Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton have all recorded her songs, but Mary is best when she gets personal. And she's never been more personal than with her 2010 album The Foundling, which tells the story – sometimes in stark honesty – of this adopted daughter's search for her birth mother. On stage, Gauthier can make you laugh one minute, and cry the next. We can all see ourselves in her work – sometimes in the most unexpected places.
After a switch from Gauthier's iPhone to her home phone, we had the great honor to talk shop with one of America's finest songwriters.
Mary Gauthier: Well, it's not difficult to get on stage and sing them. And a big part of me has moved on from... let me see if I can explain this in a way that makes sense to you. When I write through a subject matter, when I write my way out of something, it's like therapy, almost. It helps me move past it, through it, and make sense of the experience, and move on. So I would suppose you're thinking that I would have to re-live the experience every time I sing it?
Mary: But actually the opposite happens. I move past it. And it creates a new space for me to create from, too. It clears the deck, in a way, and gives me space in my head and heart to move forward as a creative person and create something new, now that I've created this. It creates an opening instead of a reenactment.
Songfacts: I see. I had a chance to see you perform at Stagecoach this last year.
Mary: Oh, yeah. The power outage gig.
Songfacts: Right. A couple of things happened. There was that, and then you waited to start your set until a guy got off the phone. Do you remember that?
Mary: Yeah, he was just talking away. He had no idea me and the audience were kind of waiting for him to finish his conversation there.
Songfacts: It reminded me of being in school when the teacher would say, "Okay, whenever you're ready."
Mary: Yeah, poor guy, he doesn't know that musicians aren't jukeboxes.
Songfacts: Is it frustrating for you when you play shows and you realize that - especially in Los Angeles - people go to shows not to see somebody but to be seen, and they're not really there to listen to music?
Mary: You know, I haven't had that experience at all in L.A. The last time I was there I played two nights at McCabe's, and you could hear a pin drop.
Songfacts: Well, McCabe's is special.
Mary: I don't generally play places like that. I'll play rock clubs. I play small theaters and listening rooms. I don't have to contend with that, because I'm generally solo or duo. I don't have a band, I don't have a wall of sound, so my agents put me in places that are suitable for the sound that I make, which is a pretty soft sound. I've got stories to tell, and I can't shout 'em. So I can't say I've been frustrated by it, because I don't have to deal with it most of the time. Every now and then, of course, there's going to be a drunk or a situation like Stagecoach where he was doing was completely inappropriate for the show he was waiting to see. He had no idea.
Songfacts: I'm still glad you called him out. You did the right thing.
Mary: It's a really good question, and I don't have a direct answer, because I can't really answer it. Just, in my heart I know that no matter how much of a struggle it is, that love is worth it, and that without love, I'm just doomed. But with love, I'll be okay. And the human reaction to pain over love is to pull back from it. Certainly I've done my share of that. But in the end, it's not possible to live that way. It goes against our nature. And it's deadly and soul destroying to live that way. And so at some point it is a choice: you can choose to believe - faith is a choice. It's called faith because you don't have facts to base it on. There's no objective truth, there's no scientific analysis that's going to make it true or false. It's faith. You don't have proof. You just make a choice and believe. And I figured out that love is like that. You make a decision and believe. And if it fails you in a certain situation, that doesn't mean it's going to fail you in the next one. It's a decision, it really is.
Songfacts: As a songwriter, you sing a lot about what you experience, and you've lived a life that, quite frankly, is an exceptional life. I mean, you've had some adventure.
Mary: (laughing) I'd say.
Songfacts: To put it mildly. Do you need to experience those kinds of events to be a good songwriter, or is it something that maybe somebody that hasn't had that kind of a background can still write those kinds of songs having not experienced it?
Mary: I don't think you have to go through what I've gone through to be a songwriter, no. I think that fundamentally, just being alive is so mysterious and so fascinating and so interesting that you just have to be awake and look and realize what a miracle and mystery life itself is to be a writer. You've got to suffer if you want to sing the blues. David Bromberg said that a long time ago. I have friends that married their childhood sweetheart and they have a house full of kids, and they have the most normal, healthy, no alcohol, no drugs, no craziness life, and amazing songs can pour out of them. Just from the love of their children. Just love of their creator, or the love of each other. So songwriting is about love and lack of love. And pretty much, that's it. There's two things to write about: love and lack of love. And oftentimes mine have been about lack of love. I don't think that that's the only kind of songs that there are, I would love, love, love to write a straightforward, happy love song. And I want to live long enough to have one of those come through me. But I appreciate the ones that other people have written, absolutely.
Songfacts: I imagine that there are people that have heard this new album and their story parallels to some degree your story. Have you had many encounters with people that have experienced that?
Mary: Oh, gosh, there's just so many. I'm getting hundreds of stories, thousands of stories at this point. Every night after the show people come up and tell me bits and pieces of their story, and every time I get a little bit of national exposure, like an NPR piece or something, I get e-mails and e-mails and e-mails, and I'm finding that there's something really magical that happens when you tell your story - people want to tell you their story. And it's a sacred place to be, to meet a stranger and get their story in a way that maybe their own brother doesn't know it. It's an amazing job, and I don't take it lightly. I realize that I have a job that many, many people want. And I'm grateful for my job. I do really appreciate being a musician.
Songfacts: Isn't it exciting? Because music is just background sounds to some people. But it's almost as if your music acts as therapy. And I'll bet you never imagined that you would be used in that way when you first started, did you?
Mary: I had no idea. The artist creates to save themselves. Almost always. And if other people can get in the lifeboat with us, we're just thrilled. I don't think we assume that's ever going to happen. It's creating like a little ministry. Certainly not a Christian ministry, it's sort of a ministry of creativity, a ministry of song. I think that historically that's what artists were about: telling an audience, "Here's what I feel like, do you feel that way?" And everybody kind of going, "We all feel that way." And it's an ancient art, storytelling and singing songs. It helps us to figure out how we fit into the human community. I listen to songs by Willie Nelson and think, Gosh, if Willie's been through that, then me going through that can't be all bad. We compare ourselves to the singers and songs that speak to us and get some relief from that.
Songfacts: There was an article in the LA Times about Neil Young and Daniel Lanois, and they worked together on an album. And Daniel Lanois was saying that one of the reasons he got into music was that he felt like songwriters, these heroes of his, had some sort of an insight into the mysteries of life that he could only discover by studying what they do. Did you feel that way when you were growing up, when you heard particular songwriters that impressed you that maybe they had some sort of secret knowledge that you wanted to tap into somehow?
Mary: Yeah, absolutely. That's so well put. That's exactly how I would say it. In fact, I would go further. I would say that I trusted the songs on the radio more than I trusted what my parents were telling me. I think that they were more honest, at that time, although I think we're a long way from that with the radio now. But when I was a kid, the DJs were allowed to play what they wanted to play. And they played what they loved. They played from their heart. And it was just a different way of being a tastemaker. It wasn't done by one guy programming 40 stations. Each DJ was an artist in and of himself/herself. And they created a pallet, and they were able to paint. And it really spoke to me.
Songfacts: I talk to a lot to artists about the state of the music business, and the business itself is not all that healthy. But it would seem to me that someone like you, that hearkens back to the old school of the itinerant traveling troubadour, that you probably have an advantage over other artists that are dependent upon selling product to survive, whereas that's really not what you do. You go from town to town and tell stories. Do you think the direction of the music business in sort of an odd way is actually working in your favor?
Mary: No, I don't. Because I have a hard time reaching an audience, because there's a million voices screaming for attention, and it's very hard to connect with the people that would like what I do if I could just reach them. I think there's probably an advantage to what I do in the sense that it's not expensive: I put a guitar on my back and hop in my car and hop around. I don't have all of the burden of so many musicians, of buying seven plane tickets and seven hotel rooms and seven meals, and all of the infrastructure that's involved in shipping all that gear. What I do is fairly inexpensive. So my overhead flow, that may be the big advantage.
Songfacts: What are you trying to do to get past that barrier and reach your audience? Is the label working with you to somehow get around the system that maybe creates a wall between you and your audience?
Mary: Oddly enough, the label is the system. So I'm on my own with that. And the best thing that I can do that I'm aware of is to connect when people come. How to get more people to come, I don't know. But I try to give all I've got when people come. Like you saw at Stagecoach, you just give everything you've got, like Springsteen used to do in the old days and probably still does. Until there's nothing left, you just give it all, and hope that's what people want, that people will remember it and tell their friends. My thing is to always move forward. It just moves forward very, very slowly. It's not moving backwards. We're talking small numbers here. It's not big. And yet it was never intended to be big, it was intended to be real.
Songfacts: It's interesting, when you said that, it's almost like how they're talking about the economic recovery. You have these small percentages of increase, but it's almost imperceptible. Which I imagine is frustrating.
Mary: In my traveling, I don't see it at all. I see people having a hard time. People come up to the CD table, and want to buy one, and hardly look me in the eye, and I can tell they really want one, but they can't afford it because they just paid $20 for the ticket, and they can't afford to spend $50.
Songfacts: And that's hard, because you want to put the music in their hands, but at the same time you've got to feed yourself and take care of yourself, right?
Mary: Right. And I've got to deal with the fact that it's 19 to 1, 19 downloaded for free for every one that's sold. That's where we are right now and it's getting worse. So I'm trying to figure out a different way of making a living besides just selling music. We're in the transition phase; everybody's going to have to figure it out how to make money outside of selling music, because that's not going to make money.
Songfacts: Right. It's kind of a scary place, because the system that always seemed to work at least fairly well - for some, not for all - is not really in place. So it's kind of a brave new world, isn't it?
Mary: It is. And nobody knows how it's gonna shake down, and nobody knows what's coming. And everybody's in fear for their job, but there's an advantage for me: I'm not in fear for my job. I know that I can put my guitar in the car and go play music and survive. I just know I can. I've proven that over the last 15 years or so. I don't know what parts of the infrastructure will survive and what will be different tomorrow, but everybody knows it's headed somewhere fast.
Songfacts: I'm guessing that you've written quite a bit of music since The Foundling. Are you working on new music?
Mary: No, actually, I'm working on a book.
Songfacts: You are?
Mary: Yeah, I've been working really hard trying to pull this book together. And I'm getting there. I hadn't written a book before. I'm used to this short form, so writing in long form I tend to labor over every word, and then pull back and realize that I didn't get it yet. But I'm learning how to write a book right now, and that's been my focus. I've been on the road since March (2010), almost nonstop with this record. And it goes through January. So it'll be about a solid year on the road. There hasn't been much time for the music writing, because I need quite a bit of head space for that, but sometimes in the hotel in the morning I work on the book and move that forward just a little bit every day.
Songfacts: What can you tell me about the book? Is it a work of fiction?
Mary: No, I'm gonna call it creative non-fiction. Because I'm not sure if it's exactly a memoir. But it's going to tell the story of The Foundling in a bigger way. It's going to go into vignettes that I wasn't able to go into in the songwriting process. And more information about the developmental years and the childhood, and probably a lot more information about recovery and that character becoming capable of saying, "I believe in love." How do you get there from such trauma? I don't know the answer. That's why I'm writing the book, because I don't know the answer. People ask me, but I don't know. But I did it, so I gotta figure how I did it and the way usually for me to figure it out is to write it out.
Songfacts: What are your relationships with your birth mother and your adoptive parents?
Mary: Well, I have no relationship with my birth mother because she just can't bring it in herself to meet me.
Mary: That's it, yep.
Songfacts: Oh, wow. So that's where it started and ended, huh?
Mary: That's it. Unless I choose to go knock on her door, which I might one day. But I might not. I don't know. I feel like I should respect her desires. Although a part of me feels as though I should know where I came from. I feel as though she should tell me who my father is, but she doesn't want to. So I just don't know what to do with that, so every day that goes by, I know one day she's not going to be with us anymore, but I just don't know what to do. So that one's kind of dangling there in limbo. But interestingly, telling the story has brought me closer to my adoptive mother.
Songfacts: Oh, good.
Mary: And that's somewhat of a happy ending, because we've always had these undertones that we haven't been able to talk about. And in my usual fashion, instead of talking about it with her, I just made a record. It's easier, actually, than talking one to one. And she has come to see the songs as healing, for me and other people. She sees other adoptees in the audience responding, and she's positive about it. I think it's a positive thing. So it's taken a turn for the better there.
Songfacts: Your number is a 615 number, are you in Nashville?
Mary: Yeah, I live in Nashville.
Songfacts: You don't seem like the Nashville type. That's a compliment.
Mary: Oh, you know, there's a lot of people here that are under the radar that are really interesting people that have artists careers. And that's not what you think, you know? The recognizable Nashville characters are just the very tip of the iceberg here. There's a really, really cool creative community in this town.
Songfacts: You've had some country artists record your songs. What are some of the ones that stand out?
Mary: Well, I'm really happy that Jimmy Buffet recorded one of my songs. A country artist named Blake Shelton recorded one of my songs.
Songfacts: Which song did Blake record?
Songfacts: He's perfect for it, too.
Mary: Yeah, I guess so. And I've had a few other cuts, but I haven't had a publisher working my songs in the past few years. I've just been so busy, I haven't really focused on that, because I'm surviving on my artist career. If I put a little more focus on that, I think it would make a lot of sense right now after I get off the road with this record. That's a whole 'nother full-time job, you know?
Songfacts: Right. Well, maybe not so much the songs on this album, because this album's so personal, but on your previous album, there were a lot of great story songs on it. And people say that what's great about country music is the story songs, but I don't hear nearly as many as there ought to be. And I think there'd be a lot of artists that could really benefit from recording some of those songs. So I encourage you to pursue that angle.
Mary: Yeah, I really want to, and I know where I want to go, I just haven't had a chance. But thanks for the encouragement. Because I know I need the revenue for one, but just the thought of going up and down music row looking for a publisher again, it just intimidates me and like you said, I'm not what you would think of as a Nashville character, and in order to go do that I have to go shake hands with a lot of those guys. It's just intimidating.
Songfacts: Right. It's like a job interview, and having to answer those questions and smile that fake smile.
Mary: It's exactly the same thing. I'd rather just go play the next little club than walk up and down music row with my bag of songs. (laughing) But one day I will, because I have to.
Songfacts: Hopefully, they're receptive. Because I love what you do, and this album, it's kind of funny, when I first got it, it was hard to listen to it all the way through, because it's so honest and real. And it stands out from so much of what I hear in music. So thank you for making great music.
Mary: You're very welcome. Thank for putting yourself through it to listen to it. If you just get to the end, it's not as hard. But I know that it challenges an audience. I know that. And on the good side of the news, a lot of therapists have written to me and told me they're using it in their work with adoptees. So I'm happy about that.
Songfacts: How cool is that? That is so cool.
Mary: I know, that's really what I want to be doing. Ultimately my job, for real, is to be of service. I think that's where I'm at my happiest, and I think that's what I'm supposed to be doing as an artist. I'm never going to sell a million records, but if I can be of service in some way that's of use to people that are in pain, man, that's what I want to do. Really what I want to do.
We spoke with Mary on October 22, 2010. Her website is marygauthier.com.
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