Some Moments in Time With Mary Gauthier
Mary Gauthier writes songs that elbow you in the gut, and then catch you as you are falling. They feel your pain. They’ve been there, and then some.
Her beginnings are well documented already; but they are so fundamental to her songwriting, her empathy, and her need to give others a hand up, that they need to be written here. She was one year old when she was adopted from St Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum. Thirty five years later she wrote her first song. The intervening years saw her struggle to cope with the void left from her adoption, and the sense of estrangement due to her sexual orientation. This led to the misery of drug and alcohol addiction, arrest and rehab. The same woman also managed to drag body and soul from that addiction; she went on to study and then opened her own restaurants. By 35 years of age she had an untapped reservoir of life experience to pour into her music.
She writes unsparingly honest songs about where she is, or where she’s been, and I wondered if that ever makes them difficult to perform? “I do not re-live the things I sing about” she explains. “When I sing them, I move on, and the songs take on a new meaning, sometimes they don’t even feel like they are about me anymore. I am no longer that person who wrote the song after a while. Life is blessed in that way, we grow we change, we move on.”
She works with a group called ‘Songwriting With Soldiers,’ which describes itself as offering “our participants a unique way to tell their stories, rebuild trust, release pain, and forge new bonds.” Gauthier explains, “We raise money from private donors, and corporate sponsors. We pair up 4 songwriters, with 15 veterans, in a retreat center, and there is no cost to the soldiers, their trip is taken care of. The songwriters sit with the vets, and we write their stories into a song. It’s a 2 day event, and we write fast and hard, no time to mess around.”
“The process is one of empathy and compassion, and we do not judge. We just listen, and write. I know for sure that trauma is a wounding that removes a person from the group. A song can help bring the person back into the group. Songs build bridges, bring people together, generate resonance and connection. This is why writing songs with people who have had deep trauma is so powerful. It re-connects lives to themselves, and to others.”
This sets me thinking. I am a native of Northern Ireland, and we are a traumatised society. We are coming out the other end, but we are just at the beginning of that journey. Does she think this work would be relevant here? “Absolutely, yes! Songs are empathy machines. They are devices that open up the heart. Writing songs about what’s real, and being vulnerable in the writing, helps heal trauma. There are so many songs that could and should be written in Belfast. I am sure that the songs will come, it’s what artists do. Your artists will rise to this occasion, and tell the story that needs to be told to help heal their own trauma around it. Belfast is moving into the future, in so many ways it is not the city I first encountered 15 years ago when I first came over.”
On her website she has listed her Top 10 Lessons From 2014. One of those lessons is ‘There is no such thing as an ordinary life.’ I had to ask what she means. “I am amazed at how fragile and beautiful life is. I am growing older now, and I see many things I did not see when I was young. Human Lives are a blessed gift, and each one of us has been given a short period of time here to do with it what we will. Become parents, make art, create beauty, write songs, we have the chance to create much while we are here. Nothing ordinary about that”.
Another lesson is that ‘Songs are more than songs–they are the great human connectors of our time.’ This harks back to that work she does with ‘Songwriting With Soldiers,’ but what exactly does she mean? “Songs are what feelings sound like, and they capture me when they show me how I am feeling, tell me who I am, and fit me into the human puzzle. Particularly when I am unable to do this for myself. The greatest songs go the deepest, and pierce the veil, allowing us a glimpse into the divine. “Sam Stone” by John Prine, “Mother” by John Lennon, those are the kind of songs that matter, last, and explain the human heart.”
She played Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in May and illustrated beautifully all that she had told me. Joined on stage by singer songwriter Ben Glover and violin/viola expert Michele Gazich it was a rainy blowy Belfast afternoon that billowed the sides of the festival marquee, while the dark starlit interior held its own against the elements.
Ben Glover was first on stage. “Anyone fancy some singing?” This was responded to with an uncomfortable seat shuffle from the audience in the marquee, but Glover carried on regardless as he soothed us into repeating the line “Don’t take my sweetheart away”. It was from “Sweetheart”, a new song written with a project called The Orphan Brigade; recorded in Octagon Hall, one of the most haunted houses in the Southern United States he told us. It was the last song of his support set for Mary Gauthier, on this last day of the festival. His set had consisted of tracks from his 2014 album Atlantic, such as “Oh Soul” (written with Gauthier), and much loved classics from previous albums including the powerful “Ballad of Carla Boone”.
Gauthier started with “False from True” off her recent Trouble & Love album. It ran from the stage down the aisles and between the chairs like the tide coming in. We’d expected it but still hadn’t taken our socks and shoes off. Our emotional guard was saturated at song #1.
“We play better in the rain” she smiled before following up with “Between Daylight and Dark” from the same titled album. She was wrapping us up in mellow country; hand delivered from the stage with rich smooth violin by Michele Gazich. Gauthier’s voice was ever so slightly drawling. “It was all for the love of a wayward girl/Who left you with a second place smile and a broken heart”.
She told us of her work with SongwritingWith:Soldiers and followed this with powerful songs written with her help by army and navy personnel that she had worked with on the programme. “These words are mostly the soldier’s, I just made ‘em rhyme”.
And so it progressed, from one heart breaking beauty to the next. The problem is that Gauthier’s song writing does not allow you to escape. With her honest half spoken voice, the instrumentation, and the melodies that speak like words, you are drawn in. You can feel safe until you hear one that you identify with; and then you’re banjaxed.
However, do not be fooled that this was an atmosphere of soul crushing bust up love. “If you’re wondering where the uplifting happy songs are, well, we’ve already played them.” We were all laughing. “Any new couples here can test their date. If they last the first half hour, then you might have something. I’m actually offering a public service here. ” On that note she introduced “Karla Faye” telling the story of a woman on death row. Gauthier just shrugged her shoulders and smirked.
“Hell yeah, that brings back great memories” she guffawed on finishing “When A Woman Goes Cold” from the Trouble & Love album. On listening to the lyrics, with that beating unsentimental rhythm and melody, you understand her point.
“You’re no longer her concern
Scorched earth cannot burn
It’s out of your control when a woman goes cold”
“Any young guys out there, if you haven’t pushed a woman past her wits end, until she grows cold, when you do you’ll remember me – that crazy lesbian in the starry tent”.
Ben Glover returned to the stage for a few songs including a version of Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” for the encore. Gazich added sugar to this black coffee of a song. Gauthier and Glover took turns at verses, and when that paused, the violin and Gauthier’s harmonies held us captive. We were sung into submission right through to the very last song.