Mary Gauthier Songs of Love & Hate

Mary Gauthier Songs of Love & Hate
Photo by Jack Spencer
Call her style uneasy listening, as her signature is deep exploration of personal pain. Her previous studio record, 2010's The Foundling, was based on her experiences as an adoptee, while new effort Trouble & Love is described by Gauthier as "a record I wrote with a broken heart." Its songs brim with sadness, anger, melancholy and just a tinge of hope. A genuine Americana hero, Gauthier is at the top of her game, lyrically and vocally. On a day between gigs, Exclaim! chatted with a vibrant Gauthier over coffee in Toronto.

Thanks for doing this. We chatted about four years ago, when The Foundling came out.
That was a rough record.

Though the end result was positive for the listener. A real powerful piece of work. Do you do many of those songs in the set? I didn't hear any in last night's show.
No, I don't. That record is more like a piece of therapy in a way, for me and other adoptees. It is just not something I'm drawn to perform now. It is going to have its place in the world, but I'm not sure where that is yet.

Your songs are so penetrating and intense. Can it be tough performing them night after night?
From that album, yes, but that's the only one. The others, I can pretty much find a way to play them where it doesn't have to be about reliving those experiences. That is the big question I constantly get: "Do you have to relive it every time you play it?" No, I don't. I'm not that person anymore that went through that. We change. A lot of that stuff is history. I don't have the emotional access to it anymore. I'm a different person.

I loved the show last night. Is it hard to choose a set list now, with your large body of work?
I don't draw up a set list. I have around 100 songs in rotation, and I go with my gut, my instinct, as to what should come out next. It is never the same show. Because I don't have a band, it doesn't have to be.

How do you choose, then. Is it based on the audience?
Yes, it's about the audience. Well, it's back and forth. You try to build it to a place. It is an art, more than a craft. You want it to be a journey. It has to be crafted in a way that brings people along for the ride.

Congrats on the new album. Pleased with the response it's getting?
So far, so good. You never know when you make a record how it's going to go, but this one seems to be getting traction. Rather like Mercy Now did. I feel the same kind of excitement.

Do you get tired of the constant touring? Is it a career necessity, more than a passion now?
Travel is hard, but being in front of people is a privilege. I love it. Travel gets to you after a while, but you have to get there to do it. The stage is the most important 90 minutes in any day.

Find that travel fuels the muse? I know there's a reference to London's Camden Town on the new record
Absolutely. I think it's part of being a writer. You either have to go there in your imagination or go there. I know a lot of book writers and before they take on their next book they'll go travelling. I think you have to do that as songwriters too.

On the new album, you co-write with some notable writers. How does that process work?
We talk, we get caught up. I write with friends. We try to find a thread that can turn into a song. Often you look for a title. Everybody in Nashville just about writes from a title. Once you land one, you start going back and forth. Someone will pick up an instrument or go to the piano, and you start going back and forth, trying to find it. It's an amazing process. It is never the same twice. there are no rules.

It strikes me you wouldn't be one of those conventional Nashville writers, clocking in at a publisher to write.
No, not at all. It has to be true for me to sing it. That doesn't mean it has to be factual. It has to be emotionally honest. If not, I'd be ashamed to get up in front of people to sing it. I just wouldn't.

Ever thought of writing in that structured way for other artists?
I haven't done that yet, but maybe one day. I'm not sure I'd be any good at it.

A great list of people you've written with, like Fred Eaglesmith, whom I love.
I adore Fred. You learn something new from everyone you write with, and I've learned I'm not really different from anyone else. If we sat down to write a song, we'd learn where we intersect and that's where we'd write from. You'd realise how much alike you are. It's a beautiful thing, to create with someone.

You'd have to open yourself up to your collaborators. These aren't trite songs about drinking and driving pickup trucks. They're real.
Exactly. They're not tailgating songs. It is about getting to what matters. It's not pop music. I don't want to write pop music. That is not what I'm called to do. There are people who naturally write that way and hats off to them. I'm just in a different part of the music business. I have to go down deep and find things that other artists won't necessarily say.

When you do intersect with the mainstream, like getting a song on the hit TV series Nashville, do you get a kick out of that?
I do. It is amazing. It's an honour. I want to be heard as much as anyone, but I won't write in a way that's not emotionally honest just to be heard. There'll be a season three of Nashville, so I hope I get a shot at getting more songs on there.

In terms of recording Trouble & Love, I gather you wanted spontaneity in the studio?
Yes, I wanted it to be a real. The way to get to real is to not perform, but to actually be there. So we stripped it down to get the spontaneous reactions. We didn't have any rehearsals. It was recorded to tape. It's a different sound, isn't it?

Indeed. Do you put out vinyl versions of your albums?
We're thinking about it. I did with the last one. It's really expensive. If it starts to sell, I will.

Tell me about your co-producer, Patrick Granado.
I found him through Ray Kennedy, who works with him. Patrick worked on a couple of projects that won Grammys, like The Songs of Stephen Foster. He has worked with Delbert McClinton. He mixed and mastered the live record I put out, Live At Blue Rock, and I got close to him then. when it came time to look for a producer for this new batch of songs, Fred Eaglesmith was telling me "It's time for you to produce yourself." I'm like "I don't know how, Fred." He goes, "Well, that's why you should do it. It's time you learned how." I talked to some and nothing really felt right. Fred just kept telling me to just get a great engineer and produce it with him, the way Fred does with Scott Merritt. I think I've found my Scott. Patrick is incredible. It is definitely co-produced. He was in there as much as I was.

You told me last time you loved working with Michael Timmins on The Foundling.
Yes, I loved that. That was just fantastic. Working with Cowboy Junkies and those other players was just great. I'm blessed that I get to have these people in my circle. I'm privileged.

When you write songs, some are story or character-driven and others seem more autobiographical. Is one style easier to write than the other?
It is about being inspired, what the muse is inspiring me to write. It has to do with the stars lining up. A lot of the songs that seem autobiographical may or may not be. The things that confuses people is that if you put it in the first person, they automatically think it is about you. People think Johnny Cash went to prison. No, he wrote a song about a man who did time in prison. He played in a prison. He had one night in a drunk tank. He never went to prison. Just because it's in the first person doesn't mean it's about me, though there's a good chance it is. Not every line. Sometimes I take poetic license to get to the truth. Sometimes you have to lie to get to the truth. I believe Picasso said "art is a lie that points to the truth." If I read to you exactly what happened to me during a day, that's boring. You have to put interesting things in there to keep people engaged. It's not journalism, it's poetry, something that gets made up from a place that goes really deep and then into another world.

There's quite a gap between studio records. Was there a period of writer's block perhaps?
I went through a period of two years where I hardly wrote at all. I was on the road a lot. I did 200 dates in the year after that live record came out. It's hard to write on the road, where you're in a different town every night. But now I'm on fire, I'm writing all the time. I want to make a record of the songs I've written with the soldiers.

That organisation, SongwritingWith:Soldiers, sounds amazing.
Well, you know the song "Angel's Flight"? It started this whole thing and they're helping so many soldiers. There is something beautiful that happens when you pair soldiers and songwriters. The stories are the things that connect us. Our stories are who we are, and who has more stories than soldiers? Their stories are unbelievably powerful. They taught me something, that songs can heal. I knew they healed me, but I didn't know I could work with someone else and help them heal. Songs are powerful medicine. This is so important on a soul level. In some ways I feel called. Songs have saved my life. I have literally pulled myself out of hell by writing songs. I think maybe that is my destiny in a way. I want to explore that more and deeper. I'm not sure how that looks like yet.

I gather you run popular songwriting workshops too?
I have been teaching for five or six years now. Darrell Scott and I started teaching together, in Costa Rica, at a yoga spa. We had so much fun we did it again the next year, then in Nashville for two more years. They started getting too big, so now we run our own. Both are selling out. There is a need for journeymen songwriters to work with younger writers, or who are young in experience. It is mentoring, it is guidance. I do have the ability to listen to a song and help the student understand what they are trying to say. I can see where it might have gone off track, and I can help them reel it back in. I think inspiration comes from a higher place. It is not from us. It is mystical, and you can't analyse the mystical. It is exciting to me that this mystical thing can be channelled and used to help people who have suffered serious trauma. Perhaps pre-music business, people knew what songs were for better than we do today. People sang together in times of sorrow to ease their pain, they sang together when there was joy and celebration, or they sang for the sheer beauty of singing. It wasn't left to the professionals. I think before us more people understood how songs could heal, heal a broken heart or a traumatised brain. Maybe we have lost that with the commercialization of music. I feel I'm tapping into that, because of what I've experienced in my songwriting workshops and from working with soldiers with Darden Smith. It is a completely different and exciting opportunity. It's a different motivation for me.

I know you're self-taught as a songwriter. Ever wish you'd had a mentor?
Yes, that would have been nice. I feel Fred has been mentoring me for a long time. He has given me really good direction. I have studied his songs. I don't think people realise how good he is. He is every bit as good as Hank Williams. I really believe that. That song I played last night, "The Rocket"? How do you write something that good? Those songs will last forever. Having him in my life has been an important thing for me. I do call him when I'm in a jam and don't know what to do. He's the one I go to. That's how I ended up producing this record. I have mentors on the business side, and Darrell Scott on the workshops side. He taught me how to teach.

In turn, those people are highly complimentary about you. Is that peer respect important?
It means the world. It is really important. I got to play the Grand Ole Opry last week. Me onstage with Marty Stuart, Kathy Mattea and Radney Foster. I started with "Mercy Now" then brought the others out and we played "Another Train." That was one of my career highlights, a standing ovation at the Opry. I'll take that with me forever. And being with my friends up there who happen to be great artists. I didn't anticipate this. Alone in your room, you can't imagine this. It's amazing.

You joked last night about having another batch of sad depressing songs. Have you ever tried writing from a place of happiness or joy?
No. Not yet, but I feel it coming. I know whatever is next, soldier's stories aside, the next batch of songs from me will be very different from anything I've done before. I'm very different now. We'll see how that reflects in the songs. I'm not going to write "Zipadeedodah," but there is no need to repeat what I've already done.

On the new record, "When A Woman Goes Cold" packs a real punch. To me, it's interesting that it's clearly by a woman about a woman, and those songs are still rare.
Yes, and it took me eight records to do it. Yes it's by a woman about a woman, but what's interesting to me is that both women and men relate to it. I'm going to have guys who have experienced that saying to me "thank god you put that into words." That has happened, and also with women going "that's right." Push a woman past a point of no return and she can't come back. Not that she won't, she can't.