Mary Lambert on Embracing Sanity, Remaking 'Jessie's Girl' for Lesbians

How the 'Same Love' singer overcame bipolar disorder to write a daring, emotional debut album

Mary Lambert is snowed in, which means that the 25-year-old who performed with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – and, briefly, Madonna – at the 2014 Grammy Awards, singing "Same Love" as Queen Latifah married 33 couples, finally has a minute of downtime. After spending almost all of 2014 traveling for work, the bubbly singer-songwriter quietly moved from Seattle to Massachusetts, and today she is making the most of a minor blizzard. While her neighbors panic, Lambert welcomes the forced domesticity: cooking lasagna, doing the laundry and writing her second book of poetry.

If "Same Love" introduced Lambert as a gay rights advocate, her debut album, Heart on My Sleeve, solidifies her commitment to social justice. The candid single "Secrets" – which begins, "I've got bi-polar disorder/My shit's not in order/I'm overweight/I'm always late" – brought spoken-word and body politics to top of the Billboard Dance Club chart. Elsewhere, she finds love ("Dear One"), expresses the agony of long distance relationships ("So Far Away") and completely reimagines Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl."

Before heading to Chicago to shoot the video for second single "Rib Cage," a powerful song about abuse featuring rappers K.Flay and Angel Haze, Lambert spoke to Rolling Stone about how she's silenced her inner critics, argued with her label and moved past her biggest hit.

It's been three years since you began working with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. How do you look back on that time?
I've been non-stop busy since I wrote "Same Love." I've done things I'd only dreamed of doing before. My career is in motion, but I'm now able to breathe. I get to do stuff from home and I'm excited about it.

How has that change of pace affected you creatively?
I'm still figuring that out. Before I got on full-time medication, I believed that my mental disorder was the reason I could create so much and create well, because it made me crazy. I could go to these dark places and then come out of it and just be human again. When I joined a major label, I was like, "I have to have my shit together," so I've been on regular medication for about four years and I was just terrified that I wasn't going to be able to get enough material out. I'm in a stable environment and I'm in a healthy relationship, I'm not an alcoholic anymore so... what do I do? I used to be on the kitchen floor, crying, wasted and thinking of lyrics. That was the only way I could create – as a tortured artist. I've learned that you can be stable and taking care of yourself and still create beautiful work.

Was there a particularly challenging concept to work though on Heart on My Sleeve?
"So Far Away" was so annoying to write.

That's actually my favorite.
Really? [Laughs] I hated that song. My producer sent me the track for it and I was like, "You've got to be kidding me. There are trap drums in this. I don't write songs to trap drums." I missed my partner. Long distance is really difficult, especially in a new relationship. You meet the person you're supposed to be with and you're like, "Bye, I'm going to be gone forever." I was just like, "I hate being here and I want to be home."

You've cited Jewel as an influence and I can really hear Spirit early Jewel in your rendition of "Jessie's Girl." Why did you choose to cover that song?
Originally, I had put a piece about rape on the record, called "Epidemic." My project manager was like, "We support you 100 percent, but you should know Target and Starbucks won't carry it, and it'll have a warning on it," so I was like, damn, that's true. I remember when I heard "Jessie's Girl" for the first time, I was like, "This is so applicable to lesbians!" So in two days I came up with a different chord progression, rearranged it, played the piano and sang it. Everyone in the room was crying and I was like, "Cool, job well done." It seemed to be the perfect replacement for "Epidemic" – equally as important for me.

While you had to let "Epidemic" go, was there a lyric or verse that you fought to keep?
Actually, this was a big point of contention. On the deluxe version of the album, there's a "Sum of Our Parts" alternate version. I fought really hard for that to be the main version. It was spoken word-y, but it grabs you by the throat: "We were raised kings of nowhere/Didn't know the names of our fathers/Born knee-deep in deep water/They said we'd never go anywhere." To me, that line was really important because I think people are shoved down the minute they're born, whether they're in broken homes or are in traumatic households like I was. It's about rising above. People didn't think it was palatable – it was too jarring.

"Same Love" was one of several LGBT anthems that became big hits in the past five years. Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" and Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow" also come to mind. Do you feel songs like these play it safe? What are your thoughts on pushing the envelope?
I'm not sure. I'm thinking of Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, Adam Lambert and me. With the knowledge that your favorite artist is gay, you know that the context of which they're singing is going to be inherently gay. And I think what's beautiful about that is that it doesn't deter anyone from listening. That's what I think is really important about gay artists being in the spotlight. I understand the plight of an artist singing a song and not using gendered pronouns because it can alienate some of their audience, but I've found success with using a gendered pronoun – but that's my story. I'm curious about what the next step is and how to be an asset.

Who are some of the poets that people might not expect you enjoy?
Sylvia Plath, Rumi, there's a lot of spoken word poets who do a really incredible job putting their spoken work into page poetry – that's what I strive to do. I enjoy Andrea Gibson's Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns. I've been urged to write a memoir, but I feel like I need at least 10 more years and children to write a memoir. I realize I'm a storyteller. I want to write a second collection of poetry. I get a line in my head and I have to sit down and make it bloom. Lately, I'm just taking it easy, man [laughs].

Oh, you know, just writing a book.
I've always been really, really busy. When I was in college, I was going school from 8 a.m to 5 p.m., taking 18 credits then working to midnight. I got out of college and worked three jobs because I didn't know what to do, and then I did "Same Love." I never had time for my art, so it feels really amazing to be a full-time artist.