Mary Gauthier: Songwriting Sage
A gifted songwriter sees her unexpected career take yet another positive and surprising turn.
By Steve Houk
I mean, who knew that Mary Gauthier, whose early life reads like a bad luck hardship tale — left in an orphanage shortly after birth, foster family, addiction, DWI, jail and so on — and who didn’t even write a song until she was 35, would not only become revered worldwide as one of Americana-folk music’s most powerful and talented singer/songwriters, but that she would also be asked to write a book on songwriting this year.
Well, of all people, even Gauthier herself didn’t expect it to happen. In fact, in many ways, she didn’t see this last dozen or so years of success coming either.
“(Writing the book) is right up there will all the other things that I never saw coming. For them to come to me and give me an opportunity, it came out of nowhere, and I’m thrilled and honored. It just seems like I’ve been blessed with opportunities to keep going. Good thing is I don’t have to push so hard anymore, it just keeps coming.”
Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay) is one of those rare songwriters whose music gets inside you, it just does. Whether or not you can understand the place from where she writes some of her very affecting and very personal songs, the depth of emotion, the words, the mood, grabs you and won’t let go, often for a long time. That has been her trademark since springing onto the scene 14 years ago, all the way up to her most recent effort, the magnificent Trouble and Love (2014) which propelled her to new fame and a solid reputation. And on a current swing that stops at D.C’s Hamilton on Thursday September 8th, she’s upped the ante even higher by bringing along some very talented buddies, Americana-folk cohorts and two-time Grammy nominees Gretchen Peters and Eliza Gilkyson, in a show labeled Three Women and the Truth, guaranteeing it to be a one-of-a-kind experience.
“The show came together as an opportunity to spend time with my friends really, I so love Eliza and Gretchen as people, and their work is fantastic as well,” Gauthier, 54, said on a brief tour break recently. “I just asked them if they thought it’d be a good idea to team up and do some stuff together, so that we’re not out there on our own the whole year. It just came together in such a way that it was easy, and that’s a sign that it might be the right thing. The three of us are out there kinda solo’ing it, and it’s just been working. It’s a great show and we have a great time. Putting strong women on stage together and swapping songs, it’s pretty bad ass.”
As far as the book, her reputation had grown so wide not only due to her music but her renowned songwriting seminars and sessions including one for veterans returning from overseas, that Yale University Press tapped her last year to write a book on…what else…songwriting. She’d had some of her short stories published before, but a book on her craft? She jumped at the chance.
“In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to write a book, always wanted to be an author,” said the genuine and affable Gauthier. “But I never would take the time out of songwriting to pursue that. So they came to me and wanted me to write one on songwriting for them, and yeah, I’m closing in on it, I think I should have a first draft in the next two weeks. All my writing energy this year and been poured into writing this book, but I think it’s just about there. And there’s alot of songs piled up in my brain, so when I turn this book in, I’m going to return to songs.”
And judging by Gauthier’s vibe, it’s got to be a book about the process of real songwriting, not the churn-out-a-song-one-hit-wonder style of writing songs that seems so prevalent today, right?
“Exactly,” said Gauthier emphatically. “Exactly. It’s about approaching songwriting as a troubadour, as an art. As opposed to commerce and hitmaking. Articulating the distinction between approaching songwriting as an art, or approaching it as a Chicken McNugget. And articulating what it means to be connected to some form of truth in your work. And what the meaning of integrity is for the artist, for the individual.”