Veteran Songwriter: Mary Gauthier partners with soldiers to tell their stories on Rifles & Rosary Beads

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 7

Having grown up in the 1960s and 1970s, Mary Gauthier is of age to remember when soldiers returning from Vietnam were spit upon, cursed at, and called baby-killers. Thankfully, times have changed, but by how much, she wonders. Certainly, they deploy to ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers,” and return to rounds of applause, thank-you’s, and heartwarming videos of military parents surprising unsuspecting children and family members. But then what?

Photo by Laura Partain

“We’ve come a long way, and we’re still stuck in a lot of ways,” she says. “We’re quick to pay lip service to our soldiers — ‘Thank you for your service’ — but what’s the follow-up sentence after that? ‘Sorry you’re wounded for life in a war I’m not sure why we went, and we’re still there, and I’m not sure why we’re still there’? What’s the follow-up to ‘Thank you for your service’? That’s where we sit with these songs and these soldiers.”

“These songs” are the eleven tracks on Rifles & Rosary Beads, Gauthier’s tenth album, cowritten with and for wounded veterans and their families. The project is the creative result of her involvement with SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a two-day retreat founded by Darden Smith. Fifteen combat veterans and four professional songwriters attend a retreat and collaborate, beginning with often painful conversations during which veterans share their stories, and culminating in a performance by the songwriters where the veterans hear their own words set to music. The entire experience is intimate, therapeutic, and revelatory; for Gauthier, it was educational on many levels.

Gauthier is no stranger to intimate songwriting. Her catalog is based on digging deep into human emotions and pouring them out in audio form. When she became a singer/songwriter in her mid-30s, she had a lifetime’s worth of experiences — many of them difficult, many of them universal — to draw from. Once her music was released, her audience grew rapidly, and the awards and accolades began rolling in. Her songs have been covered by artists in all genres and have been featured in television programs and films worldwide. Her music is a gift to those who discover it, and her hope is that all will discover Rifles & Rosary Beads, not because it’s a Mary Gauthier album — at least in name — but because of the important stories it tells.

When she spoke to Guitar Girl Magazine, she had recently attended Springsteen on Broadway. “My god, what a show!” she offered about one of her musical heroes. By this time, she had done countless interviews about Rifles & Rosary Beads, but rather than feel talked out, she instead appreciates every opportunity to shine light on the project.

“I could talk about this forever because it’s not about me,” she says. “I get to talk about the process of using songs for a higher purpose, I get to talk about our veterans, and I get to talk about things that really matter, other than my most recent failure in love. It’s not a breakup record, it’s not self-written, and so I have a huge amount of talk left in me for this. I’m still trying to understand the magic of what it is that songs have in them that makes it possible for people to experience such feelings in such a short period of time, just because of a song. So the answer is no, I’ve got a long way to go before I’m talked out on this one.”

You’ve been involved with SongwritingWith:Soldiers for five years. Why make an album now?
I don’t know. The timing rested on the availability of my producer, on my availability, on being able to get the studio that I needed, and I had to make sure that I was the right person to put these songs out in the world. There’s a lot of people writing these songs through SongwritingWith:Soldiers, and I needed to be sure that I was the right person and that it wasn’t something that was preempting anybody. I needed to get the blessing of everybody in the organization. And that just all took time.

Mary Gauthier and Josh Geartz

You admit to going into your first retreat harboring stereotypes about the veterans and fear about how they might stereotype you. Is it fair to say that the shoe was on the other foot?
Very much so. The education was mine and still is. I didn’t think I would have anything in common with people who signed up for the military voluntarily. I didn’t think I’d have even a way to talk to them. My assumptions were that they would take one look at me and go, “Oh, god, no,” because I look like what I am, which is a liberal leftist homosexual. I thought they would judge me, and in that assumption, I, of course, was judging them, and I was wrong. I was stereotyping them and putting them into a box where they do not belong. I’ve never been more warmly received than by the veterans and their families — every single one of them. I feel like I have a whole new family of people through this work, and I’ve not once encountered the stereotype. Not once. The stereotype I had was ultra-conservative, right-wing, NRA-loving, gun-loving, homophobic jerks. That’s just not who they are. It’s a sad, sad thing that that’s what I thought. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

You’ve been holding songwriting workshops around the world for almost ten years. How is this experience — writing from a story someone tells you — different?
I teach songwriting a lot, but here, we’re not teaching them to write songs. What we’re doing in this organization is listening to their story and turning it into a song. Our job is to midwife their story into a song and then sing it back to them so that they can see their story in a new way. It’s a powerful process. It’s a process that helped heal me as I worked through my life story in song, and I watch it work it’s magic on the veterans as well. Hearing your own story sung back to you is profound. It puts you into an objective place. You can sit back and watch your story — one of trauma and sacrifice — in a way that’s affirming. It’s validating. Other people always come up and tell them that they feel the same way. It removes you from being isolated in your own head with your story and puts it into a context. It’s a miraculous thing.

Do you ever stop, even in your own writing, and say, “Too much information, too much soul-baring”?
No. I think I make a distinction between personal and deeply personal. There’s personal details in my story that don’t belong in a song, but if I go past the personal to the deeply personal, like past reading you my journal and putting a melody on it, but into the very human experience of my spirit and my heart, I will land in a place that the majority of people can relate to. It is the deeply personal that’s of interest. The simply personal is private. It’s like the details of your sex life — nobody really wants to know that. They want to know how you feel as you approach your beloved, and what is it that makes the magic of attraction so exciting, what is it that brings two humans together — all of the important, deeply personal things that are of interest, not the details of the coming together in the way that is unique to this couple. The universal is universal. That’s what I’m going for with the soldiers and in my own writing. When it gets too personal, I’ll go to metaphor or all of the devices that writers use to make it universal. So no, I don’t have that feeling, never. Good writing is about revealing what needs to be revealed and making universal the experience of the story.

As you said, this was a case of the teacher learning from the students. What did you learn from the veterans and their families both as a songwriter and personally?
What I’m learning every day as a human being, as an artist, and as a songwriter is just how much alike we all are, how everyone desperately wants to be seen, to be heard, and to be a part of a connection with other people. Everyone needs to be told they are worthy of love and that they are valuable. Everyone needs to know that someone has their back and that they’re not alone. This is what art and songs do. It’s what it’s done for me, and it’s what it’s doing for the vets. It’s the empathy that comes from a well-told story that constantly teaches me, “Wow, I’m singing this song [‘Iraq’] about this 24-year-old woman who signed up for the Army and was sexually harassed in the surge of Fallujah, and I’ve got an 80-year-old guy in Italy, who barely speaks English, crying because he relates.” It’s the universal nature of being human that the things that connect us are our fragility, our vulnerability, and our need for each other. That is what I’m always learning, and that is what I’m always reaching for in a song as well. This program, this process writing with the vets, has taught it to me on a really big level because I don’t make an appearance in these songs. These aren’t about me. I’ve never been a soldier, I’ve never been to the Middle East, I have no idea what it’s like to be in the military, and so I’m singing other people’s experiences, and I’ve watched the power of it in front of audiences all over the world.

The documentary shows the intimacy and immediacy of the songs when they are performed. How did you hold on to that while recording?
We recorded live, and the studio was my house. We figured the best way to record this was to cut it in my house. We took a recording studio and moved it over here, set up everything here. There was somebody in the bedroom, somebody in the living room, somebody in the dining room, the drummer was in the kitchen. That was the first thing. The second thing was we played each song three times, and that was it. We kept the best take so that it was live and we were in the moment with each other. There were no charts, no worked-out parts, and no thinking about it. We just did it. We were playing for each other. I didn’t give them the songs in advance. The band came in, I played the songs for them once on the acoustic guitar, everybody took their places, and we played with the machine on. It could be that the songs are simple, that’s one thing, but also because it’s Nashville, the musicians are capable of that because they’re so good. So, the immediacy was not recreated. It was natural. We really had it, and I think you can feel that in the record.

Which guitars did you use on the album?
I used my old Gibson J-45 1950 acoustic guitar, which is the one I am comfortable with. I had my old Martin next to me, but I never grabbed it. I really am a Gibson person. I used it on every song, and the band played along. I’ve had that guitar for six or seven years. I bought it at a guitar show here in Nashville after my last breakup. It was my breakup present to myself. It was, “I feel like sh*t, and I need to do something, so I need to write some songs, but first I need a new guitar.” So, my new guitar is an old guitar. I had a bunch of musicians come with me, and we picked out the best old Gibson. It was beat up and wonderful. I love this guitar. It just suits me. The low end sounds so good, and that’s where the heart lives. Those low notes make you feel it in your body, and I love that. I had Taylors all along because I had an endorsement deal, and Taylors sound great when you plug them in. They’re nice guitars live, but the Gibson — you’ve got to have an engineer that can work with it, because the bottom end is startling, and they want to pull it all out and try to make it sound like a Taylor. But I want a very, very deep bottom-end sound, and full circle back to your first question, this is what Bruce did in his show. He’s got Takamines, but the bottom end of those guitars … he played a lot of different guitars, but it was dialed in with really heavy bass, and it sounded so, so good. It was like the dream sound that every solo acoustic player wishes they could get, and he had it. Of course, he had it — he’s The Boss. They rewired the theater for it, but man, it’s the best sound I ever heard.

Your name is on the album and in the interviews. How do you make sure that you don’t overshadow the veterans’ stories by virtue of name recognition and your voice?
My job is to tell their stories, and I do that when I write with them, and they sign off on the stories. What I try to do in the interviews, in the media, and onstage is point to the process. Even more than the individual stories is the process — telling the truth in the song and letting yourself be seen is profound. Songs are much more than entertainment if we want them to be. They can be used for all kinds of things. Songs are powerful enough to be used to transform trauma. So, it’s the process itself that I’m drawing attention to, and how much it has been transformative for the veterans. So, their stories are the story, but underneath that is the process, and the process itself is of great interest to me. I think people know this. I’m just reminding them of what they know. People who love songs and songwriters know this. They know that there’s something there much more than just a song.

How do you keep this project from being forgotten when the media and the public move on to the next thing?
I think the songs live forever. Every night, we close the show with “This Land Is Your Land.” That was written in 1940. If the songs are good enough, and if I did my job as a songwriter, the songs will have a life of their own, and I’m just hoping that it happens. A songwriter can’t make that happen by jumping up and down and screaming, “Interview me!” It’s going to happen because the songs are being passed from person to person, so we’ll see. But it sure seems to me like people are interested in these songs, and I guess the important part of the process, the stories, are of interest to people. My records have always been a slow burn. The media cycle dies out in six months, but they keep coming. I’m still selling Mercy Now albums every single day, and I think every single day there’ll be someone new who discovers these veterans’ songs. It’s cumulative over time. Gillian Welch was once interviewed, and the interviewer was saying to her, “These songs that you’ve written are the best things I’ve ever heard, they’re incredible, they’re timeless, they’re ageless, they’re classics,” and she goes, “Well, thank you, but we won’t know that until 50 years from now, if they’re still around. Then you can say that with some certainty, but right now they’re just babies. Let’s see how they grow up.” I think I would defer to Gillian on this.

In an interview some years back, you said, “My heart is constantly aware of the fact that songs are what feelings sound like.” Have you ever lost that awareness? How do you hold on to it?
That’s a gift I’ve been given with these veterans’ stories. Since it’s not my story, I feel these songs in a way that’s just absolute empathy. When I sing “Soldiering On,” and I say, “You don’t fight for yourself, you fight for the ones by your side,” every time I get chill bumps, and I feel it. I’m not re-experiencing my own experience, but I’m feeling what it must be like to be over there with a rifle in your hand. You’re not fighting the enemy, and you’re not fighting for yourself. You’re fighting for your friends. I feel it, and so I don’t have to work hard to feel these. They’re there. The emotion is there, and I think well-written songs bring you there every time. That’s why “Hallelujah” keeps getting cut and sung. You can’t think about it — that doesn’t work. Either you feel it, or you don’t. If the songs I’m singing create the emotion, it’s not a thought at all. It just happens. It’s involuntary, actually. It happens on its own.

Looking ahead, you have a songwriting workshop this month which includes a Cajun meal cooked by you.
Bring twenty more people in, preach ’em the gospel, and make them some jambalaya, too.

And after that, what’s next?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure things will tell me. I’m writing some love songs right now, so we’ll see if it grows into something. I’ve never gone into a romantic love-song phase at all. I’ve always written about the end of love or the longing for love. So, I’m trying to write in that arena right now, and let’s see how I do. It’s certainly not something I ever imagined I was capable of, but I’m trying, so we’ll see. That’s where I’m being directed right now, but who knows. I’m not in charge, but I do feel guided, so whoever’s in charge will guide me to the next thing — and there’s always a next thing, as long as I stay sober and awake.

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