If you’ve heard her music you may think you know Mary Lambert, but you’re really only getting half of who she is. The woman behind the hook of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love,” is both a singer-songwriter and a poet, but the side of her that her art doesn’t expose is her sardonic humor — that you’ll have to go to one of her live shows to see.
Her Valentine’s Day concert at Subculture in Greenwich Village began with a throaty rendition of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag,” (oh, that’s not your go-to romantic ballad?) complete with the falsetto chorus and plenty of microphone kissing. “I heard this song for the first time when I was thirteen and I thought, yes, a lesbian love song,” Lambert said. “But no, it was just a guy with a high voice.” We’ve all been there.
It’s her own song, “She Keeps Me Warm,” that breaks ground as one of the first prominent lesbian love songs to use female pronouns. (Even Tegan & Sara’s lyrics usually rely on gender-neutral ones like “I” and “you.”)
The poignant but politically charged “Same Love” kicked off her career and helped make her fellow Seattleites Macklemore & Ryan Lewis superstars. “I’d spent years trying to write a song about being gay and years trying to write a song about my Chrisitan faith, but everything I put down sounded contrived,” she told EW before the show. “When Ben Macklemore sent over the demo, I was like ‘this is awesome’ and the words just came to me.” That song became the rallying cry of the gay rights movement in Washington State, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2012. Lambert’s hook not only anchors the song vocally, but her position as the only actual gay person in the line-up lends a necessary credibility to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — a credibility that carried them all the way to the Grammy Awards this year, where all three performed with Madonna while 33 couples, gay and straight, got married in the aisles of the Staples Center.
Knowing that everyone at Subculture was eager to hear, Lambert shared her Grammys experience with the crowd on Friday night. “When the gospel choir started singing during rehearsals, I couldn’t stop crying, like I worried that something was broken,” she said laughing at herself. “Madonna goes, ‘should I be crying for the performance too?’ ” Mary gave the audience a side-eye at this line, before continuing. “As the couples were coming forward to practice the ceremony, one of them mouthed ‘thank you’ at me. I think I might have flipped him off. Really, dude? Now I’m crying again and Madonna is going to have to sing my part.”
Despite her gratitude for the “Same Love” experience, the 24-year-old doesn’t want her music career to be subsumed by the gay issue. “I don’t have an agenda for gay rights or for my faith,” she says. “I write about what I’m feeling and that’s it.” In fact, she’s now signed with Capitol Records as a solo act; the label released her four-song EP Welcome To The Age Of My Body in December and will put out her first full-length album this spring.
“The EP was my introduction, a declaration of who I am,” she says. “I was claiming space, which is my mantra right now. But the album that I’m working on is a more complex body of work. It’s like a good emotional cry.” Her songwriting and her poetry are unflinchingly honest. In her work, she’s exorcising a lifetime’s worth of pain and struggle: Childhood sexual abuse, rape, bipolarity, religious rejection, homosexuality and body image are all issues that she tackles in her work. “I don’t think of my songs as sad songs,” she says. “I think of them as vulnerable and honest. I crack jokes in between songs, so people don’t leave feeling too dark. But I’m not going to write vapid bullshit just to make people happier.”
Staying true to her identity is one of her main priorities, a quality that Lambert admires in other performers. “I look up to Tegan & Sara, obviously, Adele and Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks,” she says. “All these artists are strong in their convictions and they haven’t changed who they are for the music business.” Her dream collaborations, she says, would be with Feist, Regina Spektor and Carole King. Drake also made the list. (She hadn’t heard about the “wack as f—k” tussle with Macklemore over the Grammy’s. “I don’t care,” she said giggling. “I like him.”)
Lambert is still awed by her rise to fame, and figuring out how to walk the line between being open and being taken advantage of. “I’m learning how to keep my identity and personal life sacred,” she says. “It’s a matter of knowing my limits. I don’t have to give everything that’s asked of me.” We’re pretty happy with how much she’s already given us.