Five Questions: Mary Gauthier
There’s something incredibly poetic about Mary Gauthier, and it infuses everything about her. It’s in her language and diction, it’s in her work, and it’s in her life — past, present, and future. The thing is, poetry isn’t always red roses and blue violets. Sometimes, poetry is a teenage runaway who falls into addiction and sobriety. Other times, it’s a renowned chef who becomes a songwriter well into a successful career. In Gauthier’s case, it’s all of the above — including an occasional red rose and a rare blue violet.
With her latest offering, Trouble and Love, Gauthier turns her poetic license and lens to matters of the heart, her own and others’. It’s a nine-song cycle that is most revelatory if taken as a whole, for the rose smells even sweeter only once you know the prick of its thorn.
Kelly McCartney: It seems like you find characters for songs just about anywhere and everywhere you look. Have you always viewed life through song-colored glasses or did you teach yourself to do that?
Mary Gauthier: Listening for songs is something songwriters train themselves to do. It becomes an antenna, this listening, and after a while it’s just a part of you, integrated into who you are. I am a songwriter who came to this work later in life, so I’ve had to learn the craft as an adult. The antenna had to be installed into my thick skull through prayer and desire! But, sooner or later, being a full-time songwriter became a way of life; it permeated all parts of me. My ears are always listening for the next title, the next story, the next melody. My eyes are always focused on details I might incorporate into a song. And my heart is constantly aware of the fact that songs are what feelings sound like. So, as I feel my emotions, I tend to try and sing them, and find a story to place them into. Like I said, being a songwriter is a way of life.
When you’re in a writing session, how do you adapt your style, mood, and/or approach to your co-writers’, particularly if they are coming from a completely different place?
If I am in a co-write, with someone who is a writer, then we usually try to find a way into a song that we both want to write. If I am in a co-write with a writer who is looking to write with me to help them articulate their own vision, then I see my job as trying to assist… to support their process. If I am in a co-write with a non-writer, a soldier for example, then my work is to find the title in what they are telling me, and find the melody in that title, then ask them questions and listen, listen, listen to their answers. Listen to their voice, to their experience… try to find the universal in it, try to find the thread that I can pull that can open up their story. With the soldiers, there are so many stories that the hard part is narrowing it down to the one that feels most important to them.
You’ve been writing with veterans quite a bit lately. Tell me what that has meant to you, both professionally and personally.
Songwriting is empathy, for self and for others. Songs are a soul expressing itself. Songs are like white blood cells, coagulants for the heart/soul. They come rushing in when there is a wound. Songs often come to a songwriter to help heal emotional blows so low that their frequencies reverberate in a body and soul for a lifetime. At their best, songs are not products for a marketplace; they are spiritual medicine for a world gone wrong. Humans can get out of sync with each other, out of rhythm. Trauma does this to us in an instant, removes us from our life, and it removes us from each other. Songs can help us return.
The soldiers come to the retreat wounded inside. Removed. Traumatized. I doubt you can live through combat without being traumatized. War is traumatic. Songs are a way past the silence that trauma always brings, into the possibility of mutual comprehension. Deep resonance with each other is possible, when we sing together and show our hearts in song. Songs help re-set the balance in the direction of connection, truth, and freedom. Connection is the opposite of trauma; trauma is the opposite of connection. It’s a great blessing to me to be able to help the vets reconnect. I believe it is the right use of my gift, and I find it deeply fulfilling.
The idea that songs are the soul’s way of healing the heart… as a songwriter, do you get more healing from the tunes you write or can it come from outside sources, as well?
Well, this is a big question. Healing is a buzzword, a catchphrase that we use in a variety of ways. But what are we really talking about when we talk about healing the heart? For me, when I talk about healing, I am usually talking about healing trauma, through grief. Working through the stages of grief to find acceptance and peace. My songs are a lifeline to me, a lifeline from my soul to my heart to the heart of others then back to my heart. The songs connect me to myself and to others. That’s a healing process. But there are many others as well… 12 Step Programs, therapy, long walks in the hills of Tennessee, coffee shop conversations with young artists, meditation, prayer, long hot baths with essential oils… the list can go on and on.
Your new record reflects that healing sentiment and feels like an incredibly transformative journey that the listener can either observe or take. How does it feel to lay your heart out for all the world to hear?
I don’t think about that. It’s not my concern, really, to worry about how I feel revealing myself. What I am mostly concerned with is laying it out right and true, laying it out with integrity and honesty. I want my songs to reflect my humanity, and my connection to the universal. There’s nothing that I’ve been through that millions of other people haven’t already been through before me. My job is to convey human experience in a way that people connect to stories. It’s the best job in the world, and to keep it, I have to stay vulnerable. To that, I say yes!