“In the songwriting groups I’ve done, there’s always five or six people in recovery. They’re not tortured. They’re joyful. There’s pain, there’s sorrow. But if you look at their faces, they’re not tortured.”
Mary Gauthier (prounounced Go-shay) is a songwriter’s songwriter. A native of New Orleans, Gauthier didn’t write her first song until age 35. But she’s more than made up for lost time, releasing five albums in the last 12 years and garnering a wealth of critical acclaim. Her songs have been recorded by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Blake Shelton and Tim McGraw. American Songwriter recently caught up with Gauthier at the Lyons, Colorado Song School, where she taught a class on the craft of songwriting.
–Interview by Jessie Torrisi
How do songs usually start for you?
Inspiration. They always start with inspiration.
What does inspiration mean to you?
I have no idea. I know that feeling…
That feeling that buzzes?
Yep. Something says, “Wow, I got something here.”
“Goddamn HIV,” an early song, was inspired by a billboard. What’d it say?
AIDS is God’s punishment for gays. It was the catalyst for that song. I didn’t know it at the time. I knew it in retrospect. I knew that billboard was wrong.
And the phrase “Between Daylight and Dark,” the title track from your latest record, comes from The Secret Life of Bees?
Yep, it’s a passage in the book. It just stuck out that it was beautiful. Like yes, yes, that time between daylight and dark is the saddest time of day. It’s the time of day that’s emotional.
You read a lot. What are you reading right now?
The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas.
It’s big. I’ve seen that book.
It’s big and fat and intimidating. His writing is so unbelievable it’s intimidating. But I’m enjoying it very much. It’s inspiring to see what can be done with language.
You read a lot about artists and their process. You must also read a lot about how tortured artists are.
Some are. Flannery O’Connor wasn’t. She had this illness, but she was quite sane. I read her letters before Dylan’s. I don’t think all artists are tortured – that’s a myth. I think the human condition involves suffering. I think a lot of artists torture themselves. They, we, generally have a lot of fragility. But fragile and tortured are different. A lot of the tortured artist clichés comes from addiction. A lot of us haven’t dealt with our addiction yet.
But it’s a different time now. Many of us are dealing with it. I certainly have, and I’m open about it. In the songwriting groups I’ve done, there’s always five or six people in recovery. They’re not tortured. They’re joyful. There’s pain, there’s sorrow. But if you look at their faces, they’re not tortured.
One thing that jumped out at me is this idea that songwriting has saved you.
It gives me a reason to live. It’s my passion, my love. And it gives me a purpose. I try to write songs that come from a place of generosity. I try to write songs that are of service. I don’t really know what that means. But that’s what I’m trying to do and it makes me feel useful.
Do you ever worry about whether people are going to get it?
There’s Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” There are a lot of artists that have poured their soul out and done something beautiful. And then people kind of seize onto one part of it that ignores the larger picture.
People get it when they get it. They’re gonna get it from where they’re coming from. They can’t be where I am.
You say you play for the guy in the back of the concert hall who’s kind of lost or lonely. How literal are you being?
It’s a metaphor. It’s that part of all of us.
Where does your sense of the spirit come from?
So it’s not from going to church?
Hell no. I haven’t been to church in years. It’s definitely not religion. It’s creation, creativity.
Is it something you feel free to make up as you go?
Absolutely. Co-creation. (Smirking)
Like co-writing. Louisiana has such a rich musical tradition. Is that something that has influenced you?
Yes, I think the storytelling comes from Louisiana. I think that I come from a storytelling culture.
Who were your heroes growing up? You talk about how your first album embarrasses you ‘cause you hear, “Oh I’m trying to write that person’s song.”
I always go for the strong lyricists, the wordsmiths. Hank Williams. Woody Guthrie. All their descendants. Leonard Cohen. The language guys. The poets.
I didn’t want to like Bob Dylan for a long time ‘cause he’s kind of spiteful. How do you reconcile the generosity and the spirit – trying to move people – with the mean side of human feeling?
I try not to confuse people’s personality with their work. I try not to confuse the person with the song. I can love the song. I don’t love Bob Dylan. I don’t know Bob Dylan. But I sure do love the song.
You’re the teacher here who’s talked again and again about the importance of finding your own voice. Besides “Goddamn HIV,” what are a few early songs where you thought, “Oh my god, this is who I am?”
I think ‘cause I started later, I was quicker to find my voice. Most of my songs after have been in my voice… “I Drink,” most of the songs on my second CD are Mary Gauthier songs. And in increasing numbers as my career continues.
Do you still feel that same feeling of wonderment when you write a song you’re proud of?
Yep. Yep. When I watch it land on people and they react. I love it.
Do you think your whole life you’ll be writing songs?
I hope so. I feel like I got enough love to last for two lifetimes. I love it so much.
What was it you said at the workshop? Songwriting is your…