KEXP Exclusive Interview: Mary Lambert

all photos by Shervin Lainez

Grammy-nominated singer Mary Lambert has been doing things for herself lately. And, she says, it feels exhilarating. But between performances and business moves – like signing her own distribution deal and releasing her latest EP, Bold, in May – she’s been playing a lot of The Sims computer game, creating characters based on her friends (like The Black Tones’ Eva Walker, featured drummer in Lambert’s latest video). The former Seattle-area resident, who now spends much of her time in Massachusetts, recently announced a slew of tour dates, including a show Sunday, October 29th at the Crocodile Café in Seattle. “It’s happening,” says Lambert, “I’m so excited! I haven’t toured for 2-3 years.” We had a chance to catch up with the singer to talk to her about her new EP, a new LP she’s working on, the responsibility she feels toward fans and much more.

You just released your new EP, Bold, in May and already you’re working on another new album?

I’m working on both a collection of poems and a new album. I think the book might come out first, actually. But the album is going to be an LP – it’s going to be long. I feel like it’s my masterpiece. It’s the album I’ve been dreaming of making my whole life. So, it’s like nothing major or anything!

I want to ask you a philosophical question. What level of responsibility do you feel to strangers?

I think this is something I struggle with. As an artist and as somebody that likes to create music and performs almost as an invitation, I do feel a responsibility to the public to be a force of goodness and to make sure that I’m minimizing any pain in the world. That’s kind of my M.O. But in terms of responsibility, I think you have to be really careful if you’re any sort of public figure. Because on the same side of the coin if someone is saying you saved their life or that they were able to get over an eating disorder because of you, you can take that home and pat yourself on the back. But if you do, that means you also have to take responsibility for the person that says, ‘You didn’t tweet me back so I’m going to slit my wrists now.’ It’s really important that you’re not taking ownership of other people’s actions and it’s good to make sure your intentions are positive. As an artist, my creating I do for me. And the performing I do as an invitation to reach out to people. But I do think that there is an obligation to all people to be a force of good.

There can be that impulse to project the healing you need to do for yourself onto others instead.

It’s really easy to do because you can be really impactful and affect people. But it’s important to recognize that it can be a catalyst, not an ongoing metamorphosis. You’re not the reason someone went through a change. You might be a catalyst for that person’s healing but you’re not the reason that person healed or attempted suicide or killed themselves. Something that you might have done might have awoken something in somebody else but as soon as you take ownership or responsibility for some people’s actions, you’re going to make yourself crazy. It’s important to remember that what you’re making and what you’re doing for yourself is for you.

Relationships can quickly fall into toxicity if you’re not careful. I imagine you almost have to act like a therapist who listens to people but then lets go after the session.

That’s absolutely how I feel. It’s really hard as an artist that creates work – I talk to people explicitly about mental health, explicitly about sexual abuse, explicitly about body image. To be that kind of an artist and then to perform shows in an open, inviting atmosphere, it does entreat a lot of people to share their truth with me. I really had to learn not to take that home at night, that I can’t take ownership. So when someone’s hurting, I am there in that moment with them and I do my best to see them the same way you would in a relationship, but I have to let it go after that. I can’t sit with it. I can’t reach out. It’s not my place.

Do you find professional opportunities are difficult for you to accept these days? Do you sort of view them through squinted eyes?

I’m much more hesitant than I was previously. I used to be a lot more unguarded and ready to jump for anything. I think that was necessary at the time in my career, though. Luckily, success and a certain amount of notoriety do give you that ability to be able to pick and choose, and the cushion to say no to things. This time two years ago, I was jumping through every single hoop in front of me because I was hustling. I was chasing a certain thing. But it depends on what you want to accomplish. What I want to accomplish now has a much more holistic brand of success, of something that is grounded and multifaceted. It gives me the ability to say no to things. I wouldn’t say I’m not trusting of people, but I’m more cautious.

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In a recent video for Cosmo, you said there was a time when “Everything hurt so much.” When did your days start to string together in a way that they didn’t hurt?

I’ve always been someone that’s been in a relationship. So anytime I was in a relationship, I was great. I was in love and able to be distracted. And I could neglect any feelings of despair or depression or mental illness. I could deflect it. Until the relationship ended or until I got really comfortable and was confronted with [pain] again. But I think I was about 20 when I finally started addressing some of the issues. And I think it was – I’m really forgetful. I’m someone who’s super absent minded. There was a period of time in my life when I forgot where lots of things were. I had a new wallet every three months. I made copies of things because I was going to forget them.

You know, when I was 20, I locked my keys in my car six times in one month. I had to have AAA come out. But I didn’t have AAA, my mom did. And I used up all her calls. After that, they charged me $100 each time. And instead of getting a new key made or figuring out a different system, I was like, ‘No I’m going to keep punishing myself. I need to learn how to remember this. I need to be an adult. I need to grow up.’ I kept shelling out $100 but I didn’t have $100 to shell out. So I opened a credit card I couldn’t afford to pay for these charges. I went into debt because I was trying to punish myself. I was miserable.

But I think I just woke up one day and said to myself, ‘I’m so miserable and I’m not being nice to myself. I’m so much nicer to other people than I am to myself.’ So that day I made three copies of my car keys. I hid one at school, I gave one to my roommate and I gave one to my mom. And I shit you not, I haven’t locked my keys in my car since. The second I was kind to myself and forgave myself and allowed myself to be exactly who I was, things started opening up. My brain needed me to do it. It’s a process of learning how to be nice to yourself. I think that was one moment where I started realizing I was in control of my life. The poet, Denice Frohman, has this line – I think she tweeted it – where she said, ‘Your trauma is probably not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility.’ I feel like that is such a profound way to look at life.

I think there are so many people that grew up in trauma or grew up in houses of turmoil or with parents that were unkind to them who don’t know how to accept love because that’s what they’re used to and that’s what they’re going to seek out because that’s what feels normal. It doesn’t feel normal to be treated well or to treat yourself well; you have to learn how to accept love and to learn to take care of yourself. It’s really humbling. And not in the way people at the Emmy’s say they’re humbled, but in a really difficult, dirty way. Like, ‘Fuck, I need to learn how to be a person!’

What’s remained special for you about the music industry over the years since “Same Love”? What shine has maybe faded?

I think I look at record labels far more critically than I did – it’s funny, coming from the Macklemore camp, you’d think I’d be all DIY. Record labels and anybody that takes 90% of your income off the top just makes me wary now – like, that doesn’t make sense at all! So that’s something that’s lost its luster for me. But in general, the entire system of the entertainment industry – and the music industry especially – is built off of artists believing they can’t do it themselves or that you need to have a producer, need to have a manager or a record label. Not to say you don’t need partners – they’re really helpful and finding people you can collaborate with in a business sense is really important. But it’s a disservice to artists to tell them that they can’t also be business people.

When do you write?

I write anytime I allow myself to write. It’s very rare that I have a blank page in front of me or that I just can’t come up with anything, even if it’s something I’m not crazy about. I’m always creating. For me, it’s just a matter of if I’m going to make some time for my writing, make time for this in the same way I’d make time scheduling a meeting. To be diligent about the output. But also there were times in my life that I was going to die if I didn’t get a song out. Like, I would have actually died. It’s not hyperbolic. And I feel very privileged and lucky to be in a position where it’s not life or death for me anymore. Songwriting is its own form of processing still, but it’s not life and death.

What’s your fondest moment of 2017, big or small?

My partner and I went abroad recently – we went to France and Iceland. And we went to this little restaurant in Iceland and it was one of the best meals ever. It was such a nice time to reconnect with my partner and eat delicious fish and enjoy another country. That was pretty special. But also I released this EP, Bold, and to have it crowd-funded and see a positive response, it has just given me another wind. A kind of – I don’t know if I would say ‘hope,’ but I don’t know what other word there is. It’s just a good reminder.

There was a time when I wasn’t touring or working on anything and I didn’t know if I was cut out for all this, if I was relevant, if people cared about what I have to say. I was working on the EP and kind of getting burned out. I didn’t have enough money and I was working so hard. I was like, ‘I don’t think people are going to care. Does it even matter anymore? I’m happy making music and I’m always going to make music, but do I need to share it?’ But I think putting it on Kickstarter was an eye-opener. It was really great to see the support and to know that people still cared. I didn’t need to be on a fancy record label. I didn’t need to have a powerful manager in order for people to want to hear my voice. I didn’t need a big time promoter to make all of this happen. Doing it myself top-to-bottom, I feel like I’m on Cloud Nine. I feel like I just won the lottery.

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