Mary Gauthier De-Romanticizes Romantic Love
Mary Gauthier started gathering material for songs early in life. She ran away from home at 15 and entered her first stint in rehab. But it wasn't until she was in her mid-30s that she became a singer and songwriter. Once she got started, songs poured out that told the story of her life as a drunk and addict, a chef and restaurant owner, an androgynous lesbian, and an adoptee who spent the first year of her life in an orphanage.
Her new album, Trouble & Love, is about a relationship that went bad. "I think that this is one where Mary finally gets the lesson," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I think the lesson is that romantic love will not save me; that hanging my desire for a family and connection on romantic love has not been a successful strategy for me."
Gauthier joins Gross in the studio to talk and play songs about drinking, the drag queens that taught her how to dress and her search for her birth mother.
On her search for love
"I finally get it — that connection is something much deeper and broader than the material that most pop songs are made of. Popular radio is about the first six months of love, right? Or the first 90 days. I long for real and true connection. It has been the theme of all the songs in my whole life.
"I feel like I've been running around most of my life with a plug, trying to find the socket to plug it into, and I'm tired now. I'm going to do it differently. I have de-romanticized romantic love. I think it's that simple and that complicated."
On finding refuge in music as a child
"Music and books, I think, were the two things I trusted the most as a child — songs and books. I leaned into music really young. Radio used to be good, you know? Those songs spoke to my soul. There was such a connection between me and so many of those songs on the radio back then. Songs, especially lyrics, have always been really important to me.
"I feel like I heard truth there. And as a kid and as an adult, but especially as a kid, I needed to hear the truth so bad. I grew up in a situation where it felt like an emergency all the time. My father had alcoholism. My mom struggled with — I don't know what to name it, but there was a huge amount of chaos and turbulence, a huge amount of pain in that house. I was looking for something that felt like me, you know? Plus, I was adopted, and I think adoptees are inclined to do that anyway — to look for things in the world that reflect them."
On getting sober
"I didn't think a lot about getting sober. I got sober out of the blue. I was arrested for drunk driving opening night of a restaurant that I was a partner in. And on the floor of the jail cell, I left my body for probably a millisecond and looked down on myself and saw something pitiful. And it was that moment where the grace of God could enter. Grace, that unmerited gift, I received it. I saw my condition as hopeless, and in that moment of surrender, I became willing to ask for help. And it changed everything. It means more to me 24 years later than it did at the time. I look back on it now with reverence. What it showed me was that if I get out of the way and humble myself and ask for help, help will arrive."
On being adopted and her search to find her birth mother
"I was in the orphanage in New Orleans until I was almost a year old. I don't think I ever got held by my mama, so that was completely and utterly traumatic. I think it was trauma from the first breath, and I think I've spent my whole life trying to heal from that trauma. So it shaped my brain.
"I found someone who was also an adoptee from [my orphanage] and she's a bit of a search angel who found my birth mother in less than a week. I figured I had a month or two at least, but she called me a week later and she said, 'You got a pen?'
"I did call her. She didn't respond well. There's not been a reunion. She won't tell me the circumstances. I do know this: She wasn't married, it was the Deep South. It was 61. Back then, that was the most shameful thing that could happen to a woman."
On how speaking to her birth mother changed her
"I felt a tremendous amount of empathy for her. Until I had that 10-minute conversation, I thought I was the only one traumatized. The only way I had the courage to make that phone call, the only way I could do it, was to make it not be about me. I had to get in my head, 'I'm calling this woman to thank her. And I'm thanking her for bringing me into this world, because I want to be here.' Once I got to that, then I could dial the number. I couldn't get to it. It took six months to call the number once I got it. I didn't understand that she was utterly traumatized, too."
TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The titles of Mary Gauthier's songs give a sense of what her life has been like. "Drag Queens And Limousines" is about the people who became her people after she ran away from home. "I Drink" is about the period in her life when she did. She was in and out of jail and rehab before she was old enough to vote. Her album "The Foundling" is all about being an adopted child, her search for her birth mother and the rejection she was met with when she found her. Gauthier's new album, "Trouble And Love," is about a relationship that went bad. She didn't start writing songs until she was in her 30s. Her first career was as a chef and partner in a restaurant in Boston. She grew up in Baton Rouge. And Louisiana is in her cooking, as well as her music. Mary Gauthier came to our studio with her guitar to perform some songs. But let's start with a track from her new album "Trouble And Love." This is her song "When A Woman Goes Cold."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN A WOMAN GOES COLD")
MARY GAUTHIER: (Singing) She didn't get mad. She didn't even cry. She lit a cigarette, and she said goodbye. I must have missed a sign. I missed a turn somewhere. I looked in her eyes, there was a stranger there. It's the way she's made, it's a natural fact. Once she's really gone, she can't come back. Ain't no wedding dress, ain't no band of gold. Going to keep her there, when a woman goes cold. You're no longer concerned. Scorched earth can not burn. It's out of your control, when a woman goes cold. She won't give an inch, she won't be convinced. Ain't no mercy in her soul, when a woman goes cold.
GROSS: Mary Gauthier, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your music, it's a pleasure to have you here.
GAUTHIER: Oh, the pleasure's mine. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: So this album seems to be a very personal album, very autobiographical about one particular relationship. And it seems like a kind of odd place to start an interview, but what was so life-changing about this relationship gone bad that we have a whole album of songs about it?
GAUTHIER: Well, I think that this is the one where Mary finally gets the lesson.
GROSS: (Laughing) What's the lesson?
GAUTHIER: I think the lesson is that romantic love will not save me, that hanging my desire for a family and connection on romantic love has not been a successful strategy for me. And I finally get it, that connection is something much deeper and broader than the material that most pop songs are made of. You know, popular radio's about the first six months of love, right? Or the first 90 days. So - and I just long for real and true connection. It's been the theme of all my songs and my whole life.
GROSS: You said you realize that romantic love is not what's going to save you. Do you need saving?
GAUTHIER: Oh, yeah, I think I do. I think I need connection. I think you need connection. And there's a feeling of being safe when I'm connected, you know. I experienced early childhood trauma and so there was a disconnect. And so I feel like I've been running around most of my life with a plug, trying to find the socket to plug it into. And I'm tired now (laughing). I'm going to do it differently.
GROSS: Which means what?
GAUTHIER: I have de-romanticized romantic love. I've...
GAUTHIER: I think it's that simple and that complicated.
GROSS: You didn't start writing songs until you were in your mid 30s. And that was after you got sober, after giving up hard drugs and alcohol. You'd been working as a chef before you were a songwriter. How did you start gravitating toward music, and what did music mean to you before you started writing music yourself?
GAUTHIER: Yeah, music and books, I think, were the two things I trusted the most as a child. And I leaned into music really young. Radio used to be good, you know, I'd lay in bed and those songs spoke to my soul. There was just such a connection between me and so many of those songs on the radio back then. So songs, and especially lyrics, have always been really important to me. I feel like I heard truth there. And as a kid, and as an adult, but especially as a kid, I needed to hear the truth so bad. You know, I grew up in a situation where it felt like an emergency all the time.
GAUTHIER: My father had alcoholism. My mom struggled with - I don't know what to name it, but there was a huge amount of chaos and turbulence. A huge amount of pain in that house. And so I was looking for something that felt like me, you know? Plus, I was adopted, and I think that adoptees are inclined to do that anyway.
GROSS: To do what?
GAUTHIER: To look for things in the world that reflect them back to themselves.
GROSS: So writing songs did that for you?
GAUTHIER: That's, I think, one of its higher functions for me, yes.
GROSS: One of your early songs, and which is also one of your best known songs, it's called "Drag Queens In Limousines." And it tells the story of how you ended up leaving home when you were a teenager. And I'd like you to perform some of that song for us and then we'll talk about the circumstances in your life that led to the song.
GAUTHIER: OK, sure will.
GAUTHIER: (Singing) I hated high school, I prayed it would end. The jocks and their girls, it was their world, I didn't fit in. Mama said baby, that's the best school money can buy. You be strong, hold your head up, please Mary try. So I stole mama's car on a Sunday, left home for good. Moved in with my friends in the city, in a bad neighborhood. Charles was a dancer, he loved the ballet. And Kimmy sold pot, she read Kerouac and Hemingway. And drag queens in limousines, nuns in blue jeans, dreamers with big dreams all took me in.
GROSS: Thank you for playing that. That's our guest Mary Gauthier, performing in our studio, singing her song "Drag Queens In Limousines," one of her first songs. So that song is based on your life. And, you know, part of that song, it takes a surprising turn. Your mother is giving you this advice. She's saying (reading), baby, it's the best school money can buy. Be strong, hold your head up, please, Mary, try.
And at that point I'm thinking, she's praising her mother for her mother's wisdom and advice. But right after that, (laughing) you say (reading), I stole mama's car on a Sunday and left home for good.
(Laughing) So did you steal your mother's car?
GAUTHIER: Yeah, I did. I did, and I drove myself to rehab.
GROSS: Oh, is that where you went?
GROSS: So she got her car back?
GAUTHIER: Yeah, I didn't want the car. I wanted out of the house. I drove myself to the Adolescent Chemical Dependency Unit in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
GROSS: You ended up going to Kansas for a while?
GAUTHIER: Yeah, they put me in a halfway house in Salina, Kansas.
GROSS: Oh, they moved you there?
GAUTHIER: From the rehab, yeah. They didn't send me home. They told me that I had a better chance in the world if I went to a halfway house. So I went to the halfway house, stayed there about a year; left, went back home; ran away from home again, back to the rehab, back to the halfway house. And then I got thrown out of the halfway house. And I was driving cars through a car wash as a job. And I was stealing quarters and nickels and dimes out of the - wherever they were falling around in the car. And then it gravitated up towards - I was stealing 8-tracks - 8-track tapes. And somebody missed one of their 8-tracks, and I got arrested for that. I spent the night in jail. But that was my 18th birthday. Yeah, I spent my 18th birthday in the Salina, Kansas, jail cell.
GROSS: So did drag queens and limousines and nuns in blue jeans take you in?
GAUTHIER: They did. They did. Drag queens - it's such a strange story, but drag queens taught me how to cook and how to dress. I was wearing, you know, black shirts and purple socks. And I just didn't have it together. I wasn't - I wasn't able to figure out how I wanted to look, or how to - I knew that I was androgynous, but I didn't know how to play that out in a clothing selection (laughing). And so I don't know. I remember drag queens showing me how to send a drink down to a girl down the bar...
GAUTHIER: ...And smile and wave. I didn't know that's how it was done, you know. It was, you know - it was like a surreal and yet beautiful childhood really. I was a kid, you know?
GROSS: So at what point did you know you were gay?
GAUTHIER: Always. Yeah, it makes coming out easy.
GROSS: So you were always out. Did your parents know?
GAUTHIER: I told them, yeah. Well, I told them when I was 17, something like that.
GROSS: Their reaction?
GAUTHIER: It wasn't - it was the best they could do. I think it was more or less the message was, we love you, but we don't love this. We can't love everything you do, but we love you. And so the distinction wasn't lost on me, that being gay is not something you do. It's who you are. And so it felt like not-love to me. And it's come a long way since then. I don't want to leave it there 'cause it sounds so sad. Their positions have evolved, as have many peoples'. But it took a while (laughing). It took quite a while.
GROSS: Yeah, well, it reminds me of a line at the end of "Drag Queens And Limousines" that you have - sometimes you have to do what you have to do and pray that the people you love will catch up with you.
GAUTHIER: Yeah, I love that line. That may be the favorite line of any line I've written. And on a good night, people will get it and stand up and give a big applause and ovation right there in the middle of the song because I'm not the only one who's had to make decisions based on taking care of myself, and hoping that the people I love are going to be on board - but not waiting for their approval because I couldn't.
GROSS: You know, another thing - like, you immersed yourself in music and books. Did your parents relate to that? Did they understand that part of it?
GAUTHIER: No, not a bit. No.
GROSS: I want you to play another song for us.
GROSS: This is another of your early songs and another well-known song from yours, and it's called "I Drink." Do you want to say a little bit about writing it before we hear it?
GAUTHIER: Yeah. This is a song that I wrote, I think I was about five years sober, maybe four years sober. And I could have never written this if I didn't get sober. And I took it from something I heard somebody say. Somebody said, look, fish swim, birds fly, drunks drink. And if you're uncomfortable not drinking, that's natural. It'd be like asking a fish not to swim or a bird not to fly. And I knew that there was something in there. And I turned it into this.
GAUTHIER: (Singing) Well, he'd get home at 5:30, fix his drink and sit down in his chair, pick a fight with mama, complain about us kids getting in his hair. At night, he'd sit alone and smoke. I'd see his frown behind his lighter's flame. Now that same frown's in my mirror. I've got my daddy's blood inside my veins. Fish swim. Birds fly. Daddies yell. Mamas cry. Old men sit and think. I drink.
GROSS: That's Mary Gauthier performing for us one of her early songs called, "I Drink." And, you know, it's a really good song. And the song defines drinking almost as like an existential condition, you know. And so did you think before you got sober, that you would be capable of it?
GAUTHIER: Of getting sober?
GAUTHIER: I didn't think a lot about getting sober. I got sober out of the blue. I was arrested for drunk driving opening night of a restaurant that I was a partner in. And on the floor of the jail cell, I left my body for probably a millisecond and looked down on myself and saw something pitiful. And it was that moment where the grace of God could enter - grace - that unmerited gift. I received it. I saw my condition as hopeless. And in that moment of surrender, I became willing to ask for help, and it changed everything. It changed everything. I wasn't asking for help prior to that, I didn't think I needed help.
GROSS: You checked into rehab several times, but that was just to get away?
GAUTHIER: Yeah. It was looking for something other than what they were offering. I wasn't trying to get sober.
GROSS: Can I ask how that moment of grace changed your spiritual life?
GAUTHIER: Well, it taught me - I mean, it didn't happen in a burning bush kind of way. There wasn't like tears and born again. It means more to me, actually, 24 years later than it did at the time. I look back at it now with reverence. But what it showed me was if I get out of the way and humble myself and ask for help, help will arrive. And it showed me that there is such a thing as grace and flow, and if I can let my ego down and get humble, people will help me. There are good, kind people with the ability to help. And I needed help.
GROSS: So when you got sober, you had been a partner in a restaurant? Did cooking and having a restaurant, feeding people, give you the kind of community that you were looking for?
GAUTHIER: It came real close, Terry. It was real close. And the people ask me this question a lot and I always answer it with the same answer - it's not a canned answer though, it's the truth. Playing music and cooking for people are two very tangible ways of showing love. And so you can tell the difference when you go to a restaurant - if there's love in the kitchen, the food comes out better. And I tried to infuse my food with love and always looking to connect.
GROSS: And this was right near the Berklee College of Music in Boston?
GAUTHIER: Exactly, which was just perfect.
GROSS: Because there were musicians all around?
GAUTHIER: Exactly. It showed me...
GROSS: Feeding musicians - nice.
GAUTHIER: Yeah, exactly. It showed me that it was possible to be a musician. I wanted to write songs but I didn't know how - I thought it was done by professionals and I didn't know how you became one. And one of my waitresses brought me to an open mic at Club Passim in Harvard Square and she played two original songs with the whole night of people like her - songwriters just getting started - playing two original songs. And the minute I saw her up there, I realized this is what I want to do. This is what I want to do.
GROSS: Would you plan us an excerpt of one of your very earliest songs?
GAUTHIER: I sure will.
GROSS: And introduce it for us.
GAUTHIER: Yeah, this one I wrote in the early '90s. I was in early recovery, went to a lot of places where people in early recovery go to. And the rooms were ravaged with people with the virus. AIDS was wiping out tens of thousands of gay men at that time. And a lot of them were getting sober, and a lot of them were my friends and very close to me. And I knew I wanted to write something about that and try to tell that story in a way that people could understand it. And so that's where this came from, and this is one of the first songs I ever played at that open mic.
GROSS: What's it called?
GAUTHIER: It's called "Goddamn HIV."
(Singing) My name is Michael Joe Alexandre, I've been a queer since the day I was born. And my family, they don't say much to me, my heart knows their silence has scorn. And my friends have been dying, my best friends are dead. I walk around these days with their picture in my head. I spent time thinking 'bout things they said, and I don't know what's happening to me, Goddamn HIV. And I don't know what all of this means, but I don't think it means what it seems.
GROSS: That's really something for an early song. I mean, you certainly took on a really difficult subject to express in a song and did such a good job with it. It's interesting, so many of your songs are autobiographical and that's a character song. That's from someone else's point of view.
GAUTHIER: In a way.
GROSS: Well, you're using another name as cover.
GAUTHIER: Yeah, I'm in there. I know that alienation. I know that feeling of being twice removed and, once again, running around trying to plug-in and not knowing where the plug is. So I'm definitely in there. And the line that just kills me to this day is, I don't think it means what it seems. Because back then, there were billboards in Louisiana that said that AIDS is God's curse on homosexuals.
GAUTHIER: Billboards sponsored by churches.
GROSS: Wow, I haven't seen anything like that.
GAUTHIER: Yeah, I saw one driving from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and that's what started this song, actually. That was the inspiration for the song.
GROSS: So when you were starting to write songs - and you were in your 30s at the time...
GAUTHIER: That's right, mid-30s, yeah.
GROSS: ...Which is really pretty late to start.
GAUTHIER: It's crazy late for the music business.
GROSS: Yeah. What's an example - maybe you could play us an example of a song that had moved you a lot - that spoke to you earlier in your life and that you wanted to do the same kind of thing in your songs.
GAUTHIER: Great, that's a great question. And for me, the answer's always John Prine and it's always "Sam Stone." "Sam Stone" is John's song about a vet coming back from Vietnam and getting utterly lost. That's song - I used played it at a bar drunk in the parking lot when the bikers were all vets coming home.
And I remember a 300-pound biker named Grizzly. He used to say, play it again, Mary. Play it again, Mary. And it would get all the bikers out there. They just wanted to hear "Sam Stone" over and over and over again.
GROSS: So you used to perform in the bar's parking lot for people?
GAUTHIER: In the parking lot, yeah. It wasn't really performing. It's like passing the guitar around. And they wanted to hear "Sam Stone." And it showed me - John showed me the power of song. I mean, those guys were big and bad and they were wearing leather. And they had these loud machines and they had chains and they had been to the war and they were damaged. And that song could make them cry.
GROSS: Play it for us.
GAUTHIER: Yeah, let's see if I remember. Gosh.
(Singing) Sam Stone came home, to his wife and family after serving in the conflict overseas. And the time that he served, had shattered all his nerves, and left a little shrapnel in his knee.
But the morphine eased the pain, and the grass grew 'round his brain, it eased his mind in the hours that he chose. While his kids ran around wearing other peoples' clothes. There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes, Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose. Little pitchers have big ears, don't stop to count the years, sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.
GROSS: One of the things that's profoundly influenced your life and your songs is the fact that you were adopted. And how old were you when you found that out?
GAUTHIER: I always knew I was adopted.
GROSS: How'd your parents tell you?
GAUTHIER: I don't remember. They told me when I was a baby.
GROSS: And why do you consider that like basic to your identity?
GAUTHIER: It's fundamental and it's shaped me - well, I was in the orphanage in Saint Vincent de Paul's on Magazine Street in New Orleans until I was almost a year old. I don't think I ever got held by my mama. I don't think I got any mirroring, and so that was completely and utterly traumatic. I think it was trauma from the first breath. And I think I've spent my whole life trying to heal from that trauma. And so it's shaped my brain. It was like getting hit with a plank. You know, first breath - plank. Maybe even before because, you know, in her womb she didn't want me. I wasn't wanted. I was a shame to her.
GROSS: Well, tell us something about your mother - your birth mother circumstances.
GAUTHIER: Well, I don't know. She won't tell me.
GROSS: You hired a detective to try to track her down 'cause you didn't know who she was.
GAUTHIER: Right, I found someone when I was in my mid-40s. A therapist said either you go find her or I won't be your therapist anymore. She said, it's time, Mary, it's time.
And so I found someone who was also an adoptee from Saint Vincent. And she's a bit of a search Angel who found my birth mother in like less than a week. I figured I had a month or two at least, but she called me a week later, she says, OK, you got a pen? And I was driving from New York and I was in the Bronx on the road. I was like, oh my God, you found her. I nearly had a heart attack. But I did call her. She didn't respond well. There's not been a reunion. She won't tell me the circumstances. I do know this - she wasn't married, it was the Deep South, it was '61. Back then, that was the most shameful thing that could happen to a woman. And they had an overabundance of babies in this orphanage. There were too many unmarried women having babies - there weren't enough families to adopt them back then.
GROSS: And that's what you know?
GAUTHIER: I know that because I went back to there - to Saint Vincent's, and there's pictures on the wall of the orphans. It's a guest house now.
GROSS: You have a whole album of songs that relate to being adopted - that are dedicated both to children who were adopted, parents who've given up their children for adoption and parents who've adopted children. So I'm going to ask you to sing one of the - to perform, for us, one of the songs from the album, and it's called "Goodbye." Would you like to say something about writing it before you play it for us?
GAUTHIER: Yeah, this one is a bit of a Merle Haggard inspired - I've got a cowboy thing, and I do have that old outlaw romanticizing the road thing - that leaving is good thing. And this song romanticizes it in a way. It turns into a sort of upbeat, melodic thing, but we could talk after. I don't really feel that way. This is kind of a conundrum.
Anyway, it's called "Goodbye Could Have Been My Family Name." (Singing) Born a bastard child in New Orleans to a woman I've never seen. I don't know if she ever held me. All I know is she let go of me. And I pass through like thunder. I pass through like rain - passed out from under. Goodbye could have been my family name. And every time I settle down it happens. I get a restless feeling I can't control. I hit the wall, and I hit the highway. I got the curse of the Gypsy on my soul. So I move through like thunder. I move through like rain, moving out from under. Goodbye could have been my family name.
GROSS: There's a line in that song that you just played for us that I particularly like. In talking about your mother you say, I don't know if she ever held me. All I know is that she let go of me. Meeting - you didn't meet her, you spoke briefly on the phone with your birth mother.
GROSS: How did that change things for you? Did you feel any empathy for her?
GAUTHIER: I did. I felt a tremendous amount of empathy for her. Until I had that, you know, 10-minute conversation, I thought I was the only one traumatized. But, you know, the only way I had the courage enough to make that phone call - it's the only way I could do it, was to make it not be about me. Like, I had to get in my head, I'm calling this woman to thank her. And I'm thanking her for bringing me into this world 'cause I want to be here. Once I got to that, then I could dial the number. I couldn't get to it - it took six months to call that number once I got it. Once I finally landed on this - oh, I know how I can do it. I have to thank her, and I have to let her know I'm glad to be here. Then I could call her. But I didn't understand that she was utterly traumatized to.
GROSS: Why do you think she didn't want to start a relationship or even have a lengthier phone call?
GAUTHIER: It's too painful for her. And I think it's because she lied, as did, probably millions of women back then. They were no longer marketable after they had a baby out of wedlock. And so it had to be a secret. There's books - the girls who went away. There's books and books and books about this. And she did marry a man and he had two children from a previous marriage. She raised the children.
GROSS: Was that man your father?
GAUTHIER: Not my father. She will not - we can't go there. She just will not.
GROSS: I see.
GAUTHIER: And I'm not going to push her. I made a decision not to push her. Let her - just let it go. He - she never told him about me. She never told anybody about me. That's why she can't let me back in. He's dead now. The kids are grown. I figured, what the hell?
GROSS: Her husband, or...
GAUTHIER: Yeah. What the hell? That's me. Let's have a cup of coffee, you know?
GROSS: Did you send her a copy of the album?
GAUTHIER: No, no, no 'cause when I called I said - I'd asked the private detective - well, she wasn't really a private detective. She was a search angel. I asked the search Angel to call her, let her know that I was looking for her, give her my name, give her my website, give her my number. Six months went by - nothing. So I had to make the move, and when I called her I said this is Mary Gauthier, and she said, who? So she didn't even know. She hadn't done any of it. And she wasn't able to. You know, I just said, March 11, '62. Does that ring a bell? And then she started crying. But I think that it was important for me to know that she can't. It's a can't more than a won't.
GROSS: There's another song I want to play, and this one, I'm not going to ask you to play it. I'm going to play it from the album because I like the whole mood on this track and the way the musicians contribute to the mood. And it's one of your songs - it's called "I Walk Through Fire" - or "Walk Through Fire." And I think it has a lot to do with what you were just talking about - about that - you know, about the need for connection. About - earlier you said you always felt like a plug that needed a socket to plug into.
GAUTHIER: For most of my life, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, and it's also about, like, the difference of - between being alone and feeling some connection. So let's hear some of this song. Do you want to say about the circumstances behind writing it?
GAUTHIER: Yeah, I wrote this right after 9/11. That's where the fire imagery came from.
GROSS: Oh. So this is Mary Gauthier, "Walk Through Fire."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK THROUGH FIRE")
GAUTHIER: (Singing) In the darkness it finds me - the terrible fire. It don't matter how much I pray. The flames leap and burn me. There's nothing I can do to make the fear go away. So I try to keep moving, try not to look back. I push really hard on the stone. I walk through the fire alone. The tree by my window turns gray in November. I watch the leaves as they fall. The branches left naked, they reach up so proudly. Oh, I wish to God you would call. But me, I'm the dead one. You're the lover who loved me right down to my bones. Now I walk through the fire alone.
GROSS: That's Mary Gauthier singing "Walk Through Fire" from her album, "Filth And Fire." And you know, you said that the fire imagery came from 9/11. Not knowing that, hearing the song - you know, when I heard the song before you told me that, and I assumed that it was more almost like biblical imagery - imagery from growing up Catholic, going to Catholic school, going to church. Was there any of that in there, too?
GAUTHIER: Yeah. Fire is a powerful metaphor. It connects with all of that. It's just the burn, and the lucky ones come from the burn like a Phoenix and have new wings and a new soul. It's burning off the layers that have to go - that are holding you down. And when I wrote that song, I had no idea I'd be sitting here today with my feet on the ground, feeling the resonance of my own voice in my chest, being home inside myself. I didn't know if I'd ever find that. That was the nature of that song.
GROSS: You recently performed at the Opry...
GAUTHIER: I did, yeah.
GROSS: The Grand Ole Opry - your first time? Your second time?
GAUTHIER: Well, Marty Stuart brought me to the Opry years and years ago when we were - George Bush was president. I'd written a song called "Mercy Now." It had an antiwar sentiment. We were building up. We could - you know, everybody could see this is where we were headed. And Marty wanted to make a statement, and he brought me on as his guest during his set. And he told the audience, listen to this girl, I love this song. So that was my first time on the Opry. This last time, a couple weeks ago, the Opry itself invited me on to do my own set which was really exciting for me.
GROSS: What did you sing?
GAUTHIER: I sang "Mercy Now" again, and the meaning has changed so much now. Now we're looking at a situation that's so different now in Iraq with its collapsing. And it's just a whole other conversation, but the meaning is different than when I played it when we were building up to a war. And I played "Another Train" from the "Trouble And Love" record.
GROSS: Maybe that would be a nice way to end - with some of the song that ends your new album, "Another Train." Do you want to sing some of that? Introduce it for us.
GAUTHIER: Yeah, sure. This is the hopeful song that I end the record with. The idea behind it is that there's been a loss. Grief is necessary because I do have a heart, and the sorrow is a blessing because it's transformative. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, and when you get towards the end of it, start looking at train stations because sooner or later there'll be another train. Love will come back. But not idealized, romantic love as a savior. Something far deeper and much more meaningful. That's what I'm trying to say. So (Singing) I got me an apartment on the East side - 1411 13th Street. I walk on the tracks by it the Cumberland River over the bridge past Lovers' Leap. I'm moving on through the pain, through the pain. Waiting on another train, another train. I tore a hole in the pocket of the jacket you bought me in that thrift store in Camden town. Behind the station, you wrapped your arms around me. You built me up. You tore me down. But I'm moving on through the pain, through the pain. Waiting on another train, another train. There'll be another train.
GROSS: Mary Gauthier, it's just been great to talk with you, and I'm so glad you performed for us. Thank you so much.
GAUTHIER: It's a pleasure to be here with you, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: The song Mary Gauthier just performed is on her new album, "Trouble And Love." Her name, by the way, is spelled G-A-U-T-H-I-E-R. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.