There is no real formula for writing a great song. For some artists, it comes through inexplicable, spontaneous bursts and others a constant stream of attempts, not all successful.
Though there are countless books on the subject, songwriter Mary Gauthier’s recently released Saved By A Song: The Art And Healing Power Of Songwriting goes way beyond being a how to book, instead exploring the depths of the artist’s own inspiration and drive to write and teach others to do the same.
Gauthier will be performing at The Mucky Duck for two nights on Friday July 23 and Saturday July 24, both for the early evening performances where she will be joined by her partner and fellow singer songwriter Jaimee Harris. Gauthier will also be reading from her book and signing copies for sale at the venue.
“I think the important part of how to write songs is why to write songs and this is just a way better book than yet another book on how to write songs,” says Gauthier. “This one I think tries to penetrate why songs matter, not just how to write a song and play a word game. I’m not really interested in that. I’m much more concerned with songwriting as a form of spiritual practice almost.”
Saved By A Song is part memoir, part instructional and very inspirational all while advocating for the healing power and strength of songs, whether as a listener or writer. Songs, as Gauthier points out in her book, are accessible to everyone and can ease pain and feelings of isolation.
“This has all been a big process for me,” she says. “Learning about myself and the power of using music in song for more than just entertainment. It’s all been a learning curve and a process and I’m still in.”
Throughout the book, as in her songs, Gauthier is open with her personal struggles with drugs and alcohol as well as the search for her true self and her biological roots. Gauthier was born in New Orleans and her young, unwed biological mother gave her up to the St. Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum. She was adopted by an Italian Catholic Louisiana couple with their fair share of marital troubles, which she describes in her book.
She recently celebrated 31 years of sobriety, an important milestone and achievement which she recently said in her Sunday's With Mary live stream that she could not have reached without the ability to write songs. Throughout Saved By A Song, Gauthier describes her journey as a patient navigating the world of psychology, recovery and self help.
Reading her book, it’s clear that though the process of recovery, self acceptance and healing is eternal, in many ways Gauthier has moved on from being the patient to being the healer using her craft to help others maybe in turn helping herself to continue to grow.
Gauthier has worked with veterans through the organization SongwritingWith: Soldiers and was nominated for a Grammy for her 2018 album Rifles And Rosary Beads, an album made up entirely of songs co-written with veterans.
“It’s interesting that psychologists and psychiatrists are saying, ‘I'm going to use this in my work with people dealing with trauma.’ because I'm not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I really am just a wounded songwriter trying to survive the blows that life has dealt me by using music and song.”
Gauthier continues to work with veterans and more recently has been working with front line workers. “I do think I've stumbled onto something that works though and I think that's really important to spread the word that this seems to really help, particularly in people dealing with trauma.”
When asked if she sees any similarities between veterans and front line workers Gauthier answers, “Quite a few. Front line workers are exhausted and traumatized and this pandemic keeps coming.”
“I love pursuing things I’m passionate about and songwriting and working with veterans and doctors and nurses that have been on the front lines during the pandemic, this is a passion for me and so I do it with great enthusiasm.”
Gauthier takes readers behind the inspiration of many of her songs, and a couple of her favorites from other artists, and the process of finding her own voice. Like many artists, she studied those she admired and started from there as a jumping off point.
She describes seeing her first Indigo Girls concert and the overwhelming response from the primarily female crowd, which she likens to the old black and white footage of hysterical teens watching The Beatles.
She ended up leaving the concert early, feeling overwhelmed by emotion, not due to the openly gay and lesbian crowd, but due to “the pain of an unlived life”, even though she didn’t know it yet.
Being a member of the LGBTQ community and a singer songwriter in the Americana and Country genres is no small feat, as the two historically have not gone hand in hand. Gauthier recalls her experiences in the gay communities during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, watching her friends die without any support from their families, the inspiration for her 1997 song “Goddamn HIV.”
“I've come through a lot of changes in American culture,” she says of the evolution towards acceptance for the LGBTQ community. “We are at a place now where things are so much better. I play at the Opry, but it wasn't always like that as you know.”
“We’re getting there and the young artists are leading the way, as they should. They have an open mind around this stuff and I'm so glad. We've been waiting a long time to see country music expand its wings and allow everybody with a gift into the genre.”
It’s fascinating to see Gauthier’s evolution from a troubled kid making her way up in the restaurant world to slowly gaining the courage to forge her own path in songwriting. She has triumphantly and unconventionally gone from student to teacher, patient to healer and someone looking for her biological mother to a mother figure for others.
The main take away from Saved By A Song is not only the healing strength and power of music and writing but also the importance of never giving up.
“That’s the message, that's it,” she agrees. “You’re gonna take some serious blows and it's going to be really hard and you're going to want to just throw in the towel, but the only way to get there is just to keep going. I think that's probably my strongest quality is I don't quit, I just keep going.”
Throughout the pandemic, Gauthier did keep going. She and Harris hosted Sundays With Mary, live streaming every Sunday, something which she is not sure she will be able to keep up with as her touring picks back up. She plans on returning to the studio at the end of the year to record her next album.
She has also continued teaching Master Classes virtually but later this month will host her first in person course since the beginning of the pandemic in her hometown of Nashville. As someone whose gift of humanity and ability to connect with others have made her a success, Gauthier is understandably excited to be back on the road and in front of her tightly knit community of artists and fans.
“Traveling is hard right now but the venues have been tremendous and I’m so glad that Rusty and Teresa are still in business and doing shows at the Mucky Duck. I can't wait to get back to Houston. I love them so much, they're family to me at this stage. I’ve been working with them for twenty years.”
Mary Gauthier will perform with Jaimee Harris on Friday, July 23 and Saturday, July 24 at McGonigels Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 7 p.m., $30/virtual ticket, $50-400/in person ticket.
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