Interview: Mary Gauthier on her life’s journey to live in the continent of the heart

Credit: Alexa Kinigopoulos

Mixing folk and country with leftish politics to make music that can speak to the working class.

Mary Gauthier is a songwriter’s songwriter who was also fated to play her songs to an audience. She didn’t commence her professional career as a songwriter and musician until she was around forty years old, having used songwriting as part of her own recovery from various addictions in her earlier life. Her 2018 record ‘Rifles & Rosery Beads’ was written with veterans and their families and is now considered to be a landmark album on numerous levels. Her latest record, 2022’s ‘Dark Enough To See The Stars’, explores deep romantic love and grief at the loss of friends and heroes as we age. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Mary Gauthier as she was readying herself for her tour of Europe and the UK at home in Nashville to discuss the tour and her latest record. Mary Gauthier explained that the tour would be a theatre type show that reflects her own life’s journey, and would include stories, readings from her book, Saved By A Song’, and songs from all stages of her life and that she will be accompanied by her partner, Jamee Harris. The importance of Nanci Griffith and John Prine in helping her develop her own musical style is discussed in detail, as is the sense of loss as friends and heroes die. She also explains that while she is an extrovert on stage, personally she is an introvert, and this is what has pushed her to work with younger artists to co-write songs as it allows her to access social situations that avoid her sense of social anxiety, as well as helping her keep her finger on the pulse of exciting new writers.

How are things?

Busy, busy, we are doing lots of tour dates around the new record I’ve put out and I’ve never worked as many shows in a row, as many months in a row. It has been incredible but oh my God, haha.

It could be a lot worse.

I’m certainly not complaining, you don’t get to complain about success.

You have a tour and a new album, ‘Dark Enough To See The Stars’, but how easy was it to follow your landmark album ‘Rifles & Rosery Beads’ which was written with veterans and their families?

I have a blessing and a curse. The curse is I don’t look back, so I don’t remember a lot of what happened in the past, I have great memories of towns and people, but I can’t drop into time very well. It is something about doing 180 or 200 shows a year for so many years, my grasp on time is limited. Things are moving fast and sometimes I go to the same place two times a year, so I forget so much in relation to time. So, when I started working on this batch of songs I put the previous batch behind me, and I wasn’t thinking of it as a follow-up, and oh my God what do I do next because the last record made a big impact and I have to do that again. I don’t think that way, what I was thinking was that I need to write songs that speak to my experience now. These songs are in some ways interconnected, it is a story of deep romantic love, and deep grief from losing people I very much miss, like Nanci Griffith, David Olney, John Prine, and other people who aren’t nearly as famous and have died over the last two and a half years. Life has never been better, but I’m losing people. I think it is something to do with age, with John it was certainly the pandemic, and maybe we go through seasons in our life where we lose people, and this one for me has been very intense. So, of course, I’m going to write about it, and then couple that with my really beautiful relationship with my partner Jamee. We are coming on five years together, and it is really, really good. I just stayed focused on that, and the songs came.

You are 60, and the album includes remembrance of lost friends, and you are as successful as you’ve ever been, have your views on life changed?

I’m very driven, and I want to be a great artist, that is my focus, and it has always been my focus. Commercial success has never been my focus, though of course I want and need to make a living, what I’ve really longed for, and it seems that I now have, is the respect of my peers. I want my songs to resonate, I want to connect, and there is something incredible in having that. It is also in a way, intimidating because sometimes I look at my work and I’m like, I don’t know how I did that, and that is a strange feeling to be intimidated by your own work. I don’t know if other artists talk about this a lot, but it is a strange experience.

You co-write a lot, why does that work for you?

For me it is one way of socialising, I’m comfortable in that setting socially. I am pretty much an anxious person, I have a lot of anxiety, especially social anxiety. I’m not great at parties, and I’m not great at hanging around after the gig and talking, I want to pack up, get paid, and get back to the room. I’m pretty much an introvert, and I always have been, I’m an extrovert on stage but an introvert off it. So, co-writing is a way of spending hours and hours with another songwriter in a way that is comfortable for me, and I also get more songs written that way. I enjoy co-writing, it helps me to get to know other songwriters, and now I’m writing with much younger people which helps me stay aware of who the up-and-coming songwriters are and to see what is in their hearts and what they are doing. I just think it is a luxury to get to have that and pick my people who I want to spend time with.

Guy Clark was similar, wasn’t he?

He did and it kept him in touch with young people.

You came to songwriting later in life, did it take so long to find that songwriting is your mission in life?

Oh yeah, I wrote a whole book about that called ‘Saved By A Song’, and the arc of the story is that I had to get sober, I had a terrible problem with drugs and alcohol. I got sober when I was 27, and then I had to get stable to get sane, which takes five or six years after you get sober. It was during that period that I started writing songs. It was when I was 39, about ten or eleven years after I got sober, that I really decided I wanted to take music and songwriting seriously. I was 40 when I became a full-time musician which is a very late start, but it was perfect for me. It’s worked out grand, I’ve been in Nashville since 2001 and I’m 60 years old, I’ve had two major label records in Nashville, and only this year I’ve signed a major publishing deal, so I will be writing with more young artists. I continue to write songs for myself and put my own records out. It has all worked out great, but it all would never have happened if I hadn’t gotten sober. All of this has been about getting into recovery from addiction, using music and song to help me to heal and to stay sober, and that is what I wrote in my book, how music and song became a lifeline for me. It gave me a purpose, it gave me a platform to sort out how I got into so much trouble in the first place, and then pull up those problems by the roots but uncovering what was underneath those rocks, I processed it and began to heal. And I think that music and song is a really good way of doing this.

You are clearly in a lot better place than you were all those years ago.

I certainly am in a much better place, and I had a lot to heal from, and I’ve found peace and I am very, very grateful, haha.

You’ve worked again with Neilson Hubbard, what does he bring to your music?

Well, here’s the thing, I trust him 100%. I know he cares, and I know he will do his best, I like the process of just bringing a pile of songs to Neilson and saying you hire the band, you hire the studio, you figure out what we are going to do, and go do it. Tell me when and where we are going to do it. I don’t co-produce with him, I just write the songs, and he does a beautiful job. I fit with him, he is someone I can close my eyes and lean into without worrying, I know what he wants. He wants to make a great record, and I want to make a great record. He is good at it, and he stays busy, he is a workaholic like me, haha.

You have a tour coming up, what can fans expect this time?

I’m thinking of this as a theatre show. I’ve got my partner Jamee Harris with me, and she stays up with me and sings incredible harmonies, I will play songs I wrote in the early ‘90s and ones I’ve written last week. It is a career retrospective, I will read from my book, and I will tell stories. It is a journey through music and song up to being alive in the times that we live. I really enjoy a dark room, a quiet room, and a spotlight, and I am a true troubadour. I can take the audience along for a ride with songs, and having Jamee with me makes me happy, and it brings a lot to the sonic impact because she is not an ordinary singer. She can really layer her vocals against mine, to make my voice bigger, because my voice is my voice, and I’ve got what I’ve got there, and so having a little support around it from a very strong singer I find lifts my own ability to sing, actually. It makes the words of the song mean more, it is more beautiful, I think. People are loving it all around The States, and I can’t wait until I can bring it to England and Scotland.

What do you get from playing to a live audience?

For me, it just feels like what I’m supposed to be doing. It is my job, it is deeply connected to purpose, and it is my purpose to write songs and play them for people. So, what I get from it is a sense of rightness, it is what I’m supposed to be doing, and in life when you can have that feeling, it is a great gift.  So often we are asked to do things we don’t want to do or are not right for us. We don’t know what is right for us, we have never quite figured out what it is we are here for. I know what I’m here for and I know what I’m supposed to be doing, and that is a super-duper thing, I’m here to write songs and play. When people are sitting and listening, it just completes the sense of rightness. I’m going to connect emotionally with folks, and there is something that happens in that connection that I don’t control. I think in the end it gives this sense of connecting in a way that makes us all feel we are not alone. And that is a big deal, it is a lonely world out there, it is a divided world out there, it is treacherous, but for a little while with the lights down in the theatre telling stories and singing songs, we can become one, and it can transcend belief systems. It is living in the continent of the heart, and that is what I’m supposed to be doing. It gives me everything, it is purpose.

Who inspired your own musical journey, which artists are your core influences?

The big ones were Nanci Griffith and John Prine, and they both died in the last two years, so my heroes have gone, because they were both human, they were approachable. I mean Dylan and Springsteen, the rock star’s rock stars to me are unapproachable because they are so massive. I got to tour with Nanci and John, but even before that, they were approachable. It wasn’t that they weren’t icons, but that they weren’t so far away, is the best way I can say it. They showed me how to take a Southern sound, John is from Kentucky, Nanci’s from Texas, and I’m from Louisiana, and combine it with folk music, which in The States for so long has meant the Northeast, New England and New York. The Southern sound with liberal politics, leftish politics, a working class politics which is now this very angry form of popularism. There is this working class that country music used to reach pre-popularism and rage, that was really the music of the folks. It was before we had the word americana, it was the early days of inventing americana. It was country but folk, Nanci called it folkabilly, and they showed me a way of being an intelligent country singer, a country singer who is articulate and went to college and read books who still deeply connects with the working-class because though I have an education I didn’t come from money. I wasn’t of the upper class, I was of the working class, and that is the story of how I became me, it is about connecting with the original creators of americana music. It is folk and country, that is what it means to me.

What is Nashville like these days to live and work in?

It is complicated, it is a boom town that has grown so fast, and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people coming every month. There are more, and more, and more highrises being built and at any given time in the last decade there have been at least ten or more cranes around town building a highrise. It has grown so fast, that some things have gotten lost in that. The changes are so quick I come off the road, and I don’t know my town. Gretchen Peters has a song that starts with “I get lost in my hometown” and I know that feeling. On the other hand, I love Nashville, and I’m glad I got there when I got there. So, I can still remember the old Nashville which was a slow-moving friendly place that was built around the Opry being headquartered there and songwriters, I’m still being introduced to great songwriters and the level of talent in Nashville is amazing, there is so much creativity still. It used to be singular, it was country music, and now it is really diverse, there is so much going on, so many genres, and so many different kinds of things going on. There are still the songwriters, and Nashville is still a songwriter’s kind of town, and I’ve met many great songwriters this last year as I’ve tried to fulfil my obligations with this publishing deal, and I’m meeting with them all the time as I co-write with them. They are great, so many beautiful artists.

A very unfair question, but do you have a favourite cover of one of your own songs?

I love Boy George’s version of ‘Mercy Now’. I love it because he sings it in his voice, and he introduces an entirely new audience to my song, and he honours it with dignity, but he remains Boy George. I think it shows the durability of the song, and I think it shows a side of him he doesn’t often reveal. I think it is glorious, I love it, I love everything about it, haha.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you say which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top of your personal playlist?

I’m watching Brandi Carlile taking over the world, it is extraordinary, it is incredible, and she is selling out massive arenas without a hit.

She has a good drummer.

She has got a good everything, haha, and she is doing it from the ground up instead of the top down. She is rearranging the world, and she is doing it with a huge posse of beautiful, smart, gifted women, and I think she is just about the baddest thing going out here. She is a friend of mine, and I’m cheering her on. Alison Russel of course, I’ve known Alison for twenty years and she has really taken off and deservedly so. I’m watching how it works as well, it is not just about the magnitude of their talent, it is how they are doing it. It is not only as if I’m just listening to the music, but I’m also watching how they are doing it and they are doing it differently, and I think what they are doing is really transformative. It has got to have some major labels quaking because they are not doing it from the top down, they are doing it from the bottom up, and it is a very different model.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I love Americana UK, and I love that I got International Artist Of The Year in 2019, and I think the UK is an important part of the community and I appreciate all the support and I’m grateful to all of you who have been part of this journey I’ve been on, and I can’t wait until I get over in November.

Mary Gauthier’s ‘Dark Enough To See The Stars’ is out now on In The Black.

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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