’s an aside. Well, do you think the root of the disconnection is the belief that queerness is a chosen lifestyle rather than a genetic predisposition? Or do you think they are really latched on to a certain interpretation of the Bible that may or may not be what it’s meant to be?
I think it’s different for everybody. I guess it’s easier to demonize somebody that you don’t know or care about. So I think a lot of the rhetoric has to be reinforced by not thinking critically or not looking around and realizing their family member’s gay. But, really, I think it’s the indoctrination of “This is the word of God. And this is the Bible. And there is no other. So, yes, it says in Corinthians, you can’t eat shellfish and men can’t have long hair. And, yes, I see that as a flaw, but it does say man shall not lie with another man because it’s an abomination, then I agree with that because that is the word of God. And there’s no denying the word of God.”
You finally reconciled your faith and your gaiety. From that spot, have you been able to carry on within the Christian community, going to church, and what not? Or did you have to take your faith more underground and private?
Yeah, my faith is definitely a lot more private. But I think there’s something I really do enjoy about the Christian community. At least in the churches I’ve been to and the churches my family goes to, they are loving. The churches I’ve found, I really enjoy the spirit of community. It’s centered around family—a lot of religions are that way, centered around family and community. And it’s a good way to be connected to your world. I think that’s why a lot of people love religion because they have that sense of connection to their community. It’s another place you can feel connected to.
But I definitely don’t feel the way I used to! [Laughs] I don’t attend a church regularly, but my family is still very active in the church and I go when mom sings in the choir. And I still consider myself a Christian.
So you’re not a complete heathen, is what you’re saying… [Laughs]
Alright, let’s move on to some music stuff. Early on, you started with spoken word. Did you make a conscious decision to expose yourself in your art or did the muse demand it of you? Because muses can be little bitches sometimes. They can make you do things…
[Laughs] I think I was born someone very outspoken. I wanted to go, actually, into politics, when I was in high school… “I’m gonna change the world through legislature!” I thought I’d speak up for gay rights and everything, because my intuition and my deep instinct has been to impact the world. I always loved songwriting and music, and I was songwriting since I was five, but I saw it more as a hobby. I couldn’t really connect it to this goal of wanting to deeply impact the world. I couldn’t see how those two could come together because I remember sitting down and thinking, “I’m going to write a gay rights song!” This is when I was like 19, and I felt so gross about it. It was so contrived and it just sounded bad and inauthentic. In the same way, I got asked to write a worship song for my church and I felt identical. I thought, “This is disgusting! I don’t believe any of this.” I felt so weird about it.
So, my plan was to go into politics. Then I sort of shifted and thought, “Maybe I can’t change the world through legislature. I could change the world as a teacher. I could change the world for the next generation through music.” So I got my bachelor’s degree in composition and I was applying to graduate school, actually, when I got the call to do “Same Love.”
Yeah. So my path has deeply shifted from what I thought it was going to be. I guess it never occurred to me that I could have a focus on social justice or the affect on people I wanted through pop music… until that song. It shook me and woke me up and I couldn’t believe that I was singing with a female pronoun about love. And nobody cared. Everybody was singing along. It showed me that humanity is much more ready for heavier topics in pop or mainstream music than we think it is. And that made me really excited.
Because I was prepared to be murdered. I was ready to go on the stage and for someone to shoot me, and at least I was going to go down for something I cared about.
Wow. That’s huge that that was your mindset. And it’s sad that it would be your mindset, but how wonderful that you were proven wrong.
Now you must hear amazing stories of gratitude from fans for how much you’re willing to embrace and highlight your vulnerabilities and your humanity. Do you have a favorite story that really sticks out?
Man, it’s really hard. There are so many. The work that I’m known for, I’d say is “Same Love,” and then “Secrets.” And “Body Love” is my song about body image. So those are three really distinct things. In “Secrets,” I overtly talk about being clinically bipolar and encourage everyone to be vulnerable. With “Same Love” and “She Keeps Me Warm,” I’m very openly gay. And with “Body Love,” I’m very openly discussing my own struggles with body image and, hopefully, providing insight and encouragement feeling that, too. So they come from all sides.
But I think the ones that affect me the most are girls who are in rehab for eating disorders. Those emails that I get are more jarring than anything else. In a good way. There was one girl who was 15 and she had attempted suicide. She said she’d been in therapy for the last six weeks, really intensely, and she still couldn’t figure out, first of all, how to find the fight to live and to make herself eat… until she found “Body Love.” She had found it that week and that was the first time she was able to have a full meal and that it was more encouraging to her than any of the therapy she had been through. I feel really fortunate, as an artist, that an impact can be that tangible. I don’t want to do anything else.
But there must also be some inherent dangers in that kind of openness, for you. Particularly because you did come out of the hip-hop world that can be rather homophobic and misogynistic. How do you keep yourself safe, emotionally and otherwise, from the haters?
“How do you deal with the haters?” [Laughs]
I think I learned a way to not take anything personally. That’s a lesson I’m continually learning. I’m so not a pro at it. A YouTube comment is a YouTube comment. Four years ago, if I saw a comment on my YouTube channel that in any way mentioned my weight or anything harmful, it would devastate me for the day. There’s a point at which you have to say, “This has nothing to do with me. This is on that person that is going through something that obviously has some amount of self-hatred. And I’m not responsible for it.” In the same way that I get those emails from girls in rehab for eating disorders, that still has very little to do with me. I’m a catalyst for a lot of people and that’s important to me, but as soon as I take that home, then that means I have to take the bad stuff home, too. And I don’t want to. My reward is creating the music that I care about and allowing myself to be vulnerable. That’s my joy. I guess that’s it. I just don’t take it personally.
Hey, do whatever works.
Also, I went to middle school. I’ve heard it all! [Laughs]
[Laughs] Exactly! The other thing that works for you is setting these kind of dark themes against light musical backdrops. It’s weird to bop along to a tune about being bipolar, but it normalizes it. When I advise people about coming out, I say, “If you don’t hold any shame, then whatever shame is in the conversation belongs to the other person.”
I feel like, the way you present these songs with that juxtaposition… if they were all minor-key ballads, people would probably think you felt bad about yourself.
Totally! I think when people look at my earlier work there are a lot of those things. They are very sad and downtempo. I think they are reflective, in some way. But I think it does send a message of guilt or sadness about certain aspects. So, I completely agree.
It’s one thing to write some stuff down in a journal, just to get it out. But you have to go back into these pieces night after night, in front of an audience. Does it help or hinder the healing process?
Oh, that’s why I’m really careful about my writing process. I think really consciously… especially when we were making this last record, there were a couple of songs—because there were co-writers—that were not me. I would never say something like this and would scrap the whole thing and rewrite it from my point of view. So it came to the point that I didn’t let anybody write any lyrics on the record because it’s my name and I have to sing them every night so, if I don’t believe them, then I’m lying, as an artist. And I want to believe every single thing that I say. That’s important to me.
In the case of “Body Love” or “She Keeps Me Warm,” those lyrics are so cathartic to sing. I really love performing because every night is like an awesome therapy session. And I’m also able to extend the hand of encouragement to other people, at the same time, and it feels like a giant group hug.
I read that you basically warn people that they are going to be crying through most of the show. So, I’m kind of glad that I missed your performance! [Laughs]
[Laughs] It’s a roller coaster ride. I throw a lot of jokes in, too. And I really want to make people go home and not cry into their… cats or something. [Laughs] I want people to really enjoy the show and feel that it is a performance.
But you also want to change the world, so…
Absolutely! It’s all in one. That’s human nature. We’re all multi-faceted. We all can be… like, I’m a party. I am so much fun. I can show you that in the show. But I also have a lot of darkness that also comes out. And I wear it… I was going to say I wear it on my sleeve, but… [Laughs]
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