The “Mercy Now” songstress talks about finding peace in her troubled past, being an inspiration for novelist Wally Lamb and returning home for the Louisiana Book Festival next month.
Mary Gauthier’s life story is in her music. Born in New Orleans, she made her way to Boston and then Nashville to take up songwriting full time, but you’ll learn what happened in between by listening to her songs. She’s been churning out lyrics so true to the heart – think Lucinda Williams and Iris DeMent – they easily bring tears to your eyes since 2001 and believes songwriting should be about probing as deeply into oneself as possible.
Much of her work is autobiographical. Gauthier got sober at age 29 and couldn’t have written her song I Drink six years later without experiencing some very dark years and going through treatment. “Just like it was for me, the character in this song is in full-blown denial, can’t see the real problem, and doesn’t know the cause of the tormenting loneliness and isolation that’s driving the compulsion to self-medicate,” she explains in the “Behind the Songs” section of her website.
I Drink has become one of her most popular songs, along with Mercy Now, but it’s her 2010 album “The Foundling” that really gets to the core of Gauthier’s life. Purposefully autobiographical, it tells the story of her birth to an unwed mother in New Orleans and first year of her life spent in an orphanage. She was adopted shortly after but ran away at age 15. She searched for her birth mother, along with a place to call home, for years, but was denied meeting her when she was 45. “The Foundling” was a way to confront her abandonment and sense of not belonging and finally come to terms with her past.
A glance through the rest of Gauthier’s songbook (six albums with a seventh on the way) reveals titles that sound like they could double as short stories: Drag Queens in Limousines, Our Lady of the Shooting Stars, Cigarette Machine and Karla Faye. It’s only fitting that she plans to work on a collection of short fiction next, after completing a rigorous schedule of touring that took her to Canada this week. Her November 2 appearance at the Louisiana Book Festival is also serendipitous, pairing her up with novelist Wally Lamb, who she once inspired with a song, and returning her to the place that gave her a foundation for writing – Baton Rouge and Louisiana State University.
We caught up with her while she was in the car driving to Ottawa and asked her to tell us more about “The Foundling,” her literary connections and writing in general.
How did you get from Louisiana to Nashville and in between? You had a Cajun restaurant in Boston?
Yes, for 10 years, The Dixie Kitchen Café [for which her first album is named]. I found myself falling in love with songwriting about five years into that. At a certain point, I realized I had to take songwriting seriously and do it full on if I was ever going to get good at it. I’ve been a full-time singer/songwriter since 2001.
I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with your name right away, but I’ve heard your song “Mercy Now” for years. Did that song and album launch your career?
That has been an important song in my body of work. It’s connected people all over the world in a meaningful way. I’m in the process of finishing up my seventh record. Each different one plays a part. There has not been an event that has been ‘the one’ where I can say this has been my big break. I’m still in the process. It grows a little every year, and I keep moving forward. I’m not interested in the hit business, I’m not interested in commercial radio per se. I want to do things on my terms, which limits my reach in a lot of ways. I’m not interested in giving people what they want, I’m interested in giving people what they need.
Where did your album “The Foundling” come from? Is it something you had been thinking about for a long time?
I spent the first year of my life at St. Vincent’s in New Orleans on Magazine Street. It was an orphanage and unwed mothers home for quite a while. I was given up on the day I was born by my mother, an unmarried woman in 1962. I was adopted a year later? and knew as an artist I would have to tackle that subject at some point. It took me a while to get to it because I knew it was going to be a tough one. It’s an autobiographical tale of a kid relinquished at birth. It’s me but also not me. It’s the story of, I think, closed adoption in the U.S. and a plea for opening adoption records to help adoptees find out who they are. Not knowing who you are is a very painful way to live.
It stirred the pot. I don’t think anyone’s ever done a record like that. It’s way ahead of its time and still has a lot of life in it. I think “The Foundling” will find its audience one person at a time. It’s a different story when you associate adoption with trauma. People don’t want to hear that, but it’s also the truth. It’s traumatic to not know where you come form, like a tree without roots. A person with no story and no history is a person who doesn’t know where they fit.
It’s interesting that you’re being paired with Wally Lamb at the Louisiana Book Festival, because your story sounds like it could be in one of his books. Have you met him?
I love Wally’s work so much. Putting me with Wally is such a gift. I’ve never met him. He used one of my songs, I Drink, in the study of one of his characters, and talked about it in an interview by Amazon. I was beyond thrilled to see my name associated with his work. The festival will be a wonderful opportunity to sit beside him and be a part of his workshop.
You’re also hosting a songwriting workshop during the festival. How do you go about the process of writing a song?
The first part is always inspiration, but that’s the easy part. There’s inspiration all the time, but to sit down and flesh it out, that’s the work. Inside the inspiration, the answers are already there, but you can’t access them. It’s a subconscious thing. Fleshing it out could take years. It’s just about dedication and grit and sitting with it until you got it and not settling for less.
What are you working on next?
I have a new record that’s recorded and just about done. I’ll go home next week and get it mixed. I’m also working on short stories and have a series that needs to be written. I want to put out a book of shorts. I’m going to sit down and slow this crazy touring schedule down, which I will do after November.
Have you written short stories before?
I was approached to contribute a short story for a book by a songwriter and gave them a short story. I had never written one before, but lucky for me, my very first short story was published in a collection called “Amplified,” and it gave me the confidence to keep going. I have a pile of them now and the desire to come up with enough to put out a collection of short stories.
Do you get back to New Orleans often or is it painful to visit there?
Once a year I play at Chickie Wah Wah, and I played at the Ogden Museum. I would love to play Jazz Fest. I’ve played festivals all over the world, but haven’t played my hometown festival. It’s not painful. I love New Orleans, its in my soul. I made peace with that story. I needed to go through that to come to be the artist I am today.
See Mary Gauthier at the Louisiana Book Festival on November 2 from 11:15 a.m.-noon on the entertainment stage and in the Senate Chamber from 2:15-3 p.m. in discussion with Wally Lamb. She’s also teaching a songwriting workshop in the State Library on November 1. Click here to register.
Photo Credits: Top photo by Frank Zippererer and second photo by Rodney Burseil.
Read our interview with Wally Lamb here.