Singing Truths: Mary Gauthier's raw, vulnerable songs are like short stories
Her voice is untutored and unassuming but deeply evocative and powerful, and her songs go straight to the heart in a way that is personal, candid, and unaffected by artifice or unnecessary frills. Every line of every song is its own entire world, its own little gem of a thought. Her straightforward and relaxed style of performance lends these songs a truthfulness which is best experienced up close.
“Small venues lend themselves to a more personal show. Small rooms suit my music and storytelling,” she says.
Her life experiences are the kind that can’t help but shape someone into a storyteller. Her tumultuous life -- first as an orphan, then as a runaway from her adoptive parents, then as an addict, and eventually as one who conquered her addiction -- was eased by her passion for music. When I asked whether there were specific musicians who inspired her growing up, she said, “Literally thousands.”
But her own music-making wouldn’t start until years later. Before Gauthier was in her 30s, she gained acclaim as a chef in New Orleans, and the struggle to balance her addiction and her work in the multiple restaurants she’d opened led to her eventual sobriety. That was when her songwriting began. “I came to songwriting as a second career, in my late 30s. It found me, somehow.” She released her first album, Dixie Kitchen, in 1997 at age 35 and hasn’t looked back. She doesn’t easily fit into any genre or category. “I have been called folk, country, Americana, singer-songwriter,” says Gauthier. “They are all true.”
Gauthier’s 1999 album, Drag Queens in Limousines, put her on the map with a four-star rating from Rolling Stone, and widespread acclaim. She’s released seven albums since then, most recently 2014’s Trouble and Love. The recording process for that album was purposefully unique: Gauthier asked the musicians she’d gathered to come into the studio without having heard a demo, seen a chord chart, or read any sheet music. This meant that the musicians improvised everything that ended up on the album.
“I made the record that way because I wanted the band to be vulnerable," Gauthier says. "And I didn’t want them to be rehearsed. I wanted the feelings to be real, and urgent." She used the same technique to record her latest album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, which comes out in January. “It’s a great way to capture real emotion.”
Rifles and Rosary Beads was co-written with wounded veterans, a testament to Gauthier’s commitment to telling stories, no matter whose they are, truthfully and to the fullest. This commitment also carries over into speaking out about social justice. She shared her song “World Unkind” in a recent blog post about the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, and clearly feels passionately about an artist’s role in speaking out.
“I think people who tell artists to shut up and sing have no idea what an artist does,” she says. “An artist’s job is to speak truth. Politics enters the arena as soon as we open our mouths. There is a difference between an entertainer and an artist. I’m songwriter first and foremost. Not a woman songwriter, or a gay songwriter, just a songwriter. I do not think that gender, sexual identity, age, nationality, ethnicity, go as deep as the call to write. They are secondary to the calling. I write from my heart, my soul. I try to capture what I see, what I feel, what matters to me.”
Emily Slomovits is an Ann Arbor freelance musician, theater artist, and writer. She plays music with her father and uncle (aka Gemini) and others, is a member of Spinning Dot Theatre, and has performed with The Encore Musical Theatre Company, Performance Network, and Wild Swan Theater.
Mary Gauthier performs at the Green Wood Coffee House inside the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor, 1001 Green Rd., on Friday, Oct. 27 at 8 pm. For tickets and more information, visit greenwoodcoffeehouse.org.