Named the Americana Music Association's New/Emerging Artist of the Year award in 2005, Mary Gauthier has earned cuts by commercial heavyweights Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton. Her intensely personal work---anchored by her brilliant lyricism--- is a rich hybrid of country, folk and blues. On her newest album, The Foundling, her first concept album, Gauthier details the recent discovery of her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption shortly after Mary's birth in March 1962. In her interview with O & AN, she discusses the genesis of that project and her legacy as a gay woman in the country music industry.
O&AN: You recently performed at Music City Roots in Nashville to benefit the Nature Conservancy. Tell me about that experience.
Yes, we were broadcast live on WSM radio. I enjoyed playing the old barn at Loveless (Cafe) and announcing my award for gay country artist of the year by GLAMA (Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards, 1999). To say that on WSM radio was such an experience. And hopefully some kid was listening to me and maybe is a little less terrified out there, knowing that someone else felt the same way.
I'm living proof that an openly gay artist can succeed if you give them a chance. I'm out; I've always been out. I'm gay and I don't wanna hide it. It's just like the color of my eyes or the color of my hair. But I don't want to be known as a gay artist. I want to be known as an artist who is gay. I can tell you it hasn't held me back in any way. A lot of people in the industry are completely supportive. Of course, I'm not trying to be a major country star either.
O&AN: You also recently played the Belcourt Theatre. How is it different playing to a Nashville crowd compared to crowds in other cities?
The whole hometown crowd makes it a challenge. You're playing for people whose work you admire. It can be a little intimidating being in that intimate atmosphere, but it adds another layer of excitement and nerves. And also, the people in Nashville have a lot of choices when it comes to music. They have to make some hard decisions when it comes to their entertainment, so you want to do your best.
O&AN: On The Foundling, there's a track called "Sweet Words" that begins with a really devastating opening line: "I don't trust my eyes anymore, don't even know what I was looking for." It seemed to mirror your struggle when deciding whether to track down your birth mother.
It's an interesting journey. See, at first, that song was written in reference to a romantic relationship. Things that I didn't see in the beginning I was finally seeing. I thought, 'Damn, how could I have overlooked that.' Then, pulling the lens back further, I thought 'Jesus Christ, that's not about my lover, that's about my mother.' Psychologists could just analyze the shit out of that. But it's my goal to access the deepest part of me and there are a lot of layers of meaning hidden there.
O&AN: Any songs from your past in particular that have taken on new meanings as they age?
Most songs are like that. Songs are living things. And words are just symbols. We use words to point to an experience. As I get older, when I sing songs, the experiences are harder for me to remember. And the writer might intend a meaning and the listener uses their own experience when listening to the song. We're a lot more alike than we are unlike. But I feel that people will only accept me if I can accept myself.
O&AN: Near the end of the album, "Orphan King" preaches perseverance and has this sweet continual refrain: "I still believe in love."
I think it's hard for me to put into words outside the songs. But no matter what I've been through, the important final analysis is this: it doesn't take away my ability to believe in love. It's a process. Even though my birth mother won't meet me, I still believe in love. And that wasn't always the case.
O&AN: What has the fan reaction been like as you've toured for this project?
There have been a tremendous batch of new fans, fans that are birth mothers, or adoptees, or adopted, but not just them. People across the board have been seeing themselves in the songs.
Right now I'm working on a children's book and then an autobiographical non-fiction with short stories, almost memoir-like. I thought this was just going to be an album, and now it's become this whole way of life for me.
And people who may not be able to put their thoughts into words can use you as their messenger.
Absolutely. That's the songwriter's job.