Mary Gauthier Brings a Soulful Intimacy to Country Songwriting
Written by Terry Roland
Bob Dylan once said, "There's
a lot of ways a record gets under your skin." In the case of Louisiana
singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, it comes when it first gets under her
skin. Her latest, The
At 29, Mary's life changed.
She found sobriety. Within a few years, she found songwriting or, based
on our conversation, songwriting found her. With an easy feeling in her
voice that invites comfort while her
The Foundling is an
album of stunning honesty from one of America's great living singer-songwriters.
Songs like "Mama Here, Mama Gone" and "Blood Is Blood" echo the stripped-down
emotion displayed on
In the following interview,
Mary comes across, like her songs, with a sense of grace, kindness, and
an ever-curious spirit about her life's journey. The most touching thing
I experienced with her is her sense
Terry Roland for the San Diego Troubadour: Let's talk about your new record.
Mary Gauthier: The Foundling?
Oh, that was a hard one! It took a lot of energy, but it was a relief to
be given the time to write it, to try to make sense of my story through
song. It really helped me
Roland: It also touches a universal nerve inside of all of us.
Mary Gauthier: That's the magic of it. You go deep enough inside yourself, to the most personal places, and you find something universal.
Roland: This album represents
something I've rarely heard in country music: a personal and intimate album.
I don't think anyone's ever recorded anything like this in country music.
It reminds me of Hank
Gauthier: Thank you. You
know it's the theme of being an adopted child. One of my favorite songwriters,
Harlan Howard, who wrote "Fall to Pieces" for Patsy Cline, lived in 21
foster homes. He said that he
Roland: There's a wonderful poem at the beginning of the CD booklet that basically states we're all orphans.
Gauthier: That's from a beautiful, well-written book called Wanderer's All, by a writer named Gregory Armstrong. I think it's available online. That's basically what he says. He believes it to be a part of the human condition. All you end up with is the journey. That's really all there is. You put yourself in the position of being vulnerable and it changes you. I went into this story asking hard questions and I risked the hard answers. But, I came out feeling lighter. You know, both lite and light. I was spiritually not as heavy. And I could see more clearly. I had to be willing to go into the story.
Roland: Did you feel a kind of release from something?
Gauthier: Yes. It was like
I went and stood in a dark room and didn't run from it. I faced it. You
how they say you peel the onion back layers down to the core inside. At
the core is darkness. To stand in
Roland: You've been quite open about your sobriety and alcoholism. The song "I Drink" speaks to this.
Gauthier: I drink because it's my nature, it's not a choice. If I ever had a choice to not drink, I lost it a long time ago. Without my writing, I'd be lost. My writing comes from my sobriety. If I was still drinking, I wouldn't be able to do my music and I want to remain a songwriter. You know, you hit that "dark night of the soul" and in the process of writing I illuminate it and I'm staying sober. The challenge of it is all consuming - to be able to get to what I want to say, get past that free fall and stay sober.
Roland: Do you believe in a higher power and how does that influence your writing?
Gauthier: Yes! Creativity
is a form of spirituality that comes through me and not from me. My journey
is trying to find it. I'm like a lightening rod walking around looking
for the lightening. I find it when I find where I can be of service. I'm
just answering the call. I don't always know the purpose. But, being of
service through songs is what keeps me sober and sane. It gives me a higher
purpose. You know I
Roland: So, you really see your art as a form of service to others.
Gauthier: Yes. That's the
gold. You can't find it in the music industry, which is so ego driven.
Every artist has a choice between the ego or to be the channel. For either
choice there's a huge price
Roland: It's interesting that you became a songwriter after your sobriety kicked in.
Gauthier: Yes. It's a paradox. I stopped drinking at 29. That's the same age Hank Williams was when he died. I'm kind of an inverted Hank. You know, [Jack] Kerouac backwards in the body of a woman. I'm so grateful I get to do this. It's really a gift, a blessing. There's such joy in being an artist and a teacher. When I listen to my students, I hear their inspiration, I feel like I'm a young midwife. I'm just helping the process along.
Roland: Is your own writing like this? Being a midwife?
Gauthier: Yes. It took three years to write The Foundling. I had a lot of false starts. I didn't know where the record needed to go. I'd get inspired and then take the inspiration in my writing room and write my ass off. It's hard work. But when something good happens, it's like an ecstatic release. I may spend hundreds of hours and I don't feel like a writer. I stay with it and then comes. George Eliot said, "Genius is nothing more than great patience."
Roland: How do you teach this?
Gauthier: I teach workshops. I try to help with the craft of songwriting. On songwriting weekends, I try to give them a tool kit. You know, like perspective, whose voice is telling the story, how to move the story along, and emphasizing certain words and how to use instinct with intentionality. It took me about ten years to become more of songwriter/journeyman. Before that, things seemed to happen accidentally. I'm learning how to make things happen, how to work with commitment; when to work and when to wait. It comes to a point where you don't have a choice. It just transcends you. You have to out wait it. Then, it surrenders to you. I know it sounds nuts. It's like the seeds are germinating and the plant is pushing up out of the ground.
Roland: Interesting. Tell me more about intentionality.
Gauthier: Intentionality comes out because of high standards. I heard someone say the song isn't done until I get the chills. You give yourself the chills. I just keep working until I get there. My writing has been what's allowed me to continue, not my singing voice. I'm not a real singer. When I played at the Grand Ole Opry, they said I was a "vocal stylist." It's like being a character actor.
Roland: So you'll continue on the road?
Gauthier: Yes. It's the never-ending tour. That will keep going. We've been in Australia, Europe twice, then to California, and up the Pacific Coast.
Roland: Well, I look forward
to seeing you in San Diego.