The Humble Craftsman: An Interview with Mary Gauthier – M-C MacPhee

Mary Gauthier

In September of this year I was fortunate enough to see Mary Gauthier perform songs from her new album The Foundling at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. I caught up with her soon after the show to discuss the stories and experiences behind this profound album. Below is our conversation.

M-C MacPhee: Your new album, The Foundling, was really important for you, can you tell us a bit about what inspired it?

Mary Gauthier: Well, it’s an autobiographical song cycle that talks about adoption and all the consequences of not knowing who your family of origin is. It’s a series of songs that will hopefully add up to what I think of as a little movie.

M-C: Can you describe the process of writing something so personal?

MG: Well it took about two years to write it and I had to dig really deep and I did a lot of work on understanding the process of coming to terms with what it means to be adopted. It was lengthy. It was challenging. Ultimately it was a wonderful experience to be able to write about it.

M-C: It seems like you often write about really challenging personal struggles. Would you say that this is the biggest one you’ve tackled?

MG: Oh I don’t know. It’s hard to measure them, isn’t it? I know that this was a challenge to write and I’m a better writer for it. I really raised the bar on myself for this one. I’m glad to say that I got to the other side of it. And I’ve learned some things, and I’ve grown, and I think I’ve become a better writer having challenged myself to do this.

M-C: Has this album changed your artistic process significantly?

MG: No. Mostly I still sit down and just work really hard everyday and try to get the best possible songs that I can and try to uncover the mystery inside of each song.

M-C: I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to blend the two worlds. What I mean is that it must be difficult to focus on putting out an album wanting the song to fit together, and producing songs that have so much personal truth in them. Is it difficult to blend those two things together? To get the great song–the hit–but to have that great song come out of something so honest and emotional?

MG: the challenge is to make sense of what our experiences are as human beings and I think artists get an opportunity to do that in their work and I think it’s a real wonderful gift to have this be your job: to make sense of your life. To make sense of my life is my job as a writer and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to sit there and try to work things out and make it all rhyme and put a melody behind it and then to sing it to people.

M-C: You came to songwriting quite late, right?

MG: Yeah in my mid-thirties I started writing songs. Prior to that I was a chef. I cooked Louisiana–style food in a restaurant that I was part owner of.

M-C: Were you always a storyteller?

MG: Well, I guess. I come from the South. I was born in New Orleans and we have a long tradition of storytelling in our culture. I came from there so it was probably implanted in me at some point.

M-C: But growing up, it wasn’t something that you found yourself doing all the time? A lot of storytellers I know have said that as kids they were always making shit up and telling stories and doing whatever they could to get their story heard. Is that something you did?

MG: No, it was more scholarly for me. I’m more of a writer than a big talker. I use research and do a lot of word play and I work hard at my desk more than talking in a bar.

M-C: You went from being a chef to picking up and becoming a song writer much later in your life. What was the drive for you to have your stories heard? Personally, I can’t imagine making the shift from a life where I didn’t have a public voice to suddenly needing that voice to be out there and to be heard in the world. What was the motivation for you and where did it come from?

MG: Well, I always wanted to be a songwriter but I just didn’t have the courage. What had to happen was I had to quit drinking and I had to get sober. I had a big drug and drinking problem and I had to get sober. I did that in 1990 and from there, the creative process just started to unfold. I got more creative and I got healthy. And then I was able to do what it took to create songs. I had always wanted to, but I didn’t understand that it was work. I thought you either had the gift or you didn’t, and I learned after I got sober to apply myself and do the work. It’s hard work. It’s great work but it’s hard. I really had to just sit down and learn a new skill, a new craft. It took a long time: 10 years really.

M-C: Who helped you along the way? Was it coming from a personal drive to learn or did you also have a lot of good coaches and inspirations?

MG: I took a lot of songwriting workshops with songwriters that I admire and I also came to Nashville and studied with people who were professional songwriters and I surrounded myself with other people who were writing at the level that I was writing at, and I built a community of writers and artists around me. It was cumulative. I started playing wherever I could play and I stared to get better at it. It took time and I’m still learning, I probably always will be a student of this craft…it’s very mysterious.

M-C: Do you keep learning new things all the time, and do these things actually surprise you?

MG: No, they don’t surprise me because art is complex and it builds on itself. Artists borrow from each other all the time and it just builds on itself and if you’re not growing and learning then you’re probably some sort of an oldies act and just repeating yourself…sort of stagnant and not able to create in a new way. Remaining teachable is a big part of this journey, I think. To remain vital as a creative person, you’ve got to be teachable and always go into that place where you don’t know where you are.

M-C: That takes a fair bit of courage to do…

MG: Well if you’re going to be an artist, you had better have some courage. There’s not a whole lot of dignity in it and there’s not a whole lot of glory. That’s a misconception, people confuse being an artist with reality tv. It’s not like that. It’s a journeyman’s work and it’s a humble craft. I’m a humble craftsman. People sometimes know who I am and they recognize the songs but it’s not about the glory: it’s about the journey of making something out of nothing. I’m actually the happiest when I’m creating something…when I’m going from zero to one.

M-C: A lot of people who are journeymen or craftspeople and who work in trades where they are creating, their medium isn’t necessarily something that’s so personal. What you’re writing about and what you’re fine-tuning are these beautiful, intense and emotional personal stories…that must be difficult. How do you find that medium different from other forms of expression that you’ve worked with? Is song writing, or performing, more challenging? Does it take just dropping your dignity all together and just putting yourself out there?

MG: Yes, I think a big part of the job is to forget that people are looking at you and to just get honest. I know for me that when I’m writing about me I’m very aware that it’s actually not just about me. That whatever I go through is just part of the human condition and it connects me to the rest of humanity. I’m not unique, I’m not different, and my experiences aren’t that far from everyone else’s, and I know it. And as I reveal my journey, people all over the world come up to me and say, “How did you know that about me?” So I think artists often chalk themselves up as the example, but I’m very aware that I’m not doing my job if I’m not showing other people who they are. I reveal myself, but it’s not just myself, it’s the human condition that I’m really trying to reveal.

M-C: If you’re constantly reminding yourself of that while you’re working through these tough emotions, it must give you a lot of strength to know that you’re not alone in that, that there is some really hard stuff and that people are there with you…

MG: That’s right and it also gives me a goal to get it out there so that I can connect with other people who are going through it, so we can compare notes. It’s a wonderful job, I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve got a really good job.

M-C: Do you think that the courage you have to put so many of your personal stories out there comes from your past? You have worked through (what people refer to as) “your troubled youth”. Do you think overcoming that time in your life gave you a lot of the strength you have now?

MG: I think so. Surviving alcoholism and drug addiction and getting to the other side of it, well, whoever has done that is aware that every day is a borrowed day. I have a song on The Foundling called Another Day Borrowed. We’re living on time that we shouldn’t even have…if we got what we deserved, we wouldn’t be here. So, having that liberation and that exhilaration of just being glad to be here makes it so much easier to reveal, and to be grateful, and to get to that place where the good songs are.

M-C: I know some people who have struggled with alcoholism or who have had “rough pasts” and they never thought that they would live to see 25, and when they did, everything changed for them. They started seeing things in a whole new light and feeling really happy that they were living on this borrowed time, but then they started owning that time and thinking “this is me, this is what I’m doing, and this is what I deserve”. Did you feel that way…that maybe you wouldn’t get to a point where you would be really happy or really proud of yourself?

MG: I certainly had that. I didn’t think I would live to see 30 and if I had kept going the way I was going, I wouldn’t have. Surviving that kind of a terminal illness and coming out the other side liberates you to do and say things that you wouldn’t have done without having gone through that. It changes you and makes you able talk in ways that are different from people who haven’t survived a terminal illness. As an artist, it’s been a creative boom for me. It’s been a huge door to walk through and it’s made me a better – not a better – but a more creative person.

M-C: A lot of the emotional honesty that I hear in your songs seems to come from a very matter-of-fact place; a place of understanding that sadness and loneliness and hardships do exist and that they’re there and that they are ok. There always seems to be a sense of calm around a lot of the really difficult things that you bring up in your songwriting.

MG: Thank you, I take that as a compliment. I guess my delivery can be that way to a fault; it’s a little too calm sometimes. But in some ways, I’m reporting, I’m telling what I’ve already been through so I’m not going through it as I tell it–it’s a reflection.

M-C: Has that sense of calm always been there for you when you’ve been working through personal struggles or were your emotions once filtered through anger or sadness and rage and those kinds of harder emotions?

MG: Oh I go through that all the time, but I have to get to the other side of it to write about it. I have to work though it and get to a place where I can tell people about it. I can’t make sense of it when I’m in the middle of it; I’m too emotional. Songs are a reflection on something that I’ve worked through or that I’ve worked through with that song.

M-C: If songwriting is about reporting things that you’ve worked through, would you say that nostalgia plays a role in your songwriting or is it really just about reflecting on your past?

MG: I don’t have a lot of nostalgia because the things I’ve worked through aren’t usually things that you want to revisit. I feel gratitude to be on the other side of those things, so it’s more of a “phew, I survived another one” feeling.

M-C: I read an interview you did recently about The Foundling. In it you said that your birth mother is a woman with a secret and that she isn’t at a place where she’s able to work through it. If I’m correct in saying that, I wonder if the experience of how that secret has affected you has changed the way that you relate to honesty or secrecy?

MG: Well that’s just a hard question…I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Mostly, I’m trying to find compassion for her. You know, I don’t really have any secrets, I put all my stuff into the songs and most of my secrets are on my wikipedia page. You’re not going to dig up any dirt on me because I’ve written about it myself. Which I think may fall under “the best defense is a good offense” but I think that ultimately, my work with being a secret, and being her secret, is to find compassion for her.

M-C: So I guess that is something you worked through in the process of writing The Foundling?

MG: Yeah, that began the process but I think I’m still in it…I may be in it for the rest of my life. And that’s ok…we’re all in processes that may last a lifetime. I try not to be angry, I try not to be bitter, I try not to feel sorry for myself that my momma won’t meet me, and I try to have compassion for the situation she was in. Pre-feminism women had it really, really, hard. Not that we have it easy now, but in the south in New Orleans in 1962 an unmarried pregnant woman was a woman in deep trouble – trouble of the worst kind. The shame that was put on these poor women is immeasurable today. We can’t even imagine being in that world.

M-C: Were you able to find some kind of emotional closure through putting The Foundling together?

MG: No, I can’t have closure with her walking around, and me walking around, and us not being able to meet each other. The most I can have is compassion and I can try to find a way to let it be what it is. But closure is not possible… because it’s still open.

M-C: You said in another interview that you were considering looking for your birth father. Is that still on the table for you?

MG: The problem is, she’s the only one who knows who he is and she won’t tell me, so I don’t have access to that information. If I had his name, I’d call him right now but I don’t, and I can’t get it. I suppose I could get a private detective to try to trace her footsteps from back in ‘62 and see if we could find where it all came to pass, but it just seems like such an ordeal, and the likelihood of finding it…I just don’t know.

The problem is, I could go to her sister and ask her but then I would ruin the secret that she’s built but I just don’t want to do that, you know, I’m in a quandary. Should I do that, or should I not? I don’t know. The years go by and I just wait, I don’t know the answer to that.

M-C: Did she ask you not to?

MG: She did.

M-C: That’s kind of heartbreaking…

MG: In a way…but I do have my adopted family, and my adopted brothers and sisters, and I have my family of choice, and my friends. It’s disappointing. I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I think there are parts of myself that I can’t know until I get some answers from her. I don’t know if it’s heartbreaking. I think it’s frustrating, you know, but some days it seems more important than others.

M-C: Is building a strong community of friends and family something that you’ve been committed to over the years?

MG: Oh yeah, it’s been a lifesaver. It’s been the most important thing that I’ve ever done and continue to do.

M-C: You’ve said – and it’s very clear in a lot of your songs – that there is a sort of restlessness about you and that you’ve always been on the move.

MG: Yeah, that’s right.

M-C: And I read somewhere that you were debating, or maybe even working on, staying. Seeing what it means to actually stay.

MG: Yeah, that’s been a challenge…learning how to do that. I can’t say I’ve mastered it, but I work on it daily.

M-C: Do you know what made you so restless? Was it the search for some roots or for some answers?

MG: I don’t know, It’s easier to keep running than to stay in one place when you have demons that don’t want to settle down. Movement seems to help.

M-C: What do you see as some of the challenges of staying?

MG: Well, I have to change, and change is never easy. It’s a challenge to change the way that I deal with things and to fundamentally change. And boy if you could figure that out and flip a switch wouldn’t you make some money!

M-C: You’re touring The Foundling until January; are you going to sit with that for a little while after the tour is over?

MG: No, we’re working on this album. I haven’t written any new songs since it came out and I’m looking at my guitar and thinking, hmmm. But I’m not quite there yet, I’ve got another 4 or 5 months of this one before I settle down and write another one. And if it keeps going, I’ll keep going with it. Each record has a life cycle of it’s own. This is my 6th studio record and my 7th record. I have some experience now with them and I kind of know what to expect. Sometimes they get a second wind and I just go with it, and sometimes they don’t. Each one has it’s own personality and it’s been a joy getting to know this one.

M-C: Do you spend more time writing than you do recording and producing?

MG: Oh yeah, absolutely…it takes a couple of years to write. I just have to sit in one place and do that work.

M-C: So you just let the records lead you?

MG: Oh they do lead me.

M-C: I’m still intrigued by the fact that your albums and songs are filled with such personal details of your life and that working through your experiences are such a huge part of your work. Most people compartmentalize their lives so that their work life and their emotional lives are so separate…

MG: From where I sit, doing that seems insane. But for everyone else, doing what I do seems insane. We all do what we gotta do to get through the day, I guess, and ultimately we’re called to do certain things. To be honest, I’m just really well-suited to this. It’s what I do best, to try to figure out spiritual and emotional situations and concepts and to do it in a way that has music behind it, and rhymes. I’m just well suited for it, it’s the way my mind works.

M-C: A lot of people ask you about the sadness that is in your songs and you made a joke once about maybe writing a happy song one day. Is that something you consider doing?

MG: Maybe one day. I ultimately don’t choose it. There’s something in charge of what I do and I’m just trying to follow the muse’s instructions.

M-C: You’re on the road now until January and then what are your plans?

MG: I’m always out there working, it’s what I want to do and I belong on stage singing my songs to people, it’s what I love and it’s what I was put here to do. No matter what, unless things dramatically change, it’s what I want to be doing.

M-C: You’ve got three Canadian tour dates coming up, do you have any plans to make a few more stops in Canada?

MG: I sure would like to. It’s always a challenge because to go from major city to major city and it involves a lot of flying and that gets really expensive. It’s usually an east coast or west coast thing.

M-C: We’d love to have you back for a more dates here.

MG: I’d love to play Montreal.

M-C: My mom is back in Wolfville (Nova Scotia)…and you were there a couple years ago for the Deep Roots Festival.

MG: Yeah I loved it there.

M-C: I was telling her that I was going to interview you and she said loved your music – especially your song Mercy Now – and she asked me to put in request that you come back to East Coast soon.

MG: I love that! Cross-generational is good…tell her I’d love to go back.

Alt-country singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier exploded onto the scene in 1999 following her self-released sophomore effort, Drag Queens in Limousines. The album, which garnered her a Crossroads Silver Star and a four-star rating in Rolling Stone, had critics comparing her self-described “country noir” to the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, John Prine, and, not surprisingly, Lucinda Williams. The success of Drag Queens led to main-stage shows at festivals around the country and multiple tours in Europe. Embraced by critics, folkies, and No Depression fans alike, Gauthier’s warmly candid treatment of her fringe-dwelling subjects rings true, as it never verges on sentimental; her characters’ downtrodden lives are never coldly exploited. Instead, these are people she knows, who she met after dropping out of her Louisiana high school and stealing the family car at the age of 15, only to find herself in detox at 16 and jailed in Kansas City at 18. Her own wayward path led her to culinary school and, eventually, she opened a successful restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay — Dixie Kitchen — which she sold after her music career started to take off. Filth & Fire, Gauthier’s third album, was produced by former Lucinda Williams sidekick Gurf Morlix and released in July 2002. Mercy Now was issued in 2005 by Lost Highway, followed by the Joe Henry-produced Between Daylight and Dark in 2007. Gauthier next released the autobiographical The Foundling, produced by Mike Timmons of the Cowboy Junkies, on Razor & Tie Records in 2010. http://www.marygauthier.com