For Trouble & Love, her latest and seventh full studio album Mary Gauthier has gathered together a seasoned team of some of the best writers, players and singers that she knows and sent then on an emotional roller-coaster ride. She picks over the embers of the wreckage left as the fires of love burned too bright, documenting the conflict that followed. They say that, “In war the spoils go to the victor,” but it’s the writer that gets to tell the story and she documents the fallout with unflinching honesty. If there’s a sense of betrayal, however, there’s also the acknowledgement that she’s survived and it makes for a sometimes raw but ultimately richly rewarding listen.
Mary Gauthier has led a most incredible life. As an adopted child and a teenage runaway, she literally took a walk on the wild side making her first soul mates amongst drug addicts and drag queens of the sort that Lou Reed had famously celebrated, albeit in Louisiana rather than New York. Despite this, Mary had been an avid reader and writer as a child, retreating from a troubled home life, exacerbated by the crumbling relationship of her foster parents and her step father’s drink demons. Despite her own serious problems with drugs and alcohol, friends eventually encouraged Mary to apply for college and she managed to win a place at the State University to read philosophy, clear evidence of a sharp mind able to cut through the chaos that had been her life to that point.
She remained restless, however, and the winds of fortune blew her out of Louisiana, moving up the eastern seaboard. After attending the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, she opened and ran a Cajun restaurant in Boston, becoming a chef and patron of some renown. It was at some point in the restaurant and bar business that two most significant events occurred. Firstly she was introduced to the concept of the open-mic nights, giving a voice to local, hopeful and mostly acoustic acts. Secondly she was arrested for drink driving and with too much to lose, finally got sober and straight.
It was the first of those, however, that awoke a creative streak that had thus far only really found its adult expression in the kitchen and despite being in her mid 30s, Mary figured that she could easily match some of what she’d seen and probably do a little better. After all she had a hell of a story to tell and so took to songwriting with the same drive that she’d applied to being a restaurateur.
The first tangible results appeared on her debut album, Dixie Kitchen, named after the restaurant and released in 1997 when Mary was already 35. A late blooming it may have been, but the wisdom of the career shift was realised with the follow up and the release of Drag Queens In Limousines two years later. Mary took the bold move of selling her share of the restaurant business to finance the recording, but was vindicated, with a clutch of award nominations, much critical acclaim and a place on the bill of several major music festivals, including Newport.
From emotional spindrift to spinning jenny, she had finally begun to weave the strands of her life together, although still not every loop was secured. A move to Nashville proved another astute geographic switch, with first Filth And Fire, but especially Mercy Now, cementing Mary’s standing amongst her contemporaries and beyond. The latter in particular opened her song craft to a much wider world and the cover versions started to appear, with Jimmy Buffet, Tim McGraw and Candi Staton amongst the singers mining Mary’s catalogue. No less than Bob Dylan and Tom Waits have confirmed themselves as fans and there have been numerous TV and movie soundtracks to further enhance the payback.
Payback may be apposite, as the latest biographical notes reflect that much of the material she was creating came directly from her own painful experience. Ergo much of a troubled life was laid bare, often in jangling clarity, but almost always with a clear eye for where her story intersected with the lives of others. The title of the new record Trouble & Love is perhaps indicative that there are still really big issues afoot. The notes also make it clear that the record follows a breakup of a two year relationship, which for Mary at least, counts as something genuinely long term.
Much as she has committed herself to major life changes pell-mell, matching that with commitment to a relationship is still something that she struggles with. But much as it makes this new album a sad reflection on love lost, there’s the flip-side of that particular coin and the realisation that she has survived, learned a little more and the positive life force has kicked in. I’ve used this line very recently for different, but no less pertinent reasons, but the healing has begun. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and Mary’s heart still beats strong.
She’s still not risk averse, however, taking a small band of musicians into Ricky Skaggs’ studio, with the minimum of preparation, trusting in their ability to deliver her vision for these songs. Mary Wanted to take them out of their comfort zone, so even did away with headphones and just set up some vintage microphones and recorded live, in the round to tape. Even the backing vocals were worked out on the fly. Mary has explained that she didn’t just want this album to sound real, but to be real.
Credit then is due to her talented crew – guitarist Guthrie Trapp, keyboardist Jimmy Wallace, bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Lynn Williams and singers Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashley Cleveland and Darrell Scott, Siobhan Kennedy and The McCrary Sisters – as they have unquestionably delivered on Mary’s vision. The guitar tones, the swells of organ and grunge of electric piano chords, sitting on top of a rhythm section that has just the precision it needs, whilst laying down a lithe groove, it’s what the great studio bands of yore have always done creating a classic sound of pure class.
It’s worth stating that Mary is openly gay and has previously stated that despite her problems in life, her sexuality is not one of them. But it helps to set the perspective of the opener, When A Woman Goes Cold. There’s a withering portrait of rejection laced with a finality, a certain degree of desperation and perhaps just a little self knowledge in lines like, “She won’t give an inch, she won’t be convinced, there’s no mercy in her soul when a woman goes cold.” The band gives the song a brooding quality and some superb guitar work in particular adds to the simmering emotion.
Lyrically it’s superb throughout nailing poignant lines like, “A stranger showed up in your eyes, hard as steel, cold as ice, I tried and tried but I could not break through,” in False From True, a co-write with Beth Nielsen Chapman. The title track offers a road weary and lovelorn, “Blizzard Outside, blizzard in my heart, lonely travellers and cheap motel art, snow is falling on snow, which falls on snow, which fell on snow,” suggesting that getting back out on the touring circuit hasn’t numbed the pain, even if it may have numbed the fingers and toes. The latter also features the backing vocals of at least some of the stellar cast to swell the sweet, sweet sorrows.
Oh Soul features Darrell Scott and has an appropriate gospel feel, but once more lines like, “When you sell your soul it leaves a deep dark hole, drink will leave you thirsty and fire will leave you cold.” Worthy continues to document Mary’s trials with, “I walked through a wall of fire, left behind the only world I knew.”
Of the closing trio of songs, two are co-writes with Gretchen Peters and Walking Each Other Home, gives a clear sight of the healing process starting to kick in, acknowledging our common failings as Mary sings, “Somewhere between Cain and Able is where we live, it’s only human to take more than we give.” The lessons are taking hold in How You Learn To Live Alone and there’s a resignation that whilst love may take you to the heavens, “You wake up with the stars falling down around your ears, when they hit the ground they’re just stone, that’s how you learn to live alone.” It also features Duane Eddy, who’s trademark twang adds to the depth of the sound. But finally, Another Train finds Mary Walking, “Over the bridge past lover’s leap,” while the title makes it clear the journey is not over.
The great ache of love can make for great art, especially in the void that passing leaves and Mary has wrestled with her personal pain and heartbreak to deliver a great record. In the end she shows us that not all is lost and her spirit is still strong and the visceral power of her hurt and healing become our vicarious thrill and such is the power of music to soothe the savage breast, that we can bide our time beside Mary on the platform, clutching our ticket home.
Mary Gauthier will be performing at this year’s Maverick Festival, Easton Woodbridge, Suffolk on 5th July 2014.
Trouble and Love is released on 9th June 2014 via Proper Records