Songwriting Tips: Mary Gauthier Digs Deep
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: Mary, tell us how to become a songwriter tell us about your process. Do you get up each day and invent your plan? That’s what you’re going to do each day?
Mary: No, I don’t. It’s a mystery. I don’t really understand it. I don’t have a process that’s predictable in any way. I think that anything I think I know changes daily. Generally I need an inspiration to write and I don’t walk around inspired all the time so when I have one I’ll chase it down and sit at the desk and try to write it for however long it takes and sometimes it takes months. Ultimately, having been on the road so much, I had to learn how to write on the road. And I try to carve out time to write the perspiration writing as well where I’m uninspired but I’m going to show up anyway. But I don’t do a lot of that because in my experience it hasn’t really been a source of good songs. Pushing myself in an uncomfortable way doesn’t seem to have a good payoff. If it paid off I’d do it. If there’s nothing happening I’m out of there, I’m going to go do something I enjoy and try it again the next day or next week. So I don’t push myself hard if I’m not inspired. But if I am inspired, I push myself incredibly hard, trying to execute that inspiration and trying to get that song right.
Viv: And what does that push look like?
Mary: Oh, sitting at a desk in a chair for fourteen hours a day for three or four days, five days in a row. Getting take out food or just doing the research. Oftentimes I have to do research. I’ve been working on some stuff about adoption and abandonment and I’ve read about fifteen or sixteen books about it to try to get an understanding so that I’m the one to write the songs. Painters have to get in their mind’s eye of the painting that they’re trying to paint so, in order for a painter to paint, a music writer has to go to shows and watch how people hold their instruments. So if I’m going to write about being an orphan, more than just having experience, I have to immerse myself in the language of it and so I do research. I’m a researcher. And I spend time at the library. I spend time on Amazon trying to find books. I listen to other people’s songs about it. And I try to soak it all in and hopefully it’ll add to what comes out in the end. It will. I have to put information in to get information out.
Viv: So you research the story. I know you’ve written songs that are based so much in your personal truth, but then there’s taking them out in the universal way, you do further research to broaden the topic, is that what you’re saying?
Mary: Yeah absolutely. I did a song about a hobo named “Steam Train Maury” Graham because I read his obituary in the paper and I wanted to know more about him. Several days of research went into being able to talk hobo. So I found websites where hobos talk to each other. I found the information about this gentleman’s life. I found a site that’s about their annual convention, or hobo gathering, and just looked at a lot of hobo words. And I went back into some of the old stuff by famous songwriters like Steinbeck/Woody Guthrie stuff that talks about hobos. I really tried to get myself saturated in the culture before I wrote the song.
Viv: And now, when you’re writing a song from that standpoint, and you’re still writing in your true voice, what does that feel like?
Mary: It feels like love. I have to fall in love with this guy. And I had to fall in love with the notion of hobos to write from that place of being passionate about it and being compassionate about it and so I just had to experience the love of it to be able to write it and, fortunately, that’s not hard for me to find things that I love and to write about them. I love this guy. I found a picture of him and I just thought, “My goodness, he looks exactly like you’d expect him to look. He looks like a hobo.” The more I read about him, the more I just love the guy. It comes from a passion and from a loving place and the unique voice that’s mine comes from I guess my love for these different people that I don’t even know. I wrote a song about a woman who was executed in Texas and I felt this love for her. I think that the listener hears that in the song.
Viv: Absolutely, this is something that I really think it’s an amazing thread that the connection between your true voice and that which you love.
Mary: Yeah, they are hand in hand. They hold hands. If you’re not holding hands with what you love and you’re lyric writing from a place that’s not that, I’m not sure how do you do that and stay true to who you are, I don’t know.
Viv: So writing about, this brings up, about something that you really couldn’t give a twist about, and yet you’re drawn to it or you’re paid to do it or something like that, it sounds like there’s a lot of staying true to your integrity, staying true to your personal core values…
Mary: That’s who I am as a writer. Now I live in Nashville and there’s about a hundred million people who aren’t like that at all and they make a ton of dough and they get cuts on the radio and they have a very high standard of living and it works for them. Before I moved there, I used to think those Nashville songwriters type guys were, I don’t know, lesser writers maybe. But yet, having been there for nine or ten years now and seeing how the craft is something that you get better at, and some of these are journeymen craftsmen, I respect that too. It’s just not the way that I got about it and it’s who I am as a writer and it’s not who I want to be as a writer. But yet I do respect that. It’s just a different type of writing and it’s not what I’m up to.
Viv: So let’s just sort of look at this again. Just sort of go back over it. The finding your voice is really also finding what your gift is to the world.
Mary: Yes, I think so, exactly.
Viv: And finding your voice, it’s like falling in love, it’s writing from your passions.
Viv: And it can be anything, really. It sounds like it doesn’t have to be from your personal life experience but it’s from whatever moves you, from the newspaper. Nanci Griffith I know reads social pages in the New York Times and she draws stories from and also from other newspapers. She reads a bunch of bunch of newspapers and she draws stories out of those. And it sounds like that’s because she gets intrigued by the character and falls in love with that character path. And that sounds like exactly what you do. So much of what you have brought to us has been drawn out of your personal life experience. Your honesty in your writing is just profound. Did you have any kind of process that you had to go through in order to find the courage to just let that stuff out and let it be known?
Mary: Yeah, I guess so. Although it’s my fate to be a truth teller. Because it’s my fate and destiny, it’s just something that I’ve always had to do. So it didn’t take as much courage as it would maybe for some other people who that’s not their destiny to do that. I’ve always been that kind of person. I guess I’m just well suited for this job. I have my theories as to why. I think it’s a reaction to the situation I was raised in and to the claustrophobia I felt as a child and to the lack of truth in my early environments. It just sent me like a flame shot to the truth as an adult. And a very short fuse for lies. Ultimately I think that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing and maybe it’s why I even in the spirit world picked that family to come through so I would be able to do this work. I don’t know, I mean that makes as much sense as anything. There’s no way to know, it’s just speculation. I’m not as afraid to tell the truth as I am afraid to not tell the truth. And so maybe that makes me well suited for the truth-telling folk singer that seems as though that’s my job description.