Mary Lambert on Splitting With Capitol, Her 'Depressing' Next Album & Duetting With Her Mom
For indie-pop singer, activist and spoken-word poet Mary Lambert, 2013 was her breakout year. She collaborated with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on the LGBTQ anthem "Same Love," which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, and then made waves with the sweet, queer love song "She Keeps Me Warm." With her success alongside Macklemore and Lewis came two Grammy Award nominations, a label signing to Capitol Records and the release of her debut album Heart On My Sleeve. A combination of pop, balladry and poetry, Lambert made the kind of record you don't usually get from a major label.
With her second studio album, Lambert amicably severed ties with Capitol Records. "I realized that I'm kind of a difficult artist to market: I'm a little complicated in terms of my output and what I'm creating and what my goals are, and I just don't think they really lined up with a label," Lambert explains. "I think it's difficult because I do spoken word, I write pop songs, I want to talk about Black Lives Matter, race and really difficult things. I don't think it was frustrating for the label but I think it was difficult." Lambert's departure opened her up to new opportunities, but still feels like a breakup. "It was a really kind of loving act for them to be able to let me out of my contract," she says. "It was so sweet, and I have nothing but good feelings about leaving, and I hope that they do too. It's like you're talking about an ex."
In May, Lambert dropped her first EP after leaving Capitol, Bold, which is unapologetically full of wistful, electro-pop goodness, queer love and a duet with her mom Mary Kay Lambert in honor of her marriage to her wife last summer. It shows a carefree version of Lambert, who is back to calling the shots.
And in case you were wondering if Lambert will eventually go back to a major label, it's quite unlikely. "I don't think so," Lambert says. "It's not worth it to me. There's a lot of anxiety that I think I feel. I also feel like I'm kind of a different artist. Not that I really haven't spoken about mental illness, but I have bipolar disorder. It's not a joke. I'm high-functioning, but the pressures of being on a label were intense, and I just don't think I could go through that again."
Instead, she wants to enjoy life while she pursues her dream. "Michael Beinhorn has this book [Unlocking Creativity] I just finished reading, which basically says that if we cannot come to the understanding that 95 percent of artists that are trying to pursue music as a full time endeavor will fail and end up doing something else in their lifetime, then why not give the artist the dignity to fail with something they love?" Lambert explains.
We caught up with Lambert about finding happiness, collaborating with her partner Michelle Chamuel, pivoting her career and her "depressing" next album.
Why did you come up with the name Bold for your EP?
When I parted ways with the label, I think there was a new sense of self, of direction and of what I wanted to accomplish. I think in our industry, there's a really black and white understanding of what success is and how to achieve success. I realized that I was viewing that differently: that the idea I had of success and the label had of success were different. I was under a lot of stress; it was no longer fun. In the entertainment industry, if you have movement in your career, you put all your eggs in that basket and so you stop taking care of your health, building personal relationships or making friends. I don't know how well Bold is going to do, but I think the Kickstarter for me was a really great leap into the unknown. When I was thinking about what to call this EP, I sort of had a strategic proposal I was putting forward of releasing about how to be independent and have a radio campaign. It's sort of impossible. But I sort of laid a plan out, and someone I was working with was like "Mary that's bold. You're really bold." It just stuck with me I guess. I kept coming back to it. And I think it's bold to try to do this on your own. I don't have management, and I don't have a record label. I have an awesome team that's I've been with for a couple years, some awesome assistants and we're just making it happen. It feels really good to be on my terms, and it does feel bold. I'm really glad that I named it that.
How did you end up doing a duet with your mom?
My mom wrote a song for her wedding. She got married over the summer. It was really beautiful, and she had me sing this as a surprise to her wife. It was very difficult not to cry. I had to not look up and not look at anybody. It's a gorgeous song called "Love is Love," which I think is the slogan of the Human Rights Campaign in regards to gay marriage. I don't know if my mom knew that, which is really cool.
How has your relationship with Michelle Chamuel fueled your creative process?
Immensely. She does everything top to bottom. She engineers everything, she produces everything, she sings, she plays every instrument, she does the sound design, she does the mixing, she does the mastering and then she puts it out herself. It is like the most inspiring thing to be around. She really gave me a lot of cheerleading when I was parting ways with the label that I could do it by myself. She's just been a really fun collaborator as well. She and I co-wrote "Hang Out With You." She also has a remix [of "Know Your Name"] on the EP at the very end. [Watch a behind the scenes video of "Know Your Name" below.]
How has your life changed since getting on a stage where you're performing with Macklemore and at awards shows with people like Madonna?
A lot has changed since I was working three jobs and bartending to now. Definitely when you're first starting out, the idea of singing at the Grammys and being nominated for song of the year, to me was kind of unreal. I think it's important to remember that so much of it is fleeting and none of it is sustainable, so you really have to take it for what it is when it's happening. Apparently Amy Poehler has this part of her book where she's talking about her career and she's like, "You have to treat your career like a bad boyfriend or girlfriend." Like I'm just not going to count on them, they aren't totally reliable. I think I'm just a bit more calm now when it comes to doing the exciting stuff: whether it's like award shows or red carpets or TV shows.
What is your next record going to sound like?
I was really inspired by producing "Do Anything" on Bold, so I've decided to produce the next record entirely. The next album will be called Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across, and it's super heavy and depressing, but cathartic as well.
What advice do you have for up and coming singers?
No one knows your voice the way you do, and really be involved in your own production process, your business and all aspects of what you're making. Don't let someone take that over.