Mary Gauthier’s life began again in a Dorchester jail cell.
Arrested for drunk driving, the former Boston restaurant owner curled into a fetal position on the cell floor. “I saw myself. I had a problem.” That turning point opens the Grammy nominee’s brand new memoir, “Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting.”
It reads like an intensely personal diary that’s also full of songwriting inspiration and tips. The acclaimed folk musician — and former owner of Boston’s Dixie Kitchen — recounts how the local open-mic scene quite literally saved her.
Raised in Louisiana, Gauthier was adopted by a couple whose marriage began to unravel. Her father was an alcoholic, home life was “volatile,” and both parents “became increasingly suicidal,” she writes. Her father “would pull his belt out of his pants, put it around his neck, and storm around the house, drunk, looking for a place to hook it.”
There were other struggles: She was a gay teen in the conservative south. She started drinking, using, stealing. She was in and out of “multiple treatment centers before I was 18. … I was released from Kansas jail the day after my 18th birthday under the condition I leave the state and never return.” One night she overdosed, and “narrowly escaped death.”
After Gauthier’s move to Boston and arrest for that Dorchester DUI, a waiter at Gauthier’s Boston restaurant took her to a 12-step meeting near Berklee College of Music. A Berklee student who worked as a waitress at Dixie inspired her to attend an open mic at Club Passim.
A first-timer at 32, she felt old. After what felt like a disaster of a first go, she thought: “Better you should kill yourself than ever stand on another stage again. But there was another voice … ‘You might do better next time.”’
She listened to that second voice. She played Passim every Tuesday. She quit drinking. And starting songwriting.
I called Gauthier, 59, at home in Nashville to talk about how she found her voice.
Q. So much of your turning point is in Boston.
A. Boston is a huge part of my story. I came to Boston in ’88, ’89. I needed to get out of where I was in Louisiana. I had a friend in Boston who helped me get started. I had a basement apartment on Beacon Hill. I opened a restaurant within the first two years of being in town. And then while I was running that first restaurant, I went to culinary school [at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts].
Q. You were inspired by a Berklee student.
A. She brought me to an open mic and I saw her shine. I saw myself on that stage somehow. I wanted it. That’s where the lightbulb got screwed in for me: at Passim that night.
Q. You had a scary first-time up there.
A. It was terrifying. It was painful. I was terrible. It’s a lot harder than it looks. I had so much to learn. Something in me said, “Go back and try again.” And I just kept going.
Q. How long did you have to force it?
A. Years [laughs]. A very long time. There’s a pretty steep learning curve. A lot of people who get on stage have been doing it since they were kids. I got in much older than your average person.
Q. The other turning point came when you started going to the Old Vienna Kaffeehaus, and were moved by an older farmer singing.
A. When I saw the power of what he did, it showed me the way forward. It proved you don’t have to use age as an excuse — if you connect with people and make them feel, bring them to an emotional place with your song, you can create an audience.
Q. You had another turning point when you heard the Indigo Girls on WUMB, and then saw them live at Paradise Rock Club.
A. They opened a door. There have been a lot of people singing beautiful harmonies together — but not two obviously gay women who drew an audience of primarily women who were screaming for them. They opened a passageway, and so many of us have walked through it. The Indigo Girls marked a turning point in our culture.
Q. You write about a tough home-life.
A. My parents were troubled. My father was an alcoholic. There was a lot of pain in their marriage. They were in a bad marriage. Of course that affects the kids. In retrospect, it would’ve been better if they separated earlier, but back then they stayed together for the kids, which today we know damages kids.
Q. You open the book with that night in jail, which is a great place to start.
A. I felt I needed to start there. I call the book “Saved by a Song,” so you have to establish what you’ve been saved from. It saved me from a life of addiction and trouble. Songs didn’t come until I was sober. Through years of using music and song as a way to help me heal, I found myself using music and song as a way to help veterans heal [with Grammy-nominated album “Rifles & Rosary Beads”] and doctors and nurses on the frontline of COVID [including at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s]. Music and song is a powerful thing.
This book is really songwriting instruction, using my story as the lens. I don’t think the most important part of the book is my story. I think the most important part is the power of song.
Q. What would you want aspiring songwriters to take from it?
A. That there’s a big umbrella. And everyone who wants to write songs can stand under it. There’s all kinds of reasons to write songs. If your reason is to try to write hits, go for it. If your purpose is to try not to go under with your own trauma that has you by the throat, go for it. There’s room for you.