Trying hard now

“Without perspiration,” says singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier, “you just end up with goo.”

Gauthier (pronounced “go-shay”) is talking about writing lyrics, a process she has been known to agonize over. The Louisiana native, who is now based in Nashville, rewrites songs almost compulsively, reworking them as many times as she has to until she feels that every word is set into the verses exactly right. Gauthier will typically rewrite a song 50 times, but in certain cases has written more than 300 versions until deciding that it’s finished.

Hard-won beauty: For Mary Gauthier, songwriting is anything but easy.

“Inspiration,” she offers, “is 10 percent. Perspiration is 90 percent.” She says she feels “like a boat without a rudder” and “doesn’t know what she’s doing” when she is first receiving inspiration. The rest is all blood and sweat.

“Inspiration doesn’t write a song; it’s work that writes a song,” she insists bluntly, before laughing. “There are other people who write exactly the opposite—and I hate ‘em! Songs don’t shoot down from the sky and they’re done. For me, it’s really effortful.”

And that means that Gauthier will, on occasion, literally curl up clenched in a fetal position.

“When you know that there’s a way of saying something that’s perfect and you can’t get it. But you just know that it’s there. I just starting begging,” she says. “Whimpering! Like a dog for a bone. Just ‘Please, please!’ I really, really struggle with getting it exactly right. And I think that’s why I have a career. I don’t have a career because of my looks or my singing—or certainly not my guitar chops.”

Even throughout a tumultuous (and well-documented) personal history that includes several stints in jail and detox centers recovering from drug and alcohol abuse, Gauthier has always had an achievement-oriented and impressive work ethic. Naturally suited for multitasking, she says that alcoholism didn’t interfere with her ability to function as chef and restaurateur.

Music, however, which Gauthier hadn’t even ventured to try until her 40s, is a different story entirely. And, in spite of her ease with grueling work, the simultaneous struggle of maintaining sobriety while opening up to her creative muse (three years after getting sober) challenged her in ways she’d never experienced.

“With writing,” she explains, “I needed to come from a different place, a channel that was closed to me. My channel was closed when I was drinking. I didn’t have enough self-confidence or self-worth or discipline. The restaurant came easy to me. I could do that in my sleep. To do this well, it takes everything I have sober.”

Coming to town with her fifth album in tow, the Joe Henry-produced Between Daylight and Dark (Lost Highway, 2007), Gauthier continues to mine her past for narratives that fall in that irresistibly haunted landscape verging on country, Americana, roots and folk all at once—not unlike, say, a fresh take on Lucinda Williams’ now-classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Gauthier considers herself a folk artist more than anything else, and listeners may be surprised to find that, unlike her lyric writing, she takes a spontaneous approach to recording. She rehearses her backing musicians on the spot in the studio and keeps the number of takes to a minimum, which gives the music a crackling, raw edge.

And, as one might expect, solitude and heartbreak permeate the material.

“If you could sustain relationships, you wouldn’t be doing this job,” Gauthier says with a chuckle. “People who live like this have a difficulty in that department—just ask Willie!”

But don’t get the wrong idea. Though Gauthier says she’s hardly home enough to cling to the concept of domesticity—“I don’t even have a cactus, much less a dog”—she says her work doesn’t stem from unhappiness in her personal life.

“My music isn’t necessarily sad,” she asserts. “It’s real. I think we have a misunderstanding in our way of talking about songs. When someone gives you something real, automatically people use the word ‘sad.’ Sad is when everybody dies and there was never a reason to live. I don’t do that. I just try to present the real feel, which is my experience. It’s always ambivalence. There’s good and there’s bad and it’s always coming at us at the same time.”

[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]

who: Mary Gauthier, opening for Over The Rhine
what: Heartbreak-fueled folk
where: Orange Peel
when: Friday, May 30. 8 p.m. ($17. or 225-5851)

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