American singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier is our featured Artist of the Month, and her latest album, Rifles And Rosary Beads is a work that brings new songs to her audience, from a quite remarkable source. Mary has recorded eleven songs that came from the SongwritingWith:Soldiers program, a project that provides weekend workshops, where U.S. military veterans and their families work alongside accomplished songwriters to give voice to their thoughts, their experiences both in combat and on returning home. Mary is in the midst of an extensive U.S. tour, running until the end of April. Immediately after that, she’ll be playing eleven dates in the UK & Ireland (see dates below). Luckily, she was able to spare some time to answer a few questions about this unique album, and the songs behind it.
Mary Gauthier fans are used to hearing songs that share her own experiences. Her effective, often cathartic and harrowing songs tell her own stories with honesty and come from a truly gifted songwriter. Rifles And Rosary Beads, then, was something of a change of direction, with Mary co-writing songs directly inspired by other people’s experiences. This must have involved developing and learning a whole new songwriting process?
“The writing process is the same, but there is one big difference. I do not put myself into the story because I do not have any military experience. So I listen to what the co-writer is telling me and try to get their words into lines, then verses, then find their storyline. Each soldiers soul has something it needs to say. My job is to listen closely, and find it.”
Those stories still have to be brought out into the open, though, and the veterans and their families who attend the retreats must feel ready to engage. Does their experience encourage others to take part?
“Yes, it does. Most of the new veterans who are coming to the retreats now are friends of veterans who have worked with us in the past.”
One other important aspect of this project is the professional songwriters who take part. At the moment almost twenty songwriters including Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashley Cleveland and Greg Trooper host songwriting workshops. Is there a growing awareness among songwriters of the program’s worth?
“I think so, yes. The results are undeniable..these songs that are being born in these retreats tell the story of our time.”
It’s worth exploring the SongwritingWith:Soldiers web site (http://www.songwritingwithsoldiers.org/), where you can read in detail about almost 30 workshops involving over 300 participants that have produced hundreds of songs. The songs aren’t only written as part of the workshops, they’re also recorded, and most of them are available to buy as downloads, helping to fund an ongoing program. It’s a fantastic, unique resource. I was keen to know whether it’s important to the participants that they’re able to share their experiences with a wider audience?
“No…not really. They are happy just sharing their songs with their families. I made a record of some of the songs I have written, but it was never really part of the plans, it just kinda happened.”
That remarkable record, Rifles And Rosary Beads, takes that idea of sharing the work a significant step further; taking the songs from the collaborative setting of the workshop, out into the world of commercial album releases. A portion of the profits from the album will be donated back to SongwritingWith:Soldiers, but was there any resistance to the songs being part of a commercial release?
“No, not at all. The co-writers are happy their songs are being heard.”
Using songs from a project like this as the basis for a full album release. It would be all too easy to allow the demands of professional recording to take over, and perhaps take some of the heart from songs that were nurtured in such an intimate setting. Fortunately, Mary’s wise enough to be aware of those limitations and found a fitting solution…
“I wanted to record in a place where I was most comfortable. A place where I could relax, not worry about time, and have good coffee and all the comforts that bring out the best in me and the band. That place ended up being my house.”
That decision is validated by an album delivers complex, often harrowing, messages with an open honesty. The songs speak for themselves, the musicians provide a framework that brings them to a new, and receptive, audience. That in itself, though, has the potential to bring new challenges. These songs deal with peoples’ personal struggles. Are politics, and especially discussions about foreign policy, consciously kept out of the picture?
“Well, these are story songs. And the story is not told by politics, it is told by the little movies that make up the events that are described. At their best, songs are empathy. Empathy connects us to each other, and that’s what I hope these songs do.”
It’s important to keep politics out of the equation. The people who wrote these songs are writing about experiences that go far beyond any political discussion. Listening to the songs, however, it’s clear that more support is needed for veterans and their families, and our final question for Mary was whether her time spent with them has given her an insight into what else is needed?
“All I really know is that when a person feels seen, heard, and appreciated, they no longer feel alone. That’s as true for a soldier as it is for any of the rest of us. So listening to a veteran’s story goes a long way, if we listen in non-judgment, and don’t try to diagnose them or put labels on them. Just listening, and truly hearing what they have to say. It goes a long, long way.”
Rifles And Rosary Beads gives more and more of us a chance to listen. The album stands on its own as a fine piece of work; it’s as finely crafted and as arresting as any Mary Gauthier album. The fact, though, that it highlights the difficulties combat veterans and their families face every day is far from incidental; the fact that it shares their stories, and how it shares them, can bring a small part of those struggles home to all of us.
Order Rifles and Rosary Beads here: http://smarturl.it/riflesandrosarybeads
UK & Ireland Tour Dates
MAY 4 FRI – Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart
MAY 5 SAT – Waterfront Hall Studio, Belfast
MAY 6 SUN – Kilkenny Roots Festival, Kilkenny
MAY 8 TUE – The Tunnels, Bristol
MAY 9 WED – St. Barnabas Church, Oxford
MAY 10 THU – Kings Place, London
MAY 11 FRI – The Bear Club, Luton
MAY 12 SAT – The HUBS, Sheffield
MAY 13 SUN – Saint Luke’s, Glasgow
MAY 14 MON – The Met, Bury
MAY 16 WED – The Glee Club, Nottingham
Photo Credit: Laura E Partain