A Conversation with Mary Gauthier
I had the recent good fortune to, not only listen to Mary Gauthier’s new album “The Foundling,” but talk to her about it. I’m running a contest right now at my blog (Katie Darby Recommends) to give away a copy of the album, but I figured I would repost the content of the interview on this blog: ND readers seem like they’d appreciate such an interesting songwriter.
KD: First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it. After listening to a few songs from The Foundling and older albums, especially Between Daylight and Dark, it’s obvious that you are a songwriter. How do you define what you do?
MG: Songwriting is everything to me, everything. Oh gosh. I work really hard, really hard to get the songs right. Every single word. That’s my dream. I’ve never been a guitar player, I’m average. My thing is writing.
KD: What song best accomplishes what you want to do?
MG: They all matter a lot to you– no one song is the most important. They earn their place. Most of the songs I write don’t make the record. I try to get songs that are worthy of recording.
KD: What is your goal when writing a song?
MG: To see what the song is trying to teach me. I’m trying to find a truth inside the inspiration.
KD: I’ve seen you call musicians “truth-tellers”– how important is it to you that people be truth-tellers in music? And who would you consider to be the truth-tellers?
MG: I put those standards on myself. Other people write for different reasons. Everybody has their thing. Their own needs, you know? [Truth] is why I write. There are people who certainly have taught me the way, though. Leonard Cohen, those kind of writers. Those writers who are writing language first.
KD: Speaking of Cohen and writers like him, Steve Earle, etc., who were your influences at a younger age?
MG: Those kind of people. (Cohen, Earle) There are obviously the big ones, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, and then all of their disciples.
KD: I was pretty much stupid obsessed with “Snakebit” a while back– I must have listened to it hundreds of times. It’s not the type of song you usually hear a female songwriter sing, with the exception of an occasional Lucinda. Even now, when we were talking about the greats, we mostly mention men. What is it like being a female Americana musician?
MG: You know, I don’t think in terms of that, although I am aware. But then again– you know, there are Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams. Who’s a better writer than them? There are a lot of strong writers in contemporary Americana music. I couldn’t have written “Snakebit” without having read a lot of Flannery O’Connor, going to that place, unapologetically, like she did in her writing. I think that gender is a loaded and complex discussion, though.
(*Editor’s Note: I should have picked up on the O’Connor overtones in that song. That totally explains my obsession with it.)
MG: I rarely think about my gender when I’m writing. It just doesn’t cross my mind. I’m aware of bias and sturggles that so many women have had, but really, I think the songs have to do the work for you.
KD: How do you go about writing autobiography in music? Is it more difficult?
MG: Here’s the answer– I have to get objective about it, and I have to get a perspective, which means I can’t be in the middle of the emergency when I write it. I have to have dealt with the emotions and moved on so that I can write it like I’m writing about someone else. (*Editor’s Note: WOW. What a huge statement about not just songwriting, but telling the truth in general.) One of the most beautiful things that the human mind is capable of is becoming different. We can transcend ourselves and move on, we don’t have to relive things constantly. So I’ve been able to observe my story from a storyteller’s perspective, almost to a neutral perspective. It’s the place you get to sometimes in meditation, where you’re no longer the subject, but you’re the observer. I’ve done a lot of work around my story in therapy, and I can look at it as a story instead of just my own experience. I can’t do it in the middle of the storm– I couldn’t have written “March 11, 1962” (a song about a telephone conversation with her mother) even a year after I talked to her. I wrote that song almost five years after I talked to her.
KD: As someone who wants to be a songwriter, and is a writer, that is a huge lesson in my opinion.
MG: Perspective is very important, and being able to be in a different place emotionally than I was, especially during some of the more challenging– and the grief, “my mother doesn’t want to meet me,” that is talking about grieving, but I couldn’t write that in the middle of the sadness. I had to write that as I came to a place of acceptance. It’s the writer end of the grieving process. There’s a whole lot to do with timing and healing. We don’t have to live our emergencies over and over again. I captured the moment, but couldn’t write it in the moment. I recaptured it as a storyteller, not as an adoptee who couldn’t connect to.
KD: Listening to songs like “March 11th” though, it’s still so raw!
MG: Men don’t do well with this kind of emotion. I’m like “Brother, it’s just a story, let it go.” They really struggle. They have a hard time even asking the questions. It brings them too close to something inside of them. The interesting thing for me is that the emotions that are coming up for them have nothing to do with me and my mother, and everything to do with something inside of them. I find that compelling, and it means that I’m doing my job as a songwriter.
KD: Even as I was writing this interview, I was like, “Hmm, can I ask that?” and then I realized, “Well, she just released an album about it…”
MG: Exactly. If I wasn’t ready to talk about it, I wouldn’t write about it. Of course, that’s a paradox, too… anything I say is false and anything I say is true. Sometimes it’s best to write an angry song when you’re pissed off. If you wait until you’re no longer angry… you have to be vulnerable, you have to rely on yourself to point the finger in a way that you can’t normally do in public.
KD: True. I mean, to be fair, if Steve Earle didn’t write when he was angry–
MG: We wouldn’t have such an amazing body of work.
KD: Tell me a little bit about the recording of The Foundling. I saw you worked with Michael and Margo Timmons (of the Cowboy Junkies)– what is it like allowing someone else to be in on a project this personal?
MG: Easy! They both have adopted children. Michael has two adopted daughters from China (*Editor’s note: The Cowboy Junkies will actually be releasing an album about Michael’s trips to China later this year, and I hope to include some commentary about it on this blog. Keep an eye out.) and Margo has a son from Eastern Europe, and they get it, on a very personal level they get it. It was a joy and a true connection was made. We really were able to go places. We could look at each other and just go, “Shit…!” They get it from a parents’ perspective and they see it in their kids. It’s a great opportunity to connect with them. They’re just great folks no matter what, so the project was just gravy.
KD: You’ve worked with some incredible musicians and producers. What was your favorite collaborative experience? Do you think music should be collaborative?
MG: Uhh. Well, that’s a paradox. Yes and no. (laughs) Yes and no. There are so many amazing collaborative situations that I’ve experienced, everything from co-writing with Liz Rose, who is such a great co-writer in Nashville (who actually writes with Taylor Swift). I’m so happy for her success, but she’s able to write with me just as well. From recording with Joe (Henry) or Mike (Timmons), singing with Margo (Timmons) and Loudin Wainwright and Patty Griffen– I just go, “I can’t believe this is my life and I’m getting to experience this right now.” Standing onstage with Willie Nelson singing “Will the Circle be Unbroken,”… moments like that are just beyond your wildest dream, and it just keeps happening. I’m just so humbled, and I can’t believe that I get to do this and that I’m still doing this. I get to do exactly what I want to do and I keep doing it. I just… I didn’t start songwriting until I was 35, so it’s perfect. I think if I was in my 20s I would have expected this, so I’m old enough to be grateful, and I get to continue being on this magic carpet ride. I’m like a little kid about it, I’m just thrilled and amazed that this is my journey.