After a breakout role in Macklemore’s hit song 'Same Love,' lesbian singer Mary Lambert is stepping out on her own. She talks to Abby Haglage about sex, weight, and cowboy butts.
When I walk into the hotel room where Mary Lambert is staying, she’s humming. “Oh, HI!” she says with a smile, jumping off the bed to greet me as if I’m an old friend. Her personality—much like her hypnotizing vocals in the song she cowrote with Macklemore, Same Love—fills the room. Bubbly and ebullient, she sits patiently as a new hairdresser, Jackson, begins to prep her auburn locks for GLAAD’s annual New York summer benefit, where she’ll be singing later that night. When Jackson asks if he can rearrange the seats before we start, she belts out sweetly: “Go nuts for cowboy butts!” Spotting our confused face, she giggles. “I’m trying to bring that back.”
Finally, seats settled and hair dryer blowing, we're ready to launch into our conversation. Before we do, I spy a small black tattoo on her right inside wrist. “Music saved my soul,” it reads.
AH: Making Same Love—a song about same-sex marriage—was obviously a big risk. Were you nervous to release it into the mainstream media?
ML: Even before, when we recorded the song, I was prepared for hate mail, I was prepared for someone to murder me! I’m a sensitive, sensitive person. Overly sensitive. Extremely emotional. But before it happened, one of my producers said, “Mary, you need to put your big girl panties on and get ready.” So I was prepared for negativity.
Were you surprised, then, by how well it was received?
The fact that it took off, I was really shocked. There was so much positivity around it. That’s something I didn’t expect.
The video for the song you wrote as a follow-up, “She Keeps Me Warm,” is starting to get the same amount of attention. Were you prepared for the negativity that comes with that?
I knew when I shot the “She Keeps Me Warm” video that the comments were not going to be homophobic … that they would be about fat-shaming. I’m a large girl making out with somebody. I knew just that sheer fact would set people off.
It’s not shown in the media. Fat bodies are used comically. I respect Rebel Wilson so much, and Melissa McCarthy. I love them both. But so often I feel like fat female bodies are used as props. Melissa did that whole opening segment of Saturday Night Live which revolved around her weight, and it broke my heart. It was excruciating for me to watch. I respect her, but I was just bummed.
Is that part of what prompted your Facebook post about weight?
The fact that I just posted something about body positivity and it got the response it did, that was kind of absurd to me. I was just like … I’m just talking about how I’m confident! And how other people should love themselves and be excited about their bodies!
Why do you think so many women struggle with that?
I’ve just seen patterns in all of my friends. I would say 75 percent of the women I know have been sexually hurt in some way whether its abuse or rape or just basic harassment. Every woman has felt somewhat violated—even if it’s just verbally. And I always wonder what that does to people, how they view their body.
So you think abuse is the culprit?
It can be. Because you’re not angry at whoever it is that hurt you, you’re like: what did I do wrong? It’s a very feminine response. You get sort of obsessive about [your body].
The message you give to girls about loving their own bodies, that seems like a big part of who you are.
I don’t want to just start a dialogue; I want to fix the fucking problem. I don’t want it to keep happening to my friends. I’ve sort of figured some stuff out mentally, and I’m like maybe I can help people? I don’t have all answers, but as far as viewing my body … I’m in a place where I can look at my stretch marks and say, ‘Oh, hey, stretch marks!’ and I’m over it.
That’s a great message. So let’s talk about music. When did you start singing?
I always sang. My mom is a singer-songwriter, but she was also very depressed when I was a kid, and I feel like I just sort of embodied that. Seeing someone so sad and also being in an abusive household, singing was just sort of how I handled shit. You can only be abused for so long before you either completely self-destruct or start hurting other people—you have to turn it into creativity. My mom always says if I didn’t write or sing, I would have exploded.
So your mom was a major influence on you?
My mom is an incredible, incredible woman. She was always writing songs. About anything. Taking the trash out, even. She’d write songs about that. I’m not joking. They were incredible songs. She was always singing.
Taking out the trash?
Or cleaning a room! Anything. She made everything fun. Like we’d be in the kitchen, and she’d go (starts singing in high-pitched voice) “Now I’ve got the flour, what do you think Mary?” And I’d go (sings in her own voice) “I think that’s pretty cool, Mom!” I guess I just sort of adapted that.
Did you have other musical influences early on besides your mom?
The first album I ever bought was Jewel, her Spirit album. I didn’t even know what CDs were until I was in the sixth grade—we were really poor. But I listened to it, and I thought: this is what I want to do. I want to write music like this.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
[Laughs.] The first song I ever wrote was in fifth grade. I learned to play guitar, and I was teaching myself piano. And it was the saddest fucking song. It was something like … “Don’t worry child, I’m going to buy you a brand new life.” [She giggles.] I sang it at the talent show in front of everyone.
[We’re interrupted by a knock at the door, in walks Mary’s girlfriend, Rachel.]
Hi baby! [Mary says, beaming]. I texted you. Can I get a kiss? I went shopping, a lot. Look at that Zac Posen clutch. [Sarcastically:] It was not a lot of money.
So do you two travel together a lot?
Well, for the gay events it’s awesome because they’re like “We want to fly you and your partner out.” I really try to spend as much time with Rachel as I can. We try to have date nights. We had a date at the airport on our way here. We got cocktails. Drinking is sort of a hobby.
What is your favorite thing to drink?
Lately, I’ve been having really dirty gin martinis. But actually I love a good margarita, too. Going to a bar with a specific menu and a ton of really interesting drinks is also great. I was a bartender at a bar that was craft cocktails and I loved it.
You seem really happy.
This is the happiest I’ve probably ever been in my life. But—this is going to sound so morbid—I will always have a darkness. I feel like I will always have to struggle with depression in some way. There’s always an underlying sadness, and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. The only thing that I can do is process that.
I’ve heard that your shows are a bit dark, is that true?
Seriously, you can hear a pin drop. It’s completely silent. Everyone is weeping. I’m weeping. It’s cathartic, I think. Writing what I write is a form of healing for me. When I sing it out loud, it’s very honest and raw. I’m putting myself totally out there … all of the trauma, abuse, heartbreak, and terrible things.
And the audience just accepts it.
That’s what is so moving about it. I think it’s just a big validation fest! But I’m also … I’m clinically bipolar. So between the songs, I try to kind of crack people up. And it fucks them up! It’s hysterical. I’ll say something like ‘Oh, I thought I peed on myself,’ then I’ll start singing a song about cancer. (Laughs) I’m letting you into my head is what I’m doing.
The VMAs must have been a completely different experience then. Were you nervous?
Nope. I never get nervous to sing. Right before they announced us, Jason Collins is talking, we’re backstage and Ben [Macklemore] is doing this deep breathing. But I was just kind of like [starts humming and dancing in her chair]. And he literally looked at me and said, “What are you on? No Mary really, what are you on?” And I was like “NOTHING! I’M JUST [continues yelling] EXCITED THIS IS HUGE.”
Not as huge as Kanye giving you a kiss on the cheek afterwards though, right?
That was amazing. He was really sweet.
So after your tour with Macklemore, what do you have brewing in terms of collaborations?
Well I watched The Voice last season and thought Michelle Camel was amazing and adorable. I emailed her, and we’re going to write a song together. I’d also love to work with Natalie Maines [of the Dixie Chicks]. I love her. Oh, and Feist. I think she’s an incredible composer. She gets melody.
Are you worried that fame will change you?
I think that’s my biggest fear. That I’ll become a total dickhead. I’m just trying to keep my feet on the ground.
When I realize we’re less than an hour before the event, I start to round things up. “You’re fine! You can stay if you want!” she says, in a way that is—or seems—genuine. When I finally head out, she takes both my hands and laments the fact that she doesn’t have a “parting gift” to send me off with.
“I could give you some of my bipolar pills!” she jokes. Rachel, who’s been sitting on the bed and silently fiddling on her laptop, chimes in smiling. “No, you need those.”
Mary smiles, “We call them relationship pills.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.