49 years ago Mary Gauthier was abandoned by her mother at the St. Vincent’s Infants Home in New Orleans. She was adopted by a messed-up family, hit the road at 15, spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell, took a boatload of drugs, studied philosophy, learned to cook, opened a restaurant (Boston’s late great Dixie Kitchen), got sober, and released her first record at 35. It turns out Gauthier had a late-blooming gift. Last year she released her seventh recording, a concept album called “The Foundling.” It’s scathing and tender and fearless.
Q: I want to ask you about coming to music. You started later than most.
A: Yes, it was a blessing and a curse.
Q: A blessing and a curse in what ways?
A: Well, the way that it went for me and continues to go is that I couldn’t write a song until I got my head cleared up. I had a well-documented drug and alcohol problem from hell. Until I got that under control through 12-step programs, treatment centers, therapy and all the work that’s involved in that, I could, oddly, run three restaurants simultaneously, but I couldn’t write a song. I was able to do hard work. I just couldn’t do extremely creative work. I mean, people might argue that the restaurants were creative, but for me songwriting operates on a whole other level.
Q: A lot of people use drugs and alcohol to fuel the creative process, but you had to get clean before you could write a song.
A: Because I was using it as self-medication. I was trying to extinguish the emotions. I was trying to put the fire out inside of me because there was a pain in me that I could not cope with. It wasn’t a party, it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t let’s get together and laugh and joke. It was dark. As it turned out, over the years creating sober I finally found my way to what the source of the hurt was, and of course it was that on the day I was born my mother gave me away. Rationally, anybody could have said that. The therapist said it for years, that you’ve got to look at this adoption trauma. And I thought, come on, that’s just too obvious, it’s not that. There’s something else. It just didn’t register, until it did.
Q: Tell me about arriving at the moment when you realized you needed and wanted to tell the story.
A: Well, it took a long time. It’s my seventh record. I didn’t start songwriting until I was well into my 30’s, so I’d been through eight, nine years of recovery, I was still running the restaurants, going to open mikes in the Boston area. I was always particularly fond of Club Passim. I went to the open mike there every Monday night or Tuesday night. I was staring hard at 40 writing about being in my 20s. So it took a couple of records to get my writing caught up with my life. And then I think when I hit the Mercy Now record, which is the fourth record of mine, I found myself at par, writing about current events. And I was very lucky to have that one go to Universal here in Nashville and have a good major label push on it and sell a bunch of copies. It gave me a profile, nationally and internationally, so I could do some real heavy touring, leave the restaurants behind, and fully commit to life as a songwriter, without having to worry about paying the rent. And it opened the floodgates to prepare myself to write about the story of what I think fueled the addiction, what fueled the running away, what fueled the whole story of Mary Gauthier. Now I’m on the other side of it. And it’s almost like I’m reborn in a way.
Q: I get the sense that it’s not simply the writing but also the sharing of “The Foundling” that has been transformational.
A: It really has. I played at the American Adoption Congress this year. We were asked to come play the whole record at a conference full of adoptees, birth mothers, and adoptive parents. There was not a dry eye in the room. And it was so validating for me, and for them, because as an artist I’m able to articulate things that sometimes people have a hard time articulating. Even I had a hard time articulating until finally I was able to. It’s become a “we” instead of an “I.” This is “our” story. It hasn’t really been told. The truth about adoption is still buried under layers and layers of myth. I always say it’s right up there with the Virgin Birth. And it has been a real connector. We played in England at the Foundling Museum in London. Handel was the musical director [at London's Foundling Hospital]. In Europe there’s a real connection between the arts and foundlings.
Q: I had no idea.
A: Because these centers for unwanted children became centers of charity, and artists have always had to line themselves up with charity because that’s how they got funded. You know, standing in these places, it’s like a magic carpet ride. I could have never pictured it when I was in Dixie Kitchen stirring gumbo with a boat paddle.
Q: When you were stirring gumbo did you already have music on your mind?
A: Absolutely. Because for ten years I thought that the way to get to songwriting was to put the right chemical combination together in the right order so that I could get high and find that song. So I’d try, like, alcohol, Xanax, Valium, and then cocaine, like a spurt of energy, and then that would be the way I would get to it. And I would just be frustrated and frustrated and frustrated. I never once considered, when I was active in my addiction, that songwriting took absolute focus and it didn’t work for me at all unless I was clear-headed. The mythology of the addict artist was inside of me, but there was no way in when I was using drugs and alcohol because it was too serious of an addiction and I was killing the very thing that fuels creativity, which is spirit. Was it a coincidence or not that the Dixie Kitchen was next door to Berkelee College? I don’t know. Was it a coincidence or not that all of my employees, literally all of them, were students at Berkelee?
Q: Did they draw you into music?
A: One of them dragged me to listen to her play a song at the open mike at Club Passim, and the rest is history. I was addicted immediately to something new. In two weeks I was at the open mike myself with my first song.