It's as if Mary Gauthier's entire life has all been building to this point. Born in Louisiana, Gauthier (pronounced go-shay) is a country-blues troubadour with an echo of her Big Easy roots and a fascination with hope, heartbreak and the resilience of the downtrodden. And while she didn't start making music until her mid-30s, she's since made up for a lot of lost time.
"It's a complicated, winding road that got me on the phone today," Gauthier admits, her easy manner contrasting the dark places her characters often reside. An adoptee, dropout and runaway who dabbled with drugs and drink as a youth, she was able to turn her life around, graduate culinary school, and start a Cajun restaurant, Dixie Kitchen, in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood.
When a four-year relationship ended, Gauthier found solace in song, and that became her career.
"To get the songs that I got, I had to go through what I went through, but I mean, I wouldn't recommend it," she says with a chuckle. "Romancing the dark side is really exaggerated in the arts, and particularly with songwriting and literature. Ultimately we are creative beings, and we're put here to create. We don't need all that nonsense to make it possible to come up with important work. But you couldn't have told me that before."
Gauthier released a pair of albums — 1997's Dixie Kitchen and 1999's Drag Queens in Limousines — before selling out her half of the restaurant to go all-in on her new pursuit. It was a worthy bet. She eventually signed to major label imprint Lost Highway, and released two critically heralded albums leading up to last year's intensely personal masterpiece, The Foundling, and a 2011 collection of acoustic demos called The Foundling Alone.
A concept album in some sense inspired by Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, it traces Gauthier's journey as an adopted child trying to find her identity and place in the world. Songs like the carnivalesque "Sideshow" blend earnestness with a wry, self-effacing wit as she sings, "Too many songs about happiness, leave me sad, lonely and depressed."
Some songs are simply heartrending, such as the cinema verite "March 12, 1966," which re-creates one side of Gauthier's call to her birth mother, where she was forced to identify herself by her birthday. Her mother's withering response: "Why are you calling me?"
Gauthier says the album was sparked by a visit to the orphanage where she'd spent her first year. "We walked in, and the freaking scales fell off my eyes. I had no idea it would have that impact on me. I had an ocean inside of me that I had never sailed," she says, explaining that the most harrowing sight was the pictures of the kids on the wall. "They all had the hollow look of a child who has seen too much."
Writing and then touring the world supporting this album brought her into contact with others that recognized their story in her. It also lifted a weight from her own shoulders. She explains she now understands that both her birth and adoptive parents loved her as much as they could.
"If you start demanding quarters from people that only have a dime, then where does that leave you?" Gauthier asks. "They can't give you a quarter. They don't have one. And at the end of the day, accepting that is the difference between suffering or not suffering."