Mary Gauthier:

Stories of Loss and Triumph

By Terry Roland

Mary GauthierIf great art depends upon the reflection of the artist's soul in their work, then the act of songwriting can be a daunting, sometimes risky, and intimate experience. A painter, a poet or a writer can leave such reflections on the canvas or the printed page. The songwriter however, often finds her works full realization in performance before a live audience. Once a song is captured in the studio, in the hands of singer-songwriter, Mary Gauthier (who comes to town this Saturday at The Mint in Los Angeles) they continue to grow through her words and melodies' deeply personal yet universal stories. I spoke with her about her work during a recent phone interview.

After a series of consistently engaging albums dating back to 1997, Gauthier has released her first live album titled Live at Blue Rock. The results are electrifying. The songs may be familiar to those who have followed her studio recordings. But, to the uninitiated, Live at Blue Rock is a good place to begin.

However, it has been a long time coming. According to Gauthier in a recent phone interview there are complications involved with live records these days. "They are a hard sale these days. Because of technology, so many people are able to access good live performances." She said. "But, we did this one at Blue Rock (a studio near Austin, Texas) and everybody said it sounded so good, we should release it. We mostly decided to put it out because of the requests from so many people."

Her sometimes fictional songs portray characters on their way to some kind of redemption but the stories and people who inhabit the songs are reflected through an empathetic lyrical lens. This allows us to identify and feel their sorrow and their hope. These are sometimes dark characters lost and alone told in the first person like The Last of the Hobo Kings, about the passing of an era – with images of hobos and vagabonds. Karla Faye Tucker tells an empathetic but honest story of the first woman to be executed by the state of Texas since the Civil War. Songs like these demonstrate Gauthier's unique ability to get inside the skin of her characters to tell her story, much like a good novelist. Like most of her work there is a clear-eyed look into the stories of people too often disregarded.

But according to Gauthier, her characters come from a specific place in her imagination. "They have a southern Gothic's permeated my work. Not just south of the Mason Dixon Line, but deep south, Gulf south." She added, "It's Louisiana...It's the smell of the gulf air...dark, heavy Mississippi crazy it's that twistedness in the characters that makes for great art."

The truth inherent in work resides in the fact that she has also lived the life she sings about. At 15, she ran away from the Louisiana home of her adopted family. She struggled throughout her life with her sexual identity and family of origin. The intervening years led her into a maze of substance abuse and a life on the streets that has colored all her songs. Through these years, she managed to go to college as a philosophy major at Louisiana State University ending up at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. She spent a decade running her own restaurant in Boston. She found her way to sobriety in 1990. The clarity she found in living a drug and alcohol free life led her to music. She wrote her first song when she was 35 and she hasn't stopped. Her first album was named after her Boston restaurant, Dixie Kitchen and since then it has been non-stop touring and recording.

Her songs weave her own stories into her characters based on what she has seen throughout her life. Near the end of Live at Blue Rock, she recalls her beginnings on the song that became the title of her second album, Drag Queen and Limousines:

I stole mama's car on a Sunday and left home for good

Moved in with my friends in the city, in a bad neighborhood

Charles was a dancer, he loved the ballet

And Kimmy sold pot and read Kerouac and Hemingway.

But, it’s her conclusion that rings with truth:

Sometimes you got do, what you gotta do

And hope that the people you love will catch up with you

Drag queens in Limousines

Nuns in blue jeans

Dreamers with big dreams

All took me in

During the course of our interview it became clear that the fuel which drives her music and her life crystallized in her now classic and hidden track on the new album, Mercy Now.

As our conversation turned toward what is probably her best known and most covered song, she took things to a deeper level when she said, "That song just came through me. It has hit nerve in that it seems like it's what people have been waiting to hear.." She continued, "We connect through our vulnerability. We connect at our point of weakness not strength. That's what Mercy Now, is about. There's an ever deepening sense of that. It's not in successes that we meet each other, but in our failures. It comes from sorrows. There is a real beauty in that."

It is a song of comfort. When I told her it reminded me of a really good 12-step meeting, she replied, "Exactly! The mercy is that it could be me - the one whose building collapses or that person with cancer. I could have that diagnosis." She continued, "There's an empathy that comes from being in recovery." She said. "I feel like God gave me those 'between hell and hollowed ground." I just took a deep breath closed my eyes and before I even thought about it, those words came out." She continued, "They aren't Mary Gauthier. It's like the song came through a lightning bolt."

Although, Gauthier's story is about loss, it's also about redemption. She found it in the art of songwriting. If home is not always a place but discovery, then art and the act of songwriting has become her home. "When I started writing, after I got sober, it felt like coming home to me. I had been saturated in alcohol, heroin, Xanax and pain pills, this gumbo mixture of madness." She said. "I don't think I'd be able to stay sober if I didn't write songs." Then she concluded with an insight that captures what makes Live at Blue Rock an important live album. "Songs are what feelings sound like. It's a magic connection with feelings and with the audience." This is the best any artist in any medium can offer. Mary Gauthier has reflected that connection throughout her career, but never as clearly as on this new album.

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude’ at an early age.