Mary Gauthier Songwriting Tips, Serving Others is The First
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: Mary, give us a little bit of a background on how you came to music. I know that you are a foodie and a restaurateur before you started doing your music career. Can you talk a little bit about how that transition occurred and what brought you into finding this voice of yours that is so extraordinary.
Mary: Well it’s a strange thing. I was in the restaurant business, I had partial ownership of a couple of restaurants, and I got arrested for drunk driving. And I had struggled with drugs and alcohol my whole life. This drunk driving arrest just put it over the top for me and I ended up getting sober. And, early on into my sobriety, I started wanting to be a songwriter. I had always wanted to write songs but I never really had the courage or the belief that I was capable. I just didn’t have enough presence. I was just too drunk basically. And too insecure. And so as I started down the road to recovery I found myself more and more sitting at a desk with a guitar trying to write songs and, oddly, I had a restaurant right next door to Berkelee College of Music. So most of my employees, and a vast number of my customers, were all musicians and writers. So I was surrounded at music central just accidentally. I didn’t mean to do that. It just happened that way. And so I found out there’s open mics where you go play songs that you wrote and the snowball started rolling down the mountain a couple years into my sobriety.
Viv: That’s an amazing story. That’s one that when, we were just talking about this in previous call, about how sometimes our weakness can actually be our saving grace. Or not even weakness but something that’s taking us down a wrong path or a debilitating action can actually turn out to be our greatest advocate.
Viv: Talk to us about finding your voice. Where do you recommend a singer songwriter start? Or any artist really?
Mary: Well I teach and I’ve been teaching more and more lately. I always like to get the students to read a book called “If You Want to Write” by a writer named Brenda Ueland. And she wrote this book, it was published in 1938, but every bit of it is as relevant and true today as it was in 1938, maybe even more so. Because she talks about creating an environment for yourself where you create for the beauty of it and for the joy of it and for the service of it. She talks about coming at your work, be it songwriting or painting or whatever, writing a novel, writing short story essays, as a form of service. And looking at it as an opportunity to serve those around you. And I think that that’s just a really, really beautiful way of coming into your own voice instead of coming into it from a place of self and ego, you come into it from a humble place of service and find it through trying to help other people. And so I love the book and so I always start there with the students and I want them to read it and then read it again. And use a highlighter and really mark it up and make it your own and when something reaches out and really speaks to you, underline it and highlight it and just turn that book into something that, the textbook for how to write songs, and study it like a textbook because I think it’s a very good way of finding the beginning. See, the hard part for writers, early on, and certainly for me is I didn’t know where the bullseye was. I didn’t know what I was aiming the darts at. It’s hard to know what you’re aiming for and so part of the struggle is to find the target. In the beginning of finding your own voice, which is of course the target, you have to go through a lot of imitations and a lot of things that aren’t you to find you. It’s kind of like growing up, coming out of adolescence into adulthood. You have to go through that as a writer as well. Grow through the things that aren’t you to become more of who you are as a writer.
Viv: That’s wonderful. Something I love watching in adolescents is the trying on of character and trying on persona really. And, I think as adults, we tend to draw back from that kind of thing and say, “Well I am who I am” and we put down that curiosity of testing new identities. Do you think that’s a good way of going about exploring songwriting?
Mary: I don’t know if you could do it any other way. When Bob Dylan first started writing he was doing the dead on impersonation of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Woody Guthrie. I think that ultimately we have to imitate our heroes and then find out who we are as unique voices. I think we always begin with what we know and we know our heroes. So I think that we have to work our way through that. And then of course you have to work your way through trying to sound good, and look good, and seem clever and you have to work your way through layers and layers and layers of things that aren’t authentic to get to your own authentic voice. And its a process and I don’t think it’s an event although there comes a point when you’re looking for your own unique voice that you write that first song that is uniquely your song that is in your voice and you know it when you’ve written it. You’re aware that you’ve done something that you hadn’t done before as a writer. Everyone who’s found it remembers the first song when they found it. You ask songwriters if you remember the first song you wrote in your voice inevitably, they’ll say yes, I know that song.
Viv: What song was it for you?
Mary: A song I wrote on my first record called, “God Damn HIV”.
Viv: And how did you know with that song?
Mary: I knew because no matter what criticism the song would take, I used to take my stuff to songwriting workshops and have teachers pick them apart, or have the class criticize it, or give me pointers on how to make it better, I knew that no matter what anybody said that I wasn’t going to change it. I knew it was right. Bob Dylan could have come up and said, “You need to change that rhyme” and I would have said, “I’m sorry Bob, I love you, but that is not going to change”. And I knew that it was right. And I knew that it said exactly what I wanted it to say, exactly how I wanted to say it. And I didn’t have any doubt about it. I knew I really, at the time, for sure, couldn’t play that well or sing that well, but I knew the song was written right. So I certainly still do take advice on how to play better and sing better but there’s certain song when they’re written right you just don’t touch them again. And you know it.