In the cover photo on her new solo EP, Mary Lambert radiates voluptuous confidence: red lips, Veronica Lake hair, a spiky ear cuff and prominent tattoo. With arched eyebrows, she gazes directly at the viewer as if to say, “How you like me now?” Formerly a bartender with a fan base in the spoken word scene (she won the 2011 Seattle Poetry Slam’s Grand Slam and competed nationally), Belltown-based Lambert skyrocketed to fame in the most unlikely of ways, as the lesbian girl who sings the pretty, soulful hook “my love, she keeps me warm” in “Same Love,” the song Macklemore and Ryan Lewis wrote in support of same-sex marriage.
The last two years have brought a whirlwind of change for the young singer, spinning upward from her 2011 Kickstarter campaign requesting $2,000 to self-release her first EP, Letters Don’t Talk (2012), to signing with mega-label Columbia Records for the new EP, Welcome to the Age of My Body, and the full-length record slated for spring. (She also recently broke up with her longterm girlfriend—the “she” of “she keeps me warm.”) Just beneath the sassy album-cover glamour is a sweet, emotionally open 24-year-old who laughs like the carefree little kid she never quite got to be.
Lambert’s early years were rough—she grew up in Everett with an abusive father—and are likely the source of the dark, sorrowful shadows that flutter across her songwriting. Diagnosed as bipolar, she escaped from family dysfunction through music. She often made up songs and sang them to an imagined crowd or her supportive mother. (Her parents divorced when she was 5 years old; soon after, her mother came out as a lesbian.) In high school, Lambert earned a Gates Foundation scholarship that enabled her to attend Cornish College and study music composition. “I wanted to be a music teacher,” she recalls. But after graduating in 2011, she had a revelation: Instead of applying to grad schools for music education, she wanted to work on songs for her first EP. She decided to give herself two years to focus seriously on making music.
Within six months, she got the Macklemore call, thanks to mutual friend Hollis Wong-Wear, a Seattle rapper and spoken word performer, who made the connection in May 2012. Lambert’s sexual orientation was part of what led the hip-hop duo to choose her to work on the song. (“It was the first time my demographic helped,” Lambert told The Seattle Times last year.) She was given the track for “Same Love” and two hours to come up with something.
She nailed it, calling on her own experience as a lesbian who came out at age 17, and who felt ashamed of her sexuality during the time she was attending Mars Hill Church and struggling with how to be both gay and Christian (hence the refrain, “not crying on Sundays”). “I would be sitting there crying, feeling the need to repent,” she remembers. But on many Sundays she also attended the evening Compline service (a choral performance in the tradition of Benedictine monks) at St. Mark’s Cathedral, where she says she always felt “full of light” and unashamed.
Lambert’s lyrics struck a chord. When it became clear that “Same Love” was on its way to huge success (the YouTube video, in which she appears, has had more than 100 million downloads), she initially wondered about her career—whether this song would be the peak, or if she would be pigeonholed. But she soon realized the most important thing is the song’s positive impact, raising awareness and even changing minds. “It’s not about ego…it’s about something shifting socially,” she told KEXP radio in May. “It’s going to have a legacy,” she says. “I’ll be known for that song the rest of my life. You can’t luck out more than that.” Lambert is gratefully aware of her other good fortune: “I’ve been given an incredible opportunity to showcase more of my work.”
One of the songs on her new EP pays homage to the tender ditty that expanded her fan base from the small crowds at poetry slams and coffeehouse concerts to massive throngs at Madison Square Garden. “She Keeps Me Warm” repurposes the “Same Love” hook into a love song about a lesbian woman in a relationship. “I always wanted the chorus to be a universal feeling of love,” she says. Whereas “Same Love” takes a more political angle, her version “provides the context of love.” Raw, vulnerable love runs through Welcome to the Age of My Body, which includes her spoken word poem set to music, “I Know Girls (Bodylove),” a wrenching piece that tackles body image, self-cutting and suicide, and highlights her gift for empathetic writing. All the songs showcase her stunning voice, which can leap from softness to sheer power in an instant.
Amazed and honest, Lambert knows she’s on a wild ride. She’s performed on Ellen, sung with Jennifer Hudson at the MTV Music Video Awards and in December was nominated for a Grammy (with Macklemore and Lewis for Song of the Year). This year she’ll be touring for her new EP and forthcoming full-length album, while “trying to figure out how to keep some stability.” When asked about her old aspirations of being a music teacher, she responds sincerely, “I think I would’ve been just as happy doing that as I am now.”
Some would argue she already is a music teacher—of the best kind.