Mary Lambert's 'Bold' :: Making Her Own Kind of Music
Independent spirit. That's the phrase that popped into my head as I was prepping to do this interview. If there is anyone who fits that bill, it's Mary Lambert.
You may remember her as the woman who wrote the hook for Macklemore and Lewis' marriage-equality anthem, "Same Love," or you may remember her for her breakout album, "Heart on My Sleeve," producing the smash single, "Secrets," which went to No. 1 on Billboard's dance charts, hitting RIAA Gold in 2015. If you don't know her by now, I'd take a moment to discover her. You'll be pleased.
I had the pleasure of talking to Lambert back in 2015, about those early days and the rush of her new-found success. We talked about the vulnerability it takes to write and produce an album and, in particular, the success of "Secrets." Even then, I was struck by the depth of her honesty and how willing she was as an artist to be emotionally vulnerable.
That certainly hasn't changed with "Bold." It's a shining example of a woman and artist, who is not only willing to sing about life's pain, joy, confusion, love and passion, but one who is vulnerable enough to share deeply personal stories and painful experiences around the messiness it can create. She's inviting us to connect, to get a little closer and more comfortable with the experience of just being human. "I feel like I'm a walking example
of being messy and that being okay. I feel like when I speak my truth and am authentic, it hopefully serves as an invitation. It's amazing to be a part of facilitating healing in a room of people who also have that desire."
She certainly edged me a little further along that journey. I hope you enjoy the ride as much I did.
What made you decide to take on doing "Bold" as an independent at this point in your career?
Well, I was feeling a lot of anxiety around it and a lot of pressure in the
industry. I think what happens once you start building something bigger, not exclusively in the pop industry, but I think it's build into the pop industry more, there's a sort of dogmatic rhetoric around what success or failure is, and they are so extreme. Unless you have a number one hit or a top ten hit, you have not succeeded or are a failure.
Even though I had a successful number one single and "Secrets" went gold by selling 500,000 copies, it still hadn't achieved what their, the major label's, investment was. And so, that was difficult for me to sort of hear that language. It wasn't just the label, I know they have their bottom lines and are used to a certain formula. I think also, they are also used to a certain type of artist and I didn't really fit that mold. It wasn't that I didn't look like everyone else, or anything like that, there was never a conversation about, "Hey, do you want to lose weight?" That was never a thing.
The biggest issue was, I think, my marketability: Because I do spoken word, because I want to talk about white supremacy, because I want to talk about rape and other difficult things... And I also want to sing pop music. Those things aren't easily marketed or easily digestible. I feel like in our culture, we want to be understood and want to be loved, so we make ourselves digestible and kind of cut out parts of ourselves, because that's what's going to make us the happiest.
I just don't know how to do that. I could never cut off a part of myself. (Laughs) I'm just so loud about all aspects of my complexity and that
includes my artistry. So, it just made sense to part ways. I am really blessed and firmly believe that letting someone out of their contract is an act of kindness and love. To me it was a very loving act for the label to recognize that this is the best move for everybody involved. I was very grateful for that. It was very amicable and I was excited to go out on my own, it ended up feeling great.
It brings up an interesting point about how we measure success in our culture. To me, anyone who manages to get on a stage and perform as you do, release albums and have measurable sales, is successful.
Right? It really depends on what your strengths are and what you're
good at. I just did a gig in New York and people pay a fair amount of money to come to shows and in some ways, it's so silly to me because I was having such fun on stage, I thought, "I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this." I almost feel guilty, because I think this shouldn't be a "thing" that happens.
People have told me, "That's really brave, you're talking about your own body and your own mental disorder and shaking your butt (laughs) in front of a group of strangers. For some, they couldn't dream of doing something like that, you'd have to pay them a million dollars and they wouldn't do it.
It is a rare thing to find the depth of honesty that you have in your music. It also goes beyond the music because you make it very personal. It gives people a language to express what they might be feeling or experiencing. It's a real gift.
Wow, thank you Joel. I really appreciate that.
You talked in one of your blog posts about how doing music seems so frivolous, when we're facing such challenging times, as many of us are right now. Can you talk a little more about that?
Yes. It seems so trivial sometimes, when the world is in such turmoil... and, like, "Here's a pop album!" (Laughs) "Buy it!" It seems so silly and not fair and not right. I realize that you just can't think about it in those terms, because everybody is working within their strengths to dismantle what's in front of them. Everybody is doing their best with what they have, and if you can honor all those spaces and use your strengths for positive messaging to further understanding, then you are doing good. And, maybe even be a little subversive!
Tell me a little about your songwriting process. Do you create lyrics first or hear and create the music as in the beginning?
That's a good question. This EP was very song oriented. I didn't really have a skeleton in mind and just picked some of my favorite upbeat songs that I'd been working on. I would say the majority of what I write, it's almost like stream of consciousness. What will happen is that and I have to be at an instrument; I don't really write lyrics first, because the music really tells me what it wants to say. I sit at the piano and I'll start coming up with a [chord] progression as I hum along coming up with phrases. It's really kind of gibberish to start, stuff doesn't make sense at first. It's kind of silly and cliché at first, sometimes it's stupid, but then I'll build on it. How can I make this more articulate and what is it that I want to say and how can I say something that has a strong message?
As I was listening to the album, one of the things that struck me, is that the songs are almost like meditations on a topic.
Each song has its own impetus and its own reason for existing. Like, "Know Your Name" was a song that I worked on with Tobias Karlsson, he really wrote all the music and I sort of just hopped right into it. My natural place, where my soul gravitates toward and where I feel most at home writing, is probably more in the vein of "Do Anything" and "Lay Your Head Down," the first two tracks on the album.
If I'm going to make something more in the pop vein, I'm going to collaborate, because that's not exactly where my soul lives. There are parts of me I can access and use to collaborate and create that sound. It was very fun to have that mix of those kind of things. "Hang Out With You" I wrote
with my girlfriend [Michelle Chamuel] who is a very talented woman. She's all over the album, she did the remix of "Know Your Name" and was the mix engineer for that song, as well.
I wanted to make sure that things really came from my world and were things that I love, done with collaborators that I wanted to work with.
The album does have a great range, there's a wonderful pop sensibility, yet it's filled with the seriousness only Mary Lambert can do. I'm interested in how you manage to stay in such a place of vulnerability... Is that something that comes naturally, or have you had to develop that?
More transparency is my natural state, I think. (Laughs)