Before Mary Lambert's popular song “Same Love,” with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, took off in 2013, the singer-songwriter was working three restaurant jobs, performing spoken word and singing around Seattle. Writing and creative expression helped her heal from past abuse, but she never envisioned herself as a pop star.
“I’ve always loved pop music,” Lambert explains. “I never thought I’d be a pop singer or anything like that, but when I started doing it, it felt really natural. I felt like I was a secret agent and I could infiltrate the pop-music world and secretly heal people.”
She has continued to share her journey of pain, healing and love through her music, and her latest EP, Bold, was released in May 2017. The EP is intended to be a joyful celebration before her next album, which will have a more somber tone.
We spoke with Lambert over the phone about how her passions for music and poetry merged, what queer pop is, and the importance of community.
Westword: What drew you to spoken word and music? How did they come to blend?
Mary Lambert: I started writing music from a young age; it was always kind of a means of survival. I grew up in a traumatic, abusive household, and music, particularly writing — being six years old [thinking] I’m sad right now — it’s really a gift for a child to be able to express. I really owe that to my mom. She was a singer and songwriter — still is. So I watched her turn her heartache into…you know you spin wool into gold, and she really did it.
So I always knew music would be a part of my life. I went through phases of what I actually wanted to do do. I got my bachelor’s in music composition, so I was focused primarily on orchestral work and classical. And then I decided I wanted to make an album.
While I was in Seattle, I discovered the spoken-word scene. I really fell in love with it because it was another form of expression. It was people saying exactly what they wanted to say. It was beautiful, talented, hurting people. These people would show their entire, naked selves on stage without a guitar or piano and telling their story, and they weaved it into a craft. I loved that. I was just so drawn to it. I’m also competitive by nature, so I loved the idea of being scored like, "Tell me how good I am!" [Laughs.] So I started doing spoken word, and that’s actually how I met Macklemore; it was through the spoken-word community. I think hip-hop and spoken word tend to be related in some way. Then I did “Same Love,” and the rest is history!
It seems that community is super important to you, and building community. Will you tell me more about what that means to you and why you find it to be so important?
It’s not gratifying or rewarding to just stand on stage, like, “Look at me! Look at me!” I can’t do vocal acrobatics. I don’t feel like I have the world’s best voice. I think what I am good at doing and what I hope to facilitate is an emotion, the vulnerability and hopefully the authenticity of what my experience is and speaking to it, and really trying to open up a shared experience for many people. Performing is less of a “look at me” and more of an invitation. What I’m doing is hopefully facilitating something greater. I mean, it’s not without its ego and vanity — I love applause. [Laughs.] But it is about the community and looking out into the crowd and really catching eyes with people and being like, “I see you,” and also being seen. You can just tell. That’s why I love touring — you are creating this environment where it’s okay to cry and feel your feelings, and I think the world needs more of that. If I can be an arbiter of goodness in that way, then I’m doing my job.
What does queer pop mean to you?
When we did “Same Love,” I thought, “There needs to be a gender pronoun here.” Because I think there need to be more songs with gender pronouns, and I’m so stoked to see there’s a lot more happening now. ... It’s dope to see other pop stars doing things like that, too. Obviously, I know I wasn’t the first. But I had a fear when touring with Macklemore: Will people be able to handle this? Are women of all ages and sexual orientations comfortable with saying, “She keeps me warm” and singing it in the crowd? It was the most pivotal moment for me, looking out into a crowd of 10,000 people singing, “She keeps me warm,” and not caring about the pronoun. And it occurred to me — I mean, I watch The Bachelor, and I listen to straight songs all the time, and it doesn’t matter what the pronoun is. The message is the most important thing. The pronoun usage is important, but [queer pop is] also about being unabashedly yourself. I want it to be fun; I want it to be something that anyone can listen to and still resonate with. “Know Your Name” was like that. I really like the word "lady." [Laughs.] I think it’s important to have space like that for people who identify as gay. I think the universal pronoun is also important. That’s the thought.
On this tour specifically, you’re incorporating a lot of spoken-word artists as openers. Why did you decide to do that? What do you love about blending the two worlds?
I talk a lot during my set, I tell jokes, and spoken word is so much a part of my artistic expression. I have felt a little disconnected from the spoken-word community with this sort of pop trajectory I was on. When I was on the [Capitol Records] label and doing radio events and things like that, I was discouraged from doing spoken word because it didn’t really fit within the realm. With this tour, I just wanted to do whatever the fuck I wanted to do. [Laughs.] I wanted to bring my friends out. I feel so privileged. The poets we’ve had on this run are arguably the best poets in the world. They’re my heroes and my friends, and I think my audiences love it and get it. It has been awesome to incorporate that. The overarching theme for spoken word is vulnerability. It’s people telling their truth on the stage, and that's what I hope to achieve when I’m performing.
Mary Lambert, 8 p.m. Sunday, January 28, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, 303-291-1007, $15-$20.
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Riley Cowing has been writing with Westword since July 2016. She is originally from Kansas City and graduated from the journalism school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She enjoys connecting with local artists, drinking all types of espresso and loves any excuse to watch The Devil Wears Prada.