No tragic outlaw
Her past may paint her as one, but Mary Gauthier‘s busy in the now, trying to live the best life she can and capture the songs that stream through her consciousness.
By Naila Francis
Sometimes in life, a light shimmers along the path, like a flicker from a candle guiding us to a momentary reprieve, a suddenly solid footing that seems a salvation from our own internal chaos.
Some of us choose to linger there, in security, in comfort, never acknowledging the reluctance of our embrace, given the past we have left behind and the stories that still cast their shadows upon the present.
For those daring to reach for more, perhaps the more courageous ones willing to recognize the respite for what it is, something greater beckons. And where there was a flame, there is now a fire, a hunger that compels them on, setting them on a course toward the purpose that was theirs all along.
For Mary Gauthier, that fire was music and the powerfully stark songs of hardscrabble living that took up permanent residence in the fertile imaginings of her mind, their cast of wounded and wasted characters begging for their stories to be told. It was these songs that would eventually prompt Gauthier (pronounced “go-shay”), a successful restaurateur in Boston, to leave that career behind, finding at last the balm for a ravaged life that she had been slowly piecing together.
She was 35 when she wrote her first song. Today, just shy of a decade later, she is an acclaimed singer-songwriter, her unflinchingly honest songs of real life and real suffering having pegged her as a compelling storyteller, from her debut “Dixie Kitchen” in 1997, to last year’s “Mercy Now,” for which she was named New/Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2005 Americana Music Awards.
Gauthier, still a bit surprised by all the fanfare, quite simply acknowledges that music saved her life. But with that, the former alcoholic and drug addict says her story, which by now has become a TV-movie-like tale of triumph that accompanies just about any reference to her music, in no way makes her unique.
“I lived a life when I was younger that was very, very risky and I just was a crazy kid and I took a lot of chances and I was stupid and the fact that I made it through to see adulthood was amazing to me,” she says with matter-of-fact sincerity. “But I’m not this tragic outlaw figure that they make me out to be. I was born again — not in the Christian sense, in a literal sense. I had another opportunity to try it again and this time, I think, I hope, I’m doing a better job. I certainly am happier.”
The candor that she brings to her songs is present in conversation, too, a warmth and easy graciousness underlying her words.
“It makes me feel good,” says Gauthier, of the frankness that has led her to pen songs such as the wryly affecting portrait of alcoholism, “I Drink,” and “Prayer Without Words,” which rolls along like a swaggering country-western incantation for those running hard and fast like she once did.
“Having lived in the darkness of not being honest for a long time, coming into the sunlight has just been great,” says Gauthier, who performs Sept. 21 at Sellersville Theater 1894. “I think that the truth can’t hurt anybody, and it’s the lies that are destructive. The truth will set you free.”
Hers is a truth born of despair and dissolution. And when Gauthier sings, her bruised drawl of a world-weary voice sifting through the pages of her life, one can almost imagine the ghosts from her days of carousing on the streets with drag queens, strippers and drug addicts filling the mournful spaces inside the songs.
“There’s not an inch of Cher in me. I’m not Britney. There’s nothing Las Vegas about me. There’s nothing glamorous about me,” she says dryly. “I’m just an old-fashioned storyteller who takes on subject matters a lot of entertainers wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, and that’s what makes me interesting. I can only write what I know, sing what I understand. I can’t get up there and present ideas that I don’t believe in because the life that I lived and the way I see the world makes for darker subject matter.”
Adopted as a baby into an alcoholic family in Thibodaux, New Orleans, Gauthier was herself 13 when she took her first drink.
At 15, she stole the family car and ran away. She spent her 16th birthday in detox and her 18th in jail for petty theft.
Thrown out of Kansas, where she was living at the time, she found her way to Louisiana State University, enjoying the philosophy classes she favored until her drug addiction forced her to drop out her senior year. From there, Gauthier headed to Boston, where she worked her way up from waitress to manager at a cafe. After attending the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, she decided to open her own Cajun restaurant, just blocks from the Berklee School of Music.
The night the restaurant opened, Gauthier got a DUI and entered rehab again. She quit drinking at 28.
“When I quit drinking and doing drugs, I was a very out-of-control person,” she admits. “The insanity of the restaurant suited me really well the first three years of my sobriety, running around, going from zero to a thousand. You’d get this huge lunch rush, prep and then get this huge dinner rush. It was just endless like that and I spent a decade of my life doing that. Because I’m such an extreme personality, I couldn’t continue to live like that, not without the luxury of alcohol taking the edge off of it. So I had to find what I loved. I got to be sane and more centered, and then I started to get the gift of song.”
It was a gift that wasn’t all that surprising.
“I always saw myself as a writer even though I wasn’t writing. I would sit at a bar and boldface lie that I was a writer. ‘Well, what kind of writer?’ ‘A songwriter.’ ‘Got any songs?’ ‘No, but I will,’ ” she remembers saying, finding her confidence in the strange duality of her disease. “Alcoholism is a very complex thing. Every alcoholic is an egomaniac and we also have this profound self-hatred. I was arrogant but I felt worthless.
“After I put down the self-destruction and got out of that hell and the songs started coming to me, I found that creating music was a great reason to get up in the morning. I didn’t need to make money and fight the world again. I needed to do something positive that stirred my soul and gave me joy.”
Her philosophy studies helped with the writing — “Philosophers and songwriters play with words, they’re kindred spirits for sure,” she says — but the singing itself proved a trickier feat to master.
“I learned to quit trying so hard and once I quit trying so hard, then I got better,” says Gauthier, who eventually settled in Nashville. “It’s the trying that makes a singer a bad singer. It’s the seemingly effortless singing that people like.”
Hers is an arresting approach. On “Mercy Me,” her first album for Lost Highway Records, her searing, poetic lyrics, half-sung and half-spoken, rise up from a desolate landscape where hope springs fragile as lovers struggle with intimacy, loss weighs heavy on the heart and a reliance on faith is still a tentative assurance.
While her songs tend to echo her own experiences, Gauthier strives for a connection beyond self-absorption.
“I’m not into navel-gazing,” she says. “Two doors down from navel-gazing is universal truth, but you’ve got to go through your own navel to get there, I guess. Still, I hope I never get stuck there at that level of writing where I’m so involved in myself that I can only tell you about me.
“It’s a fine line between the deeply personal, the universal and navel-gazing. And one thing I’ve learned as a writer over the years is if you go deeply personal enough, you hit the universal.”
It’s the kind of balance she aims for in her own life, too, allowing for the creative and the joyful while knowing there is still healing to be done.
“A big part of the journey is just showing up every day and just doing it,” says Gauthier. “I’m working with spiritual principles and trying to become a whole person, a less broken person. I had to find a truly humble place to be able to do this — that was part of overcoming the self-hatred and egomania.
“I look at it like I’m just trying to find my truth. I’m not just trying to shine or stand out for anyone. I’m just on this journey that’s very personal, with me at my desk chiseling away at these concrete slabs trying to get words in them.”
– The Intelligencer