Back in 2014, not long after Mary Gauthier released the album Trouble & Love (a song cycle about a love affair gone wrong), my friend Colleen and I went to see her perform when she passed through New York City. At a certain point in the set -- maybe three or four songs in -- Gauthier addressed the audience. "Those of you who have never seen me play before may be wonderin' when the happy songs are gonna start," she said. "And right about now, you may be realizin' that they're not gonna start!" Perhaps the most surprising thing about her new disc, Dark Enough To See the Stars, then, is that Gauthier opens the album with three songs that are genuinely happy.
Dark Enough To See the Stars (out June 3 on In the Black/Thirty Tigers Records) is Gauthier's ninth proper studio set. But it's actually her first album of personal songs since Trouble & Love. (The GRAMMY-nominated Rifles & Rosary Beads, from 2018, was a collection of songs she cowrote with veterans about their experiences.)
"It's been a long time since I put out a Mary Gauthier record," she admits. "You know, Trouble & Love was a long time ago. After that cycle, I just sorta focused on the work I was doing with Songwriting With Soldiers and workin' on a book. I didn't come up with many songs in that period that were from my own experience. So it took a toggle to get me back writing Mary Gauthier songs. It collided with the pandemic and a wonderful new relationship that has made my life so much richer."
"[I'm] four and a half years into a relationship that's really working," she continues. "You know, I'm an old dog but this is a new trick. I haven't had relationships that worked -- ever! And I have one now that seems to renew itself and feels sustainable and steady. That kinda spurred me to write these happy songs." Indeed, that opening trio of tunes -- "Fall Apart World," "Amsterdam" and "Thank God for You" -- are essentially love songs. I asked Gauthier to tell me a little about "Amsterdam."
"My first record deal in the '90s was on a Dutch label," she replies. "So I've been goin' to Amsterdam for [over] 20 years. It's one of my favorite cities in the whole world. I love walking the ancient streets, I love the canals, I love the Dutch people. I feel very comfortable there. It does not feel to me at all like a foreign country. And I had the opportunity to take [my girlfriend] Jaimee there. It was sort of a surprise opportunity that just appeared because of airline problems. We [got] rerouted to Amsterdam and it worked. It was like, 'Okay, let's do this!' We got to stay in my favorite hotel [and] eat at my favorite restaurants. And it wasn't crowded because there was still a semi-lockdown goin' on... [So the] song is just [about] the joy of sharing your favorite place with your favorite person. And just the magnificence of life -- especially in the face of so much death."
As the album continues, the subject matter does get darker. Gauthier wrote these songs during the COVID-19 pandemic, after all. And, like many of us, she lost some friends -- in her case, some fellow singer-songwriters. "There were a lot of people that I lost in the pandemic," says Gauthier. "It started with my friend David Olney. He had a heart attack and died onstage in January of 2020. Then John Prine [in] February or March. And then this long list of people started dying, you know? People I was close to. Justin Townes Earle. I'm the one that presented him with his Americana Award. And it just kept coming... What hit me when I was working on [the title track] -- and it really was an 'aha' moment -- is that the love I was given by all the people I just mentioned is mine to keep forever. They're gone, but their love remains. That gift was freely given and I don't ever have to let it go. You know, there's a line in there: 'Hold onto your love/Like those lights from up above.' That's what I'm referencing. The reason I'm so sad is because I received love from these people, and it was genuine. I found some peace and hope in that."
"Dark Enough To See the Stars" serves not only as the album's title track but also as its centerpiece, the sixth of its 10 songs. Gauthier got the phrase from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King and cowrote the song with Beth Nielsen Chapman.
The fact is, two thirds of the new album deals with loss -- a subject that Gauthier is familiar with in various forms. The first time we met, more than a decade ago now, our conversation morphed from the musical to the metaphysical. And interviewing her again now, I was reminded of that conversation.
"This body is not who we are," she says. "This body is a container for who we are. And you experience that profoundly when someone you love passes away and you're standing with their body. You go, 'Oh, that was never you!' It's kind of shocking. 'Cause [we] really do think we are these bodies. We all know it's temporary, but there's also this illusion that this is what we are... I think you sort of have to live in the physical world. So not every moment is what I would call a gateway experience. But the experience of watching [someone] take their first breath and watching someone take their last breath is very similar. It's sort of walking between worlds. And it's really powerful. It makes me cry every time."
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