I sat down for a heart to heart with Mary Lambert on a sunny October afternoon. Welcomed into her Boston hotel room, it was an absolute pleasure to chat for 40 minutes. With such a warm, nurturing and insanely honest energy, I really felt time stop as we engaged in this heart-to-heart sharing of our experiences. And after thanking her for her time, she gave me the most genuine, tear-jerking compliment (I fist pumped in the elevator afterwards and then cried a lot). She looked me deep in the eyes as she said, ‘You’re an incredible interviewer. You have such incredible presence and charisma. I bet you’re an incredible musician too, I feel like that translates!’ But I truly feel that the compliment is a perfect summary of Mary. The raw honesty with which she shares her deepest thoughts and fears is something unique that I have rarely felt through music. With her latest release, Grief Creature, Mary guides you through terrifyingly painful and dark places, but with a mature and simple perspective. A simplicity that is characteristic of art that has been carefully, lovingly and methodically crafted for that very purpose. If she has the power to connect deeply with complete strangers like me, in a simple conversation, then I know that she will connect effortlessly and hold entire audiences, in sharing the emotional rollercoaster and masterpiece that is Grief Creature.
Let’s talk about your new album.
I’ve been so insular with it. I’ve been working on it for so long - it’s been five years. It went through lots of changes, as I had plans for a certain producer, then changed producers, then decided I was going to produce it and it was going to be with a label, and then without. I was going to do it in Western Mass and then in Seattle.
I would say the album has been done in a finished form for about a year, but I’ve been so scared, nervous and legitimately terrified that I’m going to have to share the deepest thoughts and hardest parts of my life. I released my collection of poetry in 2018, Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across, which details everything about my traumas and mental disorders pretty explicitly. It’s all in there - but there’s something that's so naked about putting trauma to a poem with a string quartet or singing a song about it. When I listen to it I feel absolutely gutted, I feel like I’m flaying myself out there. I wanted to make sure I had at least the brain capacity and emotional capacity to withstand an album cycle process, let alone whilst talking about this stuff, as talking about it alone is challenging! I don't feel I’ve seen a template for something like this before, which also often made me feel uncertain. Although I know it’s been done before, I’ve never done it before, and I feel like I’m flailing.
What was your intention when you went into creating this album?
I wanted to make a masterpiece. I wanted it to be my life’s work and tell my life’s story in an album. I wanted it to be a concept album. I felt really stifled when I was on a record label in that I didn’t get to use my musicianship or get to share my composition prowess, as I studied orchestral composition. When I was with a record label I was a pop recording artist, so I’d go into the studio and the music was already made. The producer had already decided what reverbs my voice was going to be on. But I wanted to tell my story about my life on my terms with my reverbs and my programming and my friends and my instrumentation. I wanted it to be my voice from inception to delivery. Navigating that was extremely difficult and I felt I was bumbling most of the time, so that's why it took five years. I’m a perfectionist and I wanted the end result to be absolutely congruent with my identity and perspective. I felt when I was on a major label and subscribed to the quintessential belief system of what success is, I made a lot of concessions about my perspective and my voice. The only way audiences have ever heard me is through a white guy or people in business suits producing me, and I wanted that barrier to be gone. I wanted to be in the recording chair and do all aspects of it, and decide every single piece of it, including how it would be marketed. I wanted all that control so I could stand back and say, ‘this piece of art is mine’.
This album feels like a closing of a chapter. The end of the telling. I don’t know how much more I have to share in terms of this striking vulnerable way. I’m sure there’s more, but right now I can finally rest. I’ve now accomplished everything I wanted to. I got my Grammy nominations, a major label deal and now have something that is totally mine and proud of. Now who knows what’s next.
Did your classical training influence your writing process?
I’m a cellist, and upon creating a skeleton of the album I laid it out as a track list. Through that I knew I wanted to create a series of string quartets that would recontextualise the melodies of the previous songs in a classical setting and then have a poem on top of them. The poem would discuss the previous song, so the process was a maths problem and formulaic, rather like counterpoint. For instance, if the next song was in E major, then at the end of this quartet I’d need a breath and key change.
I wanted to be someone’s guide to healing. A gentle therapy guide to take you to each track and soften each blow. I wanted to hit hard but still inspire resilience, hope and the feeling that not all is lost. I wanted to be able to express my training, as I love classical music and being just a pop singer for several years really frustrated me. There’s so much I can offer and I felt I was not being taken seriously as a musician and artist. Now with this album, I wanted to do it all.
If you could go back in time and pick 5 moments to give yourself advice, what would those 5 moments be?
When I was five or six until ten years old, I was in a really abusive home and I started carrying around physical pain and anxiety in my chest and stomach and I was terrified all the time. I started internalising shame from age three. That’s the only way I knew how to process stuff, essentially writing music and internalising. My father molested me, and my mum had a series of abusive partners, so there was a constant state of violence on my sister, I and my mum.
I would have told my six year old self that, “I know this will sound weird, as you’ve already heard things are your fault. But know that you’re in control of your own brain and body.” If I could give myself some self-soothing techniques early on, it would have really benefited my anxiety. I was drawn to self-destruction early on because that was all I knew.
I would have gone back to myself at 17, when I attempted suicide. I already had a nagging feeling that I was supposed to do something. I knew I couldn’t follow through with suicide because I knew I was supposed to do something. But I would have given myself a clear picture of what that looked like and how there was a whole world waiting for me and a whole load of options rather than letting the depression win.
I would have told myself at 15 to take the bipolar diagnosis seriously. I just thought I was a dramatic, hormonal musical theater student, and that everyone had it. I didn’t want to be put on medication. So I went unmedicated and untreated and didn’t consider myself bipolar until aged 22 when I got on meds, and it changed my life.
I think I would have told myself at 24, when I signed to the record label, that I could do things on my terms. And I would tell myself no one knows what the fuck they’re talking about and no one knows what they’re doing. People in business suits decide the fates of artists and they’re just doing what worked before. It’s scary to admit that but it’s absolute chaos. There’s no reason you can’t do exactly what you want to do and express yourself how you want to.
I would also encourage myself around that time to not let a relationship dictate my career path and to stop me from chasing everything I wanted to chase. I’d tell myself to audition for everything I wanted to audition for, take the shows in Australia, and travel and do what I wanted to do and not have a relationship dictate that.
What’s your advice for a student starting out?
I’m sure that people say this a lot so I don’t want to echo a sentiment if it’s not helpful. I’ve noticed within the industry for either people starting out or seasoned artists, that it doesn’t cost you anything to be kind to your sound person or producer. It will benefit you to remember peoples’ names and share peoples’ stories. You’re not a star all the time, and there isn’t a finite amount of success. It can feel really competitive, like there’s only a certain number of spots available in the success ladder. But we can all achieve and still be kind to each other.
What do you define as success?
I love accolades and being recognised professionally. Any time I can be recognised in that way on a level with peers that I admire, makes me feel good. That’s what I strive for. Financial stability. Stable relationships. Family. A beautiful home. Healthy connections with friends and a clear grounded brain. Just general positivity. There was a period that I had the accolades, but I didn’t have anything else and that wasn’t success to me. To get to where I am now, I had to make some concessions. That was when I started realising I didn’t have to do it like everyone else.
How did you get out of the record deal?
It started with this album. It was like an act of kindness. I pitched the album and they said they loved it, and that it was a beautiful demo, but they’d screw it up. They wanted to give me the opportunity to find a partner that was right for me, and therefore let me go. Initially I was devastated, but they are a pop label. They could have had me work with a big name producer which is unequivocally a straight white guy that has clout, but in the direction I was going, it would not have been the right fit. It was really amicable. I had in my contract a pay repayer. If they didn’t renew my contract I got a severance for leaving, got a cheque and I got to pursue things on my terms. That’s when the repairing started, with a capital R.
I had some stumbles along the way. I put a ton of money into my own EP and it didn’t do very well. I felt untouchable when I put it out. Every song I had previously released sold at least 500,000 copies. I felt for sure if I released this EP myself it would make my money back ten fold and change peoples’ lives, and I could sustain what I’d already achieved. I didn’t get any of that.
I learned that I’m fallible, that I’m human. I also learnt to be a little bit more deliberate with my business decisions, and to trust my instincts more. If I hadn’t signed the record label I would have always wondered what would have happened. I gained a really great fan base that wouldn’t have found my music if there hadn’t been a huge label behind me pushing it. I don’t regret if for one second. I’m a believer of exercising every option until you find the right one. There’s a reason why I feel I try every avenue until I’m sitting where I want to be.
Who inspires you?
Artistically and in their careers, Tegan & Sara, Sara Bareilles, Adele, Tori Amos, Neko Case, Brandi Carlile and Chance the Rapper, as well as other independent artists. Those people have had such rich careers and have accomplished and done so many different things. I love that their journeys are so varied. Artistically I’m deeply inspired by Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Parisalexa from Seattle who I think is going to be massive.
Who would you like to work with?
So many people. I love Lianne La Havas. I would also love to do a song with Sia.
Especially coming from the mental health background. We both share a love of the craft of writing the perfect pop song, and writing the best song possible to fit whatever the client wants. To exercise that craft and experience the process, figuring out the right formula for a song - I love that. It’s almost scientific. And then there’s the other side of song-writing which is the feeling if I don’t write this I’m going to die. It has to come out and can feel like my guts on a page. That is what Grief Creature is. Previously I used to calculate and only think about my listener and what would be fun for them to listen to. With Grief Creature I didn’t think about the listener at all - I thought about what the most beautiful thing was that I could write for myself.
Did you have a process behind writing your spoken word, especially the pieces with the string quartets? They were so powerful, and really stuck out to me.
Thank you. All of those poems are in my book, which I also recorded an audio book, accompanied by me on piano, as some of the poems sounded better spoken than written. ‘Me Museum’ was a piece that I felt was so topically perfect between the song ‘Shame’ and the song ‘Sister’, that I wanted a bridge between the two of them. A poem was the perfect bridge and I wanted the poems to be explicit. I wanted them to say exactly what happened without metaphor. And ‘the Rape Poem’ is like that. I didn’t want to rely on a metaphor. I want to tell my story as it happened.
I fight with being so upfront and raw. I want it to sound pretty and be digestible. But I’ve learned that we’re all born complex and we have complex narratives and stories through our lives. We have a desire to be loved and accepted. We’ve learned to cut off parts of ourselves to be loved and accepted but I want to challenge others to see what happens when we embrace the complexities of our own narratives and stories. What happens when we refuse to be digestible? Will people still love and understand me? I want to try! For a long time I’ve tried to work out how to market myself and fit in the industry. But this is what I stand for, so take it or leave it.
How do you get in the groove? How do you work towards your dreams and make the ambitions real?
I’m really assisted by productivity. It’s a snowball effect. If I don’t get out of bed at a certain time then my day goes to shit and I can’t accomplish anything. If I don’t make the bed, if I don’t shower or eat a proper breakfast, I go through these moments. It doesn’t just start with doing, it starts with thinking and I like to have moments to visualise before I go to bed. It’s my favourite time, when I’m not on my phone. I’m not going to sleep yet but my eyes are closed and I’m thinking about what I want to have happen. I’m trying to figure out my road map to get there and my steps. I think long term and I think about the next day: I think on the lines of ‘in order to get this thing I want, I have to do these things’. I focus on my tangible goals as part of my larger goal, so I love that time right before sleep because I feel I can taste it. It makes me excited about the future and the things I have yet to accomplish. And sure, the world is like an absolute burning trash fire, but I feel I have something to offer. I think there’s hope for people who want to do good, make beautiful things and have enough care and desire to make a tangible impact, and still try. It’s so beautiful. I want to be a part of that.