Mary Gauthier (you pronounce it “Go-Shay”) is one of those great, great songwriters that never seems to get mentioned in the first breath of great songwriters. It’s a little bit of a secret. But like John Prine, and I would add Paul Kelly straight in there too, she’s got songs for days. Songs, in fact, for any type of day. She writes the type of song that will get you home. It’ll walk you to the door, turn the key for you and pour you a drink.
Speaking of which…
I think about Mary Gauthier’s songs more than I listen to them these days. They’re unforgettable pieces of writing. She’s a competent player, and I like her voice. But it’s about the writing. She’s a novelist, a poet, a short-story writer, an essayist and interviewer – she just happens to use the medium of song to bring all of that together and release.
A year ago, she released a memoir. And I somehow missed it. Which is to say, I was anticipating it – looking forward to it from when I first heard about it a few years back, and then in the scheme of modern living and copious book-buying, I just missed it. Never got the announcement.
So, it was quite a thrill to catch up with the book this week. I read it in almost one sitting, then returned to it in audiobook format, and I really recommend this. It features Gauthier reading, she also plays some of the songs she discusses and there’s a bonus interview at the end where she talks more about songwriting and creating the book.
Gauthier’s memoir is also a book about songwriting. She unpacks songs – mostly her own – and threads through this discussion the details of her personal life; the songs and her biography are indelibly linked, inextricable. Each chapter begins with a line-reading of the lyrics of a song in focus. Then an explanation of the writing and creating of the song. Where she was when she heard it, how she made it and the pieces of her that went into it.
In some cases she chooses a song by someone else – the towering Sam Stone by John Prine for instance.
You can see and hear and feel instantly how the surface simplicity and hidden depths within a song like Sam Stone informed a song like I Drink.
So, Gauthier’s book also helps to facilitate those conversations. Songs speaking with and within other songs.
It is a book for anyone who has thought about getting under the hood of a tune. That goes for all musicians and writers of course. But also just for music fans. Music hits us on a deep level. We care about it. And Gauthier does a fine job of explaining this, and the empathy she feels is so crucial in and of songwriting. She actually believes that songwriting, done correctly, is empathy. An act of love, devotion and understanding on a deep and spiritual level.
One of her current projects is working with soldiers suffering PTSD. She interviews them, works with them to create a co-written song which they then present to the other soldiers. Our vulnerability – or our ability to show it – is so often our strength. Having soldiers document their perceived ‘weakness’, the weak moments (of absolute bravery, courage) and present back to the battalion…wow, I mean I’m about as anti-military as you can get, but this is just an act of compassion and humanity. A deep understanding of the human condition.
She understands trauma. It’s hold on us. And its secret key to healing.
I was compelled to revisit the best of her material upon finishing the book.
I was compelled to start the book all over again instantly.
The book is a must. And her music – the best of it – is on a special level, as far as I’m concerned.
So, I’ve made up a starter kit.
This playlist is a 30-track, 2-hour sampler of some of Mary Gauthier’s finest songwriting. And it goes up to and includes two brand new singles.