An orphan at birth, a teenage runaway who spent her 18th birthday in jail and then battled addiction into her early 30s, Mary Gauthier has endured a lot in her life. But if her new album is any indication, it was loving and losing that hurt the most.
After the first serious romance of her life ended, “I wrote 35 songs over a year and a half,” she said recently, “all the different stages of letting go and walking through the breakup.”
From those, she and producer Patrick Granado chose eight to make Trouble & Love (out June 10), arranged as chapters to make it a cohesive whole.
“Like a novel, I wanted each song to be in its place as the story unfolds,” she said. “We’re living in singles time again where tracks stand on their own, [and] I need a compelling reason to ask people to listen to a record.”
From the bitter opener “When a Woman Goes Cold” to the set-closing “Another Train,” it’s a watertight work, full of brilliant lyrical turns and aching sorrow. It’s personal and powerful, particularly on the spare “Oh Soul.” Accompanied by Darrell Scott on vocals, and with oblique Robert Johnson imagery and lines like “a body is but a prison when a soul’s a refugee, oh soul I sold you away,” the fingerpicked neo-gospel folk tune is the record’s most harrowing track.
“That song is one of the hardest,” Gauthier said. “How far you go to be with someone … do you sell your soul? And if you do, is it ever worth it? That one really takes courage to play. No one wants to stand on stage and admit that.”
On “How You Learn To Live Alone,” she describes the aftermath of breakup as a time when “you sit inside the rubble till rubble feels like home.” Perhaps no songwriter paints sorrow with such a deft brush. Even Gauthier admits it can be overpowering.
“I had a journalist yesterday tell me that he has to listen to Leonard Cohen to cheer up after he listens to me,” she recalled with a laugh. “OK, I get it, this stuff can be therapeutic at times.”
On the other hand, Jimmy Buffett regularly performs “Wheel Inside the Wheel,” a rollicking Gauthier song written about her hometown of New Orleans.
“They call me the saddest songwriter on earth, and he’s the happiest dude God ever made … the guy with the puka shells and a constant smile,” she said. “I never anticipated him recording one of my songs, and it was such an honor and thrill that he did.”
The darkness lifts as Trouble & Love ends, with the hopeful line, “There will always be another train.” It’s a reminder that these are stories of ruin and recovery.
“There’s something about taking a very serious blow that opens you up in a way that enlarges you,” Gauthier said. “I don’t know how it works. I can’t figure out the math of it.”
But it reinforces Gauthier’s belief that, for all its bruised bleakness, her new album is a chronicle of redemption. “It transformed me. I’m not the same person at the end of this process,” she said. “I’ve been made humbler, kinder and more compassionate. At the end of some breakup records, you’re just in pain and pissed, with nothing changed inside — the hurt didn’t open you up. But this one made me a better person.”
Gauthier waits a couple of beats before adding, “But I don’t want to be too good of a person, you know? I don’t want to go through too many of these.”
As seen in the June 5, 2014 issue of the Hippo.