Mary Gauthier is an unflinching and courageous songsmith. Her life has been tough and troubled, and she isn’t afraid to write about it in an unerringly calm and simple way, despite the personal difficulties involved and the work required.
In her efforts to disperse the shadows and shed light on dark areas inside and outside her, the New Orleans–born singer, writer, and acoustic guitarist—who’s usually happiest singing solo—never slips into self-indulgence. On the contrary, through meticulous and natural craft Gauthier helps listeners deal with their own darkness by exploring hers in a matter-of-fact, yet heart-rending way.
“I write to make some sense of things that confuse me,” says Gauthier, reached in L.A. “The mechanics of my own heart are the most confusing I know about—and don’t know about—and other people’s are a bit confusing too. I think we’re very much in a mystery here in this life and that artists try to pierce the mystery with their art.”
Gauthier was left in an orphanage by a mother who won’t meet her, and she’ll likely never know who her father was. Her ordeal and that of other abandoned and adopted children provide the theme of 2010’s The Foundling, Gauthier’s extraordinarily powerful seventh studio album. At 15 she stole her foster parents’ car to run away; she became a drug addict and an alcoholic, and spent her 18th birthday in jail. It took almost two decades for Gauthier to get clean, and it was only then that she began writing and performing.
“My experience is that the universal is the personal,” she says. “If you can get past your navel-gazing into the deepest part of yourself as a writer you find everyone—we’re all there. The reason Hank Williams’s catalogue is still so active is because he had a very deep grasp of how to articulate very complex emotional states simply, so everyone can understand.”
Williams is certainly one of Gauthier’s inspirations for her words and music, which flow between western folk-noir and alt-country. Her low-key, intimate delivery recalls another great name from a different genre. “I’m a big fan of Lou Reed, and I do a lot of talking through songs,” she says. “It’s more effective with my vocal limitations, and also more powerful to slightly sing sometimes. It depends on the emotion, but I’m never going to try to compete with great singers.”
For economy and understatement it’s hard to beat Gauthier’s “I Drink”, perhaps her most popular song thanks to its chorus: “Fish swim, birds fly/Daddies yell, mamas cry/Old men sit and think/I drink.”
“It took me two years to get that song right,” she reveals. “I write down my thoughts when I hear them. Then I sit down and work, and work. The perspiration of fleshing out is always a lot more time-consuming than the flash of inspiration. I edit relentlessly and mercilessly.”
Despite or maybe paradoxically because of the concision and starkness of Gauthier’s songs, they’re engaging, even humorous in a hard-bitten way. “Sometimes just the telling of the story, the characters, the human condition, can be quite funny,” she says. “Especially in the dark parts, because that’s where humour lies. It comes from sadness—we laugh at ourselves and at our predicament here.”