Arrested for drunk driving, the former owner of a Boston restaurant curled up in a fetal position on the cell floor. “I saw myself. I had a problem. ”This twist opens the Grammy nominee’s brand new memoir,“ Saved by a Song: The Healing Art and Power of Songwriting. ”
It reads like an intensely personal diary that’s also packed with songwriting inspiration and tips. The acclaimed folk musician – and former owner of Dixie Kitchen in Boston – shares how the local open mic scene literally saved her.
Raised in Louisiana, Gauthier was adopted by a couple whose marriage began to fall apart. Her father was an alcoholic, family life was “volatile” and both parents “became more and more suicidal,” she writes. His father “would pull his belt from his pants, put it around his neck and walk around the house, drunk, looking for a place to hang it.”
There were other struggles: she was a gay teenager in the conservative South. She began to drink, to consume, to steal. She had entered and left “several treatment centers before I was 18.” … I was released from Kansas prison the day after my 18th birthday on the condition that I leave the state and never come back ”. One night she overdosed and “narrowly escaped death”.
After Gauthier’s move to Boston and her arrest for this Dorchester DUI, a waiter at Gauthier’s Boston restaurant took her to a 12-step reunion near Berklee College of Music. A Berklee student who worked as a waitress at Dixie inspired her to attend an open mic at Club Passim.
A beginner at 32, she felt old. After what seemed like a disaster at first, she thought, “Better kill yourself than never get on another stage.” But there was another voice… ‘You might do better next time.’
She listened to that second voice. She played Passim every Tuesday. She stopped drinking. And start writing songs.
Today Gauthier is an acclaimed songwriter as well as a songwriting coach, helping others sing their truths.
I called Gauthier, 59, at her home in Nashville to talk about how she found her voice.
Q. Much of your turn is in Boston.
A. Boston is a big part of my history. I came to Boston in 88, 89. I needed to get out of where I was in Louisiana. I had a friend in Boston who helped me get started. I had a basement apartment on Beacon Hill. I opened a restaurant during the first two years of being in town. And then while I was running this first restaurant, I went to culinary school [at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts].
Q. You were inspired by a Berklee student.
A. She took me to an open microphone and I saw her shine. I saw myself on this stage in a way. I wanted it. This is where the bulb went wrong for me: in Passim that evening.
Q. You had a scary first time up there.
A. It was terrifying. It was painful. I was horrible. It is much more difficult than it looks. I had so much to learn. Something in me was like, “Go back and try again. And I just continued.
Q. How long did you have to force?
A. Years [laughs]. A very long time. There is a pretty steep learning curve. A lot of people who take the stage have been doing it since their childhood. I have become much older than your average person.
Q. The other turning point was when you started going to the Old Vienna Kaffeehaus, and were moved by the song of an older farmer.
A. When I saw the power of what he did, it showed me the way to go. It proved that you don’t have to use age as an excuse – if you connect with people and make them feel, bring them to an emotional place with your song, you can build an audience.
Q. You had another turning point when you heard the Indigo Girls on WUMB and then saw them live at Paradise Rock Club.
A. They opened a door. There were a lot of people who sang beautiful harmonies together – but not two overtly gay women who drew an audience mostly made up of women who were yelling for them. They opened up a passage, and many of us walked through it. The Indigo Girls marked a turning point in our culture.
Q. You write about a difficult family life.
A. My parents were upset. My father was an alcoholic. There was a lot of pain in their marriage. They were in a bad marriage. Of course, it affects children. In retrospect, it would have been better if they broke up earlier, but back then they stayed together for the kids, which today we know harms the kids.
Q. You open the book with Tonight in Prison, which is a good place to start.
A. I felt that I had to start there. I call the book “Saved by a Song,” so you have to establish what you have been saved from. It saved me from a life of addiction and trouble. The songs didn’t come until I was sober. After years of using music and song as a way to help me heal, I found myself using music and song as a way to help veterans heal. [with Grammy-nominated album “Rifles & Rosary Beads”] and doctors and nurses on the front lines of COVID [including at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s]. Music and song are powerful.
This book is really songwriting instruction, using my story as the focus. I don’t think the most important part of the book is my story. I think the most important part is the power of the song.
Q. What would you like aspiring songwriters to get out of it?
A. That there is a large umbrella. And anyone who wants to write songs can stick to it. There are all kinds of reasons to write songs. If your reason is to try and write hits, go for it. If your goal is to try not to sink with your own trauma hanging in your throat, go for it. There is room for you.
Gauthier has a series of upcoming virtual book events, including one with Six-time Grammy winner Brandi Carlile on July 12. Learn more about www.marygauthier.com/savedbyasong
Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweet @ laurendaley1.
Lauren Daley can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twiiter @ laurendaley1.