Mary Gauthier has been embraced by the folk circuit, but the singer/songwriter's truest musical roots are entwined with the sort of juke-joint country and shantytown blues associated with the likes of Johnny Cash. The analogy isn't a random one; people have been comparing Gauthier (pronounced go-shay) to the Man in Black since 1997, when her self-released debut album, Dixie Kitchen, was nominated for Best New Contemporary Folk Artist at the Boston Music Awards.
Thirteen years and six albums later, Gauthier has finally produced the album she's always known she would make: a painfully introspective concept album called The Foundling that recounts her struggle to make peace with the mother who gave her up for adoption immediately after birth.
"I've always known I needed to work on this subject matter," Gauthier says, during a phone interview while en route to a Vancouver performance. "I've been moving toward it since I started to write. It's been a part of my heart and soul for a really long time, and I just needed to work as a writer long enough to get good at it so that when I tackled this thing I would get it right. So, seven records in, here it is."
Abandoned at the St. Vincent's Infants Home, Gauthier was eventually adopted by a troubled Italian couple and raised in Baton Rouge, La. Her problems started early. Gauthier stole her parents' car at 15—around the time she began to use drugs and alcohol—and spent her 18th birthday in a Kansas jail cell. She eventually made her way to Boston as a trained chef and opened a Cajun restaurant, but it wasn't until her late 20s that Gauthier's life would take the dramatic turn that would begin her musical career.
"I got sober," she says simply. "I had a drug and alcohol problem and got cleaned up when I was about 29, and it's been a whole new life for me ever since then."
That new life has quietly become the stuff of modern legend on the folk-festival circuit that catapulted Gauthier to a career as a professional musician. There's an undeniable romanticism to her story that appeals to listeners and music critics alike. She has no musical background or formal training; when she decided to pursue her dream at the age of 35, she had never even written a song.
"I was absolutely terrified," Gauthier says. "But I had to try because it was in my heart and I was being guided toward it. I'm called to do it. You hear people talking about being called, and I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know what it meant when I was younger and I didn't know what it meant when I was drinking, but I get it now. We have a part of us that knows what we should be doing, and that part of me got activated when I got myself sorted out."
Produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies and using Willie Nelson's classic 1975 concept album Red Headed Stranger as a sort of roadmap, The Foundling began to take shape several years ago, when Gauthier visited the orphanage that was once her home. She walked into the orphanage—now a low-rent guest house—and was stopped dead in her tracks by what hung on the walls.
"They still have the pictures of orphans on the walls," she remembers. "They didn't take them down; they were still there. It just chilled me to the bone, and I knew that I had to dig deep and get this story out and tell it. It's my story—it's my life. I didn't want to go there for the longest time, and I didn't even know where ‘there' was, but eventually I connected with my own story. It's been a journey, to understand what happened to me and to be able to tell others what happened to me."
The Foundling is a deeply personal album, but it's also an accessible one. "It's personal, but it's also archetypal," Gauthier says. "The archetype of the orphan is the archetype of the human condition. I guess I'm hoping for people to understand the story, and to see themselves in it as well. It's my story, but it's also the story of what it's like to be in this world. The orphan is just the human condition personified, really. People see themselves in the album, and that makes me feel good. You don't have to literally be an orphan to feel like one."