Mary Gauthier has spent her career attempting to cut her songs down to the bone, so much so that audiences sometimes don’t know what to make of her. Take “I Drink,” a grimly matter-of-fact portrait of alcoholism painted so unfussily that she’s often introduced it by mentioning how often people laugh. “I think it’s just so stark that essentially they don’t even know how to react,” says Gauthier, who struggled with her own drug and alcohol addictions for years before becoming sober following a drunken-driving arrest in 1990. “I pulled so many layers off to get to the thing that sometimes I think it startles people.”
For her new album, “Trouble & Love” (which comes out Tuesday, the day before she performs at Johnny D’s in Somerville), Gauthier was determined to keep minimizing the distance between her and her material, which in her case meant not only live takes in a single room with her band but also with as little rehearsal time as possible. The New Orleans native, who ran Cajun restaurant Dixie Kitchen in Back Bay for more than a decade before turning to songwriting, found that the process fit the rough but soft corners of her songs. “We didn’t have to beat any of ’em up,” she says. “They just flowed.”
Q. How do you record with a band that hasn’t ever played the songs?
A. You get a band that’s so good, they don’t have to have played the songs. Musicians know where it’s going if it’s written right. I played it for them on my acoustic guitar. Once or twice, I had to play it [for them] twice. And they got it, in the head and in the heart, and then everybody took their positions and we all played it together. Usually it took three or four times and it locked in. We never had to play it more than five times before we had it. I don’t do it this way every time, but the nature of these songs is vulnerability. So what I wanted to do was capture that in the musicians as well.
Q. You wrote over 30 songs before settling on the eight on “Trouble & Love.” How did you whittle the number down?
A. [Producer] Patrick [Granado] and I sat down separately and picked our favorite 10, the 10 that we thought told the story. And we came real close to matching. We cut nine of those 10 and then dropped one that didn’t need to be there. Basically, we both knew the story. We both knew what we were trying to get across. And I had to write past it to get to it. . . . It’s an intense thing that we tried to capture. Maybe somebody else would have done it with 20 songs, but it felt like those eight told the story, and I didn’t want any fat on it. I didn’t want anything extra.
Q. What happens to the songs that you didn’t use?
A. They’ve already disappeared. I don’t even know where they are. They’re somewhere in the song world.
Q. So you just let them go?
A. Yeah, I don’t play everything I write. I mean, everything I write is not that good. I bring out into the world the ones I think that are really worthy of an audience’s attention. A lot of times, a bunch of songs have to be written to get to the next really good one. I teach songwriting a lot, and I always tell my students, “You gotta write the little songs sometimes to get to the next big song in the chute.” You gotta write ’em to get to it. You never know what’s going to be a little song or a big song.
Q. Right out of the gate with your first album, you won awards and were invited to a number of high-profile folk festivals, like Newport. I’m assuming that eased a lot of second-guessing about leaving your restaurant career.
A. Somewhat? I mean, that was a very solid and stable thing that I had going there. It provided a steady income, and there was job security. And stepping into the music business at 40, no matter how you cut it, was scary. But yet I knew I had to. I didn’t want to be on my deathbed telling myself, “Dammit, I wish I would’ve went for it.” I had to go for it to know. I had to know if I could. And I’m so glad that I did. I think having near-death experiences, they sure made me free. Because I was able to tell myself, “Hell, I should be dead anyway. Why not give it a try? I got this second life here. Why not go for what’s in my heart?” And what was in my heart was, I wanted to be a songwriter more than anything. I wanted to be a songwriter more than a restaurateur. So at some point, I made the decision to go for it. It was post-Newport — but Newport did not make me have a career, I’ll tell you that. It was a great gig, but I was still playing for $50 a night, and sometimes for tips. That Newport thing was a wonderful experience the first time, and it made me see that it was possible. But I didn’t then leave Newport and go get a thousand dollars a night or anything. It was still $50 a night, a hundred dollars a night, I didn’t have the career yet. That happened so fast. I didn’t build it. I had to go out in the world and build it. I’m still building it.Interview was condensed and edited. Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.