Though Mary Gauthier is reported not to have written her first song till she was 35 she spent the time before that on work experience. In other words her work and life, leading to that point, was full of adventure, misadventure and a little melancholy. Her songs are informed by that life and have the ring of truth that the best songwriting has and are universal in many of their themes, not least, her own story of her adoption and her search for her own birth mother. A story which she has told so well on her current album The Foundling. In person, as onstage, Gauthier is open, honest and charming. We sat and talked before her recent performance in Dublin.
When we last met you played me an song you had just written with Carrie Rodriguez (Absence which was released on her album She Ain't Me).
Yeah, that's right and I just wrote another one with Carrie recently.
Do you still like and seek the co-writing process?
A little bit, I like it. With certain people it works.
When you start that process do you have an early sense that it will work?
I have no idea. I never know.
How does the process usually work?
It's different every time. It's very mysterious really. There's no way I can predict what's going to happen or if anything's going to happen. There's people I've written with who I would have said "that's not going to work in a million years" like Liz Rose. She's only a lyricist and I fancy myself as a lyricist as well. She doesn't play any instruments so why would I do that but it was fantastic working with Liz. I would never have predicted that. Then there are other people whose songs I don't think are the greatest songs in the world but they click with me, then something good happens. It's mysterious ... I never know. I stay open minded about it. You have to go with it.
The Foundling was a very personal album but it must have triggered a response with many listeners.
I had a lot of response. People need to tell their story. All over the world I'm finding that people in an adoption situation, people who have given up a child or those who have lost their parents, at birth or along the way, they need to tell their story. It's a very fundamental human need.
Have made that album and other albums based on your own story do you have the freedom then to expand away from the personal?
Yeah, I think so. I don't know what's next. I got the song I wrote with Carrie and I'm working on a couple of things. I've been on the road so much that right now that all I seem to be doing is clubs and cars, trains and planes and hotels. I haven't had a real chance to sit down and write but I'm not thinking about that. The way it's always been is one song at a time. Then I see what happens. I don't have an overview I let it happen one song at a time.
With The Foundling is that the way you wrote it?
I always new there was going to be a time to write a concept record called the Foundling. I didn't know I had started it though in retrospect it looks like Goodbye Could Have Been My Family Name which came out on Filth And Fire CD was the beginning of it. I pulled that in and then I had a couple of songs that I had written that fitted in and then I intentionally tried to write for that concept which was the first time I had ever done that. It was quite a challenge really.
Did you enjoy the recording with Michael Timmins in Canada?
I loved it. I loved the whole process of working with the (Cowboy) Junkies. Recording with him in his garage studio was great fun and easy. Low stress and he's very calm. I need that as I need to be reassured.
That album was on a new label Razor and Tie. Are you working with them now?
You know I let my manager handle that. I'm lucky to have a good manager so I let him handle that stuff. That stuff makes me crazy. The business part is maddening.
How is your touring situation these days?
The same. It's always been no easier or harder. It just is. The economy doesn't seem to effect me. I don't have a tour manager. I don't have an entourage. I keep expenses low and make a decent living. I don't notice the big changes out there. I read about it and see them on the news but it's always been about the same for me. There's been the same recession in the States too. The same financial industry collapse. We seemed to have bounced back fairly well now but people are saying it's not stable and people are screaming that it's not sustainable but the life of the troubadour doesn't change much as the same 100 people come to see you in every town and it's never going to be 10,000. Probably never going to be 1000. Where ever I go it's usually between 100 and 500 people. I play, usually, in small theatres and arts centres, basically wherever people sit down and listen. It's for people who listen to words, they save their money to come see you. I'm not going to quit the way I do it because I think it's working. I'm not going to try and make commercial radio songs. I wouldn't know where to begin with that. It's not what I do. But that's how you grow it, by getting a commercial radio hit.
When you come back to Ireland there always seems to be a few more fans here.
There is but it doesn't grow by thousands. It gets bigger rather by dozens (laughs).
Well at least it's growing.
Well it's going the right direction so I'm not going to complain (laughs).
When to you next intend to go into the studio?
The songs have to come first then I'll be able to think about that part. The process is to get ten good ones that I play and if I get a good response then I go make a record. The songs also determine who should produce it. I don't go into a project thinking who the producer should be before I have the songs, it's always after.
Ok, so at what point did you decide that Michael Timmins should produce the album?
I knew it should be minimal. It seemed like it made sense to have a Canadian artist on it. I felt a kinship with Canada at the time and Michael is also an adoptive father. He has two daughters from China and Margo has a son from Eastern Europe. So they understand the story. Also my manager manages the Cowboy Junkies so it was put together and it was easy.
Did the minimalism of the backing allow you additional scope as a singer?
It allowed me to sing softly and these songs needed to be sung softly. It's a fragile story.
Although there hasn't been that major breakthrough for Americana there seems to be an audience for the overall genre even if the audience tends to be if a certain age. Do you find that?
I don't know. I just want to connect with the human heart. I don't want to look at people's age or all of the things on the outside. If the audience is listening and appreciating the words and bear with me through the songs that good. I wouldn't want a bunch of younger people coming in and getting drunk and not listening. I 'm just trying to connect with people who will listen. I don't care about age. There's some sort of a spirit that comes through us (songwriters) that connects us. I don't understand it but it's bigger and smarter than us. I just know it's a most important thing. Maybe it is what we are. You feel that pull to that spirit in art. We confuse it with the artist but really it comes through us. Talk to any artist you love and they will mostly tell you the same thing. In that movie Country Strong, which is ridiculous, it's fun to see some friends on the screen but the film is bad.
We talked about Marshall Chapman who appears in the movie.
Ain't she something. she's a good friend.
You were doing dates in the past with people like John Prine, do you enjoy that?
Yeah, but I had to slow that down. I'm doing my own thing now. I have toured with Carrie Rodriguez and I'm doing some shows with Lori McKenna - she's amazing - these are singer/songwriters who play the same kind of places that I do. I'm going to play a lot of dates in Canada this summer, from east to west were playing. As long as the work keeps coming in I'll stay on the road. I've been on the road for a long time (laughs).
While we are speaking Mary's touring partner Tania Elizabeth begins doing the soundcheck in the background.
Do you like touring together?
I like having an accompanist. It's easier and I like having someone doing that shit [the souncheck](laughs). It makes the songs more powerful. The songs that I'm playing now really need that violin sound. She has a cello string, a low C, on her violin and it just adds to it. It increases my ability to connect with people. I love the company. The three of us (including opening act Ben Glover) get along well. We share meals and things and it's really nice.
In your shows do you ever do cover versions at all?
I don't ever know what I'm going to do. I don't ever write a set list. The big challenge with this job is to stay open. Stay as open as you can without being sloppy. You have to know the words of these things your going to pull out of thin air. The openness is where the beauty can happen. That's where the magic is. I think artists are open in general, open to everything not just to what song to do. I'm in tune with my intuition, my life is run by my knowing and that is something more than my brain. Intellect can confuse me but my gut generally gets it.
How do you hold a song idea?
I write it down. If you don't write it down you never remember it. I was in Austin two, three weeks ago and my guitar was acting up so I went to the guitar shop and guess who's guitar was getting worked on there. (Mary shows us a picture on her phone of Willie Nelson's guitar Trigger). I got to hold it when I toured with him. The electronics in his guitar were broken, he was on the David Letterman show and it wouldn't work. The only guy who works on it is in that guitar shop in Austin.
Mary then shows us a file she shot on her phone of a rattle snake with sound.
I was walking on a trail in Nashville a little while ago and I saw this rattlesnake. Isn't that crazy? That sound if you hear it walking you know it, it's a warning sign. Just like when you look at the sky you know a storm is coming. If a tornado is coming everything changes. It happens so fast that by the time you know you better be active.
You're living there now?
Yes, I live in Nashville and when I'm home I try to relax. I have dinners at the house as I don't go out much.
Anything else planned?
I'll probably go and teach songwriting in Costa Rica, something I've done in previous three or four years. So I'll probably do it again. People come from all over the world. There's usually from ten to twenty people coming for a week. We work on songs with them, help them to improve what they've written. Mostly I try to help people get to their own personal truths. A lot of people don't have the courage to do that but I pull it out of them. I get them to embarrass themselves and that's when it starts to get good. It's painful but they thank me. People want to be told why their songs are not connecting and I can pretty much get to it. They need to reveal a little more and the walls have to come down. You're not a journeyman in any craft unless you've done it for ten years. Everybody thinks they can be Bob Dylan right off but it takes time. There's people who showed me the way like John Prine certainly, Steve Earle, Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, for sure. I like country and folk, I like them both a lot.