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Seeing Stars with Mary Gauthier
An interview with the openly lesbian singer/songwriter.
If you’ve been listening to out singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier for any length of time, say since the release of her 1997 debut album “Dixie Kitchen” (containing the song “Goddamn HIV”), you know that you are in for an emotional journey. This continued throughout her recording career, with examples such as 2005’s “Mercy Now” (featuring the devastating title cut and “I Drink”), as well as 2010’s deeply personal “The Foundling” and 2018’s Grammy-nominated “Rifles and Rosary Beads” (a project created via Songwriting with Soldiers). While her new album “Dark Enough to See the Stars” (In The Black/Thirty Tigers) has its share of poignant moments, Gauthier will astonish you in unexpected ways. The album features honest and beautiful love songs, inspired by her relationship with musician Jaimee Harris (a gifted singer/songwriter in her own right). As it turns out, love, like comfortable pair of boots, is a good fit for Gauthier, who is a natural at writing these kinds of songs. Mary was generous enough to make time for an interview shortly before the release of the new album.
Gregg Shapiro: Mary, I saw you and Jaimee in March 2022, when we were panelists and speakers at the annual Saints and Sinners LGBTQ+ literary festival in New Orleans. What was your experience at Saints and Sinners like for you?
Mary Gauthier: Oh my God, I loved it so much. I wish we could do that every weekend.
It was so much fun. It’s the community I’m looking for. It felt so good. I loved the panels. I loved the books. I loved the authors. I loved the insights. I loved hanging out with everybody after. I loved sitting up there with Rickie Lee Jones. We became friends after that. Started to hang out a little in Nashville when she came to play here. We’re in communication. It built a lot of bridges for me to people that I am just grateful to know. It’s an extraordinary event. Wow, is all I can say.
Do you have another book, a follow-up to Saved by a Song, in the works?
I’m pushing some stuff around. I’m working on it. I did a residency down in Key West for a month. I sort of wrote a foreword, so it gave me some kind of road map to where I think I might go. But, for me, writing books takes years. I’m not a quick writer, by any stretch. I’m writing songs all the time, but writing a book, to me, is strenuous. It’s a long marathon.
Well, we look forward to whatever comes next.
Would it be fair to say that some listeners might be surprised, even delighted, by the Mary Gauthier they hear on songs such as “Fall Apart World,” “Thank God For You,” “Amsterdam,” and “About Time,” from your new album “Dark Enough to See the Stars?”
Yeah, I mean, I hope they’re delighted. It’s going to be startling, that’s for sure. Because I’ve never chased down straight-up happy songs before. I tend to be broody and moody. Life has been hard, and my songs have reflected it. But I’ve got this beautiful relationship with Jaimee, and we’re in our fifth year together. It’s incredible to me that this is working. I’ve never had a love that renewed itself. I’ve been in love, but it hasn’t been the type of love we knew. It would slowly sort of drain out. I’m sure that’s probably because of my own behaviors and my own inadequacies and my own dysfunction. But I’ve done a lot of work to prepare myself for this and grow and become a person who could have this. Prior to Jaimee, I intentionally stayed single for five years and did some hard work on myself to prepare for either I’m gonna be single or if I do get into a relationship it has to be different. I guess I laid the groundwork for this by doing that. I can’t believe it, but it works. It’s incredible to experience this later in life for the first time. I turned 60 in March, and this is my first relationship that’s not crazy. I’ve had so many crazy relationships because I’ve been crazy. I’m not blaming. the people who have come through my life, and by any stretch, it’s not anybody’s fault but mine. But I had hard work to do, and I’m still doing it. I’m grateful that somehow, I became willing to do the work.
Well, we’re very happy for you, for sure.
In some ways, Dark Enough to See the Stars is also a pandemic album, particularly in the way it addresses life after loss and trauma on “How Could You Be Gone” and “Where Are You Now.” Please say something about the impact of the pandemic on your songwriting.
Yeah, that’s right. I think you’ve got it. We’re on the same page. It’s a collection of songs about the transformative power of love, and it’s also about grief and loss, and all of this is happening inside a single heart at the same time. I’m looking at a list of people that I love that have died in the last two years. (Mary counts) eleven people. The only other time I’ve ever been through this was in the early days of the AIDS crisis.
I was just gonna say that. I think for a lot of queer people, we can see so many of these parallels between COVID and AIDS, especially with the way Republicans fumbled the early days of both viruses.
So many parallels! If you’re a queer person of a certain age, this is also familiar. This is not your first rodeo. The unfolding of it just rings so familiar.
I’m a long-time fan of Beth Nielsen Chapman with whom you co-wrote the title cut for “Dark Enough to See the Stars.” Beth is someone you’ve collaborated with in the past. What makes her a good songwriting partner?
She’s very meticulous and thorough. She’s one of the great melody writers of our time. She’s got an incredible amount of wisdom around music and songs, and patience. She’s also just like magic. That’s not an exaggeration. The woman is magic, and she knows. It’s not like she knows it in a way that’s arrogant. She just knows how to be a conduit for it. I love writing songs with her because she’s really committed to getting it right.
That sounds like a good creative partnership. You are embarking on a multi-city concert tour in support of Dark Enough to See the Stars. What are you most looking to about performing live again?
I just love it. I love being on stage. I love connecting. I love that I get to have Jaimee with me right now, and so we get to do this together. She’s gonna be coming out with her own record soon, and then she’ll be doing her thing. This is special because I get to have her with me. Also, I just feel right when I’m out there working and being in the work instead of talking about the work or doing all the things to get there. I’m a troubadour by nature. I like hopping around, town to town, meeting folks, and hotel rooms. The whole enchilada. I like it. I go around the world. It’s a real privilege to have this job.
Will you be incorporating readings from Saved by a Song the way you did when I saw you perform in Fort Lauderdale in November 2021?
Yes. I will. What I’ve learned about being an author is that if you want to sell a book, it’s up to you. The publishers not gonna do it. It’s a lot like a record company. “We’ll put it out, but you’ve got to sell it.” I want people to read it because I’m proud of it. I read it every night (of a show) and people come to the table and they purchase a copy and I sign it and it works in that way. I will be bringing books and I will be reading (from) them. I think it’s actually makes for an interesting show.
It does! It breaks things up.
Yeah. It works for a troubadour to tell stories, but also to read stories that have been crafted.
The title of the album comes from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Do you think there’s any chance that during these dark times, there will be stars bright enough to illuminate the way to a better future?
I absolutely have to believe that, yes.