Mary Gauthier - Songs of a foundling
Mary Gauthier paced up and down in front of the telephone, trying to pluck up the courage to dial the number on her notepad. For six hours she sweated over making that call, having already spent six months building up to it. When she finally made it, it was, she says, the hardest thing she’ll ever have to do in her life because the woman at the other end was her mother and they’d never spoken before.
“I didn’t even know why I wanted to call her,” says the New Orleans-born singer-songwriter. “I was thinking, I’m forty-five, I don’t need a mother but in the end I decided that what I wanted to do was thank her for giving me a life.”
Gauthier’s mother was twenty-one and unmarried when she became pregnant in 1961. Times were different then. The stigma of being an unmarried mother would have brought shame and social exclusion, so the young Mary was given up for adoption and brought up by a family who, she notes, were olive skinned Italians with a French name.
“I didn’t look like my adoptive family,” says Gauthier, “and the odd thing is, after we’d spoken and cried all the way through that conversation, I asked my birth mother to send me a photograph of her – and I don’t look like her either. So that made me think, I am a foundling after all. The first time I heard that word I knew that I had to write a song called The Foundling.”
She’s written more than a song. The Foundling grew into a concept album that could give that often maligned term a good name. Written and recorded over a period of two years, it tells the story of Gauthier’s search for her own identity. The track March 11, 1962, her date of birth, relates the conversation she had with her birth mother after Gauthier had hired someone to trace her and another song, Goodbye, tells of the feeling of emptiness, the “orphan feeling” that Gauthier had carried around with her for much of her life.
It’s not all downbeat, though. In Sideshow, Gauthier sings of being ‘another truly troubled troubadour writing songs to even up the score.’ She’s being ironic.
“Well, it wouldn’t be honest if it was all heavy,” she says. “You’ve gotta laugh at yourself and there’s humour in the story because there’s been humour in my life. Sure, there’s been trauma and drama along the way but it’s been a life worth living and I’ve got to become what I wanted to be; I’ve always been a big reader and I always wanted to be a writer, so I’m truly grateful because whatever stuff I’ve been through has given me what all writers need: a story.”
Gauthier came late to songwriting. A twenty-four carat wild child who, at fifteen, stole the family car to run away from her adoptive home in Louisiana and celebrated her sixteen birthday in detox and her eighteenth in a Kansas City jail cell, she recovered from alcohol and drug addiction to become a successful restaurateur, only to fall off the wagon spectacularly following the opening of her own, award-winning restaurant in Boston. Music became her refuge and having, at the age of thirty-five, begun writing songs about the characters she’d met while stumbling through the years she says she’s lucky to have survived, she sold her restaurant, the Dixie Kitchen (a play on the Little Feat song title Dixie Chicken), in 1998 to take up music full-time.
Her albums including Drag Queens in Limousines and Mercy Now won her admirers in the U.S. and Europe (she has Glasgow’s visionary music promoter, the late Billy Kelly to thank for the chance to find her still growing British audience) with the New York Daily News declaring that, if she kept up the standard of her 1997 album, Between Daylight and Dark, she might “one day assume the mantle of Johnny Cash.” The Foundling might be said to put her alongside another country music hero, Willie Nelson, who succeeded with Red Headed Stranger in creating an enduring, nay classic, concept album.
“It’s a tough challenge to bring off,” says Gauthier, “because each song has to work on its own merits and then you have to fit them together to tell the tale. It certainly stretched me as a writer, although emotionally it wasn’t so difficult because I’d already lived through what I was writing about and I didn’t have to relive it to write it. I just needed the perspective that comes with maturity. There was always a sense of longing in my songs before because I was looking for my identity, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when I start writing again.”
As for her relationship with her birth mother, there isn’t one, she says. Unlike Gauthier’s friend and fellow adoptee, Diana Jones, who found her musical self as well as establishing contact, albeit slightly shaky, with her birth mother when she traced her real family, Gauthier doesn’t expect anything beyond that initial phone call.
“She lied, basically. Nobody knows she had me because it would have been a huge taboo back then. It turns out that she later married a man with two children and when she told me that she’d raised them as if they were her own, it hurt. I was like, I’m your own. But I understand why she didn’t want to meet me and I know she didn’t mean to hurt me. She’s hurt herself by living a lie and keeping me as her shameful secret for nearly fifty years. So I bear her no ill-will. I’m just grateful that she had me and gave me the chance to be who I am.”
From The Herald, May 28, 2010.
Mary Gauthier - Three chords and the truth
Mary Gauthier doesn’t believe in artists having to suffer for their art. The Louisiana-born singer-songwriter has made her reputation with often brutally honest observations about the dark side of life.
But while a song such as I Drink draws on her personal experience as a now sober alcoholic who freely concedes that she’s lucky to be alive, Gauthier doesn’t recommend the life that she’s been able to refer back to as a writer.
"I think that whole thing about having to live through pain in order to create is a dangerous and very destructive myth," says Gauthier, who opens the Glasgow Americana weekend next Thursday [May 24]. "I mean, I was a mess for a long time, but I’ve come to realise that life is precious and killing yourself just isn’t cool."
Gauthier (it’s pronounced Go-shay) was the classic wild child. As another of her songs says, she was born – in New Orleans - to a woman she’s never met. She grew up near Baton Rouge with her adoptive parents but never felt that she fitted in. At fifteen she made her first escape. She stole the family car and just drove. The next few years were a blur of jail cells, detox centres – she ended up in her first one of each shortly after leaving town – and reuniting with her foster mother, followed by drink and drug binges.
Eventually, in her twenties, she discovered something that she really wanted to do – run a restaurant. She went to chef school and moved to Boston, where with help from financial backers she opened the Dixie Kitchen, a name inspired by the Little Feat song Dixie Chicken, next door to the Berklee Performance Centre attached to Boston’s famous music school.
Opening night was a disaster. Gauthier was arrested for drunk driving and had her name splashed all over the local press.
"I felt humiliated, ashamed and guilty," she says, "and it wasn’t just myself that I’d let down because I had to be bailed out, literally, by my business partners. So I quit drinking right there and concentrated on taking orders, cooking and getting on with running Boston’s first Cajun restaurant."
Her dedication turned the venture into a success but there was something missing in her life between shifts in the kitchen. To fill in time and to avoid the temptation of going to bars, she started playing guitar again.
"I’d played a bit as a teenager, learned some Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs, but I’d dismissed it as a childhood thing, put the guitar down and forgotten about it," she says. "But when I started playing again, I found I really enjoyed it and songs started coming through me. By this time I was thirty-five, so I was a late starter for someone who was about to become a professional musician, but eventually I didn’t want to be in the kitchen any more. I wanted to be a songwriter and go out and play for people."
So in 1997, she persuaded her business partners to buy her out of the restaurant, invested the money in producing a CD, called Dixie Kitchen after its financial origins, and set out on the coffeehouse and bar circuit around Boston. An appearance as the new songwriter of the year at the influential Newport Folk Festival and a second CD, Drag Queens and Limousines, opened more doors and word of Gauthier’s ability to tell the truth and make it rhyme spread across the US and into Europe.
She’s now based in Nashville, where she uses the discipline of working in a kitchen to work at her music when she’s not on the road.
"I wouldn’t want to write songs for the industry, as some songwriters here do, and try to create a hit for someone else," she says. "That just doesn’t interest me. But to be a writer, you have to write and I’m always looking for something to write about. You have to put in the perspiration so that when the inspiration does come, you’re ready to work with it and shape it into the finished article."
For Gauthier, getting a song right can take as many as four hundred rewrites. She’ll agonise over a single word for weeks, then find that the rest of the song doesn’t live up to the line she’s just perfected and start refining it again.
The effort’s worthwhile as there’s never a wasted word in a Gauthier song and she can put the audience at the scene immediately with an opening line like Falling Out of Love’s "It’s a cheap hotel, the heat pipes hiss ..." The rhyme that follows isn’t pretty but it’s real and realism is what Gauthier wants to convey.
"What I do is theatre in a way," she says. "I’m telling a story and generally the story has a moral, although the audience have to find the moral for themselves because it might change. A song might mean something when I wrote it but mean something else once I’ve done some more living. So it’s a delicate balance between being very specific and not being specific at all. That way, the songs might last longer – it’s a technique that’s worked for Bob Dylan, so maybe it’ll work for me too."
From The Herald, May 2006.