Mary Gauthier is a walking, talking, breathing Americana song. She ran away from home when she was just a teenager, ended up on the wrong side of the law, did the drugs, walked the streets and lived the life so many so-called troubadours can only imagine living. In other words, Mary Gauthier is the real deal, and on her stunning sixth studio album, The Foundling, she deals with the most painful part of her life – being an adoptee, trying to track down her birth parents. Americana UK had the huge honour of talking to Mary about her music, her ongoing battle for the civil rights of adoptees and whether or not she’ll ever really be happy.
Interview by Soren McGuire
Hi Mary. Your new album, The Foundling, sounds even heavier on the heart than your previous albums. Is this the darkest album you've made so far?
I try to go into confusing places that I don't really understand, and make sense of them. And generally those places have some weight to them. I do come from the South and I have been called a Southern Gothic writer, and I think the gothic has tragedy in it. That's what interests me as a writer, and I guess it draws me to it. But I can't imagine getting any heavier than The Foundling. I mean, what could possibly be heavier? But I think I'm always going to be drawn to those challenging songs and questions. That's what's interesting to me.
Did writing these songs give you some sort of closure on all the things that happened in the wake of this adoption?
Definitely. I can proces the emotions now without having to be in the middle of it. The emergency is over, if you know what I mean. I'm doing well with it now, I can tell that.
I know that you're personally involved with various movements to secure the rights of adoptees in the US. What are the problems you deal with over there?
The biggest problem we face right now, is that we're denied access to our original birth certificates by the US government. If we want to know where we come from, the government will not let us. That's the biggest problem; access denied. For example, my mother will not tell me who my father is, and the only person who knows is her, and the birth cetificate which I cannot have access to. That's the big fight right now, and we see it as a civil rights battle. It's a huge issue, cause there's a big adoption industry that fights having these records opened. It's a multi billion industry, and they do not want the records opened. But you know, it's a struggle, and I've joined forces with other adoptees in the struggle to have these records opened.
Is it a battle you're gonna win?
Yes. What has to happen, and what is happening, is that adoptees are getting elected into office. They're starting to use the weight of their office to pry these records open. There are six states that have opened the records, and in all of them, it's happened because adoptees were in the legislature.
Do you think you've reached some sort of closure on your past with this album?
Yes and no. It's given me a perspective that I really needed. I understand now what I went through. Why did I leave home so early, we did I end up on drugs, why are my stories so dramatic and why are my songs so bittersweet all the time. I didn't really understand that for the longest time, I didn't understand what happened. It seems crazy to say that, but it's hard to understand, and I think writing this album has given me a better understanding of myself. But closure is hard. I want to know more. I don't have all the information yet. What if my father is still alive, what if I have brothers and sisters out there? I can't find out and I want to know, and that's pretty hard putting closure on. It's still dangling out there.
Is it your experience that these stories of yours have offered some sort of help and solace to others in your situation?
People say that it does and that feels very good to me. I think artists do their work to save themselves. Then they put it out there, and if it helps other people, it's such a blessing, but I think the primary motivation is to make sense of my own experience and to save myself. What a blessing to have an audience, but I don't know how to write something to help them specifically, but I do know how to make sense of my own things, and through that, maybe people can find theirs as well.
Do you think you will always be writing these bittersweet songs, even though you might find some closure along the way? Can Mary Gauthier really save herself, or will there always be this melancholy in your songs?
Probably…probably. I think that the forces that shaped my spirit into who I am today, will always be. My story will always be my story. But I think there is a lot of peace to be had as well. There's something that happens once you tell the story and understand what happened. And you really need to do some work with it. Not just tell it, work with it. A lot of reading, a lot of therapy, a lot of talking to people. Bitterness is an option, but so is piece. I don't think you can ever fully fill the cracks, but then again, what did Leonard Cohen say? The cracks is where the light gets in. There is a lot of choice involved once you know the story. If you're just living it out, reacting to everything and not understanding why, you really don't have a choice. But I think I'm at a stage where I now have a choice.
Do you ever find yourself in situations where you can't seem to find the right mood for playing these songs live? In other words, are you ever too happy to go out and sing these sad, bittersweet songs?
No, not really. I know that the audience see the songs as me singing about me, but once I write a song, I tend to move on. Then it's no longer me anymore. It becomes a song about a situation. In other words, I'm not reliving these songs every time I play them. I've moved on to the next question-mark. I'm able to tell the story without reliving it, hoping it will resonate with the listener.
But truly, a song like March 11, 1962 which tells the story of how you contacted your biological mother, who in turn pretty much turned you down, must be a damn difficult song to relive every night?
But I don't relive it. I can get into the emotion of the song without having to go through those things that happened, in my mind. The real answer to your question is, I know it's a damn good song, and when I play it, I know the audience is going to have an emotional reaction, and I get off on that. I like that. They're gonna get their money's worth for the ticket to the show. I want to give them an emotional experience.
You recently said in an interview with The Scotsman that you might, after all these years, write a "happy" album?
I really don't think so. I think I was joking when I told them that. But I do think some of the heavyness is gone. Some of it has been lifted, and you know, maybe I'd like to rock n' roll a little, maybe I'd like to kick it up a notch and jam more. I don't feel the weight I have felt on my heart and on my soul. It's gonna be different . I don't know what it's gonna be yet, I haven't gotten my direction from the boss yet, but I'm waiting on the muse to tell me.
You've worked with some of the best Americana producers on your records, Gurf Morlix and Joe Henry, but The Foundling sees you teaming up with Michael Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies. Why did you chose to work with him?
What I look for in a producer is connection between myself and the producer. It's not something there's words for, but I feel it. Do I connect with this man as a human being, do we have sympathy and compassion for eachother, is this person kind? There is a world full of producers with skills, but can we get along in this tense, expensive environment over a period of time and work together as people? I look for a human connection, and Michael's just a gentle, kind person. Well, all of these guys, you mention, are, by the way. Do they listen when I speak, or are they busy formulating what theyre fixin to say? Gurf and Joe are fantastic listeners and so is Michael. He moves with a certain gentleness that I find comforting and unintimidating and which lets me relax and be vulnerable in the studio. I have to be vulnerable and risk looking like a fool to get a great cut or take. And I need to know that I'm a place with someone who, if I fall on my face, is gonna be by my side instead of laughing at me. I need to be safe, and with Michael, I feel safe, like I did with Joe and Gurf.
Was it his idea to bring in Margo Timmins?
No, that was actually my idea.
She has this amazing voice, like the entire Americana genre was based on her singing. What was it like having a voice like that behind you in the studio?
I love it. She's got a spooky, spooky voice, and I just love it. She's amazing. I really wanted her to sing on this record, but it took a little convincing. People wanted it to be less background singing and more sparse, but I just wanted to hear her on it so much, so when we got her in there, it was exactly what I thought it would be. She doesn't take up a lot of space at all, she's just spooky in the background!
Your previous album, Between Daylight And Dark, was produced by Joe Henry. It was my favorite album when it came out in 2008, but I'll be honest with you, it also had something to do with Joe Henry's production. How did you experience working with him?
Joe is just a really focused, driven and accomplishment-orientated human being. He has a great studio in his home right outside L.A, so we spent a lot of time in his home with his wife and his kids. He likes to use the same band over and over again, and they're just the best in the business, amazing players. Van Dyke Parks played some stuff, Loudon Wainwright came by and sang some stuff, it was an all-star cast. Just the people Joe hangs out with. I think it's one of the easiest records I've made. We just went in and played the songs three or four times and we had it. After a very few overdubs, we felt we had it. It didn't sell very well though. I thought we'd made a really good record, but I was dissapointed that Lost Highway didn't manage to get any traction with it. Obviously, I don't know how the record industry works, but I thought Joe made a really good record. Maybe it was just too dark or too challenging, I don't know. The business has me totally in a pretzel, so I don't know. I'm glad you liked it, thank you for that.
I read that Willie Nelson's classic 1975 album, The Red Headed Stranger, was sort of a benchmark for The Foundling?
Well, The Red Headed Stranger was the first country concept album, and the way that he wrote the interludes and the musical bits to move the stories along, I found fascinating. There are some things you just don't have to say if you use a musical bit in between the songs to move it along. You can change the mood with it, and I found that fascinating. It was all of a collage of songs he had written, and it all added up to a story. I thought it was just brilliant what he did. You know, I'm good friends with Mickey Raphael who plays harmonica for Willie. We hang out in Nashville a lot, and I get to ask him all these questions about Willie and that record. They made it in three days, and when Willie turned it in to the record company, the record company said "great demos, now where's the record?" Cause The Red Headed Stranger is so minimal, there's not a lot of instrumentation, it's just very minimal. And that's how I wanted The Foundling to be. I wanted minimal. I'm not a pop artist, I don't make pop records, so I don't want all these instruments. Sonically it worked and thematically it worked. You go in, the songs are there, record 'em. It was all very appealing to me.
Mary Gauthier's The Foundling is out now on Proper. We strongly urge you to visit Marygauthier.com, or better, by the record.