“Saved by a Song” by Mary Gauthier is a must-read music book for a lousy year

MG_Nikon_011_B-copy-2 – Credit: Laura Partain *

“Recovering, they have this saying, ‘You are only as sick as your secrets. And I have very few secrets. Marie Gauthier said. The songwriter is not dramatic. In songs like “I drink” and “Thank you now” she wrote and sang openly about her struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction. However, Gauthier was even more transparent in Saved by a song, a compelling memoir that delved into the details of the songwriting process and its own life story. Released earlier this year, it’s one of the must-see music books of 2021.

Gauthier writes about being thrown in jail for impaired driving, learning that she had been adopted, and embracing her identity as a gay woman. Corn Saved by a song is more concerned with what she describes at Rolling stone like the “magnificence of empathy”. It is a handbook of compassion.

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“Music in its highest form is what it is. It is literally empathy, ”says Gauthier. “This experience of knowing what it is like to be someone else for a short while and knowing that you and that other person have a common bond of humanity that transcends anything we think about separates us: age, race, sexual preference, gender, language, religion and belief systems.

Gauthier, who had his songs recorded by artists from Boy George to Blake Shelton, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019 for his album Guns and rosary, a project that led her to help American veterans channel their emotions into songwriting. During the pandemic, she did the same with healthcare workers, giving them an outlet for the grief they experience on a daily basis.

We spoke to Gauthier about Saved by a song, the kind of writing that terrifies her, and what we can learn from soldiers.

Writing songs and writing a book can be deeply personal acts. What is most intimidating for you?
Ask someone who wrote [a book], it’s terrifying. Brandi carlile and I talked about it and because the main actors are all still alive, they’re going to want to vote on how you characterize them. And you can’t do that. You just have to write down your truth. Writing my own failures and my own struggles and my own recovery and in many ways redemption doesn’t scare me. I revealed everything in the songs. I’m 31 and I know when I tell my story it helps people. But what was terrifying [about the book] that’s when I brought in other people. I was nervous about some adoption stuff. My birth mom probably has no idea that I wrote a book or even read it if she did. I think she’s still alive. And my adoptive mother is still alive. I don’t want to cast a shadow over anyone and tell the story of others outside of school. Telling my own story is fine with me. Because, dammit, man, that’s the interesting part.

What about the act of writing a chapter versus a song?
I’ve learned that in writing books, just like writing songs, achieving simplicity is the hardest and steepest climb. Once you get simple it sounds like easy, but it’s not easy. Finding the stories that really tie everything together and squeeze my story into the bigger picture of why I think songs can be redeeming took forever. But it actually taught me something: that I used music and songs as a form of self-healing. Painters do it. Poets do it. The authors do. We don’t hear much about it in the song for some reason.

Are you saying we’ve lost some music as therapy?
And music as redemption. Music as healing. Music as empathy which is the great thing I got when trying to explain what I thought was going on with myself, then with the vets and now with the doctors and nurses in the units. Covid intensive care that I write with. It is the ability for us to step out of our own life and our own stories and get behind the eyes and in the skin of another person. This component of empathy is huge when you are dealing with trauma.

You write extensively on working with veterans. What can they teach us?
Everyone got involved for different reasons. But what I learned from the soldiers is that they are not there for political reasons. They are there to do a job and they are built for the service. And almost every veteran I’ve worked with is the kind of person in the line who would put everyone first. I don’t mean this in a way that will make them look bad, but that kind of selflessness is easy to harness. And I don’t know if that’s something they would ever say. There is good in those I have worked with and I just want to protect them.

Saved by a song really breaks down your writing process. You even include early drafts of songs to illustrate the development of a specific lyric. It was like a private lesson.
One of the most important things that I think the songwriting teacher can do is encourage people to be brave. I encourage my writers to go to scary places because that’s where the good things are. Get in the heat, find what really matters to you, and write about it. You don’t come to my house to learn to compose if you want to write pieces designed to attract a mass market and not offend anyone.

As a teacher, what I ask them is to say what they have to say. And that involves dealing with self-esteem issues. Who do I think I am? I mean, Bob Dylan is still alive! What am I doing? Why would it matter what I have to say? And my answer is that you are called to do this for reasons you can never know. And that’s part of the purpose of the book. You won’t know why you are doing this. You will not know why you are called. It is an act of faith.

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