Saturday 22 October 2016

Power to make you cry

Mary Lambert's first performance in public reduced adults to tears, and her fans often cry at her shows. Kathryn Bromwich met the chanteuse

Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30

Finding the balance: That's the goal of Mary Lambert. Photo: Frazer Harrison
Finding the balance: That's the goal of Mary Lambert. Photo: Frazer Harrison

When singer-songwriter Mary Lambert performed in public for the first time, aged nine, she reduced a roomful of adults to tears. She sang a lullaby, which she had written, at a girl scout talent show: "Hush little babe, don't say a word," it went, "Mama's gonna buy you a brand new life."

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"I looked out and I realised that all the mums were crying. I think I said sorry," she says. Writing music was Lambert's way of coping after being repeatedly sexually abused as a child. "I didn't know how to get through that amount of trauma and function. I really believe that if I didn't have song-writing I wouldn't be alive."

Her debut album Heart on My Sleeve is set to be released on this side of the Atlantic next month, but in America Lambert is already a star. With roots in country music, Tori Amos-style confessional song-writing and spoken-word poetry, her big break came when she co-wrote and performed on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's 2012 single Same Love (139m YouTube views and counting), an anthem to same-sex relationships.

Now 26, Lambert has spoken openly about living with bipolar disorder, surviving a gang rape aged 17, a suicide attempt two years later and issues with her body image. "I like to be open about these things because I think not talking about it is part of the problem," she says. "As soon as we talk about them, the less guilt and shame we'll carry."

The sense of catharsis in her music means that fans often cry along at live shows. "I'm not trying to make people cry," she says, "but I believe in the power of vulnerability - that's how we can relate to each other. I have to just trust that the audience is going to hold me. It's a symbiotic relationship: I get as much out of it as they do, hopefully."

Before her singing career took off, the classical music composition graduate had been working 16-hour days and three jobs to save money to record an album. Same Love changed her life "very dramatically. There was a moment at one of my first performances with Macklemore where there were 8,000 people. At my previous show there had been 15 people, including my mom." Last year, the song gained her two Grammy nominations and she performed it on stage with Madonna while Queen Latifah married 33 couples of varying sexual orientations on stage.

Lambert grew up in a strict Pentecostal community near Seattle. When she was six, her mother, who she is "very, very close" to, divorced her father and came out as a lesbian, which meant they were excommunicated and ostracised. Lambert herself came out aged 17 but remains a Christian; this set off a cycle of self-loathing and shame, but eventually she reconciled with her faith.

"I was so racked with guilt, I felt I had to apologise to God and repent every day. Then something snapped in me, and I realised, 'This is insane, the God I believe in doesn't share those views'. In general I think the Christian community is well-intentioned, but misguided."

Compared with her earlier song-writing, her debut album tempers sadness with equal amounts of joy. Secrets, the opening track, is a catchy, breezy tune that takes all her troubles, puts them out in the open and shakes them off: "I don't care if the world knows what my secrets are," she trills. So Far Away is a soaring romantic ballad, Dear One is a breathless and lyrical love letter. Much of this new-found happiness is down to her musician girlfriend Michelle Chamuel, runner-up on NBC's The Voice, with whom she lives in Massachusetts.

"It's as important for me to grieve as it is to express joy. I'm not saying that shitty things happening is joyful, but it means that the value of joy is exponentially increased after you've experienced a certain amount of trauma. To fully feel joy you have to be fully present in your grief, so hopefully the songs reflect that."

In person - flower tattoos, bare feet with painted toenails, full pin-up make-up - she's all warm hugs and bubbling enthusiasm.

Her newfound fame brings with it extreme reactions from the public, but Lambert remains sanguine. "I get people who say, 'You saved my life, you're the reason I came out, you're the reason I got over my eating disorder.' That means so much to me, but if you take that home at night you start to develop a saviour complex. So I realised that if I took that home, I'd have to do the same with people who say, 'You didn't tweet me back, I'm going to slit my wrists.' That's a lot to feel responsible for.

"I'm trying to make a very full life for myself that's not too chaotic and not have my relationships and mental health suffer for the sake of my career. So that's the plan: finding the balance."

The album Heart on My Sleeve is out on 31 July

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