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Mary Gauthier: 'I’ve never been one for escapism in my art'

Alexa King Stone

Veteran singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier performs at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine on Sunday, July 16. She will be joined by acclaimed artist Jaimee Harris for a retrospective show that reaches back to some of her earliest songs up to her most recent effort, “Dark Enough to See the Stars.”

Gauthier is also the author of the book “Saved by A Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting,” considered a must-read for songwriters of all levels. She continues to teach songwriting workshops and provide private songwriting coaching sessions.

Gauthier recently spoke with KMUW about her current run of shows, “Saved by A Song” and the gravity of mortality.

Interview Highlights

You’re performing a retrospective show at the Bartlett Arboretum. What does a retrospective show mean to you? 

It occurred to me that I have 11 records now. It’s a body of work. And a book. I thought, “People come into my orbit or any artist’s obit around one record. That’s the one that meets them where they’re at in their life for a reason. They fall in love with that record and sometimes they come along for the whole ride and sometimes they come, and they go.” At this point, decades in, people have joined me along the way at a lot of points. They come to the show listening and hoping for a particular era of what I’ve done as an artist.

What I think of as a retrospective is looking at all the eras and all the records and picking my favorite songs and stories from each of them and turning it into one big sort of longer and more in-depth story than just, “Here’s the new songs from the new record.” And giving people the overview and actually enjoying the process of telling it because it’s been such a journey for me as an artist. I started late. I didn’t become a fulltime singer-songwriter until I was 40. My whole thinking around it was that if I could make it work then I wouldn’t have to go get a different job. Looks like 24 years, I don’t have to get a different job. This is my job.

How did I pull this off, starting at 40? I think that’s the story: It’s the songs and having written my way into a relationship with a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons.

When you make a new record is there ever any thought that it could be your last one?

You just never know as an artist when you’ve written your last song. Or recorded your last record. You never know. There’s financial considerations, there’s the ever-changing music business. And there’s just mortality. If you’re like me, you go in every time thinking, “I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got. This matters. And it matters—most importantly—to me.” I want to get it right. And by that I mean get it real and get it honest. I want it to be a genuine reflection of what I think of as emotional honesty. I’ve never gone to bat and not done that. Some records resonate with more audiences than others, but I feel as though I’ve always given it my best shot.

You’re not shy about sharing the stories behind songs. Not all writers are: Some say that the work is separate from them or that they don’t discuss their work. Why are you comfortable with talking about process and inspiration? 

That’s what my heroes do. When John Lennon wrote and sang “Mother” as his first single after the Beatles, there wasn’t a fan on earth who thought he was kidding. We got it. That song was personal. When John Prine sang “Sam Stone,” we got it. He created a character, but that character became real. And it was modeled after so many Vietnam veterans who ended up with a monkey on their back. Springsteen: “Nebraska.” Those characters? That was Bruce at a very dark place in his life. We knew that. My heroes have always done that. They modeled it for me.

I think, instinctively, I knew I had to work on a lot of things to stay above water. I’ve been very open about being in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and dealing with having early childhood trauma. I’ve used music and art very much as a force to help metabolize and I think even alchemize so much of that stuff. It works. It’s entertainment, but it’s also serious. It’s both. But I’ve never been one for escapism in my art.

Was that some of the thinking with the album “Rifles & Rosary Beads,” which you co-wrote with U.S. veterans and their families? 

My intention in working with the vets -- and I did it for 10 years -- was just to help them to articulate what was going on inside ‘em, the real stuff. So many of the veterans I wrote with were dealing with multiple types of trauma. A lot of them had PTSD so it was very hard to try to articulate [what was doing on]. Trauma, by definition, is ineffable. There are no words. This is where melody can really do some work. Music can penetrate where language ends. It points to the story rather directly giving language to it. What I think my job was working with the veterans was to get their truth into a song. But I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, would be useful. It wouldn’t just be a ditty. It would be useful to them in their healing, and it would be useful to somebody else on the other end.

Tell me about writing the book “Saved by a Song.” You must have had that book in you for quite some time. 

I guess my whole life was building up to it. It was a really lengthy process. I couldn’t write it until I was at a certain stage of my own recovery [where] I could reflect back on having found my way in a way that brought stability into my life [and be able to say], “Well, how did that happen?” I don’t think it’s a book that a young person could have written. Certainly not me. I try to put everything I know about life and songwriting into this thing. Everything I’ve learned and what I don’t know. I tried to do it in a way that was both memoir and instructional. I want this book to be picked up by songwriters who want to not be escapist songwriters.

As you were putting together this retrospective show, were there things that you hadn’t touched on in a while that maybe surprised you? Maybe you realized, “Oh, that’s what I was writing about back then”? 

The songs are pointing to something. They aren’t that something. What they point to is a living, breathing something. It looks like something that can only be interpreted one way and then decades go by, and you say, “I can see it completely differently now.” I’ve got a song written in first person, from the point of view of a gay man who has AIDS before there was [life-prolonging treatment]. He knew he was going to die.

Fast forward to the pandemic, 2020. We knew that when John Prine got COVID, the chances of his body -- having been through so much, cancer, everything -- surviving were slim. Who would have thought that that was how we’d lose John. I sing that song [“Goddamn HIV”] and I can’t help but think about John for a lot of reasons. Life tends to be circular. That first pandemic that I went through taught me quite a bit about what we were about to go through with this other one that we all just went through.

And that’s true of the songs about love and loss, too. Grief is grief but it’s different in your 20s than in your 60s. In your 60s, it’s just in your face. Your friends die of natural causes, and that’s how it is. It happened in my 20s, but people were not dying right and left the way they are now that I’m 61. The songs are expansive. It’s why Hank Williams’ songs are always gonna be valuable.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.