Every performance is different for Mary Gauthier.
The New Orleans-born singer-songwriter and former restaurateur never writes a set list, preferring to base the show on the audience and keep things spontaneous. She also constantly tours with different musicians — right now she’s on the road with Canadian guitarist Scott Nolan and drummer Joanna Miller, who both open the shows and serve as her backing band.
This hard-driving folk rock setup is a far cry from Gauthier’s first live album, “Live at Blue Rock,” recorded last year at Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas, with fiddle and percussion accompaniment.
The album, which features 11 songs spanning Gauthier’s six studio albums along with three covers from singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith, captures a more stripped-down, ethereal sound than that found on her albums or other live performances.
with Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller
Where: Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
How Much: $22; $20 (members); $11 (children under 13)
More Info: 800-838-3006, www.caffelena.org
Moment in time
“I knew we had a good show; I knew that we recorded it well, and it just — listening back I realized that we captured a moment in time that was never going to happen again,” she said recently while in transit somewhere in New Jersey.
But while “Live at Blue Rock” may not sound like Gauthier’s live performances now, it bears one important similarity.
“It will never be the same show twice — I’ll always have different players, different rooms, sounds, different set lists,” she said. “But the energy of that show — energetically, that’s where I’m at right now. There’s a lot of energy onstage, and it feels great.”
Gauthier has been on the road almost continuously for the past three months, and will continue touring throughout the year in the U.S. and Europe. Nolan and Miller joined up with her in mid-February, and the three will perform at Caffe Lena, a familiar venue for Gauthier and one of her favorites, on Sunday night.
“I just love the little rooms, like Caffe Lena or Club Passim [in Cambridge, Mass.]. There’s a bunch of them — and most of them are on the East Coast — that have deep ties to the history of folk music in America, and it means a lot that they keep going, that the foundations and volunteers are able to run them. I love a historical room, and I love being part of that, the history. I feel like it puts me into the story in a way that nothing else would do — you’ve got to be there to be a part of it.”
Gauthier, 50, purposely waited until this point in her career to release “Live at Blue Rock,” wanting to put in the roadwork before recording live. Even though she went in to Blue Note with the intention of recording the show (the venue, as the name suggests, operates a full recording facility), she still wasn’t sure about releasing it until she listened back to the session.
“When we recorded it, it was with the intention of making the live record, but I didn’t know if it was going to be up to the standards I hold myself to,” she said. “I was very lucky it did hold up — and I figured if it [didn’t], I could try again somewhere else. There’s so many opportunities, now that the technology has moved to a place where it’s possible to record shows without a whole lot of gear brought in — you used to have to bring in a sound truck.”
She takes an equally deliberate approach to her songwriting as well, which more often than not is deeply personal. An orphan who ran away from her adoptive home at age 15, Gauthier spent her late teens and early 20s in and out of rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse, landing in jail on her 18th birthday.
She made her way to Boston in the ’80s, where she ran a Cajun-themed restaurant, Dixie Kitchen (also the title of her 1997 debut album) for 11 years. At age 35 she got sober and wrote her first song, which kick-started her full-time music career.
“I was older and I had a successful restaurant, so at that point people thought I was nuts — maybe I am nuts,” she said. “I don’t know — it’s going pretty good. I’m 15 years in and I haven’t had to get another job, so something’s going pretty good.”
Her most recent studio album, “The Foundling,” deals with her adoption and coping as an orphan, particularly the song “Blood on Blood,” which also features on “Live at Blue Rock.” Before the album’s recording, Gauthier contacted her birth mother, who subsequently refused to meet her. The resulting songs took at least two years to work through — not an unusual pace for Gauthier.
“It’s effortful for me — it requires a lot of focus and a lot of time,” she said. “I was so relieved — I just finished reading ‘I’m Your Man’ by Leonard Cohen, and I read it took him five years to write ‘Hallelujah.’ That makes sense to me — a song that good takes a long time to write. For me it’s called re-writing, over and over and over and over, until I find the absolute core of what the song is trying to say — which to me is not obvious at the beginning.”
“The Foundling” has since gone on to wide praise, and has even been used in therapy sessions for struggling orphans.
“I’m so glad that it’s doing some work in the world, and it’s been helpful to some people — I wanted that for these songs,” Gauthier said.
“I wanted to find words for the experience, that maybe other people just don’t have the time to sit at a desk for two years to find those words.”