Mary Gauthier – an expert on the hard art of ‘writing simple’

Mary Gauthier writes songs that are both unflinching and uplifting. The New Orleans-born singer, whose fans include Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, plays Monroe’s Live on Friday, May 3. After releasing seven studio albums, last year Mary released Live at Blue Rock. Why did she decide to release a concert album now?

“I needed to wait ten years or so, until I was confident enough to do it, really,” she says. “Catching a live show is different than going into a studio and being able to redo things over and over again. Also, with a live record – you need a body of work.

“We just played as if the tape wasn’t rolling. I didn’t even think about it – I call it ‘gig tough.’ You just have to be onstage 10,000 hours until nothing matters; the roof could come down, I’d keep playing.”

Songs like I Drink and Drag Queens in Limousines draw from Mary Gauthier’s battle with addiction, and Karla Faye is about the last woman to be executed by the state of Texas. Yet her songs are accessible, and her melodies stay in your head.

“I think you could say the same thing about Hank Williams – those songs came out of one bad marriage,” she says. “Five hundred songs, one bad marriage and dead at 29. The universal human experience, if you can capture it, people will listen to it over and over again. I think simplicity works in our favour in country music; it’s what we’re trying to reach for.

“I’ve got to go through a thousand trapdoors of complexity before I get to simple,” she adds. “It’s not ever obvious. That’s what Johnny Cash used to tell people – ‘write simple, it’s the hardest thing you can ever do’. They shouldn’t even call it writing, they should go ahead and just call it re-writing.”

Sober since 1990, Mary Gauthier moves in a world with a lot of potential pitfalls. How does she deal with the post-show excitement of performing?

“Well, I try not to get addicted to adrenalin,” she says. “I try to stay focused on being centred, and I try to keep my focus on getting rest and staying healthy. Staying creative, getting up in the morning in time to get some exercise in. I’m working on some short stories and a whole pile of new songs. I’ve got so much work in front of me that I can’t do it with a foggy mind in the morning.”

The refrain of the sublime I Drink spells it out: “Fish swim, birds fly/ Lovers leave, by and by/ Old men sit and think/ I drink.” It comes as no surprise that the writer of those lyrics is equally as blunt.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.