If you’re familiar with the way Mary Lambert performs — especially if you’re fortunate enough to have seen her perform live — then you know to expect some crying. According to Lambert, fans were treated to a great deal of it at her recent show at the Neptune Theatre in support of her new self-produced studio album “Grief Creature.”
“There was a record amount of crying,” she admitted, “which even for me is a lot.”
That may not seem surprising coming from an artist whose latest album includes song titles such as “Shame,” “Born Sad” and “Trauma is a Stalker,” but the crying is less about sadness and more about catharsis. After all, Lambert’s story is one of overcoming the effects of trauma, not just sitting with them.
The Everett, Washington, native, who first came to national prominence through her work with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on their song “Same Love” in 2012, has always been open about the impacts trauma has had on her, and about her work to overcome them. If anything, “Grief Creature” is almost a roadmap for that journey — an achingly gorgeous, incredibly vulnerable roadmap.
“When I was about 18 or 19,” she explained, “I didn’t have a place to live. I was sleeping on my friends’ couches. I also hated my body. I hated everything about myself. I didn’t care whether I lived or died, and I also felt like all of these terrible things have happened to me.”
It was then that she had somewhat of an awakening, one that led her to the healthier, self-loving place she’s at now.
“I realized so much of it was perpetuated by shame and these internal voices that said I was never gonna be good enough,” she added. “I had chosen to live in this emotional state that was debilitating, and I wanted to try something else.
“So, I tried being radically gentle with myself. And kind. The same way I felt that I was toward other people, I offered that same sort of kindness and forgiveness to myself. And things really changed.”
The new album, which she’s been working on since even before the release of “Heart on My Sleeve” in 2014, is itself the product of overcoming adversity — in this case, being released from her contract with Capitol Records.
“I presented three or four songs, demos, off this album to them,” she told me, “and what I got back was, ‘This is beautiful and powerful, but we’re going to screw it up.’ The label said they were going to screw it up because they didn’t know how to market it: ‘We’re not really sure what to do with this. It’s almost too meaningful.’
“If I’m going to be let out of a contract for something being too meaningful,” she added, “I’ll fucking take it.”
Because, as someone who exists at the intersection of a lot of society’s margins — being queer, being fat, being a woman — learning how to overcome trauma is pretty much a requirement for finding any peace in this world.
The way she describes that process is powerful, and powerfully simple. Being simple doesn’t mean it’s also easy. But she sees it as a worthwhile effort for those who are able to undertake it.
“Sometimes it feels immoveable,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like it’s the only thing that you’re going to know for the rest of your life. It consumes you.
“It’s like letting our trauma work its course through us. I have to process. I have to feel. I have to be honest with myself about what happened.
“But I’m not going to let my trauma define me or define my identity and be the only story that I live over and over again. I won’t choose to let that happen to myself.”
What could’ve been a roadblock turned into a way forward, as shown in “Grief Creature.”
“I had the skeleton of what I wanted to write and accomplish,” she told me. “Between poetry and ballads and orchestral writing, I had an outline of what I wanted the arc to be and the story, the narrative of the album, but I wasn’t sure how it was all going to fit together. I was feeling a little disconnected from it.
“Things really pivoted when I became the producer, when I finally took a step back and said: Oh, the only way my voice has been heard is through the lens of a straight, White, cis guy sitting behind a computer saying this is how the world is gonna hear your voice.”
Taking the producer reins was what really allowed her to diverge from the pop music style she’d become known for and make music that is altogether richer, lusher and more complex.
“I recorded it in Sequim,” she said. “I’d go out to Sequim a couple times a year and have my 12-hour days in the studio. I didn’t know how to produce, but I learned. I sat down every day, and my friend Jeremy Cays, who owns the studio out there, he taught me how. I’m just so incredibly proud of what I made and it really feels like my identity, my voice in every aspect of it.”
“Grief Creature” even allowed her to come full circle and work with Macklemore again, producing “House of Mirrors,” a song the pair co-wrote for the album. It’s an experience Lambert remembers fondly.
“Originally, I sent him a song off my album. I sent him one of the main tracks. He said, ‘Mary, it’s beautiful, but — I want you to speak this. I don’t want to take the shine away from you.’ I really appreciated him saying that. It felt so thoughtful and just what I would expect from him. He’s just a good fucking dude.”
The real full-circle moment, I pointed out, could be that, instead of her voice being filtered through the lens of a cis, straight, White guy, she was filtering the voice of Macklemore, a cis, straight, White guy, through her own lens.
“Hey, I never thought of that!” she exclaimed. “That’s so cool.”
Lambert isn’t currently planning to tour with the album and is continuing on, excited about what she has in store.
“I’m gonna be a cartoon!” she professed. “I’m in a new animated musical that comes out in 2021, so I can’t even talk about the project. I’m doing some film composing too, getting more into TV and film.
“I’m working on a second book, called ‘The Body Positivity Handbook,’ about real, concrete tools for people who have a strong desire to love themselves and love their bodies, filled with practical applications for flawed concepts that we’re taught.”
Lambert — the author, Grammy-nominated musician, poet and producer — is a bright light. Whatever challenges she may come to face down the road, she surely will come out a creative creature on the other side.
Read the full Jan. 8-14 issue.
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