Although Mary Gauthier has written hundreds of songs over the past five years or so, none of them are her own in a way.
They’re all songs she wrote with wounded veterans, through SongwritingWith:Soldiers to help veterans tell their own stories and heal through music.
It’s a change for the singer/songwriter, who is known for soulful and reflective songs about her own life. Gauthier got into music later in life, after a childhood of abandonment and a rocky early adulthood. She turned to music to help work through those experiences and it’s something she’s helped many veterans to do in the last few years.
The first album released with SongwritingWith:Soldiers veterans is “Rifles & Rosary Beads.” It doesn’t paint a flowery picture of what life in the military is like, but it’s not really meant to.
From “Iraq,” which talks about sexual harassment in the military, to “Still on the ride,” which is about the death of a veterans best friend, the songs hit home with a lot of veterans.
She’ll be taking some of those songs, and a few others, to The Linda on Wednesday.
Here, Gauthier takes a few moments to talk about how she got started writing songs and what it’s been like to help tell the stories of so many veterans.
Q: How did you get started writing songs?
A: You want to go back that far, do ya? Well, I don’t have an easy answer for that. I got arrested for drunk driving in July 1990. It transformed everything in my life. I was in the restaurant business, I was a chef, I was a co-owner of a restaurant and I was drinking like crazy. The arrest was what I needed to get me sober. I have been sober since July 1990, which is a long damn time. I started writing songs a little bit after I got sober, around 93-94. My restaurant was next door to Berkeley College and most of my employees were either musicians or songwriters. They all went to school at Berkeley, either that or they were connected to the arts in some way, which is true of most restaurants. [They] either employ illegal immigrants or artists because that’s the only people that are going to work for what a restaurant pays, for the most part.
So I was surrounded by songwriters and next door to Berkeley, was in the environment of music. One of my waitresses brought me to an open mic. I watched her transform from a waitress who wasn’t a particularly great waitress to someone who was utterly charismatic and compelling and truly great on stage as a songwriter. I saw so much in her and it [was] like a light bulb screwed in. I’d always had a guitar, I’d played guitar as a kid. I even tried to write [songs] but because of addiction I never had the confidence to finish anything. But that night changed me. I got to see a goal: You write a song, you go to this open mic, you put your name in this hat and they call your name, and you go up there and play your song.
I’ve been doing it ever since. So I started there and I just kept going. Made eight or nine records and the record I’m on tour with now is songs that I co-wrote with wounded veterans. I guess the stories all come together in this way because I used songwriting and I went to it with such passion because I was clearly wounded myself. I wouldn’t have taken to it with such vengeance if I wasn’t struggling and proof that I was struggling was the handcuffs [and] jail, you know? I got into some very serious drug and alcohol abuse and I was not doing well. So I worked through a lot of that in my songs. I didn’t know that that was what I was doing. It wasn’t conscious, but it was what I was doing and it fueled the fire from me. So songs and songwriting I think helped save my life, it helped keep me sober because it gave me purpose.
When I was invited to work with the veterans about five years ago, I already had a deep understanding of what transformative power it could be. I loved so much what transpires when you pair up a songwriter and a wounded veteran. There’s a little miracle every single time and it fuels me [like] nothing else, it makes me so happy to see how art can transform the pain in a way that makes it a little more manageable for our veterans. I’m not saying it heals or fixes it but it takes some of the poison out because it allows them to articulate what’s going on so that people can see them and hear them and can say “Me too, my friend. I know how you feel.” That Me Too thing is huge.
Q: Where do you typically meet [with veterans]?
A: We go to retreats all over the country. We find beautiful pastoral settings that are very comfortable. It‘s usually four to six professional songwriters and six to ten veterans. We bring in a therapist, there’s always a chef. The veterans have a whole program they’re doing when they’re not co-writing the songs. We do creativity workshops with them and help them to get reacquainted with their creativity. That’s not something the military encourages. Original thinking will get your ass killed in a war. But to come home and to be in society, creativity is required.
Then we co-write with them so that it’s their words in the song, not our words. We don’t impose our story, we just help them tell their story. So my job, and it’s a great job, is to get the hell outta there. I just listen and transcribe what we hear and turn it into what it is I think their soul needs to say. It becomes quite obvious, if you’re a professional songwriter, you hear pretty quickly what their soul is longing to say.
Q: From listening to “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” it seems like a lot of the songs and stories you’ve listened to over the last five years are tough. You’re talking about sexual harassment or struggles when [veterans] come home. It seems like it would be difficult to open up to somebody about that. How do you get [veterans] comfortable enough to open up to you?
A: Well, I think music is the great elixir. It goes straight to the gut and it’s visceral. When they start talking and we start to play the music that sounds like how they feel, we find the melody in what they’re saying and we play it and they look back at us like “Holy sh** you get it.” It happens really fast. We’re not going to judge them, we don’t have clipboards, we’re not going to diagnose them. Whatever they tell us, no matter what it is, we don’t stand in judgment. We’re songwriters, we’re not on the morality committee. Most of us got to the arts with similar stories as mine; our pasts are full of struggles and difficulties and we’re drawn to the arts to try to survive it. We have no judgment whatsoever and they feel that. And they’ve never talked to somebody who they couldn’t scare . . . it’s very hard to spook a songwriter.
The more challenging the story is the better the song. We actually respond very positively to the difficult stories because we know there’s going to be a really good song. We’re using songs to help move trauma. Music can go into places that language can’t reach. Oftentimes we can fictionalize their story and get to the deeper truth [rather] than trying to directly at it. Picasso a long time ago said art is a lie that points to the truth. We get there and help them articulate the ineffable traumas.
Q: There was one song that I kept coming back to off the album, “Iraq.” Can you tell me a bit about the story behind that song?
A: Brandy Davidson and I wrote that. She was a female mechanic in Iraq in the army and she worked on large engines and she was surrounded by men. She didn’t feel she could trust anybody. The sexual harassment happened daily. She felt that she had to deal with her fellow soldiers as the enemy. It’s just mortifying to me: You’re in a war, the enemy is supposed to be . . . what are we fighting over there now? Is it ISIS, al-Qaeda? It’s so complicated, who knows. The enemy is supposed to be “them” [but] you turn around and you’ve got a guy lurking over your shoulder who is a threatening menace and who could rape you.
So women are dealing with layers and layers of enemies and it’s extremely traumatic and that is what the song deals with. And it points to a problem within the military, which is “who do you report it to?” We haven’t had the Me To moment in the military yet. Our female soldiers are dealing with this burden alone, I think “Iraq” addresses it but it’s not a head-on collision with it, it’s more subtle. That’s how Brandy wanted it. She didn’t want to make herself a spokesperson for some movement. She just wanted to gently tell her story. They all feel that way because they feel as though if they speak too loudly, it jeopardizes the other female soldiers who want nothing more than to just be soldiers. The story I keep getting told is “You’re going to ruin it for all of us if you talk too much.” It’s pretty fragile. Women carry a special burden, now don’t get me wrong, men have military sexual trauma too. We wrote with a male veteran who was left behind in enemy territory and he was raped by six Iraqi soldiers. So it’s not just a female problem, but it’s predominantly a female problem. War is chaos, war is pandemonium and chaos.
All things that we take for granted as civilians just [get] blasted to bits out there. Yeah, these stories are heavy. War is heavy. If we want to keep sending people to war endlessly, it’s important for civilians to understand what we’re asking of our soldiers. That’s why I thought this record should go out to the public, you know?
Q: What was it like [to go from] writing songs from your own experiences, your own stories to helping other people write and draw out those experiences through song?
A: So much easier. [in] two hours I could get it done. Because I’m witnessing someone else’s confusion instead of trying to penetrate the morass of my own confusion. I’m not digging past my understanding of myself. I am witnessing someone else’s struggle and I’m just like a midwife. When it’s yourself, it’s so hard to see. You don’t know water if you’re a fish, [as] David Foster Wallace beautifully described.
Q: What do you hope audience members at The Linda come away thinking about?
A: I hope they understand veterans are no different than they are. They’re not super heroes, they’re not unbreakable, they’re just like we are. I’m hoping at all of my shows, but particularly at The Linda because we’ll have a lot of veterans there, is to build a bridge; a bridge of understanding between civilians and the military. There’s a great divide . . . one half of one percent is serving for the 99 and a half percent. There’s this giant gap of understanding of who they are and what they go through. The word is empathy. I want people to feel what [veterans] feel so they can understand what they go through.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wed.
WHERE: The Linda
MORE INFO: thelinda.org