Mary Gauthier wrenches everything from a song. From a New Orleans orphanage to the writing circles of Nashville, Gauthier has spent the 60 years and eight albums exercising her natural talent to become one of the most distinguished, and just plain great songwriters currently walking around today.
It’s been addiction and heartbreak, small triumphs against the odds as well as simply the wear and tear of a living that’s made her so formidable, and with the uncanny ability to inhabit another’s story as snugly as her own, Gauthier has also become a conduit for many who also, as she long ago discovered, understand the healing properties of songwriting.
Some of the material on her current album, “Dark Enough To See The Stars,” sprang from the well of Gauthier’s previous project, 2018’s “Rifles & Rosary Beads,” a reckoning of an album pairing Gauthier with combat veterans and their families, as well as her navigation of the pandemic and the exploration of a healthy relationship with muse, partner, and kindred songwriter Jaimee Harris.
“I had some of these songs during that time of writing with the veterans, and I just didn’t have a way to put them into the world yet. A lot of these songs came as a result of the pandemic and also, as I got deeper into the relationship with my partner and we started to really make a commitment to it,” she said in a recent interview. “The straight-up love songs are from a new relationship and the experience of commitment – and also the shock of finally having some stability in that area later in life. My relationships have all been complicated and ill-fated, and here I am in my sixth decade, and I’m seeing a stability that I never had before and the joy of that and the gratitude of that.”
But the parallels between veterans and medical professionals during the spread of COVID-19 weren’t lost on Gauthier.
“I got to write with doctors and nurses on Zoom who’d been working the COVID frontline, and the trauma they’re dealing with is very similar to the PTSD that our veterans have been dealing with. You know, they’re trained to save lives, and when they see so much death over such a long period of time, it’s very traumatic for them,” said Gauthier.
“One nurse said, ‘Nobody trained us on how to hand somebody an iPad to say goodbye to their loved ones, or not even be able to say goodbye to their loved ones, but to be on a respirator and have their loved ones say goodbye to them. So we’re holding an iPad, families (are) saying goodbye, and in the next room, the beepers and the red lights are flashing and we’ve got to go.’ That urgency day after day, week after week, month after month, and now year after year has taken a tremendous toll. I work with an organization called Frontline Songs, and we wrote with doctors and nurses, and the parallels are very, very similar. But also writing from my own personal experience of loss during this pandemic, I think grief is universal, and we experience it similarly and especially when deaths come unexpectedly, quickly, and they happen in a way that starts to take a toll, person after person.”
That loss manifests itself through Gauthier’s tribute “How Could You Be Gone”.
“I lost a very close friend in the shutdown part of the pandemic who died really unexpectedly, really quickly,” Gauthier said. “We went to her service and it was outside, and a lot of the imagery in the song is from that outdoor service during the COVID lockdown. But I think the song really does speak to the time that we’re in – we’ve all been losing people.”
Gauthier acknowledges that the general transition of time – aging and watching her friends age – may be the natural way, but that understanding offers little to mitigate the overall shock and pain, a concept she deftly handles on “About Time.”
“When I’m worrying about time, I’m missing the moment that I’m in,” said Gauthier. “I think that song addresses that notion of, ‘I don’t want to think about time. The more I think about time, I’m losing time. I’m missing the joy of where I am right now worrying about where I’m going to be.’ Because I don’t know where I’m going to be. We’re not able to know that. We’re not able to know who’s going to outlive who and how this story ends – that’s part of the need for faith. We’ve got to have faith to keep going, and faith is not based in certainty, it’s based in unknowing.”
On the title track to “Dark Enough To See The Stars” (a gorgeous tear-inducer), Gauthier wrangles that grief and pain with a well-worn hope inspired by a lifetime of challenges.
“I co-wrote that with my friend Beth Nielson Chapman, and I think of all the songs, it’s the one that captures what we’re going through the best without ever really referencing it. It’s a universal title. I got the title from a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech, ‘It’s only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.’ I think that speaks to the time that we’re in better than anything I’ve ever heard. Maybe it speaks to life better than anything! I just lifted it out of the speech, and we wrote the song over a lot of years, actually,” Gauthier said. “It was close, but it wasn’t right. So it was lingering, and then after the pandemic, I went back, and Beth and I worked on it some more. I’m so glad I didn’t put it out before its time because I think it became the centerpiece and the title track for this record. Oftentimes, the songs come before the artist has the ability to make sense of what they’re trying to tell us. Sometimes, you’ve just got to put it down and do some more living.”
“Dark Enough To See The Stars” is the artist in rare, but utterly top form, and possibly for the first time, Gauthier has allowed a particular happiness into her writing, a component as strange to the writer as it is to long-time admirers of her to-the-bone approach. And that’s why it works on tracks like “Fall Apart World,” “Thank God For You” and the beautiful lyrical snapshot (co-written with Harris) “Amsterdam”.
“I’ve never done it before, and I’m a little nervous about how it’s going to land on people who have sort of pegged me as the lesbian Leonard Cohen or something,” laughed Gauthier about her latest batch of joyful tunes. “But that’s how I feel in spite of so much hardship in the last couple of years. I’m also experiencing a moment in my life where there’s joy, so I’m just the kind of songwriter that writes what I know and tries to get to an authentic place in my writing. It just came to a place where I really had to do this. I honestly think a straight-up love song is one of the hardest songs to write, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s because it’s easier to sing your pain and be authentic than sing your joy and have people think you’re a bit of a jerk! I really am in uncharted waters here.”
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