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Interview: Mary Gauthier opens up about the inspiration behind new album ‘Dark Enough To See The Stars’

We last spoke to Mary Gauthier in 2018 on the release of her previous album ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’. Recently, we enjoyed a catch-up to talk about her incredible new record, ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars’.

We learned where the songs came from and how the experience of the last few years has provided a perspective of what’s important in life. Though as the contrasting emotions evoked by the music attest, they have not been without painful experiences of grief too.

I spoke to Mary to discuss the inspiration for many of these new songs, and how her work connects on an individual level with so many people all over the world.

Hello Mary. The world has changed a lot since we last spoke. How have the last few years been for you?

I have no idea. It’s a blur! I’ve been very busy with keeping myself creating, and that keeps me going. I released that book [‘Saved by a Song‘], and I’ve done a Sunday show online every week during the pandemic. Then in that little window between Delta and Omicron we hit the road and we worked twelve festivals and over one hundred shows. There’s this new record, ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars’, that’s coming out. So I’ve got a bunch more shows and my work keeps me grounded.

Where did the concept for ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars’ come from?

That is a quote from a Dr. Martin Luther King speech. I just thought it’s so appropriate for where we are right now. Man, when things get as tough as they have been, it puts into focus what matters. And I think that’s what he was talking about in that speech: when the squeeze is on, you start to see things more clearly. And a lot of things that aren’t important fall away. What is important rises. What’s been made clear to me is what’s really important – it’s such a cliche, but it’s true! – is love and relationships and connection.

I took that from the title song. The lyric, “I’ve drifted so far out so far, it’s dark enough to see the stars” is being surrounded by darkness, but because of that you can see the light of hope. I thought that was such a powerful image.

And what also brought that song to life was losing people in the pandemic, not necessarily from COVID, although John Prine died of it. There were a lot of people that were close to me that passed away in the last two years. And what I realised working on that song was that they’re gone. But the love that I received from them is not gone. I still have that. And I can hold on to that and pull from that forever. That was given to me in a way that is eternal. And something about that I found so comforting when that realisation hit me.

It’s beautiful to remember them and celebrate the friendship and love that you shared. It is an album with a lot of optimism as well. In fact, the first three songs are all quite different in style, but they all celebrate the joy of life, don’t they?

Yes, the joy of life shared. The joy of life in the company of a beloved and in communion with another soul. If anything, all this isolation has made perfectly clear to me that I belong in communion with another soul. And it doesn’t have to be a lover, although in this instance, the songs are about that. We went to see Rickie Lee Jones last night when she played in Nashville. I’ve become friends with her. She’s put out her book and I put out my book at about the same time, so we found ourselves at book events together. As I was leaving the green room after the show last night, she looked at me and she did this thing [gestures] that means ‘friends’, and God, my heart just exploded like the Fourth of July! That meant, call me, let’s have a meal in New Orleans, let’s be friends. And I think that that’s happening a lot.

Yes, I think people have reconnected with what it means to appreciate time with people and do ordinary things as well. The song ‘Amsterdam’ gives a real feel for the city. Could you tell us a bit about where your love for Amsterdam came from?

Well, my first ever record deal was on a Dutch label, and that goes back to 1997. They approached me early on with a record I made called ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’. And they signed me and flew me to Europe. It was extraordinary for me: I was still in the restaurant business. And I was blown away that they wanted to work with me. And it became a really beautiful relationship for a lot of years until that label folded because of the logistics and math of the music business. But I would stay at the label owner’s house. And the Netherlands became like another home to me. So in the pandemic, when I had this crazy opportunity to spend a few days in Amsterdam at my favorite hotel with my favorite person… It was just like being set free! We’d walk in the streets and there was hardly a crowd. You could go to any restaurant because of the pandemic. It was just starting to have tourism return, but there wasn’t much. We were on our way to play a festival in Denmark when this strange thing happened. The flight got messed up. And we were going to have to overnight in Boston. And I was going early to the festival in Denmark because I used frequent flyer miles to upgrade. So I said, “Can you get us to Amsterdam instead, and we’ll just wait it out there?” And they said, “Yeah, we’ve got two seats on a plane that’s leaving in 90 minutes.” I’m like, “Let’s go!” It was just the most happy accident; unplanned, and so joyful.

It’s got to be done, hasn’t it? You have such a talent for capturing emotions. Songs like ‘How Could You be Gone’ and ‘Where are You Now’ are about funerals and grief. It must be cathartic to write those songs. Did that help with the grieving process?

I think so. Those songs were written in grief and in a state of shock. The story is that I hiked a trail near my house in Nashville with this woman for over 20 years. And it was quite hilly. And she was very, very fit. And I’d get off the road and just be in terrible shape. And she like, “Let’s go, we’re going to the Red Trail.” I’m like, “Oh, God, no, no!” And so up and down the trail we went. She just was my constant person. And it was such a strange way to die. She got bitten by a tick on the trail during the pandemic, because when people were coming towards her, she would go in the grass, because people weren’t wearing masks in Nashville. So she’d go to the grass, and one time she got bitten by a tick and she had a violent reaction to it, and she died. I’m still in shock. She was so much healthier than I’ll ever be, and stronger, and just a beautiful soul. So the song came from a state of shock when someone that you fully expect to outlive you dies before you.

What a terrible thing to happen. Other songs explore grief. The last one in particular I find so beautiful, ‘Till I See You Again’. It seems almost like a like a poem and a song and a prayer all in one.

I wrote that with Ben Glover from Belfast, Northern Ireland. And we worked on that for a really long time. But once we got word that John Prine died, that song came into focus. And yet, since a spirit like John’s… John didn’t die, there’s something about him that’s eternal. And so we want to capture that in a positive, uplifting way, but with deep respect. It’s saying, “I’m gonna see you again one day.” Let’s go with that. Let’s just believe it. I think it is a prayer.

Are you are going on tour so that we can hear you play this album live?

Yeah, we’ll be in the UK in November. We’re putting dates on the books now. And I’m hitting the road in the States starting in June. We have quite a few festivals, quite a few shows up in Canada and we’re going to be doing the world for probably two years. For me, it’s always a long record cycle and a slow climb. You know, I think this is my 10th record, I’ve lost count, but I kind of know how it goes. You just go out there and connect with people individually. And over time, it builds and connects to all the other things that I do. I’ve been given this great career. I’m very grateful for it. It’s not world fame and it’s not based on media hype or, or a social media fame. It’s ground level person-to-person over a lot of time. People are connected to it in a way that’s authentic, I think.

Very much so. Your songs and your music have been in my life for 22 years this year.

Wow, that’s beautiful. I’m honored. Yeah, we’re going through the life process together. I write about what’s going on at the time, and what’s going on inside me and what I’m discovering and what I’m learning and what the world is doing. And I put it into song and into a book and send it out there. People receive it or they don’t, but the ones that do – we connect. And it’s a gift that I get to do this. I don’t for one minute take it for granted. I know that I’m lucky.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing you perform in the UK. So my final question, because you were talking about hitting the road… The song ‘Truckers and Troubadours’: is there a similarity between what you do and what they do?

Yeah, a lot of similarity. I wrote that on Zoom with the truck driver, Long Haul Paul. That was right at the beginning of the shutdown. He was still doing runs and the only people on the highways in the States were the truck drivers. Rest stops were closed, and they didn’t have anywhere to eat. They were like heroes. Without them driving the goods there would have been no food anywhere. And so I said, “Let’s just hop on a Zoom and write about it.” And we realised there’s just so much overlap between the personality types that are gone for weeks at a time from their family, then they come home and they’re so happy to be home. And then within days, it’s like, “Gotta go again.”

You’re both something of a free spirit.

Yeah, but also a malcontent. Like you always want to be where you’re not!

I appreciate the chance to talk to you, Mary, and I wish you all the best with the album and the tour.

Thank you for being on the journey with me all these years. Take care.

Check out MaryGauthier.com for more details about her new album ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars’, and find tour dates near you. See our review of Mary Gauthier’s ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars’. Check out the single ‘Dark Enough to See the Stars’ below:

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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