Culture

Inside The Marriage Equality Furore With ‘Same Love’ Singer Mary Lambert

This legend's work is exactly what we need right now.

Mary Lambert is so friendly and down to earth that while I am interviewing her, I almost book tickets to hear her sing ‘Same Love’ with Macklemore at Sunday’s NRL grand final.

Then Lambert tells me “I’m planning on coming back around May or June and maybe doing some shows”, so I decide to hold off a little longer. The long-awaited Australian tour is inevitable now, not just because of the publicity she’s received in the lead-up to playing at the grand final but due to the release of her latest EP, Bold.

I have been a fan of Lambert’s singing, song-writing, poetry and activism since hearing her incredible voice on the radio back in 2012. ‘Same Love’ was recorded during Washington’s campaign for marriage equality, which involved a referendum. The bill legalised same-sex marriage in her home state of Washington state in a November election, which was certified by December that year. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled the Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and two years after that, ruled that the whole country had marriage equality.

Given her experiences, I want to hear Lambert’s views on marriage equality in Australia, but I avoid starting our interview with questions about the current media furore over ‘Same Love’ at the NRL final. Instead I want to focus on what is much more interesting — her staggering talent as a songwriter, singer, poet and musician.

“It’s Weird To Me That People Are Just Okay”

Lambert released Bold after leaving Capitol Records and funded the EP through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $20,000 in eight hours and closed in at $70,000 in a few weeks. She is an independent artist again, free to make her own musical choices, and she appears to have made the most of this.

The song ‘Love is Love’, for instance, is a duet between Mary Lambert and her mother, Mary Kay Lambert. I’m certain it will become a first dance favourite — along with many other songs on the EP — once Australia updates its Marriage Act.

“It was really special,” she says. “The reason I’m the artist I am is because of my mum. I grew up listening to her sing and write music, and I feel like I’m pretty frank about my childhood abuse and traumas, and my mother was also a victim of that same abuse, so I listened to her channel that heartbreak into something really beautiful.”

Lambert tells me that getting her mother involved “took some convincing because she has a little bit of stage fright.” “The EP was done and I just felt like it was missing something, and my mom had written this song for her wedding, and it clicked in my head that this was something I had always wanted to do.”

Bold is an undefinable and striking album. It genuinely works, which is not always the case for experimental work. It is gentle, caressing the listener with the vocals and music, and occasionally breaks down the wall between Lambert and listener when she performs eloquent spoken-word poetry.

The power and honesty of Lambert’s words in ‘Lay Your Head Down’ move me deeply. The first time we listen to the song, Rachel, my wife, starts to say “She sounds so much like Sarah McLachlan in this song” when Lambert suddenly breaks into a monologue:

“Or I cry because Sarah McLachlan comes onto my TV
And sings to animals that don’t have homes (Fuck you Sarah McLachlan)
(Just kidding, I love you Sarah McLachlan)”

In addition to the quality of her singing — which has been described as “bourbon-and-honey vocals” — another standout song, lyrically, is ‘Know Your Name’. It’s a queer extravaganza, and the music video features Sara Ramirez from Grey’s Anatomy. Reading Ramirez and Lambert’s interactions on social media, especially about their queer squad, makes me swoon.

Lambert often releases audiences from what she refers to as her “depressing” content with jokes or laughter. Her own bio describes her concerts as “safe spaces where crying is encouraged; my entire prerogative is about connection, about being present, and facilitating true catharsis.”

I tell Lambert that I admire her ability to move between joy and darkness. She says, “I don’t know if it’s because I’m bipolar, but for much of my life I feel like an extreme person; someone that’s constantly either on the verge of tears or about to fall over from laughter.

“I always think that it’s very interesting: laughing so hard you’re going to cry and crying so hard you’re going to laugh. I don’t think that that’s a coincidence that they’re related, I think that they access a similar part in the human brain and I think that that’s a place where I live. So my performances are a lot like that.

“You can’t cry about everything but also you should cry about everything.”

“It’s an absurd joy to be living, and laughing is so trivial and stupid but it’s everything. It’s also the most important thing to be doing. You can’t cry about everything but also you should cry about everything. It’s very cathartic to do all of those things all at once, but you also have to be a functioning person.”

Lambert has always been open about having bipolar disorder — especially in her previous album’s single ‘Secrets’ — and her experiences with mental illness, abuse and trauma. Her description of the “absurd joy to be living” particularly resonates with me.

“I’m almost at a point where I meet someone and they’re like I don’t have a mental disorder and I’m like ‘How much do you drink? How are you coping with this world?’” she goes on. “The way that the world is, is fucking bananas, and it’s weird to me that people are just okay.”

Lambert describes the pressures that people face every day in a world that is “hell-bent on productivity. It’s enough to make you go crazy, so now anytime someone has a mental illness I’m like ‘we’re friends’.”

How To Cope (And Change Minds)

We could talk all day but it is time to bring the conversation around to the Australian postal survey and the NRL grand final where Lambert will perform ‘Same Love’ on Sunday night.

She sounds pretty confident and excited despite the media scrutiny over her upcoming performance. This attention worsened after former Prime Minister Tony Abbott had to have his two cents worth of the publicity.

Lambert has experience with using her public profile to draw attention to political issues. “For me, it’s easy to get really complacent in a place where I feel safe holding hands with my partner. In the US, you know, gay marriage is legalised, and I think a lot of the work that myself and my peers were doing in terms of pushing certain kinds of legislature, we pat ourselves on the back and went home. But it’s also really sobering to realise that in 76 countries, it’s not just not illegal to be married but it’s illegal to be gay. The identity is illegal and punishable by law. And when you have that kind of a number leaping off the page, that’s an active humanitarian crisis, so it’s important to continue that kind of activism work.”

Lambert tells me that as a 10-year-old she thought she was going to “save the world” through politics, but “realised that my journey was really through music.” “I was going to have the deepest impact doing pop music… everybody is required to do their version of helping others.” Lambert is not just saving the world through pop music but through her writing too; she has a book of poetry coming out in late 2018.

I tell Lambert that Rachel and I played ‘Same Love’ at our (non-legally binding) wedding in 2013, which she really seems to appreciate. Our wedding was before she released ‘She Keeps Me Warm’ as a debut solo single, based on her work on ‘Same Love’. I can’t resist telling her that we would have played her version if it had been out at the time.

We discuss the treatment of LGBTIQ+ people during the marriage equality campaign, which has gone far beyond debating the legalisation of marriage. In an earlier statement to The Advocate, Lambert defended her upcoming performance saying, “Performing ‘Same Love’ in Australia is not about being political, it’s about being human.”

Wanting to be recognised as a human and not just politicised for being a lesbian brings us to Lambert’s faith. She is a Christian and tells me that, “I love to talk about theology, and I love dissecting those parts of the Bible that I feel are so often weaponised to equip hatred in a really bizarre way.”

“Vulnerability is essential in the fight, even though vulnerability is really scary.”

She thinks that it would be helpful if people had a deeper understanding of “this text that you are so often referring to”, particularly if they realised that “the basis for all of your foundational beliefs is actually really flawed”. “But no one’s going to take real well to that,” she goes on, “so I just found that the most effective, quickest way that I could change people’s minds about gay marriage was by being my authentic self, and smiling, and just being as vocal about love and about it being about love, and constantly humanising it.”

“It’s much harder to demonise somebody when you know them, when you know who they love, and how they love … Vulnerability is essential in the fight, even though vulnerability is really scary. [It’s] not for the faint of heart.”

I ask her what message she wants to share with queer Australians who are struggling at the moment.

“It’s really difficult because you can sort of take the burden of the entire crisis on yourself and be like ‘man, I’m a gay person, that means that I need to be an example, and I need to act this way in order to change people’s minds.’

“I remember when I was a waitress I always had a rainbow pin… and when Washington state was up for its gay marriage vote… all that I could do was be really nice to people and make sure that they knew that I was gay.”

“It’s okay to be scared,” Lambert says. “But if you can do it, I think that [being vulnerable and open] is probably the best move. I got into an argument with someone who runs my town beach, and it was like this guy had never had his beliefs challenged. I just got so upset that all I could do was cry, and I started crying, and he was like ‘I didn’t mean to make you cry, I’m sorry’.”

She tells me that she thinks that when people are spouting these ideas “they don’t realise that it’s your actual life” and so showing emotion “immediately humanises it”. “We need to cry at them!” she says.

“[Crying says:] you affected me in this way. You may not have meant to do that and this might not be what you’re trying to put down, but this is how the message is being received. If you don’t want to be a shithead then you shouldn’t say that.”

For Lambert, this conversation is about much more than the grand final on Sunday; it’s related to all her music, poetry and activism. It will continue on her upcoming US tour, and back in Australia when she returns. My wife and I will be here when she does, along with so many others waiting to hear her beautiful voice live in the safe, warm and supportive space she creates.

Roz Bellamy is a queer Melbourne-based writer, teacher, activist and workshop facilitator. Roz has just finished writing a memoir about marriage equality and queer identities. You can follow more of her work on Facebook.