By Arielle Dreher Herald Writer
EVERETT— They were almost famous. She was not.
Mary Lambert appeared before the Seattle hip-hop duo Macklemore &Ryan Lewis last year to sing lyrics she scrambled to write in two hours to be included on their second album.
“I kept telling myself, ‘Play it cool, play it cool,’ ” Lambert said.
She thought it went well: The pair teared up during the performance and Lewis asked her to record it immediately.
For two months, the Mariner High School grad waited for a return call. She went back to her three jobs working as a waitress and bartender in Seattle, barely making ends meet. Finally, she emailed them.
The news couldn’t have been better.
Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, and Lewis were going to use her voice as the chorus and hook on their new single, “Same Love,” which became a chart-busting political anthem promoting marriage equality.
It’s skyrocketed Lambert into a fame she couldn’t have expected.
Over the past year, the 24-year-old has toured with one of the hottest musical acts in the country, appeared on VH1, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and just released her own single, “She Keeps Me Warm,” based on her lyrics in “Same Love.”
At her mom’s house just over a week ago, Lambert smiled recalling the whirlwind journey, her bright red lipstick matching her “Rosie the Riveter”-style bandanna.
“I just did a show last night with Macklemore,” Lambert said. “I am now a full-time artist and have been for about four months.”
It hasn’t always been this easy.
As a child, Lambert would escape the tough times of her home life by retreating to her bedroom and belting out ballads to her Beanie Babies.
It’s what she calls her “star training.”
“If I hadn’t had that, I would have exploded,” Lambert said.
She was 5 years old when her parents divorced. Her mother came out as a lesbian shortly afterward, and the church they attended ostracized her mother because of her sexual orientation, she said.
The family moved to south Everett, and her mother struggled to make enough money to care for the family for several years. Her father was not a part of her life anymore.
Lambert saw her mother writing and singing sad songs, and she followed suit.
And that continued as Lambert grew up.
When she went to Voyager Middle School, Lambert was playing cello and the piano.
Michael Clark knew Lambert was talented even then. The band and orchestra teacher at the middle school kept in touch with her as she moved on to high school and through college. Clark believes Lambert is on the verge of a successful career.
“People will hear this single, ‘She Keeps Me Warm,’ and her career is going to explode from here,” Clark said.
Clark said it will be an honor to say that he knew her “back in the day,” and he supports the social justice topics that Lambert tackles in her music.
“I think that the message of her music is going to make things easier for kids all over the place,” Clark said. “And as a teacher, that’s thrilling to me.”
Rob Storrs, an English teacher at Mariner High School, knew Lambert through an after-school open mic for students that he hosted with another teacher. Storrs recalls the quality of Lambert’s voice even back then.
“She seemed to be able to communicate emotionally through her voice, something that is usually not developed by vocalists at such a young age,” Storrs said.
He ran into her again a few years later at a Capitol Hill chocolate store where she worked. She invited him to see her perform as a singer-songwriter.
“To be frank, I was blown away,” Storrs said. “Not only had she developed her voice, but she had grown into a sophisticated songwriter, as well as a confident and endearing performer.”
While life at home got significantly better once her mom met her current partner, Lambert began to have her own personal struggles with faith and personal identification.
She, her mom and her older brother experimented with spirituality after being kicked out of their church. They even attended drum circles for a bit, she said.
During her high school years, Lambert began attending Mars Hill Church, as well as Saint Mark’s Cathedral, both in Seattle.
One Sunday morning at Mars Hill, Lambert remembers homosexuality being described and the congregation being told that they can love homosexuals and be friends with them but not to “partake” in the sin.
“The idea was that you won’t be good with God if you partake in the sin of homosexuality,” Lambert said.
This didn’t sit well with Lambert as she went home to her mother and her mom’s partner in a stable, loving home.
Lambert said it was around that time that she realized she, too, is a lesbian.
And that was when the real battle started.
“I would repent to God and ask God to forgive me,” Lambert said. “But then I realized that’s crazy because this is innately who I am.”
Turning to relationships and a lot of partying, Lambert fell into a depression and said she was suicidal for a while.
“My relationship with God saved me,” Lambert said. “I had faith, and that was the only thing I felt like I had.”
When she graduated from Mariner, Lambert received a Gates Foundation scholarship, a scholarship funded by the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation based on economic need, race and ethnic background, and academic potential.
She used the money to attend Cornish College of the Arts. After a rough freshman year, Lambert found an outlet in spoken word, an art form that combines poetry and performance. During her lowest moments, Lambert had been writing, and she began to perform her pieces on stage. Eventually, she won Seattle’s Grand Poetry Slam in 2011.
Finding success and recognition in her writing and music, Lambert realized she needed to clean up her act and focus on school. Performing and doing gigs on the side, Lambert crammed 18 units per semester along with her jobs to graduate on time in 2011.
“I don’t know how I survived,” Lambert said. “I had so much help along the way.”
After graduating, two Cornish graduates approached her about recording an album, which Lambert did over a slow and arduous two years. Lambert was in the midst of applying to graduate school in order to become a middle school music teacher when she realized that she wanted to try to make it as an artist.
“I had this revelation,” she said. “I wanted to see if I could do it.”
Six months later, she would receive an email from Ryan Lewis to try out for a song on Macklemore’s newest album.
Earlier this year, after “Same Love” reached No. 11 on the Billboard chart, Lambert struck out on her own.
She booked and marketed her own North American tour, on which she performed her spoken-word poetry, promoted her book “500 Tips for Fat Girls” and sang her original music.
Lambert stayed with other spoken performance artists and friends. The tour ran from January to March, and Lambert was surprised that she actually made money on the tour.
“After that tour, I felt validated as an artist,” Lambert said.
In July, Lambert wrapped the filming of a music video for “She Keeps Me Warm,” which should come out sometime in August. Lambert is looking forward to more artist collaborations and another music video for her song “I Know Girls (Body Love),” which focuses on self-worth for women and girls who struggle with body image. Lambert continues to be flown out to various U.S. cities to perform with Macklemore &Ryan Lewis on their 2013 tour.
“I have the coolest job,” Lambert beams. “I get to go perform in the coolest places then come home and work on my own stuff.”
Just a few months ago, Lambert would come home from her shows with Macklemore and tend bar a few days a week. She is still making waves on the local music scene.
Steven Graham, a music blogger who lives in Everett and whose work appears on The Herald’s website, heard Lambert perform in Everett about two months before “Same Love” came out. The timing for Lambert’s success could not have been better, Graham said.
“All of a sudden there was a poster child for this movement who teamed up with a hip-hop artist on the verge of becoming a global star, and they changed the face of everything,” Graham said. “It is so fortunate that she ended up with this platform to be heard.”
Lambert has jumped to fame more quickly than any other local artist Graham has seen.
“Once she got in front of people, the song stood up; her talent stood up,” Graham said. “She got a chance, and her talent will continue to carry her. She deserves it.”
Lambert lives in Seattle with her girlfriend of three years and is adjusting to her new world. Every year seems to be radically different than the last one, Lambert said.
“I am so close with God, and I found the love of my life,” Lambert said.
The down-to-earth artist insists on love being her primary message and that love is not a sin.
“I think you can change people’s opinions only through love,” Lambert said.
She is aware of the platform she has been given and is willing to be vulnerable and honest in her life, especially through her music and writing.
“I know that I have a gift in songwriting, and I want to do something with that,” Lambert said. “I’ve been given this platform, and I will do something with it to change humanity.”