Mary Gauthier uses songwriting to help people through trauma
NEW YORK — Having used songwriting to navigate her own trauma, Mary Gauthier is putting those skills to work helping others do the same.
The Nashville-based musician has collaborated with war veterans to write about what they’ve been through, even producing a disc of the music, and more recently sat with health care workers who were on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gauthier still writes for herself, and her most recent album “Dark Enough to See the Stars” reflects the love found with partner and fellow musician Jaimee Harris, and the sadness of losing friends like John Prine and Nanci Griffith.
Yet through her workshops and the book she wrote, “Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting,” Gauthier has become increasingly interested in how music can mean more than something to listen to.
“I couldn’t make sense of a lot of things in my life, and I use art to help me,” Gauthier said. “And I just had a sense that it was something that songwriters can do to help people with their own trauma.”
Music is a second career for Gauthier (pronounced go-SHAY), who’s 60. She was a talented chef in Boston three decades ago. She was also a drunk. A DWI one summer night 32 years ago scared her sober.
Summoning the nerve to sing, then to write songs, led her to the stage of the Newport Folk Festival, and eventually to Nashville.
“My sense was that you were born to do this — people were chosen or something and I didn’t feel chosen,” she said. “I didn’t know how to get to the place where I felt like I could do it. Sober, I was able to do it.”
Her 2005 song, “I Drink,” was a seminal moment. In it, she imagines what her life would have been like if she hadn’t quit booze.
The chorus is blunt: “Fish swim, birds fly. Daddies yell, mamas cry. Old men sit and think. I drink.”
When she performs the song, it’s a barometer of the night’s audience. Some will hoot and holler, because who writes drinking songs that aren’t supposed to be fun? Those who are really listening know it’s not an anthem. It’s a sad song.
“The narrator in the song is saying ‘I know what I am, but I don’t give a damn,’” she said. Some of her listeners, particularly those in recovery, “know that this is a red flag. Because people who scream ‘I don’t give a damn,’ generally are screaming it because they do.”
Similarly, her song “March 11, 1962” — her birthday — is emotionally devastating. Gauthier, who was given up for adoption as an infant, sings about her very real experience of tracking down her birth mother, calling her, and being rejected. Mary was a secret in her life, and she wanted it to remain so.
There was no happy ending, even after the song came out. Gauthier talked only one other time to her birth mother, seeking the identity of her father, and the woman said she couldn’t remember.
The important thing for Gauthier was being brave enough to make the call.
“It was an articulation of how hard it is as an adoptee to go back in there and request information and try to get your story,” she said. “It’s so scary. The fear is primal, like it could kill you. It’s terrifying. You get regressed into this infant again that was relinquished.
“For me, the story is just a reminder of how far I’ve come,” she said, “because it’s not terrifying anymore. I climbed Fear Mountain and I lived. It didn’t kill me, and it actually helped me heal.”
Gauthier is determined to share those feelings, of conquering fear and healing.
She began meeting with veterans groups with the help of Austin singer-songwriter Darden Smith, who has done similar work. She’ll sit with her guitar amid a group and ask them to tell their experiences. Reluctantly at first, the stories come out. Gauthier keys on a phrase or experience, and together they write a song.
“I think it changed Mary’s life,” Smith said. “I think that Mary found a certain calling. Her first calling was to write songs and deliver her own story. Her second calling was to play it for people. Her third calling was using these skill sets to help people tell their stories.”
People are often reluctant to talk about trauma because they associate it with failure, Gauthier said.
Every time she works with a group, she can sense the relief in people who recognize that what they’re feeling is not unique.
“It’s not me pulling it out of them,” she said. “It’s the song. I’m just the midwife. The song is the maestro. The song is the CEO. We make an agreement: Let’s just be honest and see where it goes.”
It’s enormously gratifying to find some way of being of service, she said.
“I know that it is helping them in a way I can’t fully articulate but I can see it in their faces,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to do that?”