Taking the road less traveled, with the stories to prove it
“It’s a different calling to be an artist than it is to be anything else in our society. I think it’s both a holy and sacred calling.” So says Mary Gauthier, who has managed to find her calling in life and in doing so, has managed to touch lives of people throughout the world.
Ms. Gauthier has played over 10,000 gigs, released several albums (some are even available on vinyl), and has won world-renowned accolades. She’s found on dozens of playlists including Bob Dylan’s and when you hear her sing, it is easy to understand why. Yet when you speak with her you forget about all of that. Ms. Gauthier takes the time to think about her answers before speaking and when she does speak her audience is held captive by what she has to say.
Ms. Gauthier has spoken about a distinction needing to be made between being an entertainer versus being an artist. “One is not better than the other, but there are distinctions that need to be made.” You can hear the distinctions on Ms. Gauthier’s 2014 release, Trouble and Love. The amount of care and pride that went into making this album is heard on every track. For starters, this is the first album she’s had a hand in producing and, if the circumstances were right, she would do it again. “I think so. It depends on the songs, of course. My process has always been to write the songs and then start figuring out how to produce them; like. Like you know you got to do this in the right order for it to work and once I have the songs I’m inclined to think of certain producers. With this batch of songs it ended up me being the one who should be in charge of final decisions and what these sound like. I worked with Patrick Granado who pretty much was active in making the decisions as well. We teamed up and did it together.”
Being a co-producer on the album wasn’t the only new experience Ms. Gauthier had while recording. Instead of bringing in a band, rehearsing, and then recording straight to a computer she chose to capture the emotion of the moment. This choice is paying off as more people are noticing the sound. “We recorded to tape for one thing so it sounds different than a record that’s recorded to a computer. The lack of rehearsal was intentional because what we wanted to get was the musician’s first reaction to the songs. And so that’s what we did. I went in and they didn’t even know what the songs were. I played it for them on the acoustic guitar then we took our place and we played it a couple of times and then musicians were so good;, they were able to just get it. That was it you know. We did it pretty quickly. The whole thing was done in less than five days.”
Less than five days to make the album yet it will have an impact that will be felt for years to come, all because Ms. Gauthier started with a song. “All songs start with an inspiration. Sometimes you just sit there and play around on the guitar and try to find something that triggers an inspiration. Inspiration comes in a flash and then you try to trace it back into what is it trying to get me to say. It’s the flash of something that resonates deeply and then the process of writing is trying to uncover what’s there. You can feel it. As a writer, I feel it. Most of the time I can’t get it, but when I do get it those are the songs that resonate. I wrote forty something songs for this record and only eight are on it because the other ones just weren’t right; they. They weren’t good enough. I don’t get it every time. I get it maybe half the time, but on this group of songs it took a lot for me to get those eight songs. I had to keep writing.”
I always imagined that it would be difficult to whittle down a list of songs to a handful that would be recorded on an album, but when I was talking to Ms. Gauthier, she actually had a point that made me change my mind and believe the process would be easier than I had imagined. “I used my instincts,” she said. “Patrick Granado helped me as well. Interestingly we listened to the forty songs and we both picked the same ten. It’s obvious. The great ones rise and the lesser great ones will sink. It was clear; these. These were the ones that went deep enough.”
Going deep enough and saying what you are scared to say isn’t just something Ms. Gauthier practices, they are also things she stresses to songwriters she is mentoring. “When I’m working with other songwriters that I teach, what I try to get across to them is to be vulnerable. What I try to get across to them is to expose themselves and to be vulnerable and to get to the truth of that song and to realize that’s frightening and you’re going to be scared to death and then you are going to be able to say that you’ve got courage because it takes courage to do it. And so, courage is nothing more than being terrified and doing it anyway. So I bring them to that place, to where they’re scared and they say I can’t say that and I say that’s exactly what you have to say. And so that’s what we work on. We work on courage. We work on artistic courage.”
There is no doubt that Ms. Gauthier is all about the power of a song. As a teacher, when she sees someone break through to the other side she feels like she’s actually done a good job of mentoring them. “It’s like the best I can do is to break them through their fear and get them to say it. I’m not interested as the teacher and as a songwriter in the marketplace as much as I’m interested in healing and playing to the place where there’s the emotional growth and spiritual growth. I think songs can help us grow. I think songs can help us heal. I think songs can help us transcend where we are and move us forward. Songs can help us with a lot of the things that we get stuck in, in life. That’s what I’m really interested in. Every now and then that work intersects with something that the radio might play, but I’m not concerned with that primarily. I’m concerned with the deeper story and that’s just the way I’ve been called to be. I’m not saying that’s a better way. I don’t think it is. I just think it’s my way.”
Ms. Gauthier knows that songs make the emotional connection to the fans and she hears from her fans every day how she has impacted their lives. “I always go out after the show and meet folks. Part of my work is to listen and be interactive. I’m not removed. I don’t do a big star trip. I’m interested in connecting. There comes a time when probably that might be overwhelming but it’s not now and so after every show I go out and I talk to people and sign CDs and interact. I’m answering my Facebook. I’m on Twitter. I am in connection with thousands of people but I love it. It’s not overwhelming yet; it. It might never be overwhelming but yeah, its reciprocity. It’s a back and forth energy. It’s one of the cool things about making music in our time.”
Social media is a big part of the music industry now. There are dozens of fan made videos that pop up on YouTube daily allowing fans to show their support for their favorite person. Because of this easy access, I was able to watch a performance of Ms. Gauthier as she made her Grand Ole Opry debut. She sang an amazing song off of the Trouble and Love album, “Another Train.” I was touched by her performance. The words she sang were hauntingly beautiful and during the instrument breaks she was full of joy and you could tell she was in her element. “It’s hard to describe. You know it’s hard to describe how it feels like. To be inside your destiny, to be inside what it is that you are put on earth to do. And there’s a peace about it. It just felt right. And it was important to have my friends Marty Stuart, Radney Foster, and Kathy Mattea around me, which is a beautiful thing that I got asked to be there on the night when my debut was, when all my friends are on the bill so I could ask them to sing with me and play with me. And it just felt like a hand going into a glove.”
Ms. Gauthier will get to join two of her friends again when she performs at The City Winery in Nashville on December 6th. She has played The City Winery in New York City and Chicago several times. “I’m looking forward to playing the one in Nashville with my dear friends Gretchen Peters and Eliza Gilkyson. Two amazing songwriters. It’s gonna be a wonderful night. I can’t wait.”
I have always been a fan of any artist who has an innate ability to tell a story. I love to harken back to Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” or Steve Earle and “Copperhead Road.” I love anything by Shelby Lynne and Bobby Pinson. Mary Gauthier is at the top of my list for being able to not only tell a story but to get me to live a story. There is a big difference between the two and not many artists are able to make the distinction for me as a fan. Ms. Gauthier can tell a story using her voice and a guitar. Her voice conveys emotion with every word sung. When you see her perform you can feel the emotion in her soul and see the emotion on her face. An artist like her is rare so when someone like me finds her music, I listen. I feel. I care. I also find I am not alone. Ms. Gauthier has an ability to pull you up and make you hopeful one minute and then tear you down and make you cry the next because she has been there. That is the whole basis of Trouble and Love. She’s been on the road less traveled by the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings and she has the stories to prove it.