Mary Gauthier on the Pieces That Make up Dark Enough to See the Stars

Feeling hyper-anxious and fretful after over two years of awkwardly navigating the hellish pandemic? Sit down for a chat with calm, soft-talking Southern singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier for a spell—her serenity and hard-won wisdom is practically guaranteed to cool your panic-attack jets. A spin through her gorgeous, Daniel-Lanois-delicate new missal, Dark Enough to See the Stars, will have the same relaxing effect. And when she quietly reports, at a well-seasoned 60, that she’s feeling good, really good, all told, she isn’t paying lockdown lip service. She means it. And she spent her time wisely, conjuring up her latest record, her eleventh, as well as a self-explanatory book, Saved by a Song—The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting. After everything she’s endured in her turbulent, topsy-turvy composing career—which didn’t officially start until she was 32—what resembles an insurmountable Covid mountain to most folks is probably an easily-sidestepped molehill for her.

Gauthier’s colorful life story was put on an unavoidable pandemic pause just as she deservedly won the Best Folk Album Grammy for her ambitious 2019 effort Rifles and Rosary Beads, a songwriting collaboration with wounded Iraq veterans and their families. But it’s one of the first times she’s come to rest in years. She was instilled with a vagabond heart when her New Orleans birth mother gave her up for adoption. She ran away from an abusive adoptive home when she was only 15, dabbled in typical teenage drug-and-alcohol decadence, and wound up spending her 18th birthday behind bars. Eventually, her trajectory arced skyward again when she enrolled in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and then launched a Boston Cajun eatery dubbed Dixie Kitchen. Its celebratory opening night in 1990 ended in near tragedy: She was arrested for drunken driving, and it scared her completely sober. She never drank or used again, and she maintained that recovery all through lockdown. A Herculean task for many, given the overwhelming atmosphere of depression and sudden dearth of in-person meetings the world was facing. 

By 1997, Gauthier was touched by the Muse. As twangy, toe-tapping tunes began accumulating, she decided to sell her stake in Dixie Kitchen and hang out her shingle in Nashville where she secured a publishing deal with no less than Harlan Howard’s company and then self-financed her first two albums, Dixie Kitchen in ’97 and Drag Queens and Limousines in ’98, both of which touched honestly, sometimes humorously on her checkered past and eventual coming out. In fact, the clever wordsmith was so comfortable with her sexuality that track one on her debut, “Ways of the World,” began with a fiddle-powered, “When I was a kid I was a hard-headed, pig-tailed tomboy / I made mama crazy ‘cause I wouldn’t wear ribbons and bows…when you’re ten years old it’s cute to be a tomboy / But in a couple of years you’ve gotta deal with the ways of the world.” Indeed.

But these days, Gauthier isn’t so hoe-down chirpy and chipper. Her singing voice is conversely deep, more resonant and lived in, and Dark Enough processionals like “The Meadow,” “Where Are You Now,” “Till I See You Again” and the stunning title cut rely more on restraint. The same handful-of-keyboard-and-guitar-notes kind that Leonard Cohen utilized so perfectly on his last four or five albums. It’s all about capturing the purity, the genuine essence of a timeless song, she swears: “That’s what really matters, and to me, that’s always been the point. To write the best possible songs, and to elevate the art form, and to travel down the trail that my heroes blazed—Dylan, Springsteen, my friend Steve Earle, plus Rodney Crowell and Lucinda Williams. There’s a whole lot of people on that road, and that’s the road I want to be on.” Her corollary to that prime directive, she adds, is that, despite its apparent simplicity, a great tune, beaming down at you at the most opportune or much-needed moment can truly save your life. “Absolutely, it can, and I mean it—that’s why I called my book Saved by a Song,” she states, unequivocally. Then she keeps the discussion going in soft, reassuring tones—and suddenly—things don’t seem so completely bleak and hopeless anymore.

Paste: The Dark Enough to See the Stars artwork is a small, empty rowboat. Is it a metaphor for something larger?

Mary Gauthier: Well, you know I didn’t design the cover—the designer did. Her name is Gail Marowitz, and she got that from the song, “Dark Enough to See the Stars.” And there’s a line in there, “An ocean black and deep,” and I think it’s a symbol of hope, and it’s tinged with sadness, you know? It’s not a simple, easy answer. It’s not singular, by any means.

Paste: Speaking of the stars, people were suddenly minded that they were up there during lockdown. Constellation guides were selling, telescopes, too. With no planes in the sky, folks actually started looking up.

Gauthier: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. But I tend to go to the desert every year, down on the border by Terralingua, and just sort of make a big deal out of being under the stars and experiencing It wholeheartedly. I think the idea is that we can’t see the stars in our normal day-to-day experiences, because we’re not looking. But when something knocks us off our regular life—and oftentimes that is some kind of a struggle or a painful event—we begin to get more introspective. I think it’s a metaphor for that. 

Paste: What’s your desert ritual? What do you do when you get there?

Gauthier: Well, we have friends down there, and we sit outside and we swap songs, and hang with people who mean a lot to us. And a lot of it is outside at night, and it’s cold and it’s pretty. We hop around to a little town up the road called Marfa, Texas—we’ll stay there for a night or two, because there are a lot of artists there, a lot of painters, a lot of writers. There are a lot of songwriters making it a place that they go now, and it’s a beautiful part of the world. So we don’t have a ritual as much as we have friends that we associate with, and love sharing our time with, down there.

Paste: Now when you’re sitting outside at night, do you ever have any uncomfortable interactions with nature? Like, “Okay Mr. Coyote—this is your campfire now! Yours too, Mr. Tarantula!”

:Gauthier: Yeah! You’re in the desert, you know? So it is their turf, absolutely. I haven’t had any encounters with anything, personally. But they’re out there, that’s for sure. It’s the Big Bend National Park. And I live in Nashville, but I live in town.

Paste: How did the pandemic hit you in Nashville? Some folks fell into depression for a few months. Others got right to work.

Gauthier: Basically, I just got to work. I used the time to finish a book, and I finished this record. And we did a Sunday live stream every week, reached out to our fans, and we brought guests onto the screen, which was fun because we got to see our friends, even though everything was locked down. We broadcast it every Sunday at two o’clock—Sundays with Mary, and it’s still going, actually. And every single guest we had was amazing—they were all incredible artists and dear friends. We shared the screen with people that we love. James McMurtry was awesome, Ray Wylie Hubbard was awesome, Hayes Carll was awesome, Lori McKenna was awesome, Rodney Crowell, too. The list goes on and on—every single one of ‘em was an amazing, brilliant, beautiful, gifted artist. So I had my work, and I had my recovery—I’m sober—and we still met on Zoom with our recovery groups, so I was never removed from people that much. And it worked out for me. I had it really good. And after hearing so many reports of how hard it was for so many people, I’m just grateful that for me, it was a detour, but it wasn’t a catastrophic experience, except that we lost so many great people, like John Prine and Nanci Griffith. She was a good friend.

Paste: Does your song “The Meadow” represent something larger, more abstract?

Gauthier: I’m not sure that “The Meadow” is a metaphor. It might be literal. The character in the song was inspired by reading a book, written by my friend Odie Lindsey. And its’ a book written in first person about a female soldier coming home from Iraq, who’s trying to get stability, The book is called Some Go Home. And for me, I’m singing from her voice, and she’s just talking to her beloved, her husband, saying, “I want this to work, so meet me. Please meet me halfway and let’s keep trying. It’s a great book. 

Paste: “Truckers and Troubadours” makes clear that there’s a whole separate Red Sovine vernacular for writing about or even discussing the road.

Gauthier: Oh, yeah! Absolutely. And I made friends with a long-haul truck driver named Long Haul Paul (Marhoefer), and he’s a songwriter and a truck driver. We became friends, and we wrote on Zoom during the pandemic. And as we talked, we realized that truckers and troubadours have a lot in common. I don’t own a Red Sovine album, but I listened to him when I lived in Baton Rouge for sure. I loved that old country stuff. I grew up on that stuff! When I was in Baton Rouge as a kid, there was only AM radio, so you had a choice—country or Jesus. And I voted for country, so that’s what we listened to in the car as I was growing up, and those songs were on the radio back then. 

Paste: One thing many folks got busy with during lockdown was cooking and exploring the kitchen. And since you were a skilled chef already, did you find yourself trying out adventurous new recipes?

Gauthier: Not really. I mean, we cooked, but I got into gardening some, and we grew vegetables these last two summers and figured out ways to use a hundred million okras. Okra was very successful, way beyond what I’ve ever experienced—I had so much okra in my backyard, I couldn’t even give it away, so I had to figure out new ways of cooking it. I like my okra Louisiana style, which is stewed with tomatoes or lightly breaded in cornmeal and then fried. And then after those two, I don’t know what to do with it except for to put in gumbo. So you can just give it to friends. But getting good tomatoes was hard. I like the sort of Tennessee heirloom tomatoes, so I was trying to grow these heirlooms, and I just don’t have the right soil, I guess. It takes a certain type of soil, and I don’t know how to make that soil into what they love. So they did okay, but it was just easier to go to the greengrocers and buy the tomatoes that people knew how to grow. 

Paste: One odd footnote, though—in the album title track, you reference ‘lightning bugs inside a jar.” And that’s a warm-weather phenomenon that only a certain portion of the country will understand. 

Gauthier: Well, yeah. But music lovers will understand. Lightning bugs are probably dying out—they don’t seem as frequent as they used to be. But down in Baton Rouge, man, they were in my backyard and under the pecan trees, and they were just a part of every summer, big time.

Paste: I would be remiss not to congratulate you, though—you’re in a great new relationship, which you sing about in the first three album tracks, “Fall Apart World,” “Amsterdam,” “and “Thank God For You.” How and where did you meet Jaimee Harris?

Gauthier: Well, I’ve been with my partner Jaimee now for a little over four years, and it’s just a really beautiful thing. She co-wrote a couple of these songs with me, and she’s singing harmony on the rest of the record, and she sings her ass off. And we travel together right now, and it’s just really nice. I feel richly blessed and grateful. We met at a songwriting workshop at Eliza Gilkyson’s house in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. We started collaborating about a year and a half into knowing each other. We started out as friends, and then it became more over time, and we kind of grew into each other. And that’s always the best—as we got to know each other, we liked each other more and more, and that’s still happening. 

Paste: “Amsterdam” is about you taking her back to that exotic city for the first time, one of your favorites in the world. It’s weird to note that many of us feel no motivation right now, ever again. But because of the nature of your troubadour career, you have to keep going back there and pretty much everywhere else.

Gauthier: Well, that’s what we do, so we’re gonna do it. And there was joy in getting back out there. I mean, we had a feeling of deep gratitude that we were able to do it. You know, there’s always risks, and even though we’re triple vaxxed, we know that we could get Covid again. We had it once, we could get it again, we know that. But you have to do your job at a certain point, so we’re all out there. I don’t know any musicians that aren’t back to work. We have to go to work—it’s what we do.

Paste: And—as exemplified perfectly in the Netflix parable Don’t Look Up—humanity seems to have learned absolutely nothing, especially with something as crucial as Roe v. Wade about to fall. It’s just insane. Talk me down. 

Gauthier: I can’t! I agree with you! We’re in a very trying, difficult time, and we have to keep our eye on the prize—we have to vote. And we have to pay attention. We have to keep our eye on what we can do. I don’t wanna give in to despair—we do have a Black, lesbian press secretary right now. Gays and lesbians do have the right to get married still. We’ve seen a very large national discussion around gender, and what it means to be transgender, and that’s not something I imagined happening in my life. So I think we’re moving things forward, and people are trying to push things backward. That’s the normal way that progress happens. I also think that gun violence is out of control, and we’ve got to do something about it. So hopefully there’s been a wake-up call, and we’ll see what happens in November. But I don’t subscribe to despair. I think we have to vote and understand what we’re voting for, and we have to fight. Nobody gets anywhere without fighting for what’s right. I think that it’s a big discussion, but we all can do our part by showing up. 

Paste: You’ve mentioned someone close who passed away named Betsy, Who was she?

Gauthier: She was my best friend that I used to hike with on the trail right outside of Nashville, and she passed away during the pandemic. And actually, I became a swimmer after she died. Now I go to the YMCA, and the pools at the Y here are great.

Paste: The main lesson you seem to have learned recently is “less is more.” The arrangements and production on Dark Enough are hushed and skeletal, with just enough notes to float by. It’s Daniel Lanois stark.

Gauthier: Yes. I’ll go with that. Nielsen Hubbard produced it. And that’s exactly right — there’s nothing to get in the way of the words, but the music’s gotta matter. But that’s kinda my thing. I generally tour solo—I don’t wanna have a whole big thing because I’m just not good at it. I like the troubadour life—it simplifies things for me, and I enjoy it. So when I go into the studio, we pretty much do things quickly and stripped down. That’s what I like. And I know that I’m dedicated to the art form, and I’m dedicated to the work, and I try to be nice to people along the way—that’s kind of what I’ve got, ya know?

Paste: I’m not sure if you intended it this way, but the final album track, “Till I See You Again,” feels like the absolutely perfect set closer for concerts.

Gauthier:Yep. That’s what it is, all right. I didn’t know what it would be—I was just writing a song to the best of my ability, but that’s kind of where we place it. It’s a final song, that’s for sure.