Mary Gauthier has to feel that life is full of the gloriously unexpected.
Twenty-nine years after she stopped drinking cold turkey and twenty-two after she wrote her first song, the very humble Gauthier is now considered one of folk Americana’s most moving and talented songwriters, lauded with a wide range of praise and respect worldwide, recently Grammy-nominated, and just named International Artist of the Year by The Americana Association UK.
But it’s her relentless drive and an innate belief in herself that has helped her conquer the demons and beat the odds. “Well, you know, I’ve always been classic alcoholic, which is really an egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” Gauthier, 57, told me as she began the next leg of her tour that brings her to DC’s City Winery on March 24th.
“So part of me was convinced that I sucked and should never appear in public ever, and the other part of me was pretty sure I had a good shot at this if I just stuck to what I loved, which was the Hank Williams/John Prine/Woody Guthrie school of songwriting. Basically three chords and the truth. So I dreamed, I had wild and crazy dreams when I started. And I also had a deep sense of self-loathing and conviction that I was out of my [expletive] mind. Those two were very powerful. And they’ve stabilized somewhat and I’m pretty much now aware of, well, just quit thinking in either direction and do the work.”
But almost more unexpected than the overcoming of her demons and her overwhelming success is the life-changing experience she has had over the last six years intimately writing and composing songs with military veterans, culminating in her critically-acclaimed 2018 Grammy-nominated folk record Rifles and Rosary Beads, which includes songs she wrote with those veterans, and garnered her Best Album of The Year honors at the International Folk Music Awards. Rolling Stone called it “one of the most vital pieces of art to come out of those two wars.”
“I’ve been writing with the veterans now for six years,” Gauthier said. “I think what I’ve learned the most from working with the veterans is just how powerful songs are when applied to trauma. To use music to help express ineffable trauma. And then how that can go into the world and tell stories that are really important and can … deepen people’s understanding. In this case, soldiers, who feel as though people don’t have any idea what a soldier does.”
As she has worked more and more with veterans, Gauthier has seen how songwriting has helped them get back some of what they lost after coming home a mere shell of their formal self, and has possibly even saved some lives.
“It helps people who’ve been disconnected through that trauma to reconnect. And that connection, of course, is healing. Isolation and removal can lead to suicide. And in our country, we’re dealing with a crisis of suicide with our veterans in particular.”
Gauthier was challenged when she first started playing with the veterans, taking on such a powerful and emotional responsibility, and having to turn songs around fairly quickly, wondering whether she could even make a little bit of a difference. Turns out, she sure did.
“Music can go to places that language can’t reach alone,” the infinitely thoughtful Gauthier explained. “And I find that matching a melody to the story I’m being told is a very powerful thing. And I’m given a short period of time to do this at the retreat, and at first that was extremely daunting to me, and now, I’m grateful.
“Because we don’t want to overthink it. You just tell the story the way they’ve told it to me, and write a simple three-chord thing that gets to what they’re saying … it’s about listening more than talking.”
Gauthier hasn’t changed her songwriting process much since she started doing it a couple decades or so back. And the magnificent emotion she relates through her music is just something that’s inherent in her and her musical journey.
“I’m still going at it the way I always have, which is simply. You know, I don’t have a music education, I can’t read music, I throw a capo on the neck and hit a G chord and I’m not exactly sure what key I’m in. I have a very simplistic understanding of music theory. But I have I guess I’d call it sort of a natural gift for pairing melody with story in a way that creates emotion.”
Relentless dedication is what really drives Gauthier, her innate need to keep at it, keep working, and find the right words that will continue to move her audiences often to tears with the depth and beauty of her songs.
“It’s not going to happen if I don’t put the time in, and it’s not going to happen if I don’t apply myself to it, and it’s not going to happen if I don’t have patience. I’ve yet to wake up and dictate a song that came from a dream, you know, I’m not that kind of writer.
Mary Gauthier has made it this far and is truly thriving, and she sees no end in sight as long as she keeps at it, head down, nose to the grindstone. And lucky for her growing legion of fans across the globe, it seems like she has alot more incredible music to come.
“It’s just a matter of staying in the game, it would appear, that you just don’t quit, and doors start to open at some point. I can’t just stop. I gotta keep going, even when it feels like garbage, even when it sounds stupid, even when I’m convinced this sucks … just keep going. So I guess that’s the wisdom of 25 years. And the journey continues.”