Mary Gauthier’s story is well-documented in her songs and the stories that punctuate them in concert. But, I’ll take a few moments to paraphrase it anyway, as it will help to have some background before reading the fascinating interview I did with the singer-songwriter shortly before the release of her eighth album Trouble & Love.
Mary Veronica Gauthier was left in a New Orleans Asylum shortly after her birth in 1962 and was eventually adopted by a Louisiana couple. This wasn’t to be a happy family life as the rest of us would know it, culminating with Mary stealing her adoptive mother’s car and running away, aged 15. She spent the next few years sofa-surfing and living in halfway houses, in a haze of drink and drugs.
Eventually, she enrolled in culinary school. She opened her own restaurant, Dixie Kitchen, in Boston on July 12, 1990. That same evening, she was arrested for drunk driving. The shock of having something substantial to lose for the first time in her life forced her into rehab, and she has been sober ever since.
I began by asking Mary, “What music did you listen to growing up?”
“Oh, the radio. There was always a radio playing somewhere, with great disc jockeys who loved the music as much as you did. There are very few disc jockeys around today that you can say that about. The only one that springs to mind is Bob Harris on the BBC. He’s like a beacon and I can’t think of anyone in America who plays such a wide variety of music as he does. You’re very lucky to have him.
“It never mattered what type of music it was. I would listen to anything. I was all over the map – Motown, pop, rock, anything. I absorbed everything but always preferred story-songs. Some people call them sad songs, but the best ones aren’t. They are true songs and stay with you all of your life. Too many people are Disney-fied these days and will listen to any rubbish that the corporations feed them. Thank God for people like Bob Harris who still play music like mine.
“Money was always tight growing up, so buying an actual record – a 45RPM single — was a big deal and I still have the first three that I ever bought: “American Pie” by Don McLean, “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack, and “Seventeen” by Janis Ian. They’ve traveled everywhere with me and I never tire of listening to them. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met all three singers and I told them how much their songs meant to me.”
After talking about favourite records for a few minutes, I asked Mary why she started writing songs herself.
“My restaurant was near the Berklee campus in Boston, and there was a big music scene in the area. So, when I eventually got sober, I had a lot more time on my hands. I needed a way of making sense of all the chaos that was going on in my life and songwriting achieved that for me.
“I’ve always been an emotional type of person, so writing in the first person about “the human condition” came naturally to me. Although I discarded nearly everything I wrote at that time, I loved the process of combining the universal with the personal. Even though I write in the first person, not all of my songs are autobiographical. A lot are, but not everything. The only time Johnny Cash went to prison was to sing there, but he still managed to empathise with the inmates and his prison songs were always believable, which is what I try to convey in my songs.
“Even though some of my songs have been covered by some really famous singers (Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw and Candi Staton to name three) I don’t dwell on it. I try to live for today and tomorrow rather than looking back. I mean, Bob Dylan played “I Drink” on his radio show. Bob Dylan knows who I am! But that was then and my new album is now and that’s what I have to concentrate on; or I’d go crazy.
“Since moving to Nashville in 2001, I’ve got my own small cottage industry here — writing, recording and touring. When I’m on tour, it’s just me driving, carrying my bags and selling my CDs, taking it all day to day, living a fairly simple life.”
With time running out I had to bring things up to date, so asked about Mary’s previous album The Foundling, which I described as a very brave project.
“Thank you. I’m pleased that you think that about it, because it was. But [it was] something that I had to do. It was a story that I finally had to articulate and put into song.
“I’d finally contacted my birth mother, which was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I really didn’t know what to expect when we eventually spoke. But, she had been married for over twenty years, adopting her husband’s children but never telling anyone that she had given birth to me. We left it at that and I’ve now moved on. After singing those songs for just over a year, I’ve shelved them and moved on to the new album Trouble & Love.”
I took a deep breath and suggested (tongue in cheek) that I thought that this might be a break-up album. Not for the first time, Gauthier laughed out loud.
“You could say it’s the break-up album to end all break-up albums! Not every song is as literal as they sound; but they are all based on things that happened in my life at that particular time.
“Thankfully I’ve moved on and I’m in a completely different place these days. I look back on the songs as documenting a moment in my life. Even though they are deeply personal, I have no problem singing them every night on stage.
“I treat this album as a type of novel with every song being a chapter. ‘When A Woman Goes Cold’, which opens the album, is a very dark song, but ‘Another Train’, which ends it is a song of hope: ‘Life goes on / there will always be another train along soon’… so it’s not all doom and gloom.
“Trouble & Love isn’t pop music and won’t appeal to everyone; but I think a lot of the songs will touch a nerve with people who listen to it.”
Gauthier is only playing one European concert this summer; and that is the Maverick Festival on Saturday 5th July, so I had to ask about that.
“Yes, I’m very excited about coming over because a lot of friends have appeared there in the last couple of years and tell me it’s the friendliest festival anywhere. When I was invited, I had to do some research because it’s in the middle of a tour across the US and Canada. But, I couldn’t resist. Plus I will be speaking at the Americana Conference on that Friday evening, which is quite an honour.
“I was actually over in the U.K. testing out the new songs earlier in the year, which was nerve-racking. But they were incredibly well-received, which was a relief. I’m just confirming dates for another U.K. tour in late October, so will see everyone then.”
Alan Harrison May 7th 2014