Mary Lambert: “Do I Really Want to Tell Everyone I Have Bipolar Disorder?”

The singer-songwriter talks to DAME about mental illness, musical catharsis, and being “too much.”

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The first time I went to see Mary Lambert perform, in 2013, I didn’t expect to leave with tear-stained cheeks. She was playing in a small club on the west side of L.A., to a crowd of people who appeared to be as moist-eyed as me—and it wasn’t because the singer-songwriter’s set was exceptionally sad. In fact, Lambert, now 25, is incredibly witty, joking and sharing anecdotes with the ease of a stand-up comedian. But she also goes for the emotional jugular, with songs that touch on loneliness, otherness, and abuse, including one spoken-word piece, a highly personal account of rape that would shatter even the staunchest men’s-rights activist. For anyone who’s dealt with trauma, Lambert—a plus-size, queer survivor of childhood abuse and gang rape—is like a pop-culture therapist, and for anyone who hasn’t, she’s a damn good singer raising awareness about some pretty intense issues.

Lambert first gained attention for her collaboration, as a writer and singer on Macklemore’s 2014 hit, “Same Love,” an equal-rights anthem which she then performed with the White rapper, together with Ryan Lewis and Madonna at last year’s Grammys as Queen Latifah officiated the wedding of 33 hetero and same-sex couples. But she’s made a name in her own right with the recent release of her debut album, Heart on My Sleeve.

The former Seattle resident now lives in Massachusetts (“I moved for love,” she tells me about heading east to be with her girlfriend, The Voice finalist Michelle Chamuel) and when we spoke by phone last week the snow was so deep it was covering mailboxes, but Lambert didn’t mind. “It would be different if I had a job where I had to drive to the office, but I get to be at home, and I’m writing poetry and making fun videos and having interviews with you,” she says. “I just get to look at it, it’s nice.” It’s this sense of optimism that permeates Lambert’s personality and music, that helps ease listeners into the dark material she’s exploring—along with the catchy pop beats and sweet melodies it’s wrapped in—and ushers them to the other side with a sense of triumph and hope. It’s a dichotomy perfectly exemplified by the lyrics of her album’s single, “Secrets,” which reveal, among other things, her love of mom jeans, cat earrings—and her diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

I’ve seen you perform and they were unexpectedly emotional experiences.

I’m a really intense person, but I’m intensely joyous as well so I think that’s an okay word. There was a time in my life when I was told that I’m “too much.” It was like, “You’re too excited about everything,” or “You’re too emotional” or “You’re too happy, chill out.” And I tried to adapt to that and I was miserable. Part of the secret is, What are you actually like? What do you actually like? And then embody it. So, that’s just who I am at this point.

Is it draining to play shows that are so intimate and raw on a regular basis?

Performing to me is really, really rewarding. I think because it’s not just something where I feel like I’m giving and giving and giving and I’m exhausted and then everybody’s taking shit from me, which I think sometimes performers can feel. There is a reward in it for me. And that’s what the invitation of my show is, it’s an extended hand that’s like, “Hey, it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling ’cause I’m really human and you’re really human and we can be human in this space together at least for an hour.” I want it to be safe and exploratory and okay to cry and okay to laugh and not be ashamed or scared about any of it.

As you’ve gotten more well known and your shows are bigger, have you found it challenging to keep that sense of intimacy?

Yeah, I mean you have to adapt. I used to do a poem about rape that I always felt was really important. I was like, “I’m never not gonna perform this piece, this is a part of who I am.” And I’m at a place right now where I’ve done these huge 20,000 people shows and there’s 9-year-olds singing along to my single “Secrets” and mothers are buying my album for their 7-year-old daughters. I would be the one bringing up this really intense issue that they might not have been expecting and I think that there’s a responsibility that you have when you progress to a larger scale. It’s important to protect yourself and also to protect your listeners. So it’s not that I’m going to shut up about domestic abuse or sexual violence, but I think it’s important for me to do it in a more delicate way.

The first thing you say in “Secrets,” the first single off the new album, reveals that you have bipolar disorder. That’s a brave admission—had you given that a lot of thought?

It was an accident. I was with my producers and I was coming up with all these lines and I was having one of the funnest nights ever. I was like, “Everybody stop! What if I start the song with telling everyone I have bipolar disorder?” And they kind of looked at me like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” And I was like, “Hell yeah I do!” Then I woke up in the morning, I was like, “Do I really want to do that?” And I’m really  glad I did because it’s really freeing and there’s not much discussion about it within celebrity culture or pop culture. We talk about bipolar disorder, or mental disorders in general, usually in a negative light, like, “Oh, she has bipolar disorder, she went to the mental hospital” or something. But we don’t often talk about functioning people who are successful that have bipolar disorder. And for me I find it’s become an asset—some of the mania’s really helpful for creating. [laughs]

In past interviews you’ve mentioned wanting to be sure you don’t exploit the trauma you’ve experienced. How do you gauge that?

When I first started exploring the sexual and physical abuse that I experienced growing up in my writing I was about 19 and I think I was writing as a form of therapy. Music and writing has been a form of catharsis and also a means of survival, I think I would explode if I couldn’t write. But I think that I was a little naive in what I wanted to accomplish—it was the difference between wanting to be loved and loving. I was exploiting some of the things that I experienced and was just hungry for love and acceptance and someone to say, “It’s okay,” so I wrote these really heart-wrenching poems about my experience and about my dad and if I wasn’t in the correct space it could’ve been taken the wrong way. So now I’m just a bit more careful about the way that it’s presented. I want it to be about the craft and I want it to be well intentioned and not just about, Boo-hoo me, everything sucks and have this pity party which I think often happens when you start talking about trauma. I want it to be a tool rather than sympathy. 

Has your candor ever come back to haunt you in ways that you didn’t expect?

I’ve been dealing with that more so this last year than I ever have, in particular with the media. I always assumed that people knew the correct and kind ways to talk about trauma, or to ask about it in appropriate settings and in ways that weren’t re-traumatizing. But I’ve found that there are a lot of people who don’t know how to talk about trauma because they don’t deal with it in celebrity culture so it just seems like fair game because it’s on a bio or they heard it somewhere. So it’ll be like 8 a.m. and I’m doing a radio interview about the Grammys and they’re like, “So we heard you were raped, how did you get through that?” That’s not relevant at all and this isn’t 60 Minutes, there’s a time and place for talking about all of it. That re-triggers me and I’m kind of screwed up for the rest of the day ’cause I’m like, What do I do? Do I just shut down and not let anybody in? And that’s something I’ve come to multiple times…Okay, I have a decision here, am I going to continually allow myself to be wounded in that way or not?


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