Mary Gauthier at McCabe’s in Santa Monica: 7/10, 7/11
Mary Gauthier Brings a Soulful Intimacy to Country Songwriting
Written by Terry Roland—Originally published in The San Diego Troubadour
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 Foundling, is a unique country album for even the most of daring singer-songwriters; a cycle of songs that are told from the perspective of an orphan. The orphan is Mary Gauthier. The emotional center of the album is the songwriter’s search for her birth mother, documented lyrically in the song “March 11, 1962.” If songwriting is three chords and the truth, Mary’s new album has the truth running deeper than most; it’s an act of intimacy between the songwriter and her audience. Had this been a debut record, it may have been a hard pill to swallow. For those who know her work know the intimacy of her past work and the passionate dynamics of her song craft as a natural chapter in her work. Songs like “Long Way to Fall” and” I Drink” allow the listener to peer into the musical window of one artist’s core being.
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 lyrics confront many of life’s most difficult times, Mary’s songs are crafted to be personal and universal. Today, at 48, she has created a body of work that has discovered the same gold once mined by the Nashville singer-songwriter movement of the ’60s when Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury first arrived in town.
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 John Lennon’s Plastic Ono album. But, this one takes us a step further – to the revelation of finding the paradox in knowing that once we discover we’re all orphans, we no longer need to feel lonely. She has found a kind of peace that has allowed her writing to grow to a place where these songs were able to be written. Without her earlier work that explored alcoholism, broken relationships, and redemption, this record could never have been made. But, here she stares wide-eyed into her brokenness and comes out the other side able to sing, “I still believe in love,” on the song “Orphan King.”
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 of gratitude at being a sober songwriter. In the song, “March 11, 1962,” which documents her phone conversation with her birth mother, she says, “Don’t ask me why I’m calling/I don’t know why.” Isn’t that the way it is when our intuition takes us off the beaten path to places we may not want to go but somehow need to? But, the conversation ends with these lines,”I just had to thank you once before this life went by/that’s why I called/Goodbye.” If the old cliché is true, it’s not the destination but the journey; Mary Gauthier’s journey is strewn with a treasury of songs and stories, which can help us all if we dare follow her path. As she says, it’s her way of being of service through song.
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 understand myself.
SDT: It also touches a universal nerve inside of all of us.
MG: That’s the magic of it. You go deep enough inside yourself, to the most personal places, and you find something universal.
SDT: 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 Williams’, “Luke the Drifter,” only more personal. It’s cathartic like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono album.
MG: 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 picked out those parents before, so he could have the songs that wanted to be written. He really wanted to be the “dean of songwriters,” and he was. He was a very wise man. He showed me it’s about believing in your self. He walked through life with an orphan feeling. But, he came up with these great songs that wouldn’t have been written otherwise. If you write about it, why not tell a beautiful story to believe in?
SDT: There’s a wonderful poem at the beginning of the CD booklet that basically states we’re all orphans.
MG: 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.
SDT: Did you feel a kind of release from something?
MG: 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 it is very powerful. I’m going into my 20th year of sobriety; it’s so hard to face it and not run like hell. It’s terrifying. You know, nobody’s gonna catch you.
SDT: You’ve been quite open about your sobriety and alcoholism. The song “I Drink” speaks to this.
MG: 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.
SDT: Do you believe in a higher power and how does that influence your writing?
MG: 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 really believe this. When there’s too much ego driving me, I don’t go there. I have to listen. I don’t always know what the fall-out will be. Like The Foundling. I know this album will affect people in ways I may never know. After the shows, I sell my own CDs and it’s a chance to connect with the audience. I can see it in their eyes when it’s there. Something is illuminated in them. It’s huge. For me, it’s sobriety.
SDT: So, you really see your art as a form of service to others.
MG: 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 to pay. I choose to be the channel .
SDT: It’s interesting that you became a songwriter after your sobriety kicked in.
MG: 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 inverted Hank. You know, 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.
SDT: Is your own writing like this? Being a midwife?
MG: 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.”
SDT: How do you teach this?
MG: 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 accidently. 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 outwait 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.
SDT: Interesting. Tell me more about intentionality.
MG: 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.
SDT: So you’ll continue on the road?
MG: 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.