When we caught 25-year-old singer, songwriter, and keyboardist Mary Lambert opening for Gavin DeGraw and Matt Nathanson this past summer, we were inspired and uplifted in that way that seen-it-all music journalists too seldom feel. Combining hooky songwriting with spoken-word poetry, her music unflinchingly tackles issues of being openly gay, surviving severe child abuse, battling bipolar disorder, and having positive body image even though one might not conform to mainstream (read: skinny as a stick insect) standards of beauty. Far from being self-pitying, she does all this in a way that makes you want to get out of your seat, dance, cheer her on, and hug the stranger next to you. She spoke to us after a tour stop at Berkeley, California’s Greek Theater, and you can find out more at marylambertsings.com.
Opening photo by Mike Ruiz. Concert photo by Zoe Rain.
Your bio says you began playing piano at age six. Were there formal lessons or did you just discover the piano on your own?
My mom was a singer-songwriter, and I was always entranced watching her sing and play. I wanted to play just like her! I never had lessons, as we grew up pretty poor and that was out of the question. I don’t know if I would’ve been a good candidate for lessons, anyway. I liked doing things my way. I remember jump-roping around our apartment complex when I was seven or so, and seeing that a family had been evicted. In our town, that meant one thing to kids like me: free stuff. There was a box of sheet music on the lawn in front of one of the buildings, and I found Michael Aaron’s piano books. I took them all home, and begin to teach myself. I think my first song was “America, the Beautiful”.
Who were some early musical influences?
Jewel was a major influence on me. “Foolish Games” was such a stunning piece of music, and the piano part was simple enough for me to learn by ear. I also remember listening to George Winston, which was so calming. I made up songs to his piano playing. That was one of my favorite things to do. As I got older, I fell equally in love with Chopin and pop music.
Your website details surviving some horrific abuse that no human being should have to endure. Early on, did these traumas drive you towards music as an outlet or healing force?
Absolutely. I began writing around six or seven with a programmed keyboard that had the stock rhythms and accompaniments on it. I would literally sing to myself, “You are loved, you are loved.”
In your music, you sometimes treat these issues with humor, yet in a way that respects their seriousness. Any thoughts on how you’re able to communicate this so effectively?
Hah! I’m glad that translates. I think my approach is inadvertently bold. I live my life without shame or guilt—as much as possible—and a lot of shame surrounds trauma or flaws, so I believe in being open about those things. You miss out on so many beautiful things when you’re closed up.
Your first big break was writing a chorus for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ hit “Same Love.” Coming from a background of loving folk and singer-songwriter music, what was it like to work in a rap context?
I was very active in the spoken word scene when Mack and Ryan approached me. During that time, I was trying to figure out how to incorporate spoken word into my set, so that I didn’t have to do separate shows—either poetry performances or standard concerts with my folk band. I was experimenting in that realm anyway. The opportunity from Mack and Ryan was so fitting for what I was practicing, and the subject matter felt like it had been a gift from God. I loved the process of “top-lining,” and had never been approached like that. The whole thing felt very divine.
What did you feel your musical background brought to the table for Macklemore and Ryan?
I think the boys were looking for something simple: a hook that tied the whole thing together and something that was from a gay person’s point of view. I feel like I brought the emotional and experience-based part of the song. I was eager to share my story with the world.
Your latest single, “Secrets,” is up-tempo, fun, and has lyrics in which everyone should see something about him- or herself. What can you tell us about writing it?
“Secrets” is one of the first songs I’ve ever allowed other writers on. It was a really scary process for me. I always just assumed that I had to be crying at 3 A.M. drunk on my kitchen floor to write a good song. I’m beyond thrilled with the outcome of opening my process up. Eric Rosse (Tori Amos, Sara Bareilles) and Benny Cassette (Miguel, Kanye West), both producers on the album, conceived the idea to make up a single melody line that would be the basis of the song. Eric played a melody, Benny made up a beat in the matter of minutes, and [singer-songwriter] MoZella and I started singing things back and forth. I wanted to write a song that was empowering, but not in a way that tied things up in a pretty bow. Our flaws are our flaws—and that’s totally okay!
Do you find that artists who happen to be gay—except perhaps for super-famous folks like Elton John—are apt to be pigeonholed as being exclusively for an LGBT audience?
Well, I’m in a very unique situation, because my prerogative is about being both a [gay rights] activist and an artist. The song people know me for is “She Keeps Me Warm,” so I can only really speak to my own experience.
Your music also takes on body image. Often, any larger-than-average person in show business is typecast as “that plus-size” actor or musician, rather than as an artist first who just happens to be the size they are. Melissa McCarthy comes to mind. Any thoughts on this issue?
Body image in the industry is something I can speak to. I see acting as a visual experience rather than a solely sonic one. Obviously, you can watch a band live or listen to just the dialogue from a movie, but typically you can enjoy one without the other. Melissa McCarthy is a phenomenal actress. She’s also gorgeous, hysterical, and has such amazing things to say. Our culture is obsessed with the superficial, and I think plus-size women in the industry have a lot of s*** to put up with. I do believe that we’re slowly breaking down walls and stereotypes, and that every small victory is indeed a victory.
How do you approach the above types of stereotyping as a performer and as an increasingly public person?
I’m me. I’ve always been me. I’m very headstrong and sure of myself, my body, and my art. I believe generalizations may happen based on my demographic, but the effects that come with stereotyping only apply to you if you let it.
What musicians would be in your dream band? Living or deceased, but people you haven’t collaborated with before.
Natalie Maines, Chris Thile, Jacqueline du Pre, Itzhak Perlman, Flea, Matt Chamberlain, and Dan Auerbach. And I’d just love to pick Bach’s brain.
We saw you playing a Roland RD-64 on tour. Do you find its 64 keys provide enough range to support your songs?
The Roland is nice because it’s so compact. When I used to play local gigs, I’d lug my Yamaha YPG-635 around, which I really love. It didn’t make sense to travel with it for this specific tour, especially since I damaged the AC adapter a couple months back transporting it. The Roland is great, though. I love the action, the sound quality, and its awesome size.
Tell us about your live musicians and their gear.
Everyone in the band has been playing since we were kids and is a master of his or their instrument. Heather Thomas is my drummer, and she’s one of the most talented drummers I’ve ever seen. Her control and groove is phenomenal. Tim Mendonsa alternates between bass and electric guitar—usually bass but he can do literally anything I ask. His ability to transcribe is amazing. Maiah Manser is my backup vocalist and synth player. Maiah uses two synths: a Moog Sub Phatty and a Roland Gaia. Maiah covers the low frequencies on the Moog when Tim is on guitar, and the Roland is used to bring out lush choruses.
Are there any keyboard sounds that you feel support your songs well—or that made a big impression on you when you first heard them?
The first time I heard a Wurlitzer electric piano, I was so enamored. It really is a wonderful instrument. I remember loving the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams” when I was younger, then later in my high school years I really enjoyed “Heartbeats” by the Knife, which is pretty synth-heavy. For so long I’ve been a solo musician, dragging my Yamaha digital piano with me everywhere, that I’ve never had a second thought about what might compliment my own music. Maybe that’s the mindset of a frontwoman, though. Right now, I enjoy trying out new sounds with the Gaia and experimenting with textures, and the next tour I do will have a lot more color sonically.
This is off-topic, but onstage you said that having been a bartender, you still make “kick-ass cocktails.” Care to share a recipe?
My signature drink is a fig-infused whiskey [sour]. I prefer Four Roses bourbon or Bulleit rye, with egg white, simple syrup, lime juice, and a few brandied cherries frozen in the ice cube. There’s nothing like an egg-white cocktail—I also mastered a perfect Ramos gin fizz. When I do my first headlining tour, I want the meet-and-greets to involve a cocktail or mocktail that I make. That would be so fun!
What advice would you give to someone who, like you once were, might be working behind a bar somewhere and aspire to an artistic life?
Network, be kind, and make time for your art. No one else will make time for you to make music—that’s up to you.