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Mary Lambert on 'Heart On My Sleeve' and why she's a crier

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Mary Lambert

Not too long ago, Mary Lambert was tending bar in Seattle and following her muse as a spoken word artist in her spare time. A friend asked her to craft a hook for the independent hip-hop album he was working on—and then everything changed.

After the success of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love,” Lambert found herself being courted by record labels, dueting with Madonna on stage at the Grammys, and moving to Los Angeles to record her full-length debut.

That album, Heart On My Sleeve, is in stores now, and based on the reaction to the first single, “Secrets” (which finds Lambert singing freely about her bipolar disorder, among other things), she’s already making a name on her own. Still, Lambert won’t let a larger audience and bigger business stakes get in the way of her work, which draws from her experiences as a lesbian, a Christian, and a sexual abuse survivor. “For me, writing is a really sacred experience,” she says. “The business side of it or any pressure career-wise does not effect it.”

EW caught up with Lambert on the eve of Heart On My Sleeve‘s release. The 25-year-old discussed the themes of her new album, Madonna’s grill, and why she’s a lot like Carol Burnett.

EW: This is your first pop album. How different was working on this compared to music you’ve produced in the past?

Mary Lambert: There were a lot more hands in the pot. It was really important to me that I retain my authenticity and my genuine self—and there were some times where I thought it was not happening. I  drove this ship, and I was really grateful that people on my team respected that. The authenticity was what was the most important thing to me. It was much more of a collaborative process and not so insular as [my] first two EPs.

What’s the story behind “Ribcage,” your collaboration with Angel Haze and K.Flay?

I feel like the majority of the songs on the record were songs that were burning out of me. They needed to be communicated and written, and “Ribcage” was absolutely one of those things.

I had just done an interview where someone had cited my exact trauma, and it re-traumatized me for the rest of my day. I was a wreck. I felt that double-edged sword of being vulnerable. Heart on My Sleeve is about the beauty of vulnerability and humanity and trusting people, and “Ribcage” is kind of the downside of it, where you can get hurt.

Angel Haze and K.Flay are two of my favorite rappers of all time, and not just among female MCs—they’re just incredible rappers who have very distinct cadences and cool things to say. They had very different takes on the idea of “Ribcage” and vulnerability. I felt like for both of them, they also had things that were burning out of them. So it’s pretty emotionally intense, and sonically it feels so cool. It still feels cohesive to the record, but it’s definitely its own moment.

This song took kind of a long time, because I wanted to execute it perfectly. I wanted it to still make sense on a pop record, so someone could hear “Secrets” and then go from “Secrets” to “Ribcage” and have it make sense. I hope that having “Secrets” as the single doesn’t set people up for this shock when they listen to the rest of the record, but I think because the song is about vulnerability, the rest of the record makes sense too.

The theme of connecting and vulnerability also really seems to drive “Monochromatic.” How did that song come together?

It was written by me and MoZella, who wrote “Wrecking Ball.” I think you can hear the element of Mo in there. We had spent the whole day working on one of the tracks. We were both processing a lot of stuff, and I was having a really hard time being in Los Angeles. I spent a lot of time there, and I’m really used to being in the Pacific Northwest, or in the woods. Being in Los Angeles is this brutal awakening, where I feel not good enough as soon as I walk into a room, and I’m wearing the wrong thing, or I don’t have enough make up on. It’s all about image.

I think it’s a global thing, where people are disconnected not just from each other but also themselves. People are constantly not feeling, but numbing themselves, either through medication or playing on their phones. If you start feeling bad, it’s like, “Distract! Distract! Put on Storage Wars!” And I know because I’m guilty of it too. But I think it’s really important to feel whatever your mind wants you to feel, whether it’s grieving or feeling full joy.

I have a big thing with eye contact, because I think as soon as you make eye contact with somebody, you see them, and they become valued and worthy. I notice a lot of times when I’m in Los Angeles, you’re not even seeing me, you’re not even looking at me. I especially feel it on red carpets. They’re looking at me but it’s a constant glancing at the sheen of other more important famous people. And I’m like, “I want to connect with you. I know this is press and red carpet stuff, but even in this interview, I want to connect with you!” That’s what propels me.

That’s why fame freaks me out in a lot of ways, because how genuine of a connection can you have when you’re a commodity, and a conversation with you means bragging rights? That’s terrifying to me.

Why make this album in Los Angeles and not Seattle?

It was because I wanted to work with [producer] Eric Rosse, and he’s based in L.A. As soon as I signed with Capitol Records, I said I wanted to set up a meeting with Rosse. We set up a meeting with Eric and it was an instant understanding and connection. He was kind of going through the same struggle as me. Like, he wants to move to Santa Fe so much. He loves Santa Fe, and I loved being in the woods, so we really understood each other in that sense. Like, I don’t know what you need to feel, but I want to help you in your quest to feel. I think that’s the intention of the record. So being in Los Angeles was a necessary thing in order to accomplish that.

You’ve talked about how you want this album to help people the way that pop music helped you. What albums were there for you when you needed them?

Definitely Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. That’s the primary reason I sought out Eric, because he produced both those records. But there was also Jewel, and Jewel has this really candid openness to talk about her issues. So between Tori Amos and Jewel, I’m like, “OK, cool, I’m a really vulnerable songwriter too.” Spoken word had a lot to do with it as well. If you’ve ever been to a slam or any spoken word event, you know it’s an intense emotional experience, and it’s so vulnerable, and the payoff is the whole deal. I’ve cried massive sobs at poetry events, because they’re kind of commanding you to feel. I feel like I replicate that in some ways both in my poetry and my music.

Did Eric have a lot of good Tori Amos stories?

I had a lot of questions. She had an a cappella piece about her rape called “Me and a Gun.” I originally had a poem about rape on this record, and I was hellbent on having it on. I spent a lot of time debating it after the record was in the completion stages, and I decided ultimately to take it off. I wanted this to be a pop record. Especially with “Secrets” being the first single, it just didn’t make sense for me. I had a really great talk with my record label and my team and they’re like, “We still think this should be out there.” I want it to be out there too, but not on a pop record. It needs its own space. It should be out there in conjunction with a sexual abuse charity or organization. So I was really pumped about that. It’s not disappearing, and I didn’t have to sacrifice a part of myself. Plus, it ended up making room for “Jessie’s Girl” to be on the record. It felt like a very reasonable trade off.

You’ve been on the road a bunch over the summer, and you just announced a fresh headlining tour. Who are your in-concert role models?

I really love the way Sara Bareilles is on stage. She’s really self-effacing and smart. She really gets into it. I love people who get into it and are present with their own songwriting. I think that’s inevitable with a singer-songwriter, because you’re so deeply connected to what you’ve written. You’re not regurgitating someone else’s words. Songwriting is such an insular experience, this sacred moment to yourself and what you want to communicate, and performing is the sharing and the invitation. I love having both of those in my life.

Being on tour with Matt Nathanson and Gavin DeGraw was really helpful. Matt Nathanson is hysterical, so we really resonated with each other in that sense. I think it’s important for me to be funny. I want there to be humor in the show regardless if I’m doing a song about cancer. Just because you go to a show that’s intense doesn’t mean you can’t experience joy at the same time. The show is part comedy show and part crying music and part spoken word. It’s a true variety show. It’s basically like Carol Burnett.

What stands out to you most about your Grammy performance, where you got to sing with Madonna and witness Queen Latifah marry several dozen gay couples?

During the dress rehearsal, I was really emotional. I was emotional for weeks leading up to it, just a weepy big baby, because it meant so much to me—not just in my career or for my ego, but as a member of the gay community, that I got to be a part of this beautiful moment. They said, “We’re gonna perform weddings,” and I’m like, “You guys, I’m not going to be able to hold it together. What are you thinking? You know I’m a crier.” Then they said “Madonna’s going to sing with you,” and I’m like, “Are you sh–ing me?”

So we did a bunch of rehearsals, and I cried collectively for like six hours the day before. I couldn’t stop. There was just a trail of tissues everywhere I went. We had one final dress rehearsal, and I was like, “I have to get it together.” I was feeling really confident, and we were halfway through rehearsal, and they didn’t tell me that during the last run-through they were going to bring in all the couples who got married, and I was like, “You guys!” I lost it. I didn’t get through the song, and everyone was kind of rolling their eyes and getting concerned for the show. And Madonna comes over, and she’s got her cut-off leather gloves on and her grill in, and she stands there and goes, “Oh, sweetie,” and she wipes away the tears off my face. I remember standing there stunned, going “What is my life? In what world?” I was bartending a year ago, and now everything is coming up Milhouse!

Your tattoo is quite lovely and impressive. What’s the story behind it?

I lived on this block in Seattle on Second Avenue, which is where all the bars are, and there’s tattoo shops and coffee shops. It’s right by Pike Place, and it’s like my favorite place to be. My friend Josh owned a tattoo shop called Under the Needle, because it’s under the Space Needle. I love puns.

I had three pansies tattooed on my arm when I was like 18, and that was for all the Marys in my life. I’m actually Mary the Fifth. You don’t hear it a lot for women, but there’s a lot of power in my name, and I love that. I got three tattoos for all the generation of Marys, and we’re all singers and piano players. They all loved pansies—my mom, my grandma, and my great-grandma. So I got three pansies tattooed, and then from there I really wanted to do a sleeve. I was too busy to have a garden, but I could get a garden on my arm. So I got more pansies, and then I added some rhododenrons because it’s the Washington state flower, and I love the Pacific Northwest. It’s always going to be home to me. So it was a series of about six sessions, and usually about seven to nine hours a piece. It was really, really intense.

You seem to be no stranger to intensity.

There was a time in my life when I thought I was too much, and I was constantly told I was too much or too loud or too excited, and I just felt like I was freaking people out because I was crying all the time. I’m just so passionate about so many things that sometimes I think I overwhelm people with how happy I am. I came to a place about four years ago when I realized this is who I am, and I can’t change anything about it. I’m gonna just embrace that. Now I love that part about me. I love being passionate. It feels good.