Mary Gauthier’s songs of pain and hope help others who’ve been there.
For a songwriter, writing a love song is arguably a good bit easier than writing about something really difficult, or gut-wrenching, or downright agonizing. The energy, fortitude, pain and guts it takes to dig down deep into a very dark place and come up with not only brilliance, but healing properties is the mark of a real special someone.
Mary Gauthier humbly breathes that rarified air. She could probably write a beautiful, heart-shredding song about a paper bag, but her trademark is raw, pain infused, yet hope-laced Americana/country-esque music, and she writes it not just for the hard-fought exorcism of her own demons, but also to let others know they’re not alone.
“I think I understand that whatever the hell I’m goin’ through, particularly the hard stuff, it’s a human situation; it’s not just a Mary Gauthier situation,” Gauthier said. “And because I get that, that the universal happens inside of all of us, I get that it’s the artist’s job to convey that to people who don’t spend their life making art, but are consumers of art. Artists articulate for people things that are hard to say. Now, I see it as my job. This is what I do. That doesn’t make it easier to do, but it makes it a viable thing to aim for, just to get to the hard stuff and say it in a way that everybody can hear it. I mean, that’s what Hank Williams did.”
And it’s not a stretch to say that Williams would dig what Gauthier is doing. The almost 53-year-old New Orleans native has had her own share of hard times — her first years in an orphanage, bouts with booze and drugs, even a little jail time — but she came through it all the wiser and began a musical journey that has seen her become one of the world’s most revered, emotionally honest songstresses to come along in a long time. She didn’t write a song until she was 35, and in the almost 18 years since then, she has joined a small group of truly miraculous singer/songwriters who bare all – a group that is becoming increasingly rare as music continues down the clogged road of one hit, mass appeal successes.
Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay) knows that what she is best at is telling stories that matter to people in their heart and soul, that hit home and stay there. Anyone who’s had one of their tunes chosen as one of Rolling Stone’s saddest country songs of all time (“Mercy Now“) clearly knows what she’s doing in that vein.
“I think that’s what a singer/songwriter’s job is; it’s very different than being a pop star,” Gauthier said. “A pop star’s supposed to entertain. We’re supposed to entertain, but we’re also supposed to resonate. A pop star’s supposed to be somehow more sexy, more interesting, more able to dance, more beautiful in the spotlight. And for a singer songwriter, none of that is important to us. First of all, we don’t dance. Second of all, most of us are not classically trained vocalists or guitarists, so we’re just kinda winging it. What the singer songwriter tends to do is to be a heart and soul barer, a troubadour so to speak. And there’s not many left because there’s not a lot of money in it. It’s a calling. And it has to come from a place outside of you. You sign up for it not based on career trajectory, but based on this voice that won’t let you do it any other way.”
But Gauthier is much more than just a powerful and soul-baring singer/songwriter; she’s a teacher of songwriting, and these days is doing it not only to help budding songwriters learn the ropes, but to use it as a healing tool. Case in point: her passionate involvement with Songwriting for Soldiers, where she works with veterans who have some level of songwriting aspiration and some deep trauma they need to unleash. A recent experience she shares in depth on her website is that of a young soldier who had fought in Iraq who told her that, among other things, “my soul hurts.” Gauthier got him to open up about his experiences and the two wrote “Rifles and Rosary Beads.”
“What I know to be true is that songwriting helps heal trauma,” Gauthier said. “And so I teach people to find the thing that the song is trying to get them to say. Usually the songwriters are afraid to say it, because it makes them so utterly vulnerable. And yet if the artist is no longer willing to be vulnerable, then we’re f—ed. Because there’s nobody left. So I teach them to get out on a limb and say it, and then look in the eyes of everyone in the room and see the resonance. Their embarrassing or traumatic situation turns out to be quite universal, and the people listening are grateful to have been in the presence of someone brave enough to talk about it. I love it, and there’s not that many people teaching this angle of songwriting.”
Trauma abounds on her latest record. The staggeringly honest and powerful “Trouble & Love” is another example of Gauthier taking her personal pain and throwing it out there for all to see, in the hopes that it gives her some freedom from the pain, but also gives someone a salve, or at least a common voice, as well.
“The songs are about a particularly difficult breakup that I went through,”Gauthier reflected, “but even though the subject matter was painful, there’s a lot of hope in there too. Bettye Levette recorded one of the songs on the record. It’s called “Worthy” and she made it the title track of her new record. And so she’s out there on the road with this record called “Worthy,” and she talks about this track “Worthy,” and she says, ‘You know at my age  you’d think I wouldn’t have to claim that I’m worthy. It’s embarrassing, in a way, to do it. And in another way, I have to do it.’ And that’s kinda how I feel. It’s embarrassing in a way, and in another way, it’s like well, I’m just a human being and I don’t pretend to have understood my self worth until I nearly lost everything.”
Gauthier’s open, yet subtle, presence as a gay woman in her personal and professional life has also enabled her honesty and creative emotion to flourish. GLAAD felt the same way, honoring her with a nomination for Outstanding Music Artist in this year’s GLAAD Media Awards. Gauthier said she’s deeply honored and glad that the experiences of the LGBT community are getting more exposure, as evidenced by the recent success of the Netflix series “Transparent,” which was created and produced by friends of hers.
“I’m blown away by it, and that my friends are behind it is jaw dropping to me,” Gauthier said with obvious pride. “I’ve known Faith [Soloway] since 1990, and I worked with her and [Transparent creator] Jill [Soloway] on the Misspoke America pageant. They got their finger on the zeitgeist right now, they’re very, very, very good. I thought the whole story was gonna be about [Jeffrey Tambor‘s character] and his coming out as a woman later in life, but it’s not. The story is equally about all three of the kids, and their narcissism and inability to get their shit together, how all three are just so f—ed up. And they’re f—ed up in the exact same ways me and my friend’s are f—ed up. You recognize the shit that they do; it’s like, oh God, this almost hurts because I’ve done that and I know where this leads. The characters are so recognizable. You’d think that just the whole father coming out as a woman would suck the story away, but it doesn’t. They are amazing writers.”
Joining Gauthier for a short run in March, including a March 19th appearance at Jammin Java, is longtime friend Allison Moorer. The respected singer/songwriter experienced the kind of horror no child should ever have to endure: the murder suicide of her parents. But the memories of that trauma bonded Moorer and Gauthier, just as Gauthier bonds with her audience through shared experiences.
“I first met her when she was with [ex-husband] Steve Earle,” Gauthier said. “We’ve both had, well, I hate to use the words similarly traumatic experiences, but we both have struggled in similar ways. And our songs reflect our struggles. I really admire [Allison]. I think she’s a hugely resilient person, and it’s an honor for me to be able to roll down the highway with her. She’s a real talent and a beautiful, beautiful person. And to come out on the other side able to create from it, to take the beast and make beauty from it, that’s what a true artist does.”
Mary Gauthier and Allison Moorer perform March 19th at Jammin Java, 227 Maple Ave E, Vienna, VA 22180. Tickets are available here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.