Joy, Loss & Time: Mary Gauthier on New Album and the Hardest Songs to Write

Mary Gauthier wrenches everything from a song. From a New Orleans orphanage to the writing circles of Nashville, Gauthier has spent the 60 years and 8 albums in between exercising her natural talent to become one of the most distinguished, and just plain great songwriters currently walking around today. It’s been addiction and heartbreak, small triumphs against the odds as well as simply the wear and tear of a living that’s made Mary so formidable, and with the uncanny ability to inhabit another’s story as snugly as her own, Gauthier has also become a conduit for many who also, as she long ago discovered, understand the healing properties of songwriting.

Dark Enough To See The Stars, Mary’s follow-up to 2018’s Rifles & Rosary Beads (a reckoning of an album pairing Gauthier with combat veterans and their families), is the artist in rare– but utterly top– form. Possibly for the first time, Gauthier has allowed a particular happiness to enter her writing, a component as strange to the writer as it is to longtime admirers of her to-the-bone approach. And that’s why it works.

Mary Gauthier survived to find her true calling as a songwriter midway through life’s journey, honing an adeptness to learn and adapt without compromise that’s allowed her to embrace the light as viscerally as she has the darkness. Honestly and earnestly, Gauthier details the excitement of sharing moments with her partner, the pain of losing cherished friends, and the ever-challenging hope needed in extraordinary times.

Dark Enough To See The Stars captures the now of Gauthier’s life and career. Of course, there’s bittersweet resilience and nostalgia along the way but threaded brightly throughout is something Mary’s earned and more importantly chosen to accept: Joy.

AI- I want to start with the opening track, “Fall Apart World”, a love song of the highest order! I think there has been a huge premium placed on, “Oh, Mary Gauthier is writing happy songs!” How do you feel about that?

MG- I feel really weird about it (laughs)! I’ve never done it before, and I’m a little nervous about how it’s gonna land on people who have sorta pegged me as the lesbian Leonard Cohen or somethin’! I am a little nervous goin’ out there singin’ joyfully— but that’s how I feel in spite of so much hardship in the last couple o’ years. I’m also experiencing a moment in my life where there’s joy, so I’m just the kind o’ songwriter that writes what I know and tries to get to an authentic place in my writing. It just came to a place where I really had to do this. I honestly think a straight-up love song is one of the hardest songs to write, and I’m not sure why! I think it’s because it’s easier to sing your pain and be authentic than sing your joy and have people think you’re a bit of a jerk! I really am in uncharted waters here! We’ll see how it goes– but people like the songs, and that means a lot to me.
I think a lot of that stems from one of your co-writers and participants on the album, your partner, Jaimee Harris. Had you two been collaborators before you were together?
No– well, kinda. I definitely wrote songs with Jaimee, and then we got together as a couple and I took her with me to Europe, and we started workin’ together on the road and writin’ songs together. We’re figurin’ out the balance of workin’ together and working independently. It’s a three-part thing– I’m still very happy playin’ solo, she’s still very happy doin’ her Jaimee Harris thing, and we both love doin’ the duo thing. There’s a drop-down menu for us and we have to pick and choose. It’s a little exciting and a little precarious, and it’s all bein’ figured out as we go! We don’t have any big plan, you know?
On “How Could You Be Gone”, is that song about losing people, in general? I know that’s also been a focus on the songwriting for this album– or did you have it pointed at someone in particular?
I lost a very close friend in the shutdown part of the pandemic who died really unexpectedly, really quickly. We went to her service and it was outside, and a lot of the imagery in the song is from that outdoor service during the COVID lockdown. But I think the song really does speak to the time that we’re in– we’ve all been losing people. Or at least, most of us have. I mean, with a death toll of over a million people in two short years from this one pandemic, there’s been a lot o’ grief, a lot o’ loss. I turned 60 on March 11th, so I’m also at this age where my friends are gettin’ older too and there’s just transition happening– and the shock of it, hell, it’s enough to kill ya when you start to count on both hands and still they’re dying! It’s hard!
I was gonna bring this song up later, but since you’ve hit on the notion that I had for “About Time”… I think I spend more time worrying about what could go wrong more than I actually make the most of my relationships and what’s happening around me, and when I’m the happiest is when I worry the most! That’s when the concept of time seems to weigh the heaviest. 
I think that’s real clear insight on your part– that when I’m worryin’ about time, I’m missing the moment that I’m in. I think that song addresses that notion of, “I don’t wanna think about time. The more I think about time, I’m losin’ time! I’m missing the joy of where I’m right now worrying about where I’m gonna be!” ‘Cause I don’t know where I’m gonna be. We’re not able to know that. We’re not able to know who’s gonna outlive who and how this story ends– that’s part of the need for faith. We gotta have faith to keep goin’, and faith is not based in certainty, it’s based in unknowing. I think that whole idea is wrapped up in that song.
What was the timeline for these songs? Did you, in fact, write these in this last couple years of COVID-19?
I think I did. In 2018, I came out with the record that I co-wrote with women and men who served in the military [Rifles & Rosary Beads]. A lot of them are dealing with PTSD, and that took a couple years to tour and to fully release into the world so that kinda put the next Mary Gauthier record on hold for a while. I had some of these songs during that time of writing with the veterans, and I just didn’t have a way to put ’em into the world yet. A lot of these songs came as a result of the pandemic and also, as I got deeper into the relationship with my partner and we started to really make a commitment to it. The straight-up love songs are from a new relationship and the experience of commitment– and also the shock of finally havin’ some stability in that area later in life! My relationships have all been complicated and ill-fated, and here I am in my sixth decade, and I’m seein’ a stability that I never had before and the joy of that and the gratitude of that. That all happened recently in the last four years, so those songs are new.
Photo by Alexa Kinigopoulos.

Did you see any parallel between your time writing with veterans and writing songs amidst this strange era that we’re living in?

Yeah, I think so. One thing, I got to write with doctors and nurses on ZOOM who’d been workin’ the COVID frontline, and the trauma they’re dealin’ with is very similar to the PTSD that our veterans have been dealin’ with. You know, they’re trained to save lives, and when they see so much death over such a long period of time, it’s very traumatic for them. One nurse said, “Nobody trained us on how to hand somebody an iPad to say goodbye to their loved ones. Or not even be able to say goodbye to their loved ones but to be on a respirator and have their loved ones say goodbye to them! So we’re holding an iPad, family’s saying goodbye, and in the next room, the beepers and the red lights are flashin’, and we gotta go.” That urgency day after day, week after week, month after month, and now year after year has taken a tremendous toll. I work with an organization called Frontline Songs and we wrote with doctors and nurses, and the parallels are very, very similar. But also writing from my own personal experience of loss during this pandemic, I think grief is universal, and we experience it similarly and especially when deaths come unexpectedly, quickly, and they happen in a way that starts to take a toll, like person after person. The similarities are there, absolutely.
Those Frontline songs– are any of those on this new album or is that something that will be comin’ down the line?
No, they’re very COVID-specific. Judy Woodruff did a segment on [PBS] about it. I probably won’t put those on a record. There’s just a handful that I’ve written that are very trapped in the moment very specific to the places we were at, at the time, with the pandemic– talkin’ to young people in the ER whose jobs made it impossible for them to see their families ’cause they could’ve caught the virus. They’re vaccinated, and at that point, their families, their parents aren’t. They got the vaccine first and early ’cause they’re on the frontline. We captured moments in time like that. Those moments have come and gone, and I think we’re all… It’s blurry now, those moments! What the hell, I don’t even remember! How many shots have I had? I think three now? It’s gotten circular and confusing, so no, I probably won’t record those songs for a record.
The song “Thank God For You”… You share the credits with Caleb Elliot– which is great– but Peter Case as well. Plimsouls and Nerves Peter Case?
That’s the man, yeah! What a songwriter!
How’d that come together?
What a songwriter, man! He’s the best! We did a thing in Lafayette, Louisiana, that was sponsored, I think, by the Buddy Holly Foundation of all things! It was the [South Louisiana Songwriters Festival & Workshop] and it put together songwriters from all over the country and from the UK. There was probably 25, 30 songwriters all came to Lafayette, and we just sorta got paired up. I was really lucky to write with both Caleb and Peter, and that song came from that experience. I love that song!
The album itself– much more piano-driven than anything you’ve recorded before. How did that come about?
Because I have this piano player in Nashville that I just think is so great! His name is Danny Mitchell, and he plays with Miranda Lambert now. But when he’s off the road, he’ll still do sessions in the studios. I just think he’s exceptional! He’s amazing! I call him the “Magic Man”, and I wanted to feature him on this record ’cause I’m a huge, huge fan of his playing. I love what he does, and I love the way he listens to the words and plays the meaning of the words. He’s a magnificent player! He also plays trumpet. I had him play trumpet on my last record, and wow, when his trumpet came in on some of those soldier songs– talk about chills! He’s extraordinary! He can sing too! He’s singin’ harmony on some o’ these songs. He’s featured ’cause he’s great! That’s how that came to be (laughs)!
Well, I’ll tell ya, if you have any concerns about how people are gonna feel about a few joyous songs on your album, I don’t think you have anything to worry about because the title track, “Dark Enough To See The Stars”… There’s been somethin’ in my eye since I listened to it! I’m not sure how many times I’ve listened to it, but I get weepy every time. What a fantastic song!
Thank you. I co-wrote that with my friend Beth Nielson Chapman, and I think of all the songs, it’s the one that captures what we’re goin’ through the best without ever really referencing it. It’s a universal title. I got the title from a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech, “It’s only when it’s dark enough can see you see the stars.” I think that speaks to the time that we’re in better than anything I’ve ever heard. Maybe it speaks to life better than anything! I just lifted it out o’ the speech, and we wrote the song over a lot o’ years, actually. It was a song I had for a record that came out in 2013 that didn’t make the record. It wasn’t right yet. It was close, but it wasn’t right. So it was lingering, and then after the pandemic, I went back, and Beth and I worked on it some more. I’m so glad I didn’t put it out before its time because I think it became the centerpiece and the title track for this record. Oftentimes, the songs come before the artist has the ability to make sense of what they’re tryin’ to tell us. Sometimes, you just gotta put it down and do some more living.

Dark Enough To See The Stars is available now directly from the artist or through your favorite digital platform!

Thee Aaron Irons is a music commentator & radio personality for 100.9 The Creek where he hosts Americana Madness weekdays from 10am-3pm and Honky Tonk Hell, a Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues retrospective that airs every Tuesday evening at 7pm. He lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife and daughter.