Mary Gauthier is back with a stellar live album, Live At Blue Rock. We quizzed the celebrated songwriter and gifted lyricist about getting shout outs from Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, finding her voice as a writer, the value of the word “underrated” and more.
This is your first live album. Are you surprised?
No, I planned it that way. I waited till I put in my 10,000 hours. I waited till I completed a decade of heavy touring, till I was sure I was ready — as a performer and a writer and a singer.
How do the arrangements differ from their studio counterparts?
The Live record is me with a fiddler and a drummer. Studio records are more fleshed out with instrumentation.
Your new bio mentions that your songs have been praised by Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. What were the specifics of each?
They both played me on their radio shows — Tom, in Australia guesting on Lucky Ocean’s show, and Dylan on his Theme Time Radio show with the theme “Drink” — and talked about the writing.
How do you generally approach writing lyrics?
I approach it with trepidation.
When your at home playing for yourself and no one can hear you, what sort of stuff do you play?
I play riffs and chord changes that interest me. I try to find changes that speak to my sense of the beautiful, and try to learn new ways to express that.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Fred Eaglesmith, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, John Lennon, Steve Earle, Jimmy Webb. . . and about 1,000 or so more.
What’s your typical approach to songwriting?
I don’t have one. The only constant is that its hard, and its elusive, and it requires a great amount of effort.
When did you start writing songs? (Were they good right away, or did that come later? )
I started writing songs in the late 1990s. my writing started out as derivative, until I found my own voice. Once I found my own voice, my songs improved.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I don’t remember. But I do remember the first song I ever wrote in my own voice. It’s called “Goddamn HIV,” and it’s about a young man with the virus. I wrote it in 1997 or 1998, and I knew I’d found my voice.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
Hmm….I guess about 3/4th of them get finished.
What’s a song on your live album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I am proud of all the songs on the record, they stand on their own without me now, and thats what I’ve hoped for. I’m also quite happy with the Fred Eaglesmith songs I put on this record, I love playing his songs, and feel them as if I wrote them.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
“He knew how the nation was doing by the length of a sidewalk cigarette butt.” From “Last of the Hobo Kings.”
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I’d like to say it gets easier, but is does not get easier. What happens is that I simply approach it knowing that it is hard. I’ve not written a song yet that didn’t requite me giving 100% of what I’ve got to get it right, and thats a lot of effort.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
Hopefully, they all really touch people. That’s what I am trying my best to do. “Mercy Now” is a song that’s gotten through.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Underrated by who? Underrated by USA Today? Underrated by awards shows? Not famous yet? The songwriters who don’t get standing ovations every time they play? There are thousands and thousands of brilliant songwriters who are in it for the love of the craft, truth and beauty, and not interested in some weird sports like rating system or the fame game. I rate them very highly. But here’s my deal—-I think rating art, treating it like a sport, is destructive. We all like to be acknowledged for our efforts, but applause cannot be the goal or the songs will suffer. I just really don’t know how to answer this question. Sometimes being ” underrated is a very, very good thing. So many songwriters I respect and admire write under the radar, and keep at for decades, till eventually they are “discovered”. Sometimes being discovered kills the thing that made the songs great on the first place. Quality cannot be measured by publicity or awards or applause. So “ratings” are a dangerous thing for the arts, and for the artists.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
I think Hank Williams’ ” I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is about as good as it gets. Poetic, deeply complex, and profoundly simple. Reaches into the heart and speaks to the soul. What a song. Perfection? Yes!