Mary Gauthier Turns Her Adoption & Childhood Into 'The Foundling'

06/04/2010 01:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I had no desire to talk to Mary Gauthier.

Reasons? Try these: Born to an unmarried woman in New Orleans, she was adopted by an alcoholic father and a depressed mother, stole their car in order to run away, fell into drugs and despair. At 35, she released her tough-as-nails first album and was instantly compared to Johnny Cash. More recently she tracked down her birth number, with unhappy results; as she sings about that phone call, "You say that I'm a secret nobody knows, you can't talk about it now, you really gotta go."

Her nakedly autobiographical song cycle is, inevitably, called The Foundling. (Want to get bludgeoned faster. Here's the download.)

We've made a phone date because she wants to talk about it.

I ask myself (just as you would): What's in this for me?

But the argument against this conversation turns out to be the reason to have it. For one thing, where is it writ that music can only be entertaining --- with, perhaps, a "heavy" song to suggest the "seriousness" of the musician? Doesn't good cheer get old after a while? (As she sings on this CD: "Too many songs about happiness/ Leave me sad and lonely and depressed.") For another, her previous CDs have been damn good. Here's one of her signature songs, "I Drink".

And, finally, Mary Gauthier was a possible growth experience --- and not just for me. Ready? Ring-ring. Off we go.....

Is "The Foundling" therapy, or is it art?

When john Lennon howled "Mother," what was that?

Noted. But before that, he wrote "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

Is it important to write pop before you write art?

Let's put it to the acid test --- how do audiences respond?

I've performed these songs all over the world. People sit in silence and reverence. They connect to the songs through their own experiences.

What's it like for you to perform them?

Sounds crazy, but I really like taking people on the journey and bringing them home to faith and love. I enjoy the role I play as storyteller.

As you sing these songs, do you relive the experiences of your adoption?

Do not. I connect with the stories. But you can't relive this stuff. Once was more than enough.

Any bright, sunny songs in here?

I am very good at bittersweet --- sweet, but not all the way. That's okay. I wasn't put on the earth to do that.

Leonard Cohen has said that "cheerfulness keeps breaking through" for him.

For me, too. Having written this --- finally --- it has brought me to the other side. I 'm not trapped. I've set it free like a balloon. It's a strange thing, and I don't understand it --- telling the story released the story.

What's your mail like?

I get so many stories.

Can you help your correspondents?

I can listen. And that's the greatest help a person can give --- to truly listen. Fix them? Fuck me. I can only fix me.

I'm dazzled that you have a stronger sense of mission than of commerce and career.

If you focus on art, your career follows. I've always focused on telling the truth, and that's given me a career. I wouldn't want to change that now.

How do you pace your shows?

Sing some older songs, then "The Foundling," in order.

How do you handle weeping?

The lights are low. It's like sitting at a movie --- it's private.

Have your adoptive parents heard this?

My adoptive father has passed. I haven't sent other CDs to my adoptive mother, and there's no reason to start here.

What do people who knew you when say about this CD?

They're stunned. They didn't know. They knew the wild child, but not this. I understand. I didn't know her either. I'm 50, and I'm now just finding it out.

Is it possible to know you and not know your story?

Not at this point. I never meant to, but now I lead with it. And it's not all gloom and doom --- sometimes it's just songs.

[Cross-posted from