Out singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier releases her best CD to date.
When it comes to crossover success and acclaim, out musicians are making headway in a variety of musical genres. But to do so in the world of contemporary country, and more specifically Americana and roots music, must take an especially gifted performer. Out lesbian musician Mary Gauthier (pronounced “Go-shay”) is just that artist. Following a few well-received independently released discs, including Drag Queens in Limousines in 1999, Gauthier signed to major label Lost Highway, home of Ryan Adams, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, and others. Her latest disc, the glowing Between Daylight and Dark (Lost Highway) is her most accomplished release to date. We spoke shortly before the release of the album.
Gregg Shapiro: Having spent some time in Boston, would you say that that city’s music scene had an effect on your music career and taste?
Mary Gauthier: Boston is a great place to get started. There’s lots of opportunities to play original songs, and there’s lots of songwriters and there’s a support network of people there to be your friends and to help you learn how to be onstage. Because of the folk scene and the opportunities to play original music and the open mics, I think it’s just the best place in the world to get started.
Over the years, you have been compared, on a regular basis, to Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. Is that something that you learn to live with and appreciate or do you find yourself resisting it?
I think that writers need to put artists into a context, and so that is the proper context for me. So I appreciate it, actually. I know that I’m not imitating them, but they both have had a profound influence on what I do, so I think that it’s a fair comparison.
Aside from the album’s title and title track, “Between Daylight and Dark,” there is a sort of radiance to the disc, which differs from the darker Mercy Me album. Does that have something to do with your choice of producers, in this case Joe Henry or is it something more personal?
I don’t know. I don’t really have a good perspective on that. I know we made the record quickly. We did most of the work in five or six days. We cut the tracks live and with very few overdubs. I think the spontaneity of it may have given it the radiance. Also, I think the songs were written over a two-year period, and so I was able to capture just a moment in my experience, I guess.
“Can’t Find the Way” is a stunning post-Katrina New Orleans musical statement.
It was definitely inspired by the exodus from New Orleans. But it also speaks to the feeling of “I want to go home, and I don’t know where it is.” I’ve lived with that feeling my whole life. I know that feeling. Not having lived through the hurricane and lost everything, I still know the feeling of wanting to find where I fit.
To this day, two years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic impact it had on New Orleans, it seems that the music community’s response to the crisis was equal to, if not greater than, that of the government. As both someone with roots in Louisiana and a musician, what do you think of the music world’s response to the crisis in New Orleans?
I think, [as] musicians, we’re forever going to be having benefits for each other. It’s just what we do. Our government doesn’t take care of us. Uh-uh. A musician gets sick without health insurance—they’re going to die on the street. So we have benefits for each other. It’s just built in to what we do. You expect to do benefits. It’s part of how you take care of your own, I guess.
On Between Daylight and Dark, it sounds like you have struck a balance between personal and persona songs. Are the personal songs, such as “Before You Leave,” “Please,” “Same Road,” “I Ain’t Leaving,” and “Soft Place to Land,” easier or more difficult to write than the persona songs? Oh, they’re all hard to write. I’m waiting around for that easy song.
Oh, yeah. I work really hard on my songs. I mean I really, really work. It’s effortful. Every song undergoes massive rewrites. I’m trying to find the truth inside of the inspiration. So it requires a lot of work. I sit at my desk for hours and hours and hours and hours putting these together. It’s my job. It’s what I do and I love it, but it’s hard. Almost the simpler the song, the harder it is to write.
There’s a famous Dorothy Parker quote that I’m going to paraphrase, which goes something like “It’s better to have written than to write.”
It’s like going to the gym. Going to the gym sucks. Having gone to the gym feels pretty good. [Laughs]
When it comes to “persona” songs, such as “Thanksgiving” and “Can’t Find The Way,” are they inspired by stories that you hear other people tell, or are they products of your imagination?
Well, they come from stories that really happened and then my imagination takes them to where they want to go. They’re based in someone’s real experience. Then I internalize it and finish the story.
You do a beautiful job of that.
Well, thank you.
There is much to admire about your work, but something that really stands out is that you don’t shy away from queer references in material—for example the song “Wheel Inside the Wheel” from Mercy Now. How important is it to you to maintain that as part of your work?
The references work their way in because they belong there. I don’t try to put them in, and I don’t try to take them out. I’m more interested in putting what is real and true and what belongs in there. It’s a very difficult thing to explain, but often times I feel as though I’m hearing voices and I’m trying to take dictation from somewhere else.
Gregg Shapiro is a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.