As improbable as it might seem, the 30-something woman toiling over an open flame in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant may be able to quote Kant and could very well turn out to be a songwriter who receives a benediction from none other than Bob Dylan.
Take Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-shay—she’s from Baton Rouge): Although her pre-songwriting days were mired in misadventure, drugs, and alcohol, the first act of Gauthier’s story nevertheless includes remarkable accomplishments, including five years studying philosophy at LSU and subsequently starting the successful Boston eatery Dixie Kitchen.
No songs, however, until sobriety at 35. But once pen hit paper, the rubber hit the road, and Gauthier has been traveling and writing songs ever since. Her clear-eyed focus of her passions has produced five acclaimed CDs of razor-sharp, intense, and sometimes funny material, not to mention a shout-out from His Bob-ness.
The endless ribbon of highway has brought her to the Rosendale Cafe before. Owner Mark Morganstern, an early supporter, says, “Sometimes a songwriter splits open your chest and does something memorable to your heart—that’s Mary Gauthier.”
I caught up with Gauthier recently to talk about songs, God, and food. In support of Between Daylight and Dark, her latest effort, she returns to the Rosendale Cafe with Diana Jones on June 6, at 8pm. On June 14 at 9pm, Gauthier performs solo at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington. www.rosendalecafe.com; www.clubhelsinkiweb.com.
Your song “Mercy Now” made a real tough-nut friend of mine who’d just become a dad pull off to the side of the road and cry.
That’s my job.
There’s a real spiritual yearning in your material. Do you feel like the venue of the singer/songwriter in a secular culture is to find language to address spiritual concerns?
Yeah, but I don’t think of it in those big terms. I think of it as: My job is to help people see God. That’s the job of every artist, whatever the medium.
Your new song “Can’t Find The Way” sounds like an acceptance that we all are lost in some way. Do you think that we’re all perpetually looking for something and we need to find a way to bear questions rather than settle on answers?
That particular song is coming from the Carter Family tradition of “This World Is Not My Home” and Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.” I think this is the third song of that trilogy, if I may be so bold. That’s what I’m aiming for: to be the voice of that sentiment for our time. We’re all just passing through.
There’s a lot of recitation in your songs. Has that always been a part of what you do?
Yeah, and I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe the Hank Williams/Luke The Drifter records from back when I was a kid in Baton Rouge. Some songs were meant to be sung and some were meant to be told.
Loss plays a big role in your material. Do you think as a culture we’re in need of more ways to express loss?
I’m never comfortable making big statements like that, because I don’t really honestly know. My job is to move really fast through time and space. I’m movin’, movin’, movin’ and writing, writing, writing. I don’t watch TV and I don’t spend a lot of time plugged into the culture. I’m more working at a folksinger level on the ground. So I don’t know the big answers. I don’t even see the big picture. I’m more likely to know what’s goin’ on at the airport.
I know personally when I write about loss it strikes a nerve in people and it resonates. They need it. They need someone to give them the words.
Singer-songwriter-producer Joe Henry [Solomon Burke, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann] produced Between Daylight and Dark and, in contrast to your last release, it’s mostly live in the studio. Was that his idea?
Yes. I just came in with the songs. It’s how he gets his best records—get the best band possible and just sing with the band. I like it a lot. It goes fast.
You did it in a week, right?
Yeah. I don’t like spending a month in the studio. It’s a false environment. I get real antsy. I wanna get goin’. I don’t like sittin’ in there trying to get everything perfect. I don’t care if it’s perfect. I just wanna get it down, have it be real, and Joe’s real good at that.
Do you ever miss being a restaurateur?
Not for one second, ever. [Laughs.]
How is creating a song akin to creating a dish? Are there similarities?
Very much so. The most important ingredient in both of `em is love.