CMT Edge reached Mary Gauthier at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, where she was, as she put it, teaching songwriting workshops for “the hippie flower children.” It’s hardly surprising that aspiring songwriters would want to learn how she does what she does.
“I think it’s a good thing to have writers work with established writers to improve their craft,” she says. “It’s not like you can go to school and learn songwriting.”
The Nashville-based Louisiana native skipped right over the immature songwriting stages since she didn’t start writing until she was in her 30s, after getting sober. Sure, there was evidence on her first couple of albums that she was still getting the hang of working with the expressive tools at her disposal, but she already had the authority of experience — a perspective deepened by desperate times, desperate measures and a dramatic turnaround.
Gauthier’s new album, Trouble & Love, is one of the wisest testaments of broken-heartedness an Americana singer-songwriter has ever committed to tape.
CMT Edge: Have you ever been drawn to love songs?
Gauthier: I’m not generally drawn to those. I like story songs, where there’s tension. You know, a story is only a story when there’s tension. That’s my life experience. I don’t spend a lot of time in the first six months of love. I don’t live there. I like songs that take me to places where I live and talk to me about the life that I’ve experienced. I like real. I’ve always liked real.
I’m really interested in the fact that you wrote another batch of songs before this batch and scrapped them. Why did you feel those shouldn’t be shared with the world?
I think I wrote 33 or 34 songs. And then my job was to get rid of all the songs that didn’t absolutely have to be there.
A lot of the ones I scrapped were written in the early stages of my grief. They didn’t have the whole picture in it. I was in that particular place of despair. It’s not something I want on a permanent record because it doesn’t last. It’s something you pass through, hopefully. It’s not a place where I got stuck at. And I didn’t want to present it as a place to get stuck at.
And some of the other songs just weren’t as good. They weren’t as well-written. They weren’t as beautiful. They weren’t as universal. Some of the stuff was just too personal — not that I’m afraid to be personal. But I want to go past personal into universal. I don’t want this to be “Mary Gauthier’s breakup record.” I want it to be “This is what happens when human beings lose someone they love.”
The fact that you discarded some 20 songs speaks to a sense of discipline, that you’re not just spewing anything and everything out there without examining it. And these songs don’t feel like they necessarily came easily or automatically but after a lot of processing. What aspects of this were effortful for you?
I think that the whole process is a lot of work. … There’s millions of decisions that went into this thing, probably, if you look over the two-year period it took to create it and record it and put it into the world.
I think that the hardest part, for me, is to make sense out of chaos. And that’s what artists do. We take things that look just random and chaotic and messy, and then we impose order on it by giving it a beginning, a middle and an end and calling it a song.
These things are pretty ethereal and they’re flowing through us. Sometimes it’s like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. It’s coming at you so hard, it just doesn’t make any sense. … So a songwriter’s job is to try to catch it, hold onto it, wrestle it to the ground and turn it into something that has universal meaning.
Do you feel like the way you write about human transformation and facing things with a clear-eyed, unflinching perspective are skills you developed in recovery?
Yeah. I do think so. It’s been a way of self-preservation. To not die of addiction, you’ve got to change. So I had to learn about transformation, and I had to learn about how to grow spiritually.
Prior to that, I was a philosophy major. That was what interested me. So I have the inclination anyway to try to make sense of things in a way that maybe some other people wouldn’t who got a degree in — I don’t know — banking.
I gather that your approach to recording was different on this album. You skipped a lot of the steps that are typical to preproduction. What were you going for?
I hired Patrick Granado to co-produce with me and engineer. … I knew who I wanted to sing. I knew I wanted the McCrary Sisters, Darrell Scott, Beth Chapman and Ashley Cleveland. I wanted their voices next to mine for both the beauty of their voices and the support they’ve shown me over the last few years as I healed from this breakup.
Patrick brought in the band, and Patrick laid down the ground rules. He said, “Look, these songs are so utterly vulnerable that the best thing that we can do is to take the headphones away, take away the punches, don’t do rehearsals. Get the musicians into that vulnerable place where you were when you wrote them. Let’s get a real performance of artists being vulnerable. Let’s not try to sound vulnerable — let’s be vulnerable.” … I trusted him totally, and I’m so glad that I did.
You signed to Harlan Howard’s publishing company not long after he passed away and immersed yourself in Nashville’s contemporary songwriter culture. Would you say that you came to town kind of chasing ghosts, having heard stories about the songwriting community back in Howard’s day?
Yeah, I think that’s a very good characterization. I came chasing ghosts, and I ended up in the arms of Darrell Scott and Gretchen Peters and Beth Nielsen Chapman and the folks that are bringing that rootedness to the heart, that rootedness to real people’s stories forward.
If Harlan were around today, they’d call him Americana, you know? Because it’s simple and it’s real, and it’s honest and it’s true.