Fri, Jul 18 – Sat, Jul 19 (8:30 pm)
Blue Chair Cafe, sold out
Mary Gauthier is on day two of a three-day songwriting workshop she’s hosting and confesses to feeling a little tired.
Not that she’s showing it during this interview; the New Orleans born singer-songwriter sounds positively energized by the amount of work she has to take care of before winding up her classes and hitting the road for the next six or so months. She’s got a new record, the widely acclaimed Trouble and Love, plus a brand new Canadian record deal with Six Shooter Records. Everything is going her way, which sounds somewhat at odds with the songs of heartbreak and loss she’s been celebrated for since appearing seemingly out of nowhere in the ’90s, a late blooming performer who only really started to get going in her mid-30s.
By that time she was settled in as a successful chef and restaurant owner in Boston, a career cut short when she was arrested for drunk driving and decided to sober up and devote herself to music. Vue Weekly spoke with her about sad songs, business relationships and how to find the best restaurants in a city you’ve never been to.
VUE WEEKLY: You’re one of the few musicians I’ve seen who keeps the art and the business separate in their lives, but also recognizes the importance of each.
MARY GAUTHIER: One of my mentors is Fred Eaglesmith, a songwriting hero and someone I consider to be a friend. He always said, “Mary, you need to get out of the music business and get into the Mary business.” Because Fred is ultimately in the Fred business, you know? As we proceed through the music business it gets harder to wrap your head around it, it’s been devastated and ravaged by all of these changes. It makes more sense to be in the Mary business. That being said, I’m partnering with a label that gets that; Shauna (de Cartier of Six Shooter) absolutely gets that. She knows that I’m an entrepreneur, and they never get involved in anything to do with my creativity. We’re business partners, we’re two entrepreneurs doing business together. That’s real different than mafia-driven music business.
VW: How did you end up hooking up with Six Shooter?
MG: Oh, I’ve been keeping an eye on Shauna. You can tell how good she is because her staff all love her, and she makes them feel valued. Those are the kind of people I want to work with. I just knew that I didn’t want to go alone in Canada on this record, I wanted to work with human beings that I liked and admired, whose personalities and values matched my own. All roads led to Six Shooter. We’re both on the board for Americana Music Association, so we’ve had time to get to know each other over the years. She has integrity, which is a very odd word in the music business. That’s important to me, and it gets more so as I get older.
VW: Trouble and Love continues a theme through your work that wouldn’t exactly be considered commercially viable. You’re mining emotional terrain that has gotten you critical accolades not only from music journalists but also heavyweight songwriters, but isn’t exactly going to sell like a Beyoncé song. That’s some poor business planning, isn’t it?
MG: [Laughs] That’s exactly right, but on the other hand I’m 53 and every year my career gets bigger. Maybe this isn’t a sprint, maybe it’s a marathon. Maybe music with integrity, that has a rootedness in truth, can actually do well, have a longer shelf life. Maybe that’s what careers look like. Not that I’m saying that Beyoncé is a flash in the pan; also, she’ll be richer than I am forever. If I could write a Beyoncé song and stay connected to who I am, I definitely would.
VW: Maybe a happy song is just down the road?
MG: I have a friend here, Darrell Scott, he wrote this song called “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” and it’s beautiful. Somebody or other made it into a hit for country radio [Travis Tritt], and it was written after five days spent deathly ill, sick as a dog in bed. On the fifth day he woke up and wasn’t sick, gingerly got out of bed and wondered, “Am I really better? Can I make breakfast and keep it down?” The song came out of that context, the flipside of the struggle with illness that turned into joy. That’s the kind of happy song I like, one that comes out of struggle.
VW: The struggle is what interests you most, though?
MG: Pulling hope out of the situation, the desire to live, to continue despite the carnage that love sometimes creates in your life. I think that’s what’s most interesting.
VW: You seem to have made a successful divide between the pain that informs your music and the rest of your life. Someone like Townes Van Zandt didn’t seem particularly good at that.
MG: The difference between Townes and I is real simple: he couldn’t get sober and it finally killed him. I would have loved to have heard a sober Townes song; I know he struggled, and it’s tragic and sad, and it feels like a waste.
VW: There’s that myth of the drunk genius, the artist who can only function by destroying themselves. As if the alcohol was what facilitated the genius.
MG: Steve Earle has done a good job of debunking that. He got sober and he stayed that way, I think coming up on something like 15 years. His songwriting continues to be excellent and he grows as an artist every year. He’s not going to be that tragic myth of die young, stay pretty. He’s moving everything forward. I think maybe that myth is dying out, anyway. Some 20-year-old might grab a bit of it, but there are now enough people out there who are up front about their addiction struggles that they give an alternative to consider.
Grandparents on both sides of Mary Gauthier’s family owned restaurants, so it was almost inevitable that she take part in the family business. Gauthier was as successful a chef as she was a businesswoman, and food is still an important thing to consider when on the road.
“I’m good at picking out restaurants, I know things your average person wouldn’t. Like, most of the time, if a chef is the owner and he’s working in the kitchen, that night you’ll get a great plate of food. I look for places that have local cuisine, not brought from too far away, that have a certain sensibility. Healthy, but not crunchy; I don’t want it to be too healthy, not to the point where it’s not delicious.”
Gauthier has no problem with Yelp, the food website that has caused many restaurant owners to cry foul.
“There’s a lot to be said for Yelp. I check out the top five restaurants in town on there and go to whichever one suits my financial or culinary desires of the moment. I can find hole-in-the-walls that I never would have found out about back in the day. Man, iPhones are great for things like that, it’s really made the touring life so much easier.” V