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Mary Gauthier's Photo

Mary Gauthier

In a Nashville bookstore, to the tune of steam hissing from a latte machine and laptop taps of nearby browsers, she speaks in a low voice, yet communicates urgently. Her voice never rises. Her music never rattles rafters or crashes like cymbals toward the high notes in a power chorus. Her tempos shuffle and trudge more than they dash.

 
And her songs? They're about as idiosyncratic as anything in the wide world of "popular music." They're painfully personal, especially on Trouble and Love. Yet they somehow infiltrate the souls of her listeners, no matter how different the paths they've followed through their lives.
 
Those songs weren't so much written as harvested by Gauthier. Though she lives not far from the hit-making mills of Music Row, she admits to knowing nothing about how to write on command. She says, "I have to be called to write. The call comes from somewhere I don't understand, but I know it when I hear it."
 
That call first came to her a long time ago. Her life to that point had led her to extremes, plenty of negatives and a few brilliant bright spots. An adopted child, who became a teenage runaway, she found her first shelter among addicts and Drag Queens. Eventually she achieved renown as a chef even while balancing the running of her restaurant with the demands of addiction to heroin. Two more successful restaurants, an escalating addiction, and a subsequent arrest, led her into sobriety. All that was rehearsal for what to follow, when she wrote her first song in her mid-thirties.
 
From that point, Gauthier channeled a long line of works, almost all of them eloquent in their insight, burnished by her writing technique. A core of devotees came to await each next release. Their wait ends, for now, with Trouble and Love.
This time, Gauthier's songs rise from what she describes as an especially dark period. "I started the process in a lot of grief," she explains. "I'd lost a lot. So the first batch of songs was just too sad. It was like walking too close to the fire. I had to back off from it. The truth is that when you're in the amount of grief I was in, it's an altered state. Life is not that. You go through that. We human beings have this built-in healing mechanism that's always pushing us toward life. I didn't want to write just darkness, because that's not the truth. I had to write through the darkness to get to the truth. Writing helped me back onto my feet again. This record is about getting to a new normal. It's a transformation record."
 
The heart of that transformation, beating within Trouble and Love, is love. But it’s not the kind of love that's celebrated on pop charts. In those tunes, love is its own end; the story stops as the giddiness sets in, with no hint of what may follow. Gauthier knows better; she has the scars to prove it.
 
"For me, love has been a real challenge," she admits. "Attachment has been a
challenge. This record is about losing an attachment I actually made. The loss of it was devastating because I hadn't fully attached before to anyone. The good news is that I can. The even better news is that I can, and I can lose, and live. Not only do I live, but I've got a strength that I never had before."
 
Trouble and Love would fall or rise on the question of whether it crystalizes Gauthier's experience and conveys it to those who want to feel it, as if the poetry of her lyric can mirror and illuminate what they too have gone through. To help make this happen, she invited a small group of singers and musicians into Nashville's Skaggs Place Studio, each one chosen because of his or her ability to find the heart of the song. No one was given a lead sheet or an advance demo or even headphones. The backup vocals were invented on the spot. The microphones were vintage, and the songs were cut live, to tape. Everyone stood together in the room, playing to what they heard in the lyric as well as from what was going on in the moment.
 
"I took away everything that musicians lean on to feel invulnerable," she explains.
All they had to work with was a brief rundown of each song from Gauthier in the control room, right before the tape rolled. "I wanted them to feel it in real time," she continues. "You don't want to sound real with songs like this. You want to be real. That’s what I strive for as a writer, and that's what we got in the playing."
 
Feeling their way through the process, these extraordinary participants -- guitarist
Guthrie Trapp, keyboardist Jimmy Wallace, bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Lynn
Williams and singers Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashley Cleveland and Darrell Scott,
Siobhan Kennedy and The McCrary Sisters -- probed and then brought life to Gauthier's compositions. In their hands, and in her fearless vocals, the songs resonate like tolling bells.
 
We hear "a body's but a prison when the soul's a refugee" in Oh Soul. The last embers of affection flicker and die on When a Woman Goes Cold, (“Scorched earth cannot burn.”) "A million miles from our first kiss, how does love turn into this?" is just one of the bitter riddles posed in False From True. Irony colors the chorus of Worthy: "Worthy, worthy what a thing to claim. Worthy, worthy, ashes into flame."
 
This is deep and dangerous poetry, and Gauthier leads us through it with relentless
candor. Yet tenderness is always near, enough to keep us engaged through the final
track, "Another Train." "I wrote that one in England during a long, long tour," she remembers. There was a sign at a station: There'll be another train at 14:02.' So I started working with 'another train.' The song evolved. It doesn't start the way it ends. It zigged and it zagged. I let it talk to me. It's so interesting, because when I saw 'another train,' boom, that whole story was in there -- but I had to go find it. I had to dig, like an archaeologist." In the very last line of the song is the benedictory thought of the entire album. "Another Train" bathes all of what preceded it in a glimmer of hope. It a fantastically concise and powerful ending -- and entirely intentional-- “There’ll be another train.”
 
"This album reflects a total human experience. Love, loss, and a life transformed."
Gauthier sums up. "It's not a random collection of songs. This record is a story. It's
about trust and faith and believing that there's a plan and a flow. And the flow is where the good stuff is because there's wisdom in the flow. At the core, we're all cut from the same cloth-- the same dreams, the same brokenness, the same desire for
companionship and family and home. Yeah, we all have that. And if I don't go deep
enough into that, it's a problem.
 
"There's no such thing as going too deep."
Amen to that.
 


In conversation and in public, Mary Gauthier comes off as a practical, no-nonsense woman. Stoic, even. Which wouldn’t seem unusual, except for the fact that her songs carry so much emotional punch, they can leave you staggering. She has a way of burrowing into that hole so many of us carry inside our souls, and emerging with universal truths that show we aren’t so alone after all. Gauthier knows where our exposed nerve endings lie because she’s probed her own so deeply, finally learning to unlock the fear and loneliness that controlled her escape-seeking trajectory for so long before songwriting — and the sobriety that drew it forth at age 35 — gave her a steadier flight path.
But even though her six albums have received countless accolades (and 2005’s Mercy Now earned her the Americana Music Association’s New/Emerging Artist of the Year title, and 2011’s The Foundling was named the #3 Record of the Year but the LA Times), and her songs have been praised by both Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and recorded by Jimmy Buffet, Blake Shelton and many others, Gauthier felt she needed to rack up her pilot hours, so to speak, before she could hit another major milestone: recording a live album.
When she was ready, she captured Live at Blue Rock at a concert at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas, outside of Austin. “People have been asking for a live CD for a long time and I just knew that I wasn’t ready yet,” admits Gauthier. “It took 10 years of trench work. Of bein’ out there, banging my head against all the things an artist has to bang against. Indifference. Poor attendence. Situations that are over your head. Every night, curve ball, curve ball, curve ball. But stagecraft cannot be taught. You have to be onstage to learn it. So after 10 years of doin’ it, I got good at it.” Louisiana native-turned-Nashville resident Gauthier (it’s French; pronounced Go-SHAY) is not bragging, just explaining, in that practical way of hers.
It’s the same way she discusses experiences that led to some of the extraordinary songs she performs on the album. Renowned songs, such as “I Drink,” “Drag Queens in Limousines” and “Karla Faye” — which addresses the famous fate of that convicted killer, but starts out with lines that undoubtedly reference their author as well: A little girl lost, her world full of pain. He said it feels good, she gave him her vein. Then there’s “Blood on Blood,” from her last release, 2010’s The Foundling, which plumbs the particular hell of children given up to closed adoption. With a cinematographer’s eye and a lyrical economy that suggests far more than her 15 years of songwriting experience, she chronicles an always-present sense of rejection and rootlessness, the nagging “whys” and “what ifs,” the endless search of every face for a possible resemblance. I don’t know who I am I don’t know who I’m not/I don’t know my name I can’t find my place, she sings, her voice rising from a whisper to a wail.
She’s not just offering a vein here, she’s cutting several wide open. Like all of her songs, “Blood on Blood” takes on even more power when performed live. “As a songwriter, I’m always trying to go to the deepest possible place inside of me. Past the naval-gazing, past the self-conscious, to get to that ‘we,’” Gauthier explains. “’Cause deep inside of all of us is the universal. And that is an artist’s job, to transcend the self. … I’m in there, but then hopefully, it goes past that and it hits something far, far bigger and more important than me. That’s what I’m aimin’ for every time I write.” She’s proud that The Foundling opened the floodgates for thousands of fellow orphans who had never heard anyone articulate their pain with so much insight. Gauthier reports therapists are now using the album to better understand the adoptee experience.
It’s also resulted in several reunions between children and their birth parents — though Gauthier’s birth mother declined that option after Gauthier made contact five years ago. And she understands that decision, even if she’ll never have the full closure she sought. Sometimes, life just goes that way — particularly for the outsiders with whom Gauthier has always identified most. They populate Live at Blue Rock, which also contains covers of three songs by fellow poet/philosopher (and recent “Tin Can Caravan” tour leader) Fred Eaglesmith, another master at illuminating the sympathetic sides of characters society is not used to regarding kindly, if at all. “I find the stories I want to tell are the stories of characters who may or may not make it,” says Gauthier. Though she’s no longer dangling on that precipice, she adds, “I believe in redemption. I needed redemption; I continue to need redemption.” Luckily, she sometimes finds it onstage, in front of an audience. And just as audiences change from night to night, so do her accompanists.
When Live at Blue Rock was recorded, she had fiddle and percussive adornment. But she’s experimenting with different configurations all the time, which means the songs take on new identities nightly. “They’re living things,” Gauthier says of her work. “You record ‘em one way but that’s just the way you played it that day. Some words change, the tempo changes. It has to go with the flow of the room and the flow of the night.” Gauthier, a teen runaway who attended college in Louisiana and operated a Cajun restaurant in Boston before getting sober, long ago learned how to go with the flow. And to be patient. Because it takes time to get good enough to wing it.

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