Mercy me, it's Mary Gauthier finally

Brian Baker, March 2005

The circuitous and tortuous path to this point in Mary Gauthier's life is so fantastically improbable that it almost borders on Dickensian fiction. As a preamble to her restless early life, she ran away from her Baton Rouge, La. home as a teenager and experienced homelessness, drugs and alcohol, jail and detox, all before she turned 18.

Overcoming that, Gauthier (as in Go-shay) began her college career at Louisiana State as a philosophy major, but her drugging had long since resumed, and the pressures of both forced her from school in her senior year. She relocated to Boston where she moved through a mind-numbing succession of jobs that nobody else would take before winding up as a counter waitress at a small cafe.

Although still hopelessly drug-addicted and drinking, she became the cafe's manager and somehow found monetary assistance to attend classes at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Upon her graduation, Gauthier conceived the idea for a Cajun restaurant in Boston's Back Bay area.

With financial partnership in place, Gauthier opened Dixie Kitchen to rousing local acclaim. Although the restaurant's success was a grounding experience, the banality of its day-to-day operation began to wear her down. After spending more than half her life dependent on drugs and alcohol, Gauthier finally kicked her habits and stayed clean, but her sobriety brought a most unexpected consequence.

Gauthier began writing songs, her first songs, at the non-prodigy age of 35. Soon her songwriting activities began to eclipse her restaurant duties and in 1997, she released her debut CD, named after the restaurant that had been the springboard to her success. "Dixie Kitchen" ultimately garnered Gauthier a nomination for Best New Contemporary Folk Artist in the Boston Music Awards, an almost unheard of feat in Beantown's densely populated folk scene.

Armed with the confidence that she had found an audience in one of the toughest folk communities in the country, Gauthier began dividing her time between Boston and Nashville, attending songwriting workshops and perfecting her craft while rustling up as many local live gigs as her schedule would allow.

Within two years, Gauthier had made up her mind to make a radical change in her life. She sold her stake in the restaurant to her partners and used the money to bankroll her sophomore album, "Drag Queens in Limousines."

Positively glowing reviews in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Q and many others catapulted Gauthier into the folk spotlight; she took home an Independent Music Award for Country Artist of the Year by the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards and launched an extensive touring schedule on the folk circuit here and abroad that kept her busy for the better part of the next two years.

Gauthier's third album, 2002's "Filth & Fire," became her most lauded work yet, earning her the Freeform American Roots poll's top female artist of the year honors.

After more widespread touring duties and a nearly three-year gap, Gauthier finally gathered her thoughts long enough to start thinking about her fourth album. With the pitfalls in mind, she began working on the material that would comprise "Mercy Now," also her Lost Highway debut. As relatively successful as her work to date has been, Gauthier is still cautious enough to approach each album on its own terms.

"You write these songs, and you go into the studio and record it, and you throw the record out, and there's no way to know if people are even going to notice," says Gauthier from her Nashville home. "Is it going to stick? Are people gonna hate it? Are people gonna like it? I never know. I think the thing I learned from my producer Gurf (Morlix) a couple of records ago is, 'Let's make a record we love and that we can live with for the rest of our lives.' That way, no matter what anyone else says, we know we love it, and we can live with it."

Gauthier gives a great deal of credit to Morlix, who has been behind the boards for her since her second album. As she notes, his expertise goes well beyond a mere production role.

"He's a wise guy, he's been out there awhile," says Gauthier sincerely. "He knows the game, and he's taught me so much, like spiritual things aside from spinning the dials and getting a sound. It really is a spiritual process learning how to be an artist in a marketplace. Where are you going to put the emphasis, on the artist or the marketplace? He's all for putting the emphasis on the artist, and that's why he's so damn good. I deeply trust him and respect him, and he's very gentle and kind, which are two things that, as I've grown older, I have come to value more and more. It seems so obvious, but not everybody is gentle and kind, you know? I'm fragile. I know I seem like a streetwise tough kid, but I'm fragile."

It's clear from the results on "Mercy Now" that Morlix and Gauthier are a matched set. Their long history together has yielded one of the best albums in Gauthier's catalog, a considerable accomplishment in light of her astonishing work to date.

"I think we're starting to get to where we know each other on a deeper level," says Gauthier. "After you're in a relationship with somebody for a number of years, you can tell by the look in their eyes what they're thinking. So he doesn't have to say as many words, and neither do I. We're starting to be able to communicate like people who have been in a relationship for a long time. And we are in one. It's nice to be able to move that way with somebody and because I'm not afraid of him in any way - there's no harshness or edges to him - I'm able to say, 'Let's try this, let's try that.' And he'll say, 'What about this?' And even if I'm thinking, 'I never thought of putting a tuba on it,' I also go, 'Well, he's been right before. Let's try it.' The willingness to try things and the spirit of trust has deepened."

Although Gauthier and Morlix have a longstanding creative partnership, there is nothing rote or by-the-numbers about their process. Gauthier's songwriting on "Mercy Now" remains as confessional and as brutally honest as it has ' always been, but this time Morlix's sonic appointments have the dusty Americana ambience of Tom Waits and Joe Henry.

In addition to Morlix's flawless musical accompaniment, he and Gauthier utilized the talents of gifted session players including guitarist Rich Brotherton, drummer Rick Richards and violinist Eamon McLoughlin and guests Patty Griffin and former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan.

As crafted and deliberate as "Mercy Now" sounds, Gauthier insists that its sound is every bit as spontaneous as her first three albums.

"I never know," says Gauthier of the general direction of her albums. "I go in when I've got eight or nine songs, and I give him a call and see what his schedule looks like and get on the books. Then the pressure's on to write two more. And I just bring them to him. I've been a solo artist all along, so I don't know what these songs are going to sound like with a band. I don't have that opportunity to flesh them out with a band, so I bring it to him with just a voice and a guitar, and we grow them up together. I have a little bit of an idea of the vibe of the songs, but I never really know what it's going to sound like until we start putting stuff on there."

One example of Gauthier's general vibe was her impression going into the sessions that she could sense the presence of the Fairfield Four singing gospel harmonies in the context of the songs "Wheel Inside the Wheel" and "Falling Out of Love."

Given Gauthier's budget, it was unrealistic to imagine that they could actually book them, but the idea was valid.

"Gurf could do background vocals that sound like the Fairfield Four without me having to figure out to get 5 80-year-old black guys on a plane to Austin. It would have cost $50,000. They all need handlers. They all need cars. But he was able to hear what I heard and just duplicate it by layering his own voice and making it sound like that. Isn't it cool? He's got this one guy named Buddha who sings in gospel band and got him to come in to lay down the middle part, and he just layered himself on top and bottom of Buddha's voice, and it sounds like the Fairfield Four. It's incredible. They're the Austin Two. Don't tell everybody that they're white."

Although "Mercy Now" is Gauthier's major label debut, the tone and theme of the album are not indicative of her relationship with Lost Highway.

Gauthier was introduced to label head Luke Lewis by her publisher Melanie Howard, the widow of legendary Harlan Howard at one of Gauthier's shows at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe. The next morning Lewis proffered a deal to Gauthier by e-mail, but it took the lawyers nearly a year to hammer out the details.

In the interim, she and Morlix created the distinct sound of "Mercy Now" without any input from Lost Highway, and the album they recorded is the album that Lost Highway bought.

From a songwriting aspect, Gauthier feels that her evolution is continuing apace and "Mercy Now's" sparse and emotional songs are proof. Perhaps for the first time, Gauthier has shifted the focus of her extremely personal songwriting to a more universal perspective without losing any of her soul-baring intensity. It is a process she is well aware of.

"Every record, I get a little more information as to who I am as a writer and what I sound like," says Gauthier. "In the beginning, most all of us - even Dylan - sort of sound like our heroes. You come out of the stands imitating the ones that you think are great. So when I first started out, I was doing my best Woody Guthrie, as well as Steve Earle and Merle Haggard and John Prine. You could smell it. Of course it was there. It's all starting to come together into this Mary Gauthier sound. I'm finding my voice, which is really just an amalgamation of all these influences. I can't lay claim to being a true original. I'm not. I'm just a gigantic fan of these people that came before and influenced me and I'm just trying to sound like what all those guys would sound like blended into one girl."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •