Mary Gauthier’s songs of pain and hope help others who’ve been there.

By Steve Houk

Mary Gauthier and Allison Moorer play Jammin Java on March 19th (courtesy Jack Spencer)

Mary Gauthier plays Jammin Java with Allison Moorer on March 19th (courtesy Jack Spencer)

For a songwriter, writing a love song is arguably a good bit easier than writing about something real difficult, or gut-wrenching, or downright agonizing. The energy and fortitude and 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, no bull, pain infused, yet hope-laced roots/Americana/countryesque music, and she writes it not just for the hard-fought exorcism of her own demons, but also to let others know, hey, you’re not alone, I’ve been beaten down, too, so let’s sit by the fire and talk.

“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 told me during our recent conversation. “And because I get that, that the universal happens inside of all of us, I get it that it’s the artist’s job to convey that to people who don’t spend their life making art, but who 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 to say, 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 have dug what Mary Gauthier is doing. The almost 53 year old New Orleans born singer songwriter 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 and other miracles like her are best at is to tell stories that matter to people in their heart and soul, that hit home and stay there. I mean, 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 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 (laughs). Second of all, most of us are not classically trained vocalists or guitarists, so we’re just kinda winging it. So 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 to learn the ropes, but to use it as a healing tool. Case in point, her passionate involvement with Songwriting for Soldiers, which is, well, just what it sounds like: working with veterans who have both 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, that “my soul hurts.” Gauthier got him to open up about his experiences and the two wrote “Rifles and Rosary Beads” which you can hear here. Go ahead, play it, you won’t soon forget it, and then keep reading.

“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, 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. That their embarrassing or traumatic situation turns out to be quite universal, and that the people who are 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.”

(courtesy Mary Gauthier)

(courtesy Mary Gauthier)

And trauma abounds on her latest record, the staggeringly honest and powerful “Trouble & Love”, which is another example of Gauthier taking her personal pain and throwing it out there for all to see, in the hopes that it not only gives her some freedom from the pain, but can give someone a salve or at least a common voice as well.

“The songs are about a particularly difficult breakup that I went through,” said Gauthier reflectively, “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’…she’s 70…’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, and GLAAD felt the same way, honoring her with a nomination for Outstanding Music Artist in this year’s GLAAD Media Awards. Gauthier is deeply honored, and is also glad herself that the experiences of the LGBT community are getting more exposure, as evidenced by the recent success of the Netflix produced series “Transparent”, which was created and is 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 their 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 character’s 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 date March 19th at Jammin Java, is longtime friend Allison Moorer, a respected singer songwriter in her own right, and who, along with her sister, stellar award-winning singer Shelby Lynne, experienced the kind of horror no children should ever have to endure, the murder suicide of their 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,” said Gauthier. “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] and her sister, I think they are hugely resilient people, and it’s an honor for me to be able to roll down the highway with her. I think 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


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