Before Mary Lambert achieved “quasi-stardom” (as she puts it in her typical self-deprecating way) for writing and singing the hook on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ marriage equality anthem “Same Love,” the Seattle native was an aspiring singer-songwriter who also worked as a brunch waitress and bartender. After years of struggling both financially and personally, Lambert suddenly found herself signed to Capitol Records, releasing an EP (Welcome To The Age of My Body), getting nominated for two Grammy Awards (for “Song of the Year” and “Album of The Year”), and making history performing on the Grammy telecast with Macklemore, Lewis, and Madonna, while Queen Latifah memorably married 33 couples.
“Having an actual platform made me think about my motivations and what I want to put out into the world,” Lambert says about creating the songs that appear on her debut full-length album, Heart On My Sleeve. “So I made a list of goals.” They were to: 1. Have fun. 2. Create something catchy. 3. Create something that positively impacts the world. 4. Stay true to yourself. 5. Make money. “Is that okay to say?” she asks. “I want to buy my mom a house. I want to start a charity that offers free mental health treatment. I want to tip brunch waitresses hundred dollar bills! But in all seriousness, I wanted to write a pop album that had profound emotional depth and interesting language, while being accessible and catchy,” she explains. “I wanted the songs to be poignant and raw, but I want to hear them on the radio. I like to describe Heart On My Sleeve as a pop album with a conscience.”
Written within the past year (with lyrics by Lambert and music co-written by Lambert, co-producers Eric Rosse and Benny Cassette, and songwriter MoZella), Heart On My Sleeve is an honest depiction of where Lambert is now. “This year has been the best of my entire life, which is not to say it hasn’t come with its fair share of hurdles, heartbreak, and harsh lessons,” she says. “I can only write about the experiences I’ve had. I signed to a major label. I went through a break-up. I figured out how to be an independent person. I have been terrifyingly honest to the public about traumatic events in my life. I met the woman of my dreams. I have been on the road nonstop, away from those I love, but with the opportunity to sing about gay rights to hundreds of thousands of people. This album is inspired by the depth of all of that love, and the journey that it takes to get there.”
“It’s a statement for me as an artist, but also a statement for me as a human being,” she continues. “I spent a lot of my life feeling really small and worthless, and to put out an album where I’ve gotten to say exactly what I want is gratifying beyond words. It’s a moment for me not to be a doormat anymore and to feel powerful and hopefully inspire that in other people in a way that’s fun and makes people feel something. I think that’s the message of the whole thing.”
To that end, Lambert shares her story on songs like “Be With Me,” which she wrote around the time she met her girlfriend. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. “You can’t control how love happens to you, but I just knew that my entire life had shifted in that moment. I’m clinically bi-polar, so it was like, ‘Am I in a swing? Is this real? Did I miss my meds?'” she says with a laugh. “So Far Away” explores the struggle of being in a long-distance relationship, “but it’s layered,” she says. “Even though I’m hurting, I know it’s worth it.” Then there’s a cover of Rick Springfield’s classic “Jessie’s Girl,” which, in Lambert’s hands, becomes a dark piano ballad with the twist of being sung by a woman about a woman.
“Heart On My Sleeve” is a dusky love song that Lambert chose as the title track because she felt it summed up how she approached writing the lyrics on the album. “I’ve always lived my life completely open, both to getting hurt, but also to love,” she says. “I have experienced so much joy because I’ve allowed myself to connect. That’s not to say that I haven’t been burned, but with really profound sadness comes really profound joy. Because I’ve experienced some trauma and some really dark times, my capacity for joy is massive.”
Lambert also spells out her mission on the album’s first single, “Secrets,” which is to encourage vulnerability. Set to a buoyant pop melody and hand-claps, Lambert sings: “They tell us from the time we’re young / To hide the things we don’t like about ourselves / Inside ourselves / I’m not the only one / Who spent so long attempting to be someone else / Well I’m over it / I don’t care if the world knows what my secrets are.”
“I felt like there were a lot of songs coming out about self-empowerment and challenging beauty standards, and I wanted to write a song along those same lines, but in my voice,” she explains. “It’s easy to paint a pretty picture and tell everyone to love themselves, but it’s way more complicated than that. There is so much shame and guilt in our society, and I think it has deprived a lot of people from living fully. We’re all facing battles. We’ve all had someone who has hurt us, so let’s talk about it. I believe vulnerability is what will save the world. I wanted to point the lens at myself in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. This song is my dirty laundry, and that’s actually really freeing. Now I can walk around with accidental pieces of bagel in my bra and eat it anyway.”
Lambert’s sense of humor has always been her savior. In conversation, she is upbeat, funny, and engaging. She often kicks off her live show with her saddest song, “Sarasvati.” A fearlessly candid writer, Lambert has been open about past traumas that include being raised in a strict Pentecostal household and abusing drugs and alcohol before being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. At the same time sharing her story has been intense, something she addresses on her song “Rib Cage,” which features Angel Haze and K.Flay. “I am happy to tell my story if it helps somebody, but someone feeling entitled to owning it in a way that I don’t allow them to is really uncomfortable,” she says. “I deserve to talk about my experiences in a safe space.”
Lambert was always drawn to sharing her experiences through being 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 her personal experience that has, along with her music, established Lambert as an outspoken queer 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. “People often ask me what my most memorable moment has been so far and the most gratifying thing is someone hugging me at a meet and greet and not being able to let go because they have struggled with something similar as me and come out the other side. That means so much, the fact that somebody was able to draw strength from my songs. I’m not the reason that people are able to come out or have battled their eating disorder, but if I can be a catalyst for somebody else to see something within themselves, I’m so lucky. I get to do that for a living. That’s amazing.”