Two days before America’s Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country, Mary Lambert was at the White House, attending a Pride reception and chatting to the President. The 26-year-old singer and poet is happy to take the credit.
“I keep saying, ‘You’re welcome everybody, I did it!’ My gay energy is very powerful,” she tells me, though she’s also honest enough to admit that her brief conversation with Barack Obama was not quite the meeting of minds that she had envisaged. “I clammed up, which is weird for me. I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Mary. I sang the song… the gay one.’”
She’s referring to Same Love, the 2013 hit for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis which was an incredibly rare thing: a rap song that treats homosexuality as a positive. Check out the video on YouTube if you’re not one of the 142 million who have aready done so. It’s a beautiful tearjerker following a gay man’s journey from miserable teenager to a glorious wedding party. Lambert wrote and sang the chorus: “I can’t change, even if I try, even if I wanted to/My love she keeps me warm.”
She was an unknown singer-songwriter and performance poet plugging away in the clubs of Seattle, offered the opportunity to contribute to the song through a mutual friend. Previously the chorus was going to be a sample of the Diana Ross song I’m Coming Out. Lambert was all too aware she was a last resort, given the job on the day it was being recorded. Two years later she was singing Same Love with Madonna on stage at the Grammys, while Queen Latifah performed a marriage ceremony for 33 couples of various orientations. Music’s A-listers were in floods.
“I was just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder to tell me I’d snuck in: ‘You don’t belong here, please get out.’ For all the songs I could have been featured on, for that to be the first one, it felt like I’d been given this gift. It feels very eerie and like it was supposed to happen.”
Now she’s turned her Same Love chorus into a complete song of her own, her new single, the piano ballad She Keeps Me Warm. Think of it as Dido’s Thank You was to Eminem’s Stan, or like Alicia Keys’s solo version of her Jay-Z duet Empire State of Mind – an familiar melody un-rapped to reveal something new and equally memorable. Its sedate beauty stands out on a solo album, out later this month, which is comprised largely of love songs. It’s a surprisingly bright and accessible collection of mature pop sounds, all things considered. A sunny melody can make all sorts of things more digestible.
Because some of what she has to say on stage, in interviews and in her visceral poetry collection, 500 Tips for Fat Girls, couldn’t be darker. At her imminent debut London show, she may tackle sexual abuse, body issues and mental illness as well as her struggle to live as a gay Christian. The first line on her album, aptly titled Heart on My Sleeve, is: “I’ve got bipolar disorder, my shit’s not in order.” It culminates in an uplifting chant of “So what!” but it took her a long time to reach such a positive state of self-acceptance.
“I really have been able to lay everything on the table, and say: ‘This is exactly who I am. These are my quote unquote flaws.’ It’s wonderful to have been embraced for who I am, and I’m really comfortable and proud of who I am. I think hopefully it’s an invitation to others to be themselves.”
She talks often about her “trauma”. It feels crass to reel off her horrific experiences like a laundry list, but they include being molested by her father as a child, surviving a gang rape and suicide attempt as a teenager, and being diagnosed as bipolar. “I’ve been in therapy my whole life,” she tells me. “In my art I explore all the facets of my trauma. There are times when it has come back to bite me in the butt, but I think it’s important to talk about the uncomfortable things.”
Now her concerts have become the therapy sessions, as she offers her audience a space to open up about their own experiences. “We cry a lot, my fans and I. The meet-and-greets are basically these giant group hugs. I lot of people are there because they have been through pain in some way. That’s why it’s a priority to talk about the things that I talk about in my music, because I remember feeling alone and isolated and not knowing that there’s a community out there of people who are like me. Maybe with my music I’ve been trying to recreate something for my 17-year-old self.”
As a teenager she realised that she was gay during a period when she was also attending an evangelical church twice every Sunday. “One Sunday I sat down at church and the topic of the sermon was whether it’s okay to be gay in God’s eyes. The answer was overwhelmingly no. I just cried and cried. I stayed in the pew about an hour afterwards just crying and praying and wondering what I was suppposed to do.” She ended up tying herself in knots attempting to accept her sexuality and also “repent” at the end of every day. Even her mother, who came out as gay when Lambert was six, was not as supportive as she might have expected. “She was probably the most unhappy about it. I think she was scared I was going to be a victim of a hate crime.”
Today she’s a remarkably positive person who laughs a lot during our conversation. She tells me I have a “very calming voice” and cheers me up for the rest of the day. On her website she’s more likely to enthuse about the poetry that fans have submitted than plug her tour dates. It’s clear that she has issues with the morals of the entertainment industry but she never sounds angry.
“The media industry has affected me poorly as a teenager, and even now in my 20s,” she says. “I look at celebrity culture and I don’t feel connected. I don’t see a body like mine, I don’t see relationships like mine, and I feel alienated.” One positive moment for her was seeing Adele on the television for the first time. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s this person who kind of looks like me, and she’s so powerful and has this gorgeous voice.’ I love her.”
These days she’s settled in Massachusetts with Michelle Chamuel, a runner-up on the US version of The Voice, not quite ready for her own gay wedding but certainly living a life that is a world away from its grim beginnings. “We are more than our scars,” she sings on her song Sum of Our Parts. Much more, as she is proving all the time.
July 29, Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen, N1 (020 7419 4696, hoxtonsquarebar.com)
Heart on My Sleeve is released on July 31 on Capitol