The Writer’s Block: Mary Lambert on Craft, the Grammys and Letting a Song Go

Mary Lambert is a force. The exquisite singer has earned millions of streams, a Grammy nomination, a performance with Madonna at that same award show, and many more fans than any one person can reasonably count. Yet, the artist also experiences writer’s block.

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Indeed, no one is immune.

In fact, we sat down to ask Lambert a few questions about this very subject for our running series here at American Songwriter, “The Writer’s Block.” She shares some thoughts on the matter, talking about her craft and letting songs go.

But before you read further, check out one of her biggest singles to date, “Secrets,” and add to the already 24-million-plus YouTube views!

American Songwriter: How did you get started in songwriting? 

Mary Lambert: I was songwriting before I knew I was songwriting. My mom was a singer-songwriter, and I remember listening to her playing the piano late at night. When I was about six, we had a little Casio keyboard with all of those song presets, and I would essentially top line and sing songs about my beanie babies or comfort myself during the more frightening parts of my childhood. 

AS: What do you believe goes into writing a hit song? 

ML: Oh man, that depends. If it’s a charting pop song, there is usually a serious team behind it. There are calculations and counting syllables and cross-referencing the mix with [engineer] Serben Ghenea’s mixes, and getting the production just right. It’s great to be a stellar songwriter, but if the song doesn’t have the production support or a great vocal performance, then you’re just a great songwriter, which is GREAT!

But when execs talk about “hit songs” that usually implies that there is a team making it. Sometimes—and I think the best songs are like this—a song is written by someone that is going to die unless they write it; the song burns out of them. A best-case scenario for that song is that record execs believe in it and keep it intact while promoting it. That’s the dream.

AS: Have you ever experienced writer’s block and how did you get past it? 

ML: I guess I’m kind of in one? My last release, Grief Creature, a 17-track autobiographical album that I self-produced in 2019 was everything I’d ever wanted to say. It took me five years to make and was incredibly therapeutic. My writing has always been essential to my survival—and after decades of therapy, writing and releasing Grief Creature, and finding stability, sometimes I fear there is nothing left for me to say.

I confess that had Grief Creature done better financially, I might not feel that way, but it is a difficult pill to swallow having proclaimed an album as your masterpiece, then looking at the numbers and realizing you’ve only broken even. I had to change courses a little bit if I wanted to sustain myself as an artist during the pandemic, so I built my home studio and have been doing film composing, and other kinds of writing and teaching.

The answer to how to get past a writing block is very simple and very complicated: you just have to make time. I really enjoy playing covers right now and when I am ready to come back to songwriting, I know it will feel like home. 

AS: Is it hard to let a song go?

ML: Yes! In fact, as a singer-songwriter, I’ve never been able to. 

AS: What advice would you share with songwriters just getting into the business, or already working through the ranks?

ML: You don’t need to self-destruct or create chaos in your life to be a good songwriter. I used to think I needed to be unmedicated, unhinged, and reckless to have a good story, but I see now that pain is not the same thing as passion. Chaos is not art, it’s chaos. 

AS: What are your most noteworthy achievements today, in your own mind?

ML: Being nominated for Song of the Year and performing at the 2014 Grammys to this day still feels like it happened to someone else. Surreal. Bucket list. Just pure gratitude.

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