Coming Up: Mary Gauthier
In the beginning of 2015 Mary Gauthier found herself in front of Joe Costello, a young soldier who had previously been stationed in Iraq. The two had never met before. Why would they? He was a young soldier, she was an experienced and acclaimed singer-songwriter, they were on different paths in their lives. Then Joe Costello looked Mary Gauthier in the eyes. “I don’t know how to explain how I feel except to say my soul hurts”, he said.
A silence lingered in the room. Then Mary Gauthier asked him how he dealt with that feeling. How other soldiers dealt with that feeling.
Costello began to tell his story, trying to explain how each soldier deals with the trauma of war. Of course, he explained, everyone has their own way of dealing, but in Iraq, he said, “there were a lot of white knuckles holding rifles tightly, and plenty of other fingers rolling rosary beads in circles, over and over again”.
In that moment Mary Gauthier knew she had the title for a song. Together she and Costello began to write what now, three years later, has become the title song for her new and eighth studio album Rifles and Rosary Beads, dropping Friday 26 via Thirty Tigers.
The entire encounter between Joe Costello and Mary Gauthier can be read here, and the unlikely and fruitful pairing of the two is a testament to the importance of
the organization Songwriting With Soldiers – SW:S – a program that “pair veterans and active-duty service members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences”.
In this case though, the meetings between Mary Gauthier and the soldiers resulted in an entire album of beautiful and powerful songs, all of them co-written with veterans — both men and women – as well as soldiers’ spouses and partners.
Mary Gauthier is known for her deeply confessional, sometimes autobiographical songwriting, which makes Rifles and Rosary Beads stand out from the rest of her career. She was abandoned at birth and given away for adoption. At 15 she stole a car and ran away from home, her adopted father was an alcoholic and both her adopted parents were suicidal. She ended up in the streets, spent her 18th birthday in jail and battled addiction for years. Ten years later she was clean and at the age of 32 she wrote her first songs.
Since then Mary Gauthier has made a name for herself “writing songs about losing and heartache” as she sings on the song “Drop in a Bucket” from the album Mercy Now, her fourth studio album released in 2005. Mercy Now included two of Mary Gauthier’s most beloved and renowned songs: the title song and “I Drink”. The latter was playlisted by Bob Dylan in his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour and resulted in Mary Gauthier getting her first big record deal.
Today she resides in Nashville, Tennessee and is a regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry. In 2014 her album Trouble and Love was named One of Best 40 Country Albums of 2014 by Rolling Stone Magazine and in 2015 she was nominated for Outstanding Music Artist of the Year at the 26th Annual GLAAD Media Awards.
Mary Gauthier worked almost four years on Rifles and Rosary Beads. The result is a remarkable and honest collection of songs that deals with themes and struggles of military life that rarely sees the light of day. As Mary Gauthier says in the interview below, she’s acting as a kind of midwife. These might not be her stories, her own personal experiences, but that doesn’t make the songs any less powerful. What she is doing is helping bringing these stories to life, and by doing so, she is bridging a gap between the veterans and the outside world.
This is our conversation with Mary Gauthier. We talked about her upcoming album, the recording sessions, how the album differ from her previous work and what working with the veterans taught her about the military, that she didn’t know before.
Can you tell us in a few words what this album is all about and what it means to you?
Rifles & Rosary Beads is a collection of 11 songs I co-wrote with Veterans and their families through the Songwriting With Soldiers program. Each song is a glimpse inside the heart and soul of a Veteran (or their spouse). Using each service members own words and stories, these songs bring listeners deep into the harrowing effects of war.
What can you tell us about the songwriting process and working with this material in the studio?
These songs were co-written over the last four years, with members of the military and their spouses. The record was recorded live, in my home studio, with a full band.
How would you compare writing Rifles and Rosary Beads with your previous work? You usually write from a very personal point of view but this time around you are working with other peoples’ thoughts and experiences. What was that experience like?
I’m still writing from a very personal point of view here, because the deeply personal is where we all connect. The difference in these songs is that the stories told in these songs are not my own story. I’ve never been in the military. I am acting as a kind of midwife here, helping bring forth stories that members of our military need to tell. For me, the experience of doing this work is humbling. What our services members go through to serve is more than I could have ever imagined before I started listening to what they had to say.
How has your songwriting evolved over the years?
I’m not sure I’m the one who gets to answer that question. I’m too in it to truly see where I’ve grown, or not grown.
Working with veterans, did you come to understand or discover anything about the military and service that you hadn’t before?
Before doing this work, I had no idea what our military families are going through right now. I was way on the other side of the civilian military divide, not knowing anyone at all who’d served in the wars in the Middle East. After years of this work, I now see that it is one half of one percent that does the heavy lifting for all of us, and the majority of civilians have no idea what these brave women and men are going through. I hope these songs shed some light on that.
Have you played the album for the people involved? If so, what was that experience like and how did they react?
I’m getting a very positive reaction from people, these songs are being called “necessary” “chilling” and “courageous”. We’re just getting started with the record, so there will be plenty more reactions to add to this discussion, soon.
Do you think starting your songwriter career later in life affected the way you approach the craft?
Yes, absolutely, starting late gave me time to have lived life for a while, and studied people, and how human beings move in different situations. It gave me the benefit of some hard earned wisdom.
Telling hard truths has been a theme in your career and your songwriting. Do you think hard truths are better received through song?
Hard truths are hard, no matter how you tell them. But through songs my hope is that the hard emotional truths told here are met with empathy and understanding, and the listeners are able to relate and then feel their own struggles with their own hard truths. This is my hope. I’ve learned that our soldiers are really not any different from everybody else, their struggle is the same universal struggle for love and family and safety and peace. Over and over they taught me: No one hates war more than a soldier.
How did the current political climate influence the album? If at all?
Since these songs are about personals stories, we leave politics out of the subject matter. That said, the listener is bound to draw some conclusions about the effects of war on a personal level, and hopefully it will affect their decisions and understanding of how we use our military.
There’s a simplicity and clarity to your music. When I listen to your songs I always think of Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. You have the same gift I think. Where do you draw inspiration from when crafting a song?
It comes through me, it’s a whisper that floats in, and quietly takes hold of my heart. It’s a blessed gift.
And finally, you were a chef in the past, what meal or beverage do you think pairs best with your music?
Well, anything a listener loves to drink slowly, savour, and sip. That would work with these songs, I think.
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