American songwriter Mary Gauthier breaks from teaching at The Banff Centre for some shows

Monday 29th, February 2016 / 01:59
By Michael Dunn
Mary Gauthier is also working on a book exploring the motivations of songwriting. Photo: Courtesy of Six Shooter Records

Mary Gauthier is also working on a book exploring the motivations of songwriting.
Photo: Courtesy of Six Shooter Records

CALGARY — “It’s hard sometimes to really have a grasp on time and place,” Mary Gauthier tells BeatRoute over the phone from Banff. “I played 170 nights last year, so I kind of lose track of where I am once in a while.” Gauthier is currently teaching at a retreat at The Banff Centre, along with her tour mate, Texas songwriter Sam Baker. “It’s amazing here, all these fantastic musicians of all styles from around the world getting together, collaborating and listening to each other. These players really are thoroughbreds, they’re just outstanding, and to be able to come to a place like this, you’re really fortunate to have something like this in Canada.”

Gauthier describes the history of government support for the arts in Canada as, “an enlightened view of society. The U.S. could learn a lot from you. The American government just really doesn’t view the arts as a responsibility.”

It may be this larger view of songwriting as an art form that found Gauthier approached by Yale University to write a book on the subject. “They commissioned me to write this book examining the motives for songwriting, not so much the craft of it, but the deeper meaning behind it as an art form.” But separating songwriting as an art form, from the songwriter as a “craftsperson,” Gauthier argues, is like comparing a fine dining experience to a cheeseburger from McDonald’s. “They both have their place, but where the craftsperson writes to a specific formula with an end result in mind, being mass appeal and a hit, the artist goes into their writing without the benefit of knowing where it’s going. The artist listens to the song, and to what the song is trying to say.”

Gauthier identifies an escapism at play in songwriting for the masses, often some caricature of modern life, showing us some sweeping ideal of the lives we’re “supposed to live.” Gauthier asserts that for the artistic songwriter, there’s no escape at all, just a further plunge to find the deeper truths. Those artists require that their work carry significance to themselves, first and foremost.

With her manuscript deadline set for December of this year, Gauthier is content to take some time away from the road so as to fix her attention on the task at hand. “I’m always writing songs, but a book is about 5,000 times harder than writing a song,” she admits. “Each chapter takes me about 100 hours, so I’m really lucky Yale has paid me to write it. It allows me to concentrate on it, and it’s an opportunity to be published.”

While she’ll be spending less time on the road, she and Baker have a tour of Scotland set for September, and their time at The Banff Centre has introduced them to an excellent accompanist who’ll join them there. “Her name’s Polly Virr, we met her here. She’s an excellent cellist from England. She plays so beautifully and sympathetically to the songs, it’s like she’s playing what we’re trying to say.”

While she hasn’t any immediate plans for a new album, Gauthier maintains that she’s always writing new songs, and sees the long-term benefit of her collaborative experiences. “I’ve always felt very welcome here in Canada, it’s a great environment for a singer-songwriter, and there are audiences here that really care, that really want to listen. These kinds of workshops are a valuable experience to teach and to listen, and to hopefully expand my skills as I mature as an artist.”

Mary Gauthier co-headlines with Sam Baker at The Ironwood Stage and Grill on March 10th, and then again at the Calgary Folk Club on March 11th. She plays solo in Edmonton at the Blue Chair Café on March 12th, and then she will reunite with Sam Baker and Eliza Gilkyson for a show at the Banff Centre on the 13th.

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