A conversation with Mary Gauthier
Part one – ‘It loomed like a freaking giant wound’
By Douglas Heselgrave
I had the good fortune to spend an hour on the telephone with Mary Gauthier discussing her new CD ‘The Foundling.’ ‘The Foundling’ is her sixth album and her most fully realized collection of songs to date. Speaking with Mary Gauthier is not like interviewing most musicians. During our conversation we spoke as much about joy and sorrow, healing and recovery as we did about music. This first of two articles focuses on the events that lead up to the creation of the songs on ‘The Foundling’ The second article will appear soon and deal more directly with her creative process and experience with Michael Timmins in the studio.
And, while it’s often been said that the straight interview format is nothing more than lazy journalism, I’ve resisted the temptation to frame Mary’s words in an article so that her growing number of listeners can directly experience her responses with a minimum of intervention from me.
DH: Hi Mary. I’ve been listening to ‘The Foundling’ almost non-stop for the last couple of weeks. It’s put me into a pretty weird state of mind.
MG: Me, too. I have to thank you for what you wrote about the record. I think you really get the record, and that’s really gratifying after living with it for the last couple of years.
DH: It certainly doesn’t sound tossed off in any way. It feels finished and like you were able to ‘get things’ just as you wanted them. It seems complete and to be lacking nothing.
MG: It’s such an exercise in growth every time you make a record. Hopefully, the process educates you each time and you get better at it. This is my sixth record and I think I’m starting to have some idea of how to steer the process and get what I hear in my head when I’m writing the songs onto the CD, y’know?
DH: Is The Foundling an album you had to make? It’s very definite, very resolute. There’s nothing tentative or playful about it when I listen to it.
MG: (slowly) Yep. Yep. I always knew it was in me. I knew the title and I knew the subject matter, but I didn’t know how I was going to tell the story. I couldn’t tell it until I lived through several events.
DH – ….and they don’t exactly sound like the kind of events that anyone would choose to live through. Was there any hesitation on your part?
MG – I’d say there was about 45 years of hesitation.
DH: – Ha. But, don’t you find that once you’re conscious of what you’re avoiding, things reach a point where it’s poisonous to hesitate any longer, and you simply can’t get on with your life until you face whatever it is you have to face.
MG: Yeah, on the other side of it – whatever it is – is freedom. But, I didn’t know it was there. It sure looked like an abyss. In retrospect, it was freedom. I knew there were a lot of things blocking me that I didn’t understand. When you live a life with all those blocks, you just think that’s the way life is. You don’t know. I didn’t know it was me for one thing and that everyone didn’t necessarily suffer from these blocks, and I didn’t know or understand what adoption meant. I knew that there had to be some issues attached to it, and God knows I had therapists over and over again use a lot of words that were consistent with each other, but it didn’t click with me.
DH: You thought adoption was too easy an out? Too easy to blame it on that….
MG: Exactly. I thought it was too simple and too simple minded. Then, a couple of years ago, I went back to the orphanage just on a fluke.
DH: How does someone go to an orphanage just by fluke?
MG: Well, I did a gig in New Orleans at the Ogden Museum. The person who hosted me at the gig said she’d take me to lunch the next day and from the stage I said I’d lived in New Orleans for a year. I was born in New Orleans and I lived for a year at St. Vincent’s women’s and infants’ home on Magazine Street. It was a famous orphanage. That was the story I was always told, and of course everybody in the audience knew about the place. I only mentioned it from stage because the series I was performing at was a Louisiana artists’ music series and I hadn’t lived in New Orleans for so long, I felt compelled to tell the audience I was born there. So, then we were going to lunch the next day up Magazine street and this woman said, ‘Hey Mary, that’s St. Vincent’s right over there. Have you ever been to it?’ And, I said, ‘No, I never have .It just wasn’t something that I felt I needed to do. I didn’t think there was any reason for me to go there.
DH: So, when you saw the place, did you hesitate or – ?
MG: Well, when I was staring at it, I sure did. It loomed there like a freaking cold giant wound, and I didn’t know I would have emotions around it. I just didn’t know. It’s a guest house now of a sordid type. It is like forty dollars a night, so a flop house. There was a vibe of prostitution. It was a French quarter bottom endy place.
DH: So, given what I know about you, it must have been challenging on several levels to confront that place. Seeing that edifice and the emanation of all the lives who had passed through there and the misery……
MG: Yeah, you bet. As I walked up to the door, I noticed there was an inscription above the door carved in marble that said St. Vincent’s women’s and infant’s asylum
DH: Ouch, and I don’t think you were thinking asylum like ‘safe haven’
MG: It made my blood run cold. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of what to do on a Monday morning. (laughs) We walked up the stairs and I saw the inscription, and then I had a flash of my mom walking in those doors pregnant and then he walking OUT not pregnant and without me. At that moment, I had the first sense of her pain.
DH: Walking on the same stairs she walked on so many years ago.
MG: Yeahhhhhhh. I developed a compassion for her that I never had before. She was never real to me.
DH: Meaning you didn’t think of her or that when you did, you couldn’t conjure up anything?
MG: …couldn’t conjure up anything. I really hadn’t spent much time thinking about her at all. She was as real as a Disney character. She was Peter Pan, Cinderella. She was never real in my head. It didn’t’ occur to me. When you’re adopted you have a loyalty to the family that adopted you and anything less than that would be considered not grateful. One thing an adopted kid needs to be at all times is grateful! So, I didn’t conjure up my own mom, but in that moment coming in through that door, I did.
DH: When you left that day, did you know you had something you needed to do?
MG: Being sort of southern gothic by nature, I thought I should go rent a room in that place! (laughs) I thought I would, and I told some people I was going to, and the look I got from some of my friends was horrified. They were like, ‘you’re not kidding. Are you serious? You’d rent a room there and write?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think I could write a record in there.’ I really thought I was going to do it, and then slowly the reality hit me that that would be horrible.
DH: I think sometimes when you’re dealing with heavy stuff, you need your own place to retreat to at the end of the day.
MG: Shit man, I had lived there for a year already, and I certainly didn’t need to live there for even a year and a day. What was I thinking? But, it really opened the need to tell the story and so I went into it with a vengeance. I started researching adoption and bought all the adoption books …..
DH: Sorry if I’m ignorant about this. I’m from Canada, but in the States what’s the legality of open adoption, protecting one’s privacy that kind of thing? I am asking because – based on the song – it doesn’t sound like your mom was that happy to have been found out and called. Sorry if I’m being a little direct here.
MG: No, she wasn’t. I found her through a private detective. The way it is here in America is that records are closed and if both parties don’t’ register, you don’t get to have an open record. I think actually from what I was reading, Canada has changed their laws and it’s much more open there than it was. It’s such a huge maze. There are so many secret rooms in your mind that you don’t even know exist. It’s so easy to get trapped in it and not understand what is going on. I always felt a sense of separation, felt so different. In every situation I had a sense of not being fully attached to people. Y’know, many therapists always use the word attachment disorder, and blame it on adoption. But, it’s all so clinical. Going to that orphanage and seeing where I came from made it so clear that little baby me gave up at a very very very young age, gave up and was full of despair. You know, there’s some pictures of kids still there on the walls. They didn’t take them down.
DH: Did you see yourself?
MG: I didn’t, but I was looking for her. Oh God, how would I have felt about it! It would have been such an invasion. Those kids on the wall, they have the look of the holocaust kids with the hollow empty eyes. There’s nothing there. A three year old body and an eighty year old soul. I saw it. In a second. It came – ‘that’s what’s wrong with me.’
DH: Did you want to run away from it, or did you resolve ‘I’m going to take this on’
MG: I wanted to run but there’s nowhere to run. It’s inside of me. I learned that from getting sober: you can’t run from what’s inside of you. You bring it with you everywhere you go. So, the way I chose to deal with it is the way I choose to deal with most things – I wrote about it.
DH: Being an artist, is it important to tell the truth? What I’m getting at is how much does your artistic process shape the presentation of truth? Will you change a fact to tell a better, a more poignant story?
MG: There’s both right? The way I shaped ‘The Foundling’ was with a child being abandoned on a doorstep. But, I wasn’t abandoned on a doorstep. I was abandoned at an orphanage. And, I am not even sure I was abandoned. I could have been relinquished. Abandoned is different. I think that my birth mother was shamed and told that she wasn’t worthy of keeping her child.
DH: Do you know how old she was at the time?
MG: She was twenty one.
DH: Back in 1962, you couldn’t be a single mom like you can today
MG: No way.
DH: I can’t imagine the pain and courage of actually making the phone call once you had a way of contacting your mother. I think I’d dial and hang up at least twenty times before I had the guts to speak with her.
MG: It tooks hours to dial those numbers.
DH: Did you know that you’d call that day, or was it a spontaneous decision?
MG: Uhhhh….I don’t remember. I knew that I’d made an agreement with my girlfriend that I’d call her before Christmas, and it was like eight days to Christmas and then it got down to five days to Christmas and I thought if I let it go any further I’m not going to do it. Then my excuse would be -It’ll be too close to Christmas to call. So, I said, shit, ok, this is it. Six months prior to my call, the private detective had contacted her and told her that I was looking for her, so she knew I wanted to talk to her. She knew she was found. She was given my website and my name and my number. She didn’t call and I knew that I was going to be contacting someone who didn’t want to be contacted, so that was even harder.
DH: You described that encounter so eloquently in your song, but what did you take away from that moment once it had passed?
MG: I guess the overarching thing I was left with was ‘why are you calling me?’ It was a bitch. What do mean why am I calling you? You think I want something? Maybe I do want something. Lady, I don’t even know you. I want to have lunch. I want to see if I look like you. What the Hell do I want? I don’t know what I want. Jesus. Can you ask me a hard question? I don’t know. She was really upset, and she cried a lot and she was full of despair. She’s had a small difficult life and you know, this wounded her in a way where I don’t think she’s going to heal and she’s just going to take it with her. She doesn’t believe there’s anything she can do and she just can’t go there
DH: Do you know if she’s heard your new album or knows it exists?
MG: She never even went to my website to see what I looked like. She didn’t know my name. When I called, she said ‘who?’, and I said ‘Mary Gauthier’, and she said ‘who’ and I said ‘March 11 1962’
MG: She started crying. It was….I can’t say. Adoption is traumatic on both children and parents and I don’t think we really have begun to discuss the reality of it….
DH: Did you start writing immediately after speaking with your mother?
MG: No, I talked to her three years before I went to the orphanage. After that, I didn’t even tell my girlfriend I called her. I didn’t tell anyone. I was so ashamed.
DH: Why ashamed?
MG: I felt unlovable and that it was all my fault. I think that was how the kid in me did feel. The adult was eventually able to take over and make sense of it and move on. But little Mary thought it was her fault. ‘Oh jeez, I did something wrong.’ It was way worse than that – it was ‘I am something wrong’ and I felt so shameful. I stayed like that for a while and was able to get some perspective on it and realized that she was just highly traumatized. Really stuck in her life and I’m not. I hsve worked through so much in a multitude of ways and …..
DH: You were well on your way already when you started to dig into this
MG: Yeah, I was 15 or 16 years sober at that point. So, I had a lot of recovery behind me and a lot of working through these issues and she has zero. So, it didn’t take me that long to get my balance back.
DH: You weren’t afraid of backsliding
MG: No, my whole life is built around recover and sobriety and doing things to further that.
DH: When you wrote the songs, did you ever think of writing them for yourself, or do you feel that when you’re an artist everything is fair game?
MG: I knew that the secret to making this record was going to be found in Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger’ record. It’s a masterpiece and I think the first country concept record. I knew that the secret to unlocking this shit was going to be in there, so I just listened to it over and over and over, and I got a sense of how to move the story along. He didn’t write three quarters of those songs…..
DH: But together they tell a story
MG: Yeahhhhh. He lined em up right, and he knew what he was doing when he crafted the arc the emotional arc of the story
DH: That’s what’s so beautiful about ‘The Foundling’ If you put those songs in a different order it could have been a much different experience, and I think you take us out gently at the end. I don’t know if conscious or instinctual.
MG: Will you know Willie put ‘Hands on the Wheel’ at the end of the record, and I really did use that as a prototype of what I needed to do emotionally in order to tell a story that had a beginning, middle and an end that gets your attention, but didn’t leave you bleeding on the side of the road. That wouldn’t be a good record. It wouldn’t’ be honest as the truth is that I’m doing okay. Actually I’m doing more than okay. I’m doing really well. I know that with these songs, I’ve been putting my listeners through this really difficult situation and I wanted to bring some closure , sense of faith. Anything else would not be honest.
DH: Yeah, it wouldn’t be healthy to stop in the middle of the album and you know go out to a party.
MG: No that would be a bummer of despair, you know. If you get through despair, you can… You know, it’s like in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grieving. I did go through that ‘I don’t want to live, my mother doesn’t want to see me, so why live?’ – and then I realized that some people don’t know how to love. It’s not their fault. They don’t know that. Because something is broken inside of them and I didn’t cause it, but I can’t fix it
DH: It must be hard to say I can’t fix it. I’m a bit of a control freak and….
MG: I don’t have a choice. Well, I consider my conversation with her was a death. It is a death and I have to accept it. Even though there’s life ‘there’, she’s made it clear that this is not going to happen and so it has to be dead for me, and I have to grieve it. I’m not going to invade her space. I want to know who my dad is and she wont’ tell me, so I’ve had to leave it.
DH: That would be a lingering question, and I kept asking myself while listening to the album, ‘Where is your dad in all of this?’
MG: I can’t get that information because the law says that my birth record is sealed. I can’t access my own birth records. They’re not going to threaten their ‘supply’ of adoptive parents by having adoptions made open. Maybe there are more songs to be sung about this. I don’t know. I’ve had to accept the way it is now. I have to grieve it and in the end of grief is acceptance.
The second part of this interview will appear soon.
This post also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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