Mary Gauthier is a restless spirit. But when it comes to singer/songwriters, these restless ones are usually best qualified for the job. They're always searching, but rarely finding a soft place to land. And it is a sad truth, at least within the artist/audience dynamic, that their pain is oftentimes our gain; trials and troubles are many times raw material for wonderful songs.
Gauthier's new CD, "Between Daylight and Dark," (Lost Highway) is packed with many painfully beautiful songs. It's obvious she has strong New Orleans roots, as many of this new disc's songs draw upon those roots - especially with regard to Katrina's horrific affect on her beloved city.
One song in particular, "Can't Find the Way," appears to be pointedly informed by the Katrina tragedy.
"It was inspired by Katrina, but it is also just about the sense of trying to find home," Gauthier explains. "I mean, there's a sense of immediate loss with the people who lost everything in New Orleans and who are spread all over the place; they've got no home to go to. But then there's also a lot of people who wander around and have a house, but they don't have a home. So that's what I was tying to get at with that."
When asked if Gauthier has found home yet, she doesn't hesitate to answer "no."
"I'm just wandering," she replies.
Gauthier has been a wanderer for a long time. At 15, the Louisiana native split from home, stealing her parents' car. Life wasn't pretty with drug rehabilitation, halfway houses and living with friends.
Gauthier straightened out enough to attend Louisiana State University as a philosophy major, but she dropped out after five years there and moved to Boston. After working waitress jobs and eventually being promoted to manager of the restaurant where she worked, financial supporters paid her way to attend the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
Gauthier opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston's Back Bay section, Dixie Kitchen, but got more and more interested in music.
She wrote her first song at age 35. After the release of her debut, "Dixie Kitchen" in 1997, she sold her share in the restaurant to finance her second album, "Drag Queens in Limousines" (1999). "Filth & Fire" followed in 2002. All were on the respected western Massachusetts label Signature Sounds.
Gauthier eventually left Boston for Nashville, signing with Lost Highway, which released "Mercy Now" in 2005.
"I think most musicians wander." Even so, this is not true for all musicians, Gauthier clarifies, "I know people who have a family and a sense of community and who are really plugged in to their version of home. They don't have this feeling. But to be honest with you, most of the songwriters that I love, we all have this feeling."
Many of the songwriters Gauthier admires most can be found loosely within or just outside the country realm.
"Well, I think of people, the restless souls like Willie and all those outlaw guys that I just love," says Gauthier, 45. "Townes and Guy. Steve Earle. Waylon Jennings when he was alive. Certainly Merle Haggard still carries that restlessness. My buddy up in Canada, Fred Eaglesmith. It's kind of a man thing, but I have it. I feel it."
There aren't as many women, like Gauthier, who have this rootless disease. But Lucinda Williams is an obvious 'other one' that comes immediately to mind. "She's got it in spades," says Gauthier. "She moves around more than most. She's still trying to find that root. That place."
Gauthier's mobility may be hell on a stable home life, but it mirrors her boundless imagination, which branches out in the most delightful way. For instance, one new song, "Snakebit," inhabits the thoughts of a man at wit's end. He's been beaten down by life for far too long, and now he's going to get some measure of revenge.
"I kinda had to put myself in a trance to get to that character," she elaborates. "I had to keep digging deeper and deeper and deeper to find it. In my mind, it's a 'him.' It's not necessarily a 'him'; that's just what I was thinking when I was writing him because certainly there's a whole lot of me in there too."
"That person has been pushed around and has been pulled around and has reached a point where something really bad is going to happen."
"This song is trying to get into the mental status of someone who's fixing to do something really bad. Everybody who ends up in those situations has a story. As soon as you try to tell the story, if you do it in a way that is justifying, then those are just excuses. And they don't become a story anymore; they just become excuses. As a writer, I'm more interested in the story. It doesn't remove guilt or culpability, it's just: here's the story."
When songwriters venture into the minds of social deviants, like the time bomb in "Snakebit," this can be a scary place.
"I try to get into the character's thinking and try to understand it," Gauthier explains, "because it's not that far from your thinking. It's frighteningly close."
Steve Earle was criticized for his "John Walker's Blues" song because conservative commentators mistakenly thought he was siding with a traitor. But, in truth, he was only attempting to illuminate what motivated this highly conflicted young man to act the way he did.
"I think it's the songwriter's job to get into the character and reveal the character's soul," Gauthier continues. "Then the people can decide. I don't want to decide for you; you can figure it out. I'm not a great preacher. I'm more interested in what moves a person to do what they do."
"Between Daylight and Dark" can almost be divided into two distinct parts: character study songs and personal songs. One of its best close-to-the-bone personal tracks is "I Ain't Leaving," which suggests Gauthier has finally mastered the nerve to fight rather than flee difficult situations.
"In this case the character, which may or may not be me - I am these characters, but then again, I'm not. We're all these characters if I did it right because we go through these situations. I think in this case, the character is not buying their own bullshit. Like, 'Okay, my excuses aren't holding up for me anymore.' That's were you get to the point, 'Well, okay, I've got to change.' And the change is, 'I'm not going to abandon myself.'"
This doesn't mean that you stay in a bad situation; it just means you leave for good reason, not just because you hour habit is to constantly run from your problems. "You can walk out the door in an act of not abandoning yourself," Gautier says. "In the past, that same walk was an abandonment of self."
It's the realization that you can move past your troubles with your head held high. "Tricky, isn't it?" says Gauthier of this whole, deeply psychological process. "That's why I love being a songwriter. It's forever interesting."
Whether we're young or old, the roads we travel in life don't change all that much. Sometimes it's just the direction we travel them. For example, "Same Road" speaks of how the same road that brings you to a loved one can also be the path that eventually leads you away.
"To be honest, I think that's the centerpiece of this record," Gauthier says. "That's where the heart of this body of work is. I think it articulates where I'm at as a human being. It articulates where all the characters I'm working with in my writing...there's a piece of them in there."
"There's really no way off," adds Gauthier, describing this road of life. "You're either coming or going. There's not a whole lot of sitting on the road. That song just holds up for me. There's something about it that I'm very, very proud of, and I can't even put my finger on it. It does that thing that all great things do, which is: You did write it before. You thought of this. The writer's job is to tell people what they already know. Or they just don't know that they know it. Or they don't know that it's a legitimate thing to know."
"The writer just turns the light on something that's already inside of you. It's familiar. This isn't foreign; this isn't an 'out there' idea. You've felt that, or you know that. The writer points it out and you go, 'Yeah, me too.' (Songwriters) turn the light on, and you see what was in the room all along."
Joe Henry, an excellent songwriter in his own right, produced "Between Daylight and Dark." "It was wonderful...these are predominately live tracks, (with) very little overdubs. We just played the songs a few times until we got it, and then we moved on to the next song. It was very quick. I can't say it was painless, but it didn't hurt."
"In a lot of ways, he was just so organized, and the band was so good that it was a simple thing. The songs were written, the band was great, and we all went in the studio together. I played it one time for the band, and then they all went into their particular spots to play their instruments. And we played it together a few times. After three, four times, five times, we had it. Then go onto the next song. Then we came back and maybe added a little bit here and there, like if Greg Leisz wanted to add another guitar on - you know, he couldn't play two at the same time. But there wasn't much overdubbing, not much at all."
Gauthier chose Henry to produce this project for many reasons.
"I knew his work, I'm a fan of his, and to be honest with you, I think he was the most enthusiastic," she explains. "He got me. When we talked to a lot to folks, you know, everybody was interested in working with me. Not everybody got it in the way he did. Some people would take the job, but I got the feeling it might be just them taking a job. Joe was always high on the list to begin with, but he was the most enthusiastic and the most articulate as to why he was enthusiastic."
Like Henry, Gauthier's music has a timeless quality to it. "We don't fit into a trend, which is a bad thing if you want to sell records, but a good thing if you want a career," says Gauthier. "Generally, they (the songs) are about the human heart and the human soul. They're not in a trend. Hopefully, that's what we've done. You're always going to be mapped into the technology you're using...the times that it was cut...you can't get out of that. There's going to be whiffs of that. But I tried very hard not to fit it into something on purpose."
"Between Daylight and Dark" ends with "Thanksgiving," about a family visiting a loved one in prison for Thanksgiving. In its unique way, it's a song about the ultimate test of true love. "To me, you don't know if you love someone until you love them when they're truly down," Gauthier explains. "To me that is courageous, and that's really love."
Gauthier is equally courageous, poking around some of the most unlikely places to illuminate truths about human nature. Her restless spirit has taken her from Katrina's devastation to the inside of a prison wall, and from daylight to darkness and everywhere in between. But natural curiosity prevents her from ever slowing down. And you just can't stop a wanderer like Gauthier.