Mary Gauthier has made a name for herself by writing and singing intense narrative songs that draw on her own life. And what a life it has been. Growing up an orphan in New Orleans, she has battled substance abuse and addiction. She was a chef and successful restaurateur, but found healing in writing and singing her songs, which resonate with her fan base around the world.
“What I have learned is that the dominant narrative of a wounded person’s life can be rewritten into to a narrative of healing by a song,” she says. “This happens not by trying to write a healing song, but by simply writing the truth, by singing the emotional truth.”
For her 10th album, she’s telling emotional truth still, but it’s not her own truth. She has spent a lot of time with veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, working with them through an organization called SongwritingWith:Soldiers to write songs that reflect their experiences – both inner and outer experiences. It makes for a powerful album, one that opens you up to the joys and pains and sorrow and fear these men and women face during and after their service.
Regardless what you think about these wars, or about any war, these songs are moving statements of empathy and humanity. And they’re performed in a way that’s just as honest and straightforward as the way they were written.
“What saves you in the battle/Can kill you at home…” is the repeated refrain of the opening track “Soldiering on,” and it pretty much states the theme of this album.
“Why must anyone ‘soldier on’ when we now know that is a destructive and dangerous route, especially for soldiers themselves?” Gauthier notes on her website. “We all need each other, and songs are a wonderful way of creating human connection. Songs can bring us out of isolation and into the beauty and mystery of being alive on a planet full of other living souls.”
These songs are all based on the experiences of service members and their loved ones in the aftermath of active combat. Some like the slow bluesy “Still On The Ride” and plodding folk ballad “Morphine 1-2” confront survivors’ guilt. Both the solid country ballad “The War After The War” and the folksy “Stronger Together” portray the struggles of military spouses, while “It’s Her Love” is by and about a vet struggling with PTSD who looks to a loved one to help get through the bad days and nights. It’s a tender song with some rough edges and the occasional jarring thud of bass drums, subtly echoing the mental state of the protagonist.
A couple of the songs surprise with their point of view and their unexpected angles. One called “Iraq” is about someone who was a mechanic behind the lines who was the victim of retaliation for not going along with theft and corruption. The portrayal of this grunt as having hands covered with grease instead of blood, and yet refusing to get his hands dirty with crime is deceptively powerful. As is “Brothers,” a bitter, slow-building rocker on the struggles of women soldiers to be accepted as equals in the ranks.
On an album full of songs that pack the punch of a sonic grenade, the two most powerful are “Bullet Holes In The Sky,” a slow, sad piano-based ballad from the inside of a Veterans Day parade, from one who is not comforted by such civic rituals; and the title track, another slow ballad, this one impressionistic. It’s a morphine-soaked meditation on the loss of all meaning in life, in the aftermath of battle. Deceptively simple, it’s a series of memory-pictures of danger and death and despair, and the stark necessity to cling to whatever will get you through, whether physically (the rifle) or spiritually (the rosary beads). “You hold on to what you need,” goes the central line in the chorus.
Gauthier’s weathered voice is perfectly complemented by the arrangements, which vary from simple acoustic guitar and harmonica to full band settings with slide guitars or keyboards. But those arrangements always serve the songs and never get in the way of the powerful lyrics.
This is not an easy listen. Not an upbeat album of patriotic songs that glory in war. It raises questions that may not have answers, like the one asked by the women in “Brothers,” “What must I do to prove that I’m a brother too?” Or how to get over the loss of two medical pilots, one who was on her last mission before heading home, by the witness who says “Even now, I’d take their place.” Or the daily quandaries of the spouse who carries the burden of caring for a wounded vet but gets no respite, never mind recognition: “I’m supposed to carry on, I can’t fall apart. People look at you and thank you for the sacrifice you made, they look at me and smile, say I’m lucky you’re OK.”
If there are any causes for optimism in the situation the led to the need for songs like these, one is that people do find a way to survive and even thrive despite such heavy losses, and another is that we have artists who give of themselves to help such people tell their stories in song.
You can read lots more and see more videos on Gauthier’s website. The songs are credited to Gauthier and the men and women who contributed the stories behind them. A portion of every sale will go to SongwritingWith:Soldiers.
(Thirty Tigers/Proper, 2017)