A Review of Mary Gauthier’s “Saved by a Song”
I have to admit when a copy of Nashville singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier’s new book, Saved by a Song, arrived in my email inbox from a publicist, I had no idea who this folk artist was although her work has been nominated for a Grammy Award. And I know a lot about music, having been a music critic for many years. However, I’m being reminded that there is more music out there that you might know about, so it’s always a gift when you stumble across a band or a musician who has been around for a little bit that might be in line with your tastes. While I have yet to hear a lick of Gauthier’s music — and, I know, I know, there’s the Internet and at the very least YouTube to get started as a primer — I feel that I know what Gauthier’s music sounds like just from the lyrics she includes in this book. She’s that poetic. Billed by the publisher as “[p]art memoir, part philosophy of art, [and] part nuts and bolts of songwriting,” each chapter of this book starts with a song lyric that was written or co-written by Gauthier (or, in two cases, another songwriter) and uses that as a jumping point to talk about her art and personal history.
If you’re looking for a book that will tell you how to write a hit song, you would best be served by looking elsewhere — primarily because Gauthier, as an artist, isn’t too interested in that with her art. She views herself more as a troubadour, a person who speaks truth in their music. The result is that Saved by a Song is a marvellous look at how Gauthier’s life has imitated her art, and sometimes vice-versa. She has lived a hard life: she was born in a New Orleans orphanage in March 1962 and adopted by an Italian family some 11 months later. (Even Gauthier is unsure of her exact birth date.) Her adoptive parents had an abusive relationship and often fought, with the police sometimes getting involved. As a teenager, she was a delinquent, helping to steal a car in one instance and also pocketing someone else’s prescription medication at the car wash where she worked all before turning 18. She soon turned to drug and alcohol abuse. However, she eventually kicked her addictions, and she began making music by writing her own songs and performing at open mics around the U.S. upper Eastern seaboard, where she was living at the time. Today, her success may be somewhat modest (after all, I haven’t heard of her) but she has a fanbase and, with this book, she will probably expand it.
Of course, you don’t need to know Gauthier’s personal history to enjoy Saved by a Song, which is a short read that can be consumed in the course of a single afternoon (which is how fast I read this book). It is simply an illuminating read into the process of creating art from whatever inspiration one might have personally or gleaning it from the shared insights of other people. (For instance, Gauthier has worked with recent U.S. Army veterans who have been traumatized in combat to tell their tales in song, as recounted here.) Gauthier’s stories of living as a recovering addict and an openly gay person are mesmerizing and interesting, and she has a knack for revealing not only about things in her personal life but how she goes about creating her art. She uses revisions of her song lyrics to show how a song opens up and matures with constant editing and boiling the subject matter down to its essence to both capture a truth about a subject or theme and captivate an everyman audience. The book is a fascinating inside look at the writing process — even if the writing here is about music and not necessarily the craft of, say, writing a book. For that reason alone, Saved by a Song is worth the price of admission.
But what particularly makes this volume a commendable read is the fact that Gauthier tells the unvarnished truth about her personal life. She opens herself up. That’s a very hard and brave thing to do because you get the sense that she has done things that she regrets and it must not be easy to admit to others that, say, you attended a recovery centre for 30 days to overcome a problem with addictive romantic relationships — which she also recounts here. Thus, Saved by a Song is a fearless book, making it addicting to read. Even though Mary Gauthier isn’t exactly a household name (at least, not yet), it is refreshing to read of an artist whose raison d’être isn’t necessarily to write a song that will be played on the radio or to have the kind of sex appeal that puts you on tons of glossy magazine covers. This is a raw and unflinching account of a life lived as a musician — including stories about her time on the road. To that end, it was gratifying to me to see that Gauthier namechecks touring to the small “blink and you’ll miss it” burg of Maynooth, Ontario, Canada, which is an about 40-minute drive southwest of the slightly bigger small town where I grew up. (It’s nice to see the local area getting a mention in an American mass-market book because I used to live in the literal middle of nowhere!)
All in all, Saved by a Song is also a powerful, life-affirming volume. No matter what travails Gauthier found herself in, she displays a candid, yet can-do attitude that doesn’t dwell on the negativity, but how she funnelled that negativity into producing art that might speak to the ordinary person on the street. For that, the book is enthralling. There’s very little, if anything, that can be said that’s not positive about the book — except those who might have a churlish mindset may complain that Gauthier could be a little bit too in love with some of her creations. (But why not? She is very proud of the work she’s done and has every right to be.) Saved by a Song rarely hits a discordant note — it does jump around a little and her life history isn’t always presented chronologically, per se. But, despite that minor criticism, this is a powerful, intriguing, and marvellous piece by a natural raconteur, and I know that I need to check out this folksy powerhouse of a singer-songwriter and, now, book writer a lot more closely.
Mary Gauthier’s Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting will be published by St. Martin’s Essentials on July 6, 2021.
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