Interview: Mary Gauthier, musician
Mary Gauthier's new album is a story of searching for, finding and being rejected by your birth mother
• Mary Gauthier's album The Foundling is deservedly garnering five-star reviews for a lyrical integrity which bears comparison with Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Picture: Complimentary
'I GOT issues. Boy, have I got issues." Mary Gauthier is nothing if not honest. It is that same emotional honesty which is scored deep into her five acclaimed albums to date and has won her tentative comparison with the late, great Johnny Cash.
Some of her issues are already well documented. Gauthier (pronounced Go-shay) was born in New Orleans to an unmarried mother, was adopted as an infant, left home at 15 years old and fell into a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse which determined her life for the next 15 years. When she eventually escaped that vicious circle, the songs began flooding out of her. She released her debut album when she was 35, pouring all that pain and experience into her music.
But nothing she has recorded to date is, or probably ever will be, as raw or significant as her new album, The Foundling, a song cycle about "relinquishment and adoption," at the heart of which is a story of searching for, finding and being rejected by your birth mother. The punchline being that the story is hers.
"I can't even begin to describe how excruciating it is to not know where you come from," she says. And yet she has managed to do so, viscerally and intimately, on The Foundling. "I guess I find it easier to talk when I have a guitar in front of me," she admits.
There is nothing easy – though plenty that is rewarding – about The Foundling. The title alone is a very loaded, emotive expression. Gauthier nods. "Yup, it is." Even the individual song titles – Mama Here, Mama Gone, The Orphan King, Blood Is Blood – are dripping in agonising pathos.
Gauthier had dealt to some degree with the whirlwind of emotions by the time she sat down to complete the album she now feels she was put on this earth to make. She doesn't see much of her adoptive parents anymore. Her memories of her life with them are largely defined by her father's alcoholism and her mother's depression. She remembers one Christmas when her father drunkenly trashed the decorations and decreed there would be no Christmas for the family that year. She remembers her mother crying, all the time. She got out as quickly as she could, stealing the family car to make her getaway – a getaway that included spending the night of her 18th birthday in a police cell.
"All that teenage delinquent stuff got really exaggerated. People were saying I spent time in jail – I was never in prison," she says. "But adoptees have troubles. I don't want to stereotype us, but if you look into it, there's an incredibly high rate of alcoholism and an extremely high rate of suicide among adoptees. Check the numbers of people in prison who are adopted. I think these problems come from not knowing who we are and how to fit.
"Adoptees historically are made to have to feel grateful," she continues. "And, y'know, I am grateful that I was adopted. I'm extremely grateful because I didn't want to live in a frickin' orphanage – y'know, two nuns, 70 babies. That's horrible. But you can also be grateful and have questions."
Gauthier had those questions from an early age, but she didn't ask them "because I was afraid I would lose the only parents I had ever known. That if I were to appear ungrateful, I could lose everything."
A few years back, Gauthier returned to New Orleans to play a gig. On the spur of the moment, she visited the site of the St Vincent's Women And Infants Asylum, now a flophouse, on Magazine Street, where she had spent the first year of her life. Although she had no recollection of her time there, she was surprised by the intensity of emotion – what she calls "that orphan feeling" – stirred up by stepping inside the building.
Even sober, Gauthier had found that she was still running into the same problems in holding down long-term relationships. At the persuasion of her therapist, she agreed to go looking for her birth mother. It took three days to trace her, but six months to pluck up the courage to phone her. Her quietly devastating account of what happened next can be heard on the album's centrepiece, a semi-spoken song called March 11, 1962 (her own date of birth) which recounts Gauthier's side of that fateful and profoundly painful phone call when her mother told her she could not cope with meeting her. She had never told anyone about her illegitimate daughter. For a long time, that rejection was just too upsetting for Gauthier to contemplate but, gradually, she was able to pour her feelings of abandonment into a song suite which is as powerful a statement of the human condition as any you will hear.
The Foundling is deservedly garnering awestruck five-star reviews for its organic mix of lachrymose country, haunting folk, mountain music and Cajun swing and a lyrical integrity which bears comparison with Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Emotionally, it ranges from the tormented folk maelstrom of "adoptee identity crisis" number Blood Is Blood to the gallows wit of The Orphan King, which ends with a declaration of hope: "I still believe in love."
Gauthier may not enjoy family in the conventional sense of the word, but she has built up what she calls her tribal family of friends, loved ones and associates. As her birth mother has no desire to meet her, Gauthier acknowledges that that avenue is now closed to her, but based on the little that she did learn from their brief encounter, she has not ruled out researching some family history. "At least now I know that her family comes from eastern Canada which I knew instinctively," she says. "I knew I had that Cajun heritage, that Acadian heritage, I just feel it. And my gut says Irish on the other side. Irish and French, that's what I feel. When you're young, it doesn't matter so much but as you get older I would suspect part of the ageing process is to wonder about your ancestors – who were they? What were their lives like? And how I am like them? Children are not blank slates – they come programmed with a lot of stuff."
She cites the story of a man she met on a talk show who made sundials and only later discovered that his great-great-great-grandfather had also been a sundial craftsman. "Do you think that's a coincidence? Come on, it's not! If I start tracing, I bet I will find a writer in my family tree."
Gauthier has been getting a lot of this since making The Foundling. She perks up noticeably when she talks about the uninhibited way that strangers have been moved to share their adoption stories with her. Whether adoptees or adoptive parents, it is as if her work has given them permission to talk openly about their experience.
Gauthier herself has become passionate about adoption rights. In the US, adoptees are not entitled access to their birth certificate, so Gauthier has joined the campaign for open records. "I believe it's a fundamental human need to know where you came from," she says. "To deprive someone of that knowledge is criminal. I think it's a civil rights issue. So I believe in adoption, but I believe in open adoption."
Now she's fired up and feeling vindicated that she has confronted all that hurt in her past. There is even a memoir in the works. "The truth'll set you free," she says. "It might feel like it's gonna kill you but when you get through that pain it can set you free. At least, that's been my experience."
Mary Gauthier, the foundling, can now look back and say that she feels like she has been working up to making this album for her whole life. But now that she has delivered it – and so brilliantly at that – where does she go next? "That's a very good question. Maybe I'll start writing happy songs!"
• The Foundling is out now on Proper Records
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