Mary Gauthier, storyteller in song
One of the most electrifying moments at this year’s Stagecoach country music festival had nothing to do with the high-wattage, big-budget stage productions that accompanied performances by the event’s main attractions, Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Brooks & Dunn and Sugarland.
In fact, it came as the result of a technological breakdown. Inside a tent with the noontime sun blazing above, Louisiana singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier was in the middle of a song from her new album, “The Foundling,” when a loud pop was heard over the PA, and then the sound system died.
Gauthier and her two accompanists looked momentarily perplexed. The she led them to the front of the stage and, literally unplugged, continued playing “The Orphan King,” a redemptive song centering on one person’s adamant faith in the power of love in the face of overwhelming disappointment and betrayal.
Several hundred fans on hand for the first set of the festival’s second day cheered Gauthier, some with tears streaming down their cheeks, as she sang the song’s refrain, “I still believe in love.”
“I didn’t know which way it would go at this event — it was Brooks & Dunn and Toby Keith day, for God’s sakes,” Gauthier, 48, said several days later from London, while on a trip to Europe to stump for the new album. “But I found a connection with a good number of people there.”
It was all but impossible not to connect, given the generous sampling she offered from “The Foundling,” a song cycle about her real-life search for the woman who placed her in an orphanage at birth nearly a half century ago, then disappeared from her life. She’ll also be drawing from it at her stops on Saturday and Sunday at McCabe’s in Santa Monica.
With her 2005 breakthrough album, “Mercy Now,” Gauthier (pronounced go-shay) earned a berth at the top tier of American singer-songwriters, joining the ranks of Kris Kristofferson, John Prine and Lucinda Williams for her extraordinarily clear-eyed view into matters of the heart.
Consequently, “The Foundling” is neither a simple tale of abandonment and loss, nor a quick and easy fable ending happily with tearful hugs between a mother and her long-ago orphaned daughter.
“On the surface, it looks like a very autobiographical story about me,” said the woman who previously chronicled her bouts with alcoholism and rocky relationships in the masterful “I Drink” and has shown equal skill getting inside intriguing characters such as the “Last of the Hobo Kings” on her 2007 album “Between Daylight and Dark.”
“If it was just that, it would be incredibly boring and self-indulgent,” she said. “I think what I’m singing about is the human connection. All superheroes are orphans; there’s something big in this story.”
In one of the wittiest lines in “The Orphan King,” she acknowledges a triumvirate of her famous predecessors as she sings “Hail the orphan king/Superhero of suffering/Like Moses and Batman and James Dean/I still believe in love.”
“It’s an archetype that’s ancient,” she said. “Dickens built his career around this archetype — there’s something in this story for everybody.”
Gauthier’s story goes back to March 11, 1962, the day she was born to a single mother, something that ran decidedly against the social grain at that time, especially in a Southern city such as New Orleans.
She spent the first year of her life in an orphanage, then was adopted by a couple who raised her in Baton Rouge, La., telling her and her brother — also adopted, but from different biological parents — before they knew what it meant that they were adopted.
Beyond that, Gauthier had virtually no information about her biological parents, because records were sealed and her adoptive parents were given no information to share.
For most of her life, however, those details held little interest for Gauthier. Although her adoptive father was alcoholic and her mother “had her own bag of tricks,” she didn’t want to do anything that might hurt them.
“I wasn’t the kind of adopted person that wandered around wondering who my [biological] family was,” she said. “I didn’t. My sense of loyalty to my adoptive family — as tragic as they are … were — was immense. I didn’t want to betray them or appear ungrateful. I just didn’t dare ask those questions … .Somewhere in there I was scared I would lose those people. Even though they were difficult at best, I was terrified of losing them and then having nothing.”
When she actively undertook the search about three years ago, it wasn’t something she did voluntarily.
“I got mud wrestled to the ground by an extremely aggressive therapist,” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t something I came with on my own, I’ll tell you that. She was adamant that it was the missing link to some of the mysteries to my psychology. I didn’t really believe her, but I did trust her. So I kinda got pushed into it. I was hoping to solve some mysteries and I guess I did.”
She sets the scene in the title track, which bookends the new album: “Left on a doorstep/An unbidden guest/A shivering shadow/A child with no name/Severed, surrendered, sinking in pain.”
In “Mama Here, Mama Gone,” Gauthier channels a primal power similar to what John Lennon tapped in “Mother,” his 1970 song about the anguish of the loss of his mother when he was young: “Paradise receding, paradise withdrawn,” Gauthier sings, “mama here, mama gone.”
The date of her birth provides the title for the spellbinding account of her phone call to her biological mother. As she told the fans at the Stagecoach set, “It took three days for a private investigator to find her, and six months for me to get the courage to place the call.”
That first contact, she admits, “didn’t go well.” As she learned upon hiring a private investigator, the woman had married, had more children and never told them of the baby she had given up.
“Hello, hello, say something/Don’t leave me hanging here like this/If there’s something right to say right now/I don’t know what it is,” she sings plaintively. By the song’s end, she hasn’t found the closure she might have been after but discovers a way to make peace with a situation she can’t change.
The album, produced sparingly by Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, makes full use of the panoply of musical styles native to Louisiana, from the aching French waltz of the title track and the jaunty two-step of “Goodbye” to the gospel circus-inflected R&B of “Sideshow” and the haunted folk balladry of “Another Day Borrowed.”
The depths with which she explores the many facets of what she calls “the adoption triad” — the parents who place children for adoption, those who adopt them and the adoptees themselves — sets her up to be a poster child for adoption, a role she’s ready to accept, but only to an extent.
“Here’s what I do best: I tell stories, and my work has been to tell this story,” said Gauthier. “If I were to have to go on talk shows and talk the politics of whether birth records should be open in this country, I would not be that good at it. There are people who do that really well. I think I’m best suited to just tell the stories: Here’s what this feels like; here’s what happened to me.”
Doesn’t it just poke at old wounds to sing these songs night after night?
“There’s no pain in telling the story for me,” she said, adding with a chuckle: “The pain was in living the story. But I’ve survived, so telling it is liberating and healing … . I don’t want to sound too woo-woo about it, but there is something healing in telling your stories to compassionate listeners. I find it very helpful.”