The advantage of coming to music at a comparatively late age is that the songwriter will have led a life that she can draw on for her songs. And Mary Gauthier has certainly led a life.
“It’s like a backwards Jack Kerouac,” she says. “Instead of coming out brilliant and making my mark in the world and slowly unravelling and becoming a psychotic alcoholic, I started out as a psychotic alcoholic and have slowly ravelled into something worth presenting.”
Gauthier – pronounced Gau-shee-ay – was born in New Orleans in 1962 and was immediately abandoned by her unmarried mother in an orphanage. She spent a year there before being adopted by a couple from Baton Rouge. An unhappy childhood became a difficult adolescence as Gauthier turned to drink and drugs. She ran away from home and spent her teenage years shuttling between rehab centres, homeless shelters and jail.
“I had problems very young,” she says. “By the time I was 13 I was already in trouble with drugs and alcohol. And I struggled with that until I was 29.”
A police car siren sounds as she speaks, a warning echo from the past, passing by outside the London hotel were we meet. Gauthier, 52, sits in a lounge overlooking the lobby, sandy-brown hair cropped short, wearing a dark shirt, trousers and brown cowboy boots. She has flown in from Nashville, where she now lives, to talk about her new album Trouble & Love, the most recent fruit of a late-flowering career.
She began writing songs in her thirties after recovering from addiction. “It was scary,” she remembers. “I was much older than everyone else starting out and very self-conscious and I didn’t have drugs or alcohol to lean on, so it was pretty raw. But I felt the urge to do it and try.”
Gauthier was 35 when she released her first album Dixie Kitchen in 1997, its name a reflection of her other life as chef and manager of a Cajun restaurant in Boston. She sold her share in the restaurant to finance the follow-up, Drag Queens in Limousines (1999), which marked her breakthrough. Trouble & Love is her seventh studio album, recorded in Nashville with a network of musician-friends, including Gretchen Peters and Beth Nielsen Chapman. They provide Gauthier with the companionship she has failed to find elsewhere in life.
Solitude is a recurrent theme in her music. It draws on folk and country traditions, a sparse acoustic setting for tales of lost characters in a world of cheap motels and late-night bars, their struggles recounted by Gauthier in a slurry, fateful voice. Bob Dylan once played her song “I Drink” on his radio show, paying her the compliment of reading out the lyrics on air: “At night he’d sit alone and smoke/ I’d see his frown behind his lighter’s flame/ Now that same frown’s in my mirror/ I got my daddy’s blood inside my veins.”
Much of her writing is autobiographical. “I stole mama’s car on a Sunday and left home for good,” runs a line from “Drag Queens and Limousines”: the episode refers to Gauthier’s fleeing her adopted family home at 15. Her 2010 album The Foundling was about being deserted by her birth mother, including a track about a painful telephone call between the pair when Gauthier, as an adult, tracked her down. There hasn’t been any further contact between them.
True to form, Trouble & Love has more trouble in it than love. It is about a romantic relationship that broke up after a couple of years, “which,” says Gauthier, “is a long time for me”. Images of mercy, redemption, betrayal and ruin run through the songs. In one she traces the emotional failure to her complicated and unresolved origins: “I trace my scars back to where I begin.”
“I keep trying!” she says. “I haven’t given up hope. I do realise that” – she pauses – “because of the circumstances of my life I’m a handful. I’m working on it and I have been for a long time. God knows, I’ve been in therapy enough to have the equivalent of a retirement pension.”
Trouble & Love’s relationship was with a woman. It is an aspect of her identity that has never been an issue for her. “I’ve got lots of problems. Being gay’s not one of them,” she says with a laugh. Her difficulties lie deeper. “Forming attachments is always hard for adoptees, especially adoptees raised by troubled parents.”
She characterises the Italian-American couple who raised her as “incredibly damaged people”. The father was a drinker (he’s now dead); the marriage was “doomed”. For a long time Gauthier’s most intense relationship was with alcohol and heroin. “I’d get disgusted with drinking and go to heroin, then get disgusted with heroin and go back to drinking.” Her tone is matter-of-fact, without self-pity.
Her most powerful attachment nowadays is to songwriting. “This is my longest relationship,” she says. She spends much of her time on the road, playing 200 shows a year, staying in the sort of budget motels that crop up in her songs, $48.50-a-night fleapits.
As a child she was a hungry reader, ploughing through books from Baton Rouge’s travelling library, an escape from her miserable home life. She kept journals and wrote terrible poetry (“sort of narcissistic navel-gazing”). Her songwriting idols are those “whose primary gift is language” – Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams. “I won’t say Joni Mitchell, because she’s strong at everything.”
Unlike her youthful poetry, her lyrics manage to be confessional without tipping into maudlin solipsism, the glum plod of someone feeling sorry for themselves. “What I try to do is get to the universal in my experience,” she says. “I do write personal songs but if it stays personal and doesn’t go deep enough to hit universal, then I would be embarrassed. I would find it humiliating.”
The universal, to her, is a shared vulnerability. “You know, if you look at some of Van Gogh’s portraits, it brings tears to your eyes. As a painter he was vulnerable. As a painter he was able to expose his humanity in his self-portraits. You saw him as vulnerable. And we’re not going to cry looking at Van Gogh because we feel bad for this painter we never met. The tears come because we’re vulnerable too. And that’s what I try to do as an artist.”
Yet there’s something flintier in Gauthier too, the splinter of ice that Graham Greene believed lay in the heart of every writer. Other people are exposed in her songs, none of whom are able to put their side of the story. You can imagine her ex-lover wincing as she listens to Trouble & Love, recognising – or failing to recognise – herself as the person coolly lighting a cigarette and saying goodbye “without mercy in her soul” in the opening track. “I try not to expose anybody but myself,” Gauthier says. “But there’s jabs though, sure. Writer gets the last word.” She laughs. “The writer gets the last word, that’s part of the deal.”
‘Trouble & Love’ is out in the UK on June 9 on Proper Records