With 'Grief Creature,' Lambert dives deep into her own psyche. Now, she's getting real about the music industry, independence and why this album could be her last.
It would be hard for the casual observer to see Mary Lambert, upon meeting in person, as anything other than a beacon of joy. As she walks through Billboard’s Manhattan office, she smiles at those who pass her by, laughs early and often, and exudes sincerity as she speaks.
The 30-year-old singer-songwriter has plenty of reason to be cheerful: over the course of her almost decade-long career, Lambert has wielded her writing ability to achieve critical acclaim, while simultaneously shining a light on issues that matter to her, like LGBTQ rights, fat shaming and mental health awareness.
But Lambert will also be the first to tell you that she has seen — and in some form still sees — darkness in her life. “The only reason I'm afforded this incredible joy of my life, and that I am well-adjusted and high-functioning, is that I express the dark parts,” she says, the shadow of a smile still present on her face.
While Lambert has spent some of her career speaking about those dark parts, never have they been as prominent as on her new album, Grief Creature, out today (Nov. 15) via Mary Lambert Sings LLC. The new album — the singer’s first full-length since 2014’s Heart On My Sleeve — follows Lambert as she journeys through her own psyche, confronting the elements of shame, depression, anxiety and trauma while accompanied by ethereal string arrangements. Or, as she very simply puts it: “It is very sad. Like, protect yourself!”
The 17-track album was not a project that Lambert took lightly — in fact, she was so adamant about capturing her vision that it took her five years and "like 500 different incarnations" to finish. Even now, she wonders if the album is ready to be heard by audiences everywhere.
"A part of me wants to wait longer, because there's even more that needs to marinate," she says. "I know that if I just keep waiting until the moment's perfect, then I am never going to release anything."
Grief Creature features a side of Lambert that fans may not be all too familiar with: while popular past releases like "Secrets" and "She Keeps Me Warm" aimed to uplift and embolden listeners, new songs like "Born Sad" and "Bless This Hell" look to paint a clear picture of the singer's inner turmoil as she comes to terms with her own pain. Striking a balance between vulnerability and personal anguish quickly became a point of difficulty for Lambert while she was writing.
"How close can I get to letting somebody in about what this really felt like, what being abused as a child feels like, what it feels like when you're not wanted, what sexual assault feels like, without being exploitative about my story?" she says she would ask herself. "Those are my concerns with releasing this album, potentially triggering or hurting people."
But some followers will recognize a number of her most confessional songs. Much of Grief Creature plays as a companion piece to her 2018 book of poetry, Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across. In fact, the album was once intended to have the same title as her book, and its impact on her music still remains in a few of the songs, which are direct, spoken-word adaptations of her poems: "Trauma is a Stalker" is an orchestrated version of her poem "The Good News Is You Won the Lottery, the Bad News Is the Lottery Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder"; "Me, Museum" is a near word-for-word telling of "The Art of Shame"; "Another Rape Poem" is an adapted version, with a sung chorus, of "I Believe You (Sixteen)".
Lambert struggles when speaking about her poetry — it's harder, she says, when you have to relive traumatic experiences from your life without pretty melodies softening the blow. "It's so naked," she says. "When I put it into a song, I can make it sound pretty. That feels safe. But I wanted to push it in terms of vulnerability."
Lambert began writing and orchestrating this album all the way back in 2014, shortly after the release of her debut studio album Heart On My Sleeve. Back then, the star was still with Capitol Records, and her single "Secrets" was a success, making its way to No. 1 on Billboard's Dance Club Songs chart and notching her first solo entry on the Hot 100.
But Lambert says that she felt "false" when she was acquiesing to what she believed both her fans and label wanted: upbeat pop music. So she got to work on orchestrating the early versions of Grief Creature, where she suddenly felt that she had struck real gold.
"I realized more and more that I was finding my voice, and it was taking shape in so many different ways that I wasn't expecting," she says. Once she had enough material written, she pitched it to Capitol, where she was met with a surprising response: "They said that it was beautiful, but that they were going to ruin it if they touched it."
That exchange, she says, is what led to her departure from the label. She retains, though, that it was an "amicable" split due to the fact that Capitol had the power to mold her music into something that she didn't want it to be, but elected not to. "They could have said, 'How can we turn this into pop?,' or 'Why don't we shelve this for now?'" she explains. "It felt like the deepest act of love for them to release [my contract]."
Outside of its status as her first full-length independent release, Lambert's new album also marks a number of other milestones for her. For example, of the 17 songs on Grief Creature, 16 were produced by Lambert herself. The contrast between writing her two albums could not be more stark: while Heart On My Sleeve had multiple producers and writers, back-to-back writing sessions and constant trips to the studio, Grief Creature was all Lambert.
"I realized my voice has only been heard to the public through the lens of a straight, white, cis guy," she says with a laugh. "What would it sound like if I was the decision maker for everything?"
One of the many decisions Lambert made was to get back into the studio with her past collaborator Macklemore for the song "House of Mirrors," marking the first time the two had worked together since their smash success with Macklore & Ryan Lewis' top 20 single "Same Love." The song, which the duo co-wrote together, speaks to the concept of an internal struggle, as both Lambert and Macklemore try to tackle their insecurities while coming up against various walls. "It's me fighting me," Lambert sings.
The star says she's been wanting to work with her "brother" Macklemore again for years, but that the two could never find quite the right song. So one day, they sat down in a studio with Josh Karp (better known as Budo) to put together a song that they could put out together. "It was neat to take the stems and rework the track in my studio, and to be like, 'Cool, oh my god, I'm producing Macklemore! I'm doing this, this is cool!'" she says. "He has been so good to me, and I just love him."
Looking back on her breakthrough collaboration with the rapper, Lambert says that the prevalence of "Same Love" has "dictated" her willingness to be vulnerable with her fans. Originally, the singer says that she was terrified that she would be attacked after revealing that she identified as a lesbian on the song.
"I remember I called my mom and said, 'I love you, this might be the last time I talk to you,'" she says. "To tell the whole world that I was gay, and to go around stages proclaiming it, I just thought for sure I was going to get shot."
Quite the opposite happened. The song climbed to No. 11 on the Hot 100, earned a Grammy nomination for song of the year, and won a Video Music Award for best video with a social message. "Not only was I accepted for being queer, but I was encouraged to be queer," she recalls. "It felt natural for me to be that open and vulnerable, but I didn't know that I could do it to that extreme."
Years later, there has been an evolution within the music industry, as queer artists have begun moving more and more into the mainstream. Lambert says it's a welcome change, though not one that the industry should get a whole lot of credit for. "The reason is not because the music industry is changing, it's because the music industry is imploding," she says. "Once that door busted open, everybody got to come through. But it's frustrating that where the money goes is still being dictated by straight white old guys."
The problems she sees in the industry don't just affect queer artists, either — in fact, she says that any artist who wishes to do something "different" with their sound is being held back by the industry systems in place. "You really want somebody who has a sound, and that sticks to that sound," she says of the label system. "You don't want an artist to grow, because if they grow, then that halts profit."
So, if Lambert were suddenly made President of All Music ("Oh fuck yeah," she utters at the title), what would she change? For starters, the singer would "dismantle terrestrial radio," and do everything in her power to create content regulations where she can. She points to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's content regulations for radio stations, stating that a specific percentage of all music played on Canadian airwaves must be made by Canadian artists. "What's good for the goose is good for the gander, and so it is our duty to elevate other voices that aren't ours. To do right by other people, even if it doesn't benefit us."
But it doesn't sound like becoming a leader in the music industry is in Lambert's future plans. In fact, creating and releasing more music is, at the moment, doubtful for her in the future.
"The anxiety and stress of this release has been so much," she says with a sigh. "I'm just so stressed to the point of coping, where it's like, 'I just have to know that there's an out.' So no, I don't think I'm gonna release anything for a while."
That's not to say that Lambert has no plans for the future — she teases that she's playing a role in an upcoming, unannounced "animated musical," has another book she wants to write, and even says that she's interested in applying for a professorship sometime in the near future. Maybe, she says, she'll consider doing a Christmas or covers album. "Or heavy metal, who knows?" she giggles.
But for now, Lambert is happy to leave her fans with this as her last major project, at least for a while. "I don't know that I have much more to say, as of right now," she says, offering a warm smile. "This feels like my life's work, my masterpiece, my magnum opus."