Mary Gauthier: Saved by a songwriter
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Anyone familiar with the brilliant songs of lesbian singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier won't be at all surprised to learn that she also has an undeniable gift for writing prose. Her first book, Saved By A Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting (St. Martin's Press, 2021), which I would describe as a memoir/manual hybrid, is as personal and revealing as her tunes.
Over the course of 13 songs (11 originals and two by others, including John Prine's "Sam Stone" and John Lennon's "Mother"), Gauthier takes the reader behind the scenes with stories about how the songs came to be, while also delving into the process itself. It's fascinating read for all, songwriters and fans alike. Mary was generous enough to talk to me in advance of the July 6 publication of the book.
Gregg Shapiro: Mary, your book Saved By A Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting, is a memoir/gentle-songwriting-manual hybrid. Was that the intention all along or did it begin as one, say a memoir, and then merge with a songwriting guide?
Mary Gauthier: This was a six or seven-year process. I wrote a book before this for Yale University Press. They wanted a straight-up book on songwriting. Then the guy who signed me to Yale left the press. He moved to Berkeley and is running a nonprofit, beautiful press out there called Heyday. When he left the book kind of got shelved. So, that book went away.
I had that manuscript which I'd spent years on and then I connected with St. Martin's Press. They wanted to see that manuscript. They liked it, but they wanted something more interesting to people who are not songwriters, but also to reach songwriters. It was their idea, and I love it, to pick stories from my life that are examples of, I guess, inspiration for songs or my deepening understanding of songwriting; tell it through story. Let's go with something that's a mash-up memoir plus songs behind-the-scenes instruction. Which I think is a better book, actually, because the straight-up instruction books on songwriting, kind of don't give you a context for where all these lessons come from. What I'm trying to teach and show students is that they come from your life. Where else could they come from?
You wrote that your 'hope is to encourage courage' when it comes to songwriting, but you also don't hesitate to write about your own songwriting frustration. Would it be fair to say the book is as instructional as it is cautionary?
Maybe not cautionary; just letting songwriters know that if you ever think this is going to get easy, forget about it! This is hard. What we're trying to do with song is what a novelist tries to do in 700 pages. We've got three minutes.
If Leonard Cohen was still alive, he'd be the first one to tell you, this is hard. "Hallelujah" took something like seven years and 50 verses to get to the song that we know and love today. The only songwriter who makes it look easy is Bob Dylan, and there's one of them in all of history. I think it's not necessarily cautionary, but more, 'Hey, don't expect it to get easy.' In fact, the further you go, the more you're going to see that this is always about roaming around in the darkness trying to find the light.
Well said! I'd never thought about this before, but you draw parallels between cooking and songwriting. Now that you are a full-time musician, do you still find time to cook for yourself and others?
I'm holding a little dinner party tomorrow night. I am not all that in love with it. It was more like a fling. I went to chef school, really in love with cooking. I learned all about pairing wines with foods and absorbing the ways that each region of Italy prepares food. I went through the history of French cuisine by cooking very complicated French cassoulets and recipes from Larousse Gastronomique. I went through all that and I reached the end of it after about a decade.
Now I'm a decent cook. Mostly I was good at multitasking and going fast. Running a business while I was cooking. But I'm not in love with it, so I don't do it that much. If you gave me a choice— would you rather cook or take everybody out to dinner? Almost 99 times out of 100, let's go out! It's easier.
Right! No cleanup.
Yes, and no shopping. It'll take a full day to prepare for this little gathering tomorrow, to do it right. Honestly, I'd rather be working on the manuscript for what I'm writing right now. I'm not as fascinated with cooking as people who love it are. To me, it's something you do that's practical, but it doesn't hold my imagination. But I love using cooking analogies for songwriting because they work. That's also my reference. I can speak well about it because I've lived it.
And that comes through in the book. In chapter two, you say, "To sound like myself, I had to reveal myself," which I think is reflected in the way you have spoken and written honestly about your path to recovery, which includes 30 years of sobriety. What would it mean to you to have your book embraced as recommended reading for the recovery community?
That would be tremendous. I think that's what I'm getting at, very much what I'm getting. That I wouldn't be a songwriter if I hadn't gotten sober. And I wouldn't have gotten sober if I hadn't gotten arrested. I figured that's a good enough place as any to start the book. In the car, drunk, with sirens behind you. Very, very scary [laughs].
My heart was racing when I was reading that part, too. Also notable is the way you address queerness in your life and music, from the Indigo Girls concert you attended to your songs "Goddamn HIV" and "Drag Queens in Limousines." In the years since you been writing and recording music, what do you think of the way that LGBTQ+ musicians have been embraced by audiences from all walks of life?
That's a great question! I was telling my partner Jaimee that this is the year of the warm embrace. We've hit a critical mass this year. I get requests from the Americana Music Association, "Please send us a quote about your story, Americana music and Gay Pride Month, directed to people who are on our Instagram."
That's a big step.
Yeah, man! They got a big quote from me, from Brandi (Carlile) and from Amy Ray. Amy's quote was unbelievably vulnerable and gorgeous. She talked about how she spent years fighting for social justice, but not queer rights because she didn't think she was worthy of having that fight. That's when Indigo Girls had a freaking HBO special! It wasn't like she was in the closet. She was battling worthiness. I understand and relate to that. This is the year of the "let's-talk-about-it-publicly-warm-embrace." I think Brandi Carlile has moved the ball forward big time. But what's interestingly missing in this is, where's the male voice?
Lil Nas X is certain certainly doing his part.
That's not Americana or country or folk. That's pop. He kind of snuck in, but he wouldn't have done it without the "Achy Breaky" dude.
Billy Ray Cyrus. But it's also about visibility in the Black community, which is not especially known for embracing LGBTQ folks. It's not Americana, but it's another community that is trying to make steps forward.
Absolutely! And that young man is crushing it. He's so good-looking! Even I'm looking at him! I follow his Instagram and I'm like, "Dude, you are so good-looking!" He is really attractive and he's so flamboyant and playful. He's a star. I would maybe say in the likeness of Bowie or Elton John. He's a superstar and he's playing with gender and queerness in a way that you can't take your eyes off of him. That he snuck into country radio and flipped tables and upset the applecart is a huge win for the next generation and for those of us who have been waiting for something like that to happen for a really long time.
I remember the first time I played The Opry, which was 20 years ago. Marty Stuart brought me on and asked me to play "Mercy Now." It was when The Opry was televised. I had no idea I was breaking through something. Because I've never been in, I never had to come out. It's never been a discussion. I've got a litany of problems, being a lesbian is not one of them.
When I signed my record deal, I signed as an out artist and made sure the CEO of Universal knew that. He said that that was something that he was really proud of. He was signing an out artist and he wished that more of the artists he signed would come out, which was surprising to hear.
The point of this story is that when Marty brought me on and the show aired I got texts from closet case country artists and side people and even members of the Opry band saying, "We were all watching you tonight and you did us proud." I had no idea.
Nashville keeps changing. I recently interviewed (out country artist) Ty Herndon, who produced his annual Concert for Love and Acceptance. The Brothers Osborne, one of whom came out, performed, so an incredible change is taking place in Nashville and country music.
Something, especially this year, I don't know what has happened. I think it helps that Brandi went and won six Grammys. I think it helps that people realize gay marriage is not going away, that it's becoming more and more just something that people can see in their own world. Gay and lesbian couples getting married, having kids, raising families. I just think critical mass has been reached. The magic of exponents. I feel it in my own world here, as people ask me for quotes. I said to Jaimee, "Oh, my God, I've finally been gay long enough that gay is cool [laughs]."
I have to admit that I burst into tears when you wrote about Nanci Griffith giving you her guitar to keep in the "Our Lady of the Shooting Stars" chapter. I'm so glad that you included that detail in the book. Would you say that that is another illustration of what we talked about earlier, encouraging courage?
Yes, absolutely, and encouraging up-and-coming artists who are speaking to you by validating them. Right now, it seems to me that this generation coming up is real big on pulling their friends up with them. Certainly, my partner Jaimee is expert at that. They're not looking at it as shortages, they're looking at it as, "I got a little, here have some."
Yes! Generosity wins! It's not fun to be in the winner's circle alone. You want community, you want connection. You want your friends. You want someone to high-five. If it's your manager as your only friend, you're in trouble, and I've been there. I think there's a spirit, along with the diversity and inclusion, of community rising and community building. I take lessons on this. I'm not instinctively good at it.
I have to watch how people who are good at it do it, and then kind of mime what they're doing. I want to do what Nanci did for me. I can't be giving away guitars. I don't have the clout. She had a Taylor endorsement so she was able to just say, "Hey, can you build me another one?" But I can metaphorically do that. For example, Elles Bailey, a young woman in England recorded "Mercy Now," and I loved her recording. I tagged her and thanked her on all my socials and put her recording of it up. I thought, why haven't I been doing this all along? This is how you do it. This is more fun, to be together on this journey.
The more the merrier.
There are no shortages. There is abundance.
We spoke in early 2020, right before the Grammys, for which you were a nominee, and right before the COVID-19 shutdown. At the time you mentioned that you were working on Saved By a Song. As unfortunate as the situation was, did the isolation provide you with the time to focus on the book?
Well, it helped me finish. I was able to really get in there and do the editing necessary. I had to chop away a lot; reduce, reduce, reduce. As Guy Clark used to say, "Let go of some of your darlings." It did give me that time, the first 90 days of pandemic were all book for me. We finished it up with the help of a great editor and a willingness to release some of the stories I think that were really well told that I worked on for years that just didn't belong in this book. It gave me time also to slow down and heal. After the Grammy nomination, it felt like a rocket ship. I was working 160, 170 shows a year. I just wasn't home. To go from being always gone to full brakes, I was getting whiplash, but I needed it.
Did you find other creative ways to pass the time during the pandemic, perhaps performing live-streaming sets or such?
Yes. We've done a live stream every Sunday since early April 2020. We still are doing them, although I think as we pick up the touring, there's going to be fewer and fewer because we're traveling every Sunday. I brought a guest on every week and that's been a lot of fun and a way to see my friends. Have them as my guest and we get to hang out. Also, doing things around the house has been great; growing a garden. I got my second garden going back there. We're dealing now with zucchini, which is awesome. Being in one place for an extended period of time, most everyone I brought into live stream has been saying it's incredible to be in one place for an extended period of time, because none of us had been in such a long time.
A forced vacation, basically.
Yes! How burned out we all were. Again, the fear of shortages! You have to say yes to this because if you don't, they won't have you back. You've got to say yes. At every turn, you say yes until there's just nothing left and you're depleted and exhausted. Yet you know that being asked is a big deal and you worked your whole life to be asked and you really don't want to say no. It's a conundrum and we're back in it again already. They flipped the switch and we're back where we were. What are we going to do about it? Are we're going to go to Denmark and Sweden in August? Or are we just going to go to Denmark? Suddenly Sweden wants to add on. I don't know if I want to do all that. We'll have to make hard decisions.
Now that the book is published, have you started thinking about or working on your next album?
Yes. I'm going to record it in December. What we've got right now is the vinyl shortage situation. The vinyl manufacturing plants are unable to keep up with the demand. The demand for vinyl surged. Record companies have had to put the brakes on because the vinyl companies are underwater. I'm just about ready to go. I'm maybe two songs shy of a new record. But the business end is nowhere near ready. They said do it in December and we'll put it out in late spring and hope that vinyl will be somewhat caught up by then. We'll see. But I'm close.