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Rising pop singer Mary Lambert talks producing, poetry and sharing her mom’s music with the world

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Seattle singer Mary Lambert hits Beauty Bar on January 26.
Courtesy
Annie Zaleski

Last year, Mary Lambert released her Bold EP. The title is appropriate: The mini-album illustrates her surging pop, which incorporates orchestral and electronic flourishes to create something daring and new. The multi-talented singer-songwriter checked in about the poetry book she plans to release, why making Bold mattered so much to her and the importance of taking risks.

What will this concert look like? It’s a duo setup: me and my best friend Tim, who’s a wonderful guitarist. I’m touring with my friend Mal Blum [the show’s opener], who’s an incredible artist and very charismatic. I’m going to have a poet also open.

The shows are transformative, really moving. Humor is an important element, [and we’re] also discussing sensitive, sometimes difficult, complicated topics—and then pairing it with the humor and just stunningly beautiful music.

Your most recent musical release was Bold, which was released independently. What was the biggest difference in releasing music that way versus on a label? The amount of anxiety that was lifted off of my body and my brain during the whole process (laughs). It was about trusting my own decision-making [and] trusting my own instincts, whether it was in a creative sense or in a business sense. I think I’ve just always had a problem with authority. I hate having people tell me what to do. I did the best I could at a record label, but I have my own ideas and my own thoughts about how things should go down.

It’s totally fair for people to be like, “You haven’t studied marketing.” That’s totally legitimate. But it’s also me, and my project, and I think that if I’m going to fail anyway—if we believe that system where 95 percent of us [artists] are not going to quote-unquote “make it” or become a big success—then why not let people fail doing exactly what they want to do, with dignity? Trying everything they wanted to try.

I just wanted to be able to have my own stamp, and say, “I did this top to bottom, and I did it myself.” Whether it was a success or not. I wanted to have my voice be present—and not just in a business sense but also within sound, as a producer. [I wanted to be] able to sit in that chair and play with reverb and pick this snare sound and really be in complete creative control.

My bachelor’s [degree] is in orchestral composition, so I care deeply about the sounds underneath and the music underneath. I had to spend a lot of my creative drive in order to make these pop songs.

What else did you love about being in the producer’s chair? My mom sings on the record. She wrote a song called “Love Is Love.” I wanted to put it on my EP and sing it as a duet with her. The studio I work out of is [on the peninsula in] Washington [State], about three hours from Seattle. We drove there, and to vocal produce my mom was dream-like.

I remember my mom writing songs when I was 4 or 5—about her hardship and her heartache—and then my mom starting to come to my shows and supporting my art, and then [I would be] going to her choir concert. We’ve really supported each other, not just as mother-daughter, but also people who just love each other’s music. It was really profound to be able to share my mom’s music with the world.

On the EP, the song “Do Anything” really stood out to me. It seemed like such a mission statement for both the EP and the next phase of your career. I’m so glad that translated. That’s exactly what I wanted it to say. I started writing that song right after I parted ways with my label. My management had also stepped down about two months before that. I was feeling really kind of abandoned, like, “Does anybody give a sh*t about my music? Does it matter? What am I doing?” [I was] filled with a lot of self-doubt and also feeling like I had to find people that believe in me.

It was right after that my agent got me a campaign with JCPenney. It was just really neat to be like, “Oh, I still have a good team. There’s still people in my life that believe in me as a figure and also people that believe in my art.” Once I started this thing with JCPenney, this narrative started circling in my head of, like, “I can do this. I can do this on my own. I’m okay.”

When you start taking chances on your art, or you start being bold and trying new things, there are rewards that can come with it. That was the thought.

Sometimes it’s so hard even to take that risk and take that step, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. The biggest lesson was that it could fail. This could be wrong. And if it’s wrong, it’s still right, because that was the lesson I needed to learn. Or it’s going to take me down the path I needed to be at. The worst that happens is that it doesn’t turn out to be right, and I readjust and find a new path and I do something else.

“Do Anything” was really symbolic as well because it was the first track that I had ever produced by myself. I cried a lot during that process. I was programming the drums, and I was like, “I’m programming drums. I’ve never done that before. I’ve been told that I didn’t know how to do it, or couldn’t do it, or was ill-equipped to do it.” I had an amazing engineer that I worked with that really was so supportive of that, and so supportive of especially women in the industry taking charge and being able to have a say in what they’re creating.

The pop industry is really canned the way that I believe they allow female artists to express themselves. It’s under the façade that, “Be yourself. We want you to do exactly what you want to do.” But there’s still so many pressures. And it’s not just in an image basis of, like, you have to look a certain way, or you have to be a certain weight. [It’s] also the topics you’re singing about, the way that you write music, the way that you market yourself, the way that you tour—all of those things are really tightly orchestrated, under the guise that there is freedom.

Singing that song [“Do Anything”] and going through that process was really formative for me, and allowed me to express a desire to produce the entire next album as well. I just don’t see myself working with another producer for a while. I could see myself collaborating in the future, but right now I’m just really into finding my voice within production.

I read you’re working on a collection of poems. How far along are you? I have my very first working manuscript. I think we’re looking at fall for a release date. I’m so excited. It’s so neat to be able to express my point of view and my art in multiple different avenues and mediums. It’s one thing to write poems and to consider yourself a writer. But there is a gratifying element to having a publisher be onboard and also say, “Yes. You are a writer” (laughs). There’s some validation. In some regards, I feel like I’ve kind of been wearing the label of a poet with some hesitancy. It’s like, “Do people believe me? Am I faking this?” It feels really gratifying to be working with Macmillan and Henry Holt.

How does writing poetry inform or provide inspiration for your music, or vise versa? I keep them kind of separate. For me, they’re different mind-sets. I feel like when I’m songwriting, it’s much more of a design experience, where I feel almost like I go into another world. It’s more about shutting my brain off and allowing myself to be some sort of a vessel. For a period of time, especially when I stopped going to church and started having a lot of doubts about organized religion, I was just sitting there at my piano more, realizing that this was my sacred connection to God, and feeling that was sort of divine.

For poetry, it’s much more about, “What do I want to communicate with the world?” In what way can I reframe an experience and turn it into this art form, and turn it into something that pulls my breath back into my body in a way that recontextualizes something?

I used to really want to try to squish a poem into the frame of a song, and it felt so contrived. It just didn’t fit. Anything I did felt forced, so I just kind of stopped doing that.

I know you are working on a new record. Are you close to being done with that? I’ve been sitting on it for a little bit. ... There’s still a lot to do. Because my background is in orchestral composition, I wanted to do a lot of true composing. I have a quartet that sort of restructures some of these songs into quartet sounds. The string quartet leads you into the next track, which is spoken-word. They’re all very thematic, related to trauma, related to talking about generally difficult issues or heartache. Things like that.

I’m hoping winter of next year. The book will come out in fall, and then winter will be the release date of the album. It’ll be one sad f*cking bundle just in time for Christmas.

Mary Lambert with Mal Blum. January 26, 8 p.m., $15. Beauty Bar, 702-598-3757.

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