tue 05/03/2024

Q&A Special: Musician Mary Gauthier | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Musician Mary Gauthier

Q&A Special: Musician Mary Gauthier

The country singer tells of the central role adoption played in her life and art

Mary Gauthier: Her concept album 'The Foundling' tells the story of her adoption

The Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury preserves the story of the Foundling Hospital, established in 1739 by Thomas Coram, the artist Hogarth and the composer Handel. At the end of April, American country singer Mary Gauthier performed The Foundling, a concept album telling of her birth and adoption in 1962 and the attempted reunion with her birth mother some 45 years later.

Spiky-haired, in a black tee, waistcoat and black jeans, and sporting Lennon-style tinted specs, Gauthier cut a striking figure amidst the Rococo splendour of the Museum’s Picture Gallery, the lean, indomitable singer armed with a guitar and songs of infant abandonment and adult experience, beneath Hogarth’s portraits of the great and good of 18th-century London.

You can tell they’re the real thing, her songs, hand-packed with the kind of knowledge that can’t be faked. She apologised at the end for "bumming us all out" but the audience gives her a standing ovation, because The Foundling is a properly cathartic experience, like Greek theatre, a penetrating testament and evocation of the adoptee experience, which in her hands speaks of human experience itself.

The minute I heard The Foundling, I knew it was something special. I am also an adoptee, of the same generation, born in a Catholic children’s home near Birmingham. There is much therapeutic literature about adoption, but little good art. Gauthier’s album, her seventh in a career which began when she penned her first song at the age of 35 after years of battling alcohol and drug addictions, is great art, and her most powerful record to date. Our conversation, covering her life, career, adoption and The Foundling, took place over coffees a few hours before her performance at the Foundling Museum.

TIM CUMMING: Do you ever feel like you’ll break, emotionally, performing the album?

MARY GAUTHIER: Oh no. I’ve already felt it, I’ve lived it and worked through it, and this is now. But I am aware that some people in the audience are living it now. I’m reacquainting them with things they may not want to hear, and I’m aware of that, and that’s the challenge of being an artist. That’s your job, I think. That’s the difference between art and pop. I’m an entertainer, and I’m also trying to challenge myself and other people. It’s a fine line. Too much is too much, so there has to be a lightness at the end, and a reason for the challenge. I personally have to come through to the other side, to the light, and bring people there. I can’t leave them in the dark, that would be cruel. So that is the challenge. I’m going to take you to a dark place but we’re gonna come out together, it’s all going to be OK, just trust me, we’re all on a little ride right now. I have to have actually gotten there myself. I can’t fake it. It can’t be faked, People know.

It’s such an intense album, for anyone, but especially for an adoptee who’s almost the same age; I was adopted at Christmas 1963. I’m one of a family of four. We were all adopted from the same Catholic children’s home. And we’re part of that generation, born to women and girls who weren’t allowed to keep their children.

The children of shamed mothers.

When did you know you were adopted?

Always. You? Always?

Always. My brother was adopted from the same home, too. When I was 16 my dad gave me a birth certificate with my birth name on it. Brendan Quinn. He said if you’d like to find them, we’ll help you. But as you’ve said, the fear of betraying your family, the terror of what you might find...

Oh yeah, terror of losing everything.

You left your family at 15. Were you angry, did you just have to get out?

It was complicated. I didn’t know what was going on. I wasn’t angry about adoption, at least not consciously. My story is compounded by the fact that the people who adopted me were troubled. My adopted father was an alcoholic. My adopted mother was depressed. The troubles – I didn’t know it had anything to do with adoption. I knew that it was choking me. Their troubles were choking me to death and I had to get out. I didn’t understand the relationship between what I was going through and adoption until my forties. I had no idea adoption had any affect on me.

Did you?

It was a preoccupation. You knew there was something about you, some part of you that was completely unknown. Like a question mark that follows you everywhere. I didn’t know that was important. To know where one comes from. I knew I felt like an alien. But there was so much about me that was alien. I was always very different from the family that adopted me and I was always very different from everyone who was around me. I didn’t associate that with adoption or understand it until much later in life.

How did that come about?

Therapy. [Laughter]. My therapist started forcing me to look at it. I didn’t believe her. I thought it was too obvious. I knew that I had problems to work through, I had struggled with addiction, with drinking, with drugs. With everything. I have a high and an off switch. There’s no middle ground. And it applies to everything. Everything that gave me pleasure. High or off. No half measures. And I’m still trying to understand the relationship between that and having lost so much the day I was born. I dunno if it matters to make clear cut that this caused that, I don’t know if it’s possible. I do know that the words adoption and trauma go together. I get that. Even in the best circumstances the child loses not just the parents but the grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, national identity, their entire history is wiped out in a closed adoption. And that is a serious trauma. I didn’t know that until I started working on these songs. The songs taught me more than anything. I made this record for me, to understand what I was going through, to make sense of nonsense, this emotional mulch.

I was empty. I was displaced from not knowing where I came from and I was displaced by self-destruction

You wrote these songs after locating your birth mother?

I had to find my birth mother, and I had to have been sober a long time. The addiction had to be behind me. That was a long process. If I had known how long it would take to truly get sober I don’t know if I’d have had the strength to do it. I’ll be 21 years sober this summer. It took I guess 10 years to really find my centre. I started very young. I went to my first rehab at 15. I put myself in there. To get away from my parents. It took me about 10 years to get stable, after I got sober, and to start to become who I was going to be if I hadn’t taken that turn down the road of self-destruction. It took me about 10 years to get back to the beginning and take the turn I probably would have taken – probably – and become a songwriter, become a word crafter, become an artist. It took a while.

You weren’t an artist until you got sober? Didn’t do any performing or...

No, no, no. No confidence. I could tell you more about your shoes than your eyes. It was hard to look up. I was empty. I was displaced from not knowing where I came from and I was displaced by self-destruction. It was like a nuclear bomb had gone off in my soul and it took a lot of work to get it back. Not even get it back, but to build it. And I’ve been so lucky. I’ve been so blessed. Becoming an artist has really saved me and helped me to stay sober, it has given me a reason to get up in the morning. And it has served as a way of rebuilding the brokenness. Art has saved me. Songs and music have saved me. And along the way, and I really didn’t expect this, but people have told me it’s helped them too. I’ve been able to put words in places where there weren’t words. People have told me that they feel that same way and the words mean a lot for them. But I have done it for purely selfish reasons. I don’t want to pretend it’s an act of altruism. It comes from self-interest but it has an effect on the world that is positive on me and hopefully other people. But what a journey. It’s been a magic carpet ride, it really has, from the very beginning. Becoming an artist gave me my identity. The beginning of the shaping of my identity. "I’m an artist. That’s why I didn’t fit, that’s why I’m different." Artists never fit. They can’t fit. They have to observe. If you’re not outside you’re not observing.

MARY_GAUTHIER_2010_bw_011508r7f31_FI4c_CMYK_300When you’re adopted it’s like you’re in a witness protection programme. You have this double life. You have this other name.

I have three names. My birth mother name is Stacey, the nuns named me Anastacia, and my adoptive parents named me Mary. I always thought I should name myself, because I don’t like any of those names. But it’s too late now because the stage name has stuck. But none of those names are really me. I can’t claim any of ‘em.

For most people, your name is your name and your mum and dad are your mum and dad and that’s it. The laws of the universe. But for us it’s different.

Very different indeed, because those names have a meaning. Anastacia had a meaning for the nuns, Stacey had a meaning for my birth mother. Mary was my adopted grandfather’s mother’s name. But all of these names are removed from me. When you’re adopted - and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but this is my experience – it’s like you have four parents but no parents. You’re on your own. You’re at one remove from the experience of family.

Does that effect relationships? Do people say, as they’ve said to me, there’s something missing in you?

Oh yeah, oh yeah. It shapes your attachment ability. There’s biological reasons and emotional reasons. The more I study it the more amazed I am. If a child doesn’t nurse – there’s a huge series of biological reasons for a child to nurse with the mother. From the hormones that are secreted to help the child fight disease later in life to the attachment – attaching to the mother teaches you how to attach to a woman or a partner or a family. We didn’t have that. So we’re always going to struggle with attachment. Where there should have been an attachment there was trauma. It’s a death. And you cry and cry and they don’t come back, so you’re taught a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, and the message the child receives is, I have no effect on the world, I have no impact. However much I wail, nothing happens. So a lot of times we have to overcome that feeling of invisibility.

And songwriting helped you make you visible, to yourself?

Yeah and it also gave me a sense. One of the wonderful blessings of all this - because we talk about the struggles, but the blessings are numerous – is that I am able to reveal a lot. There is this sense of, it’s not me anyway, I’ll show it all to you, because I have nothing to hide because it’s not me. I’m always somebody else. I have nothing to protect. It’s a blessing, if you want to really be – the job of an artist is to go to the places where most other people are embarrassed to go to. And show it. That’s what is interesting, whether you’re an actor, a painter or a songwriter. The artist reveals parts that other people would pay a lot of money to never show anybody. That is what most people protect, and we show it, and ultimately, the odd thing that happened to me at birth has made me a much better artist. It may have made me an artist.

It’s all wrapped up in destiny, then?

Yes. One of my heroes is Harland Howard. One of the great writers in country music. He was given up when he was seven years old, his mother gave him away during the Depression, he went through 20 or 21 foster families, oh God yeah, and in later life he said that he’d probably picked that destiny in the spirit world and came through those parents because he knew more than anything he wanted to be a great songwriter, and he knew that what he had to do was to go through that to get to the songs, because the songs were on the other side of that. Now, that’s a myth and a self-consoling way of looking at it, but why not look at it like that? Because we make up myths all the time. Why not to console oneself? And that makes sense because the songs, for me, were also on the other side. The most important thing to me is to be the best possible writer I can be. Because that’s what gives my life meaning.

That is the belief when your mother gives you away: there’s something deeply wrong - mothers don’t give away babies

How did you preoccupy yourself before writing?

I’m a trained chef. Went to culinary school, and developed restaurants. I developed three restaurants. I was just very driven, but as much as I was driven to accomplish and succeed I had this self-destructive streak that was every bit as powerful. It was a race to see if I was going to kill myself first or become an incredibly successful capitalist. They were both pushing really hard. I had a 96-seat restaurant when I was 26. In Boston. I’d moved away from the South, found investors to back me and opened up a Cajun Soul Food restaurant in Boston. I was very young, looking back on it. And I was arrested opening night for drunk driving, 13 July, 1990. That’s my sobriety date. That was it for me. The ultimate humiliation, for me. I was trying to be successful, and I knew at that moment that it was never going to work. The double life had to come to an end. But there’s so many double lives when you’re adopted. Trap door after trap door after trap door.

Emotionally, would you look for new family intimacies, or run away?

It’s been a struggle for me, it’s like a magnet. It comes together, it comes apart. A strong, strong pull and together day and night for two years and then it explodes and just goes away. I’ve had that pattern 50 years, my whole life. But I’m breaking it now. I’m learning how to stay, to find moderation, to find that medium, not high or off. I’m looking for a five, for moderation, continuity and attachment. It’s work. It’s not my  nature. My nature is very different. All or nothing is my nature. But as I get older, I don’t have the energy for all or nothing. Slowing down, and the strong, strong need inside of me for family - I have to build it, construct it, make one and claim it. I didn’t know I could claim one.

You thought you weren’t entitled?

Yeah. That is the belief when your mother gives you away. There’s something deeply wrong - mothers don’t give away babies. There’s something wrong with me, there’s something unloveable, something seriously flawed in me, that’s the belief you get, no matter how smart you are. It’s a fundamental thing, it’s precognitive. You feel it rather than think it. How could you not? Nothing goes against nature more than a mother giving away a baby. Doesn’t happen. It’s against all laws of nature. One day, in the not-too-distant future, this period that we’ve lived through and survived, will be seen as the dark ages. You don’t take babies from families. You don’t do it. Things are changing but in America still, adoptees can’t get their birth certificate, except maybe four states have open records. In six states, both birth mother and adoptee have to sign up to a registry, and the rest of them, no matter what, you can’t get the information. It’s still closed. So we’ve got a long way to go before people understand that it’s a fundamental human right to know where you come from. It gets controversial and once it becomes political it gets heated. And then you can’t have a conversation, people take sides and have opinions, and you lose the ability to talk civilly about it. Which is the power of the songs, it’s just, here's how it feels, you make your decisions and decide what you feel is right. I’ll just play them and here’s how one adoptee feels. And it opens the heart more than talking politics.

How did you find your birth mother? Did you know her name, did your adopted parents tell you?

No, none of that; the adoptive parents’ names are put on the birth certificate. The original birth certificate is either destroyed or locked away, so mine has my adopted parents’ names as my birth parents. It’s a forged document by the Government. It’s a government forgery. So they didn’t have any more information than I do. So when I decided to try to locate my birth mother I found someone – they call 'em "search angels"; other adoptees like you and I who decided to go underground and help people find their identity. They know short cuts and they can get access to these files they have connections to, it’s a whole underground thing. It’s like the runaway slaves, the underground railroad, it really is, and people go to jail over this. Several people have gone to prison for breaking the laws. But I found someone who was in the system and could find the information in three days. My mother’s name, phone number and address.

It scared the shit out of me. I thought I’d have a little bit of time. Bang, there it was. I wrote it down, I was on the road, I was driving through the Bronx in New York. I realised I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t call her. I called the detective back and said, "Could you call her and tell her who I am and that I’m looking for her and give her my number and my name, my website, and let her know she could find out about me, I’m a musician, Google me, I’m everywhere, and to contact me if she wanted to contact me." And she said she would do that for me. She called me back and said she did it, and that my birth mother was startled and afraid and that it would take some time. Six months went by and she never called me, so finally, right before Christmas, a few years ago, I did call her. She’d never told anyone she’d had a child. She married this man and raised his kids, he’s dead, those kids are grown, but she never told anyone she had given away a baby. Now she’s too ashamed. She’s lied her whole life and doesn’t want her kids to know she lied. She has the shame of 1962 inside her.


What was the first song that you wrote that you thought, yes, this is what I can do?

"Goodbye is My Family Name". [Laughter.] Couldn’t be more direct. When I wrote that I wasn’t aware that that was the beginning of writing about all this more and more. I wasn’t aware that the dam was opening up and this was gonna come pouring through.

You mentioned that you played New Orleans for the first time, prior to making the album, and that you went back to the Infirmary. Not Infirmary, an Asylum wasn’t it?

It was an asylum. I was born in an asylum – no wonder I’m nuts.

Is it still used? Are there still children there?

It’s a cheap bed and breakfast. It’s a bit of a slum. There were a lot of Spanish-speaking illegal restaurant workers staying three. It survived the hurricane. It’s a big solid catholic piece of rock and it’s not going anywhere. And there’s pictures of the children with the nuns on the wall. There’s an inscription above the front door that reads "St Vincent’s Women and Children’s Asylum" chiselled into the marble. Yeah, it was scary, but it made it real. Before, it could’ve been Cinderella or Peter Pan or a Disney story. But walking through that door was like, whoah, this is my story, this is real. We have to experience it with our senses. Until it gets to our senses it’s not real to us. It’s just a story. Then to walk through it, and think, my mother walked through this door, pregnant. And walked out of this door without me. It made it seem like I had a mother. Like it wasn’t real to me before, that there was another mother out there.

Same here. To me, she was as remote as some cosmic event.

Cinderella, not real. And that made it real. Whoah, that was a real woman, and she’s alive. And she suffered. I didn’t connect with her suffering before. My compassion for her – I just opened with compassion for her by going there. This young girl, shamed. It made me cry. What they did to her. What they DID to her. It’s reprehensible, what was done to young girls. I can only imagine how terrified she was. How alone. And these nuns, they wore these… like a tablecloth on their head. Like, really scary. I can only imagine how intimidating it was. You had sinned. You were shamed. You were a whore. Which was the worst. And just an innocent young girl, probably with her first experience. She didn’t know. So it opened my heart. And it’s been an important part in my growth as a human being and certainly as an artist. To go there. To just go there.

Was this as important a breakthrough as therapy?

Therapy got me there. I wouldn’t have gone there without it. But going there is what made it real. You can talk about it forever. But being three – good Lord, this is real. I don’t know how we make it not real – we all seem to be able to do that. When you’re adopted, you’re never told a birth story. So we don’t know we’re born. We’re adopted.

Someone once asked my sister, how much did you weigh when you were born? And she didn’t know. And what struck her was that until then she didn’t even know that she didn’t know. These things mothers tell their children. The birth stories we don’t have.

Yeah, there’s nothing. So we don’t believe ourselves as born. Which is odd.

So that visit led to the songs being written for The Foundling?

One or two came before - I’d already written "Good-Bye" and "Sideshow".

You can tell, I think. Others, like "March 11, 1962", they’re raw and naked. You know they’ve been lived through.

It’s the story of what happened. "March 11, 1962": that’s just what happened. I called my mother, I said, "This is Mary." She said, "Mary who?" I said, "I can’t believe it." The private detective did tell her my name, and gave her my website. But she didn’t – I said, "March 11, 1962." It was like, bang. If you don’t know my name, you certainly know the date. But she really didn’t know the date. She didn’t even know she was in New Orleans to have the baby. I mean, to have me. She didn’t know where she was. She was… a completely traumatised person. She didn’t remember really important things. I think she just wanted it to go away. And it’s never going to go away. So the conversation was pretty much the way I wrote it in the song. Like, I didn’t add a lot of drama to it. The music does.

When you write do you do much cutting back? The lyrics seem pared to the bone.

That’s the way I write, I try and get rid of everything that absolutely doesn’t have to be there, and get it really dense and there it is. There wasn’t a single extra song. They all had to work, because this was the story. They didn’t come in order, I put them in order afterwards, and turned them into this story. I kind of felt my way through some places hoping that a song would come in to fill the spot in the cycle. But I didn’t know what I was doing. A concept record is a very challenging thing. It’s hard enough to write a song, much less 10 songs that go together and at the end you have a movie. It made me all the more have admiration for people who have done it so successfully. The challenges were immense and it took two years of, almost everyday, working. Trying to find it. Searching myself for places I didn’t know about inside of me. "Blood is Blood", for example, a friend of mine sent me that guitar part, and the title, "Blood is Blood", and it made so much sense.

People struggle with the songs. American audiences can barely stand it. They vibrate, you can feel them – it’s just too much

That’s one of the central songs, I think.

And it works on so many layers. When you have a blood stain, that’s it. It’s your stain. Blood don’t wash away. It’s stained and you’ve ruined your shirt. And then it works in the way that adoption doesn’t wash away your blood, or who you are or where you’ve come from. We’ve tried to believe that it does. We wanted to pretend that it does. Pretend a baby is a blank slate. And it’s a lie. An absolute myth, a complete lie. And I guess that song is an angry reaction to that lie.

It took me years to assert myself in believing that blood is important.

We don’t feel as if we have any right. It’s the ultimate act of lack of gratitude. The most important thing is that we’re supposed to be grateful. These people took us in and we should be grateful. And no one has ever given us the permission to say, I am grateful but I need to know who I am. I’m deeply grateful, but the truth is, I have four parents, which doesn’t take away from any of them, but it’s the truth. To acknowledge it doesn’t take away from anybody. Nobody tells us that.

Are your adopted parents still alive?

My adoptive dad is gone, my adoptive mum is still alive.

Was it hard to talk to her about your search?

It was very hard to talk about. Very complicated. Because they say one thing and mean another. "No, I want you to find your family." But you know they’re saying, "And I hope you hate them. You’re my kid, don’t leave me." You can see it in their eyes that it was a threat. The words were, "Please, I’ll help you." But the emotions were – uuuhhhh – my biggest fear. And you can feel that.

What have things been like since this came out?

I’ve been touring it. People struggle with the songs. American audiences can barely stand it. They vibrate, you can feel them – it’s just too much. In Europe it’s another story. In Italy, standing ovations, bravo, bravo – they get it. For me, it has made me strong. It has really given me the backbone, because I’m saying things the grateful adoptee can’t say, I’m saying them as an artist and it gives Mary the adoptee strength. And it has created a community. Other adoptees and people who are in my situation come onto Facebook or email me and tell me their stories. I’ve heard some stories. It’s created a place of safety for people. Like, "Yeah, me too." It’s been a dismal failure as a product. But I don’t care, I had to make the record, and I think I will be able to live with this for the rest of my life and be proud of it. Artistically, it’s a work I can stand behind. Commercially, it has not done much at all, but I think it’s more of a – therapists are using it in their work. It’ll be a slow burner. Businesses can’t survive like that, but I can. There’s nothing I can do to move it along but the universe is in charge of that anyway. And I’m writing new songs, and they’re lighter. I’ve always been so fricking heavy. I’ve worn myself out with a profundity complex the size of Rome. The new songs are lighter, I’m lighter, this has taken a brick off my heart, and I’m lighter. The truth sets you free. If you can survive it. And I feel better. Sorrowful as the record is and as hard as it was to write, I’m lighter and better for it. In the end I’m glad I did it, and I look forward to what’s next. I won’t be writing this over and over again. There’s one of these. Then stop. Halt. The new songs are different.

I’ve been able to put words in places where there weren’t words

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