Mary Gauthier has a reputation for being a truth teller. The singer-songwriter has built a career sharing deeply personal stories that dig into pain in order to excavate joy.
Now, she’s sharing the secrets of her talent—for a good cause. For the past five years, she’s helped soldiers transform their pain into song with SongwritingWith:Soldiers, an organization that pairs veterans and active-duty service members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences.
Co-founded by singer-songwriter Darden Smith and Mary Judd, an expert in communications and educational programming, SongwritingWith:Soldiers hosts retreats with eight to 10 veterans, and four expert songwriters, at a time. Over the course of a weekend, each soldier co-writes a song with one of the artists. As Gauthier explains, they “create a safe container so the soldiers can speak.”
A chef, therapist and small staff make sure everyone is taken care of both when they’re writing and when they’re not. Songwriters sit with the veterans, listen to their stories, and at the end of the retreat, each vet has a song they’ve co-written.
“I can only tell you that what happens is incredible,” says Gauthier. “There’s transformation there. There’s this grief and trauma that is being turned into something incredibly beautiful. We’re using songs to basically turn shit into gold. That’s kind of crude, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it.”
The job of the songwriters is to listen carefully and pay attention to the soldier’s body language, because there are things the soldiers just can’t say.
“Trauma has no language,” says Gauthier. “The language of trauma is a scream. There are no words to fully articulate what it is they’ve been through—even if they were the most articulate people in the world. It can only really be gotten to through metaphor.”
Four years into her work with the organization, Gauthier found herself with more than 30 songs she had co-written. She asked if she could make a record of them, and was directed by SongwritingWith:Soldiers to ask the veterans. They agreed and she recorded Rifles & Rosary Beads, which was released in January.
The record is beautiful, devastating and gripping. The songs transport listeners into territory rarely seen—the horror of seeing friends killed, the dysfunctions of military culture, and the challenges of coming home. Response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The stories are pretty heavy and the subject matter is challenging,” Gauthier says, “but people really are interested in the experiences of our veterans. Grief is something that’s difficult to talk about—people care, but it’s hard to know what to say. These stories help move the story in a way that hopefully will be useful.”
Gauthier is familiar with personal transformation through art. She speaks openly about her emotional journeys through abandonment, love, grief, addiction, being a misfit and sobriety in her music.
“I had to find my way out of my own personal darkness and traumas using songwriting,” she says. “I had to write all those difficult songs and go to the pain with my art to apply the alchemy to that. Fortunately, the universe gifted me with an opportunity to take that skill set I honed over 20 years and now apply it in a way that is useful to others.”
Gauthier says “pouring your vulnerability into a song” and then sharing it gives people an opportunity to say, ‘Me too.’
“The courage becomes contagious,” she says, pointing out that one person’s courage moves a group, which can move a community, which can move a town, which can move a state, which can move a country.
Gauthier sees SongwritingWith:Soldiers doing something that no other generation of veteran has done: tell the truth about their emotional experience after war. It’s proving to be a powerful tool.
“This is like a ladder being lowered down into the hole,” she says. “You can see a rung. You grab that rung and that can be the difference between life and death.” She adds, “Of course you’re going to have to grab the next rung, and go find it if it’s not being lowered—you’ve got to keep working. But that first rung is a big damn deal.”
Mary Gauthier will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 22 at Flynn’s Cabaret, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $20/adv, $25/door. 335-2800.