We recently sat down to chat with singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier whilst she was over in the UK at the start of a tour for her incredible new album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, as well as to take part in AmericanaFest UK.
Her previous albums, including Trouble & Love, Mercy Now, The Foundling and Drag Queens in Limousines have seen her write candidly about her own traumatic experiences, and her work has won many accolades for its powerfully moving qualities. With Rifles & Rosary Beads, Mary turns her attention to veteran soldiers and their families.
As we spoke, we were given amazing insight into what motivated Mary to write Rifles & Rosary Beads. We asked her why she wanted to tell these stories, what the writing process was like, and why it is that, to use the Larry Moss quotation in the album artwork, “There is no higher healing than turning trauma into art.”
Why did you choose to write about the experiences of service men and women?
It seems an odd pairing, doesn’t it? But it’s not really. The subject picked me. My life story and what I’ve been through – which was not war – has given me empathy and an ability to sit with someone who’s been traumatised, and bear witness, and not be afraid. Our veterans and yours have been very traumatised. The war in the Middle East is traumatic – we’re still in it for God’s sake: we’ve been at war so long we don’t even remember we’re at war. There has not been peace declared and we have not brought our men and women home, and so many of them have been deployed over and over again. They can’t say no, they have to go. It’s a strange ground war with improvised explosive devices, and they know that at some point, they’re going to be in a vehicle that’s going to roll over something that’s going to blow up.
It’s difficult as well, given that the wars in the Middle East have become used as political footballs. We lose sight that soldiers are ordinary men and women just doing their job.
Exactly. And they don’t have a voice. They are in many ways lumped into this group that we stereotype: and as a gay person from America, I know about being stereotyped, where your individuality is sucked out of you, and you’re thrown into this group, and you’re no longer considered a person who is fully human; that’s what we’ve done to our soldiers. What I hear from them, and I’ve been working with soldiers for four and a half years, is that no-one hates war more than a soldier, and no-one comes home from war unwounded.
Is it the case it’s also what they’ve had to do, as well as what they’ve seen, that is traumatic?
We talk about that a lot. There’s a concept now called moral injury. This is very difficult to live with. The job requires you to do things that are against your value system. You do them because you have to: it’s your job. When you come home and reflect on what you had to do as part of your job, or through being in a situation where you may be being shot at, that’s beyond your ability to cope, and you react and respond in ways that are outside of your own value system; and then you come home and you’ve survived it, but maybe your friends didn’t, you look back and you have to live with what’s defined as a moral injury. I’ve seen many veterans struggling under the weight of that as much as PTSD or loss of limb. It’s a burden, and not one that is easily lifted. I work with Vietnam veterans who are in their mid-70s who carry a moral injury. This far into a conversation with a veteran carrying that weight, they would probably be in tears.
The album strongly humanises service men and women. Was that an important part of it?
It’s why I wanted to put the record out. It’s to help civilians see members of the military as individual humans, because we stereotype soldiers. Any kind of dehumanization is horrible, and it removes the possibility of empathy.
They don’t make the political choices that lead to war, either.
In four and a half years of working with soldiers, nobody’s talked politics. They’re not there for patriotism or political reasons, but to feed their families. Manufacturing is gone in America, and the UK, good jobs are hard to find, and if you have a family, they need a good job to support their children. A lot of times in America the military will pay for college, so they sign up to get themselves an education because their family can’t afford university fees. Colleges in America are so expensive, and elite now. Who can afford $60,000 a year for an education, times by four or five?
That’s astonishing. I thought fees were high enough here.
But this helps explain it. It doesn’t make sense in the context of the stereotype, but if you remove that and think of the individual, then you realise many of them just wanted to improve their lives and get an education. Serving was one way, and for some, the only way to get an education. So they’d do a couple of years in the military and then get their college paid for. They didn’t want to go to war, and no soldier signs up to the military because they want to go to war. Some come from military families, and they decide it’s for them because it’s an honourable job, and they go into academies so they can join elite serving forces. When you sit down with someone who’s served and you have a good conversation – it’s enlightening. My hope is that this record gives civilians an opportunity to sit down with at least eleven members of the military, as there’s eleven songs, and have a really good conversation.
You say you’ve been speaking to soldiers for four and a half years. Did you think back then that you’d make this sort of album?
No, I didn’t think about it that way. What happened is that I was asked to do a retreat on behalf of Songwriting With Soldiers.
How did you get involved with them?
I was invited. Darden Smith, a songwriter from Austin, discovered the power of this by accident after he did a show in front of soldiers in Germany. He wrote a song with a member of the military after the show. He asked him what he did, and the soldier said he flew Angel Flights. Civilians don’t usually know what that is, but it’s when they fly a body back. So they wrote this beautiful song, and he noticed the power of it. It explained the experience in such a profound way that civilians could understand what these men and women were going through. Songwriting With Soldiers was borne out of that visionary thing. I got involved about six months after he started when he was looking for other songwriters. He’s invited many songwriters and the organization is now five years old.
So how do the retreats work?
He gets four really good, professional songwriters with around ten service members. Sometimes they come in through their spouses, or therapists, but a lot now come in because they’ve been recommended by other veterans who’ve done it. It’s funded through charitable donations, scholarships, foundations, donors. So for three days we sit and listen and turn their experience into songs. After I did it for the first time I fell in love with it. I was really nervous, being older – most are in their 20s or 30s – and a lesbian, I braced myself for the possibility they’d think I wasn’t like them. But these were just stereotypes playing in my head. None of it was true – it was my stupidity, really. We start to do the work, which is a lot of listening. I take the guitar and I try to find music that sounds like what I’m being told. The song comes to life and I get an opportunity to listen. We’re taught by Darden never to say, “I understand,” because if you haven’t been to war you can’t fully understand. The best I can do is say, “I hear you – is this what you just said?” And we don’t try to tell our versions of a story – we don’t have comparable experiences in that realm. So I listen, take what they’ve told me, and put it into the stories.
Was it easy to find a hook for the stories?
So easy. Because they lived a story. When you’ve been traumatised, the story can pour off people. Their souls need to say something, and I find out what that is. It happens quickly, too: none of the songs on the album took more than two hours.
Incredible. And the veterans are part of the process all the time you’re putting together the song?
Absolutely. I’ll keep asking, “Is this what you mean to say? Is this the story? Are these the right words?” They’ll either tell me yes, or say not exactly that. So I ask them questions. I’ve been writing songs a long time and I’ve got nine records, so I know what I’m looking for. So I’ll ask what colour the sky was, or the name of the car you were travelling in, or the rifle you were using. I go through the senses as I do when I’m writing, and I’m thinking of the movie. I ask, “What did you see? Put me in the scene.” As soon as I have an opening scene, it takes off. With the title track, Rifles & Rosary Beads, the young man Joe that I wrote it with was put into Iraq during the surge. He told me, “Guys were holding their rifles with white knuckles, and other guys had rosary beads and they were rolling them in their hands.”
That gives me chills.
Right! Like a movie – you see them. And so, Rifles & Rosary Beads.
It’s finding the right words, and, like poetry, the fewest words to provoke an emotional response in the listener.
You’re put in the movie. Suddenly, you’re in their boots – that’s the power of story. It’s empathy. Suddenly you’re standing there and you are that soldier for three and a half minutes. You see the yellow smoke and orange haze on the horizon, and the whistling sunset bombs. So when the soldier says, “I couldn’t trust the sky,” that’s when I start crying, because I get it: when you can’t trust the sky, you can’t trust anything.
The stories are very universal, too. I found Still On The Ride incredibly moving – it’s about survivor’s guilt, but we all feel, when a friend or someone your age or younger passes, which happened to me very recently – why them and not me? Could I have done more?
It’s part of the power of making these songs. The soldiers’ situations are extreme, so you dial up the intensity, but they’re just human beings, so the emotional experience of their situation, we go through in civilian life, but for most of us, not to the same extent as what the soldiers have gone through. There’s all kinds of wars, death is permanent and unchangeable. We’re powerless at its feet. That’s one of the emotional punches of the stories soldiers tell you. They’re dealing in death.
And trauma too. In the artwork there’s that Larry Moss quotation, “There is no higher healing than turning trauma into art.” Is the songwriting process healing for the veterans?
Yeah, but they don’t come there thinking that. Sometimes they even come along reluctantly. They may be nudged into it by spouses or therapists because they’re struggling. They might not get that what we’re fixing to do is literally finding where the trauma is in their brain – the song is going to find it, and then rescramble it. If the emotional truth is told, the trauma can start to move again, and in a way that moves it through. We call it post-traumatic growth. They’re dealing with PTSD – which is something that is frozen. Now, we’re not healing it, but the songs helps get it unstuck – it’s amazing! When somebody’s really traumatised, they don’t look their age, but older, and their brows are often furrowed. When it gets released, I’ve seen the marks of anxiety disappear from their faces and stay gone. The song gets it moving. Part of what happens is they feel seen, heard and known. With trauma you can’t find the words. It’s ineffable, and that’s the problem. Music is powerful.
And music is the route through to finding the truth and expressing the trauma?
I think so. The music gets in there and helps to refocus some of what’s causing their suffering. This is what I’ve done with my own songs my whole career. I come from a traumatic story myself. I was in an orphanage my first year, and I didn’t have a mom. I carry that hole in me. I figured out, as artists do, that this thing is going to help to heal me. I wrote about it.
I adore the Foundling – it’s an incredibly beautiful album.
Thank you. It’s a painful record too, but I don’t carry the same weight. It liberated me in many ways. Now, I go from the story when I’m the little orphan to being the storyteller. That’s another thing about trauma – you’re the victim. It has power over you. When you become the storyteller, you get agency again.
And I guess when you perform the songs live, you’re the storyteller, and it’s the audience who connect with the stories.
That’s part of it: I inflict it on an audience (laughs)! The other part is that I get to tell it from my point of view. There’s this person in me that this happened to, but it didn’t happen to the storyteller, who is above the story, and that removes the sense of powerlessness and gives me power over the story.
This album has been a collaborative process, and I notice you’re working on a book about the craft of songwriting too, is that right?
Yes, I have a book deal. It’s going to be called ‘Saved By A Song’. I believe that, and I also believe that the ancients knew that as well. The troubadours and the bards sang the news but also the pain, and helped people sing together to articulate it, so it doesn’t kill you. Music gives us a lifejacket and something to hold on to. Commercial music is a product, and a commodity. But music in its purest sense, when used in emotional truth, I think it’s spiritual medicine for a world gone wrong. It’s why Woody Guthrie’s guitar said, ‘This machine kills fascists.’ You shoot them with the truth. Fascism thrives in an environment where lies are everywhere. Music is the truth.
It’s great to see songs from women’s point of view as well, especially Brothers, which is about a lack of acknowledgement of the role service women play. Do you think that’s changing?
It is, yes. But we still haven’t really understood what female service members go through. There’s rampant sexual harassment. There are needs female soldiers have that male soldiers don’t have. If you’re going across the desert in a Humvee, a male can pee in a bottle. What does a female do? Hold it until they get a urinary tract infection. Or they can pee on themselves, which is humiliating, but some male soldiers don’t want them there in the first place. But they can’t stop to let a woman pee, because they’re sitting ducks. Nobody thought of this! They put women in men’s boots, which were too big. So they end up like the song says with giant blood blisters, sliding in their boots. One woman I wrote with was deployed when she was lactating. Her baby was still on her breast. She had a couple of months with her infant before she had to go back. No special treatment, and there’s a cruelty about that. The baby’s left home, the mother’s on a 28-hour flight to Iraq, crying all the way. It needs to be a movie. The true stories that people have lived need to be told.
Yes, and honestly, too.
Right, without glorification. We need women directors. The Hurt Locker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow. I can’t even watch it, it’s so intense. The way to do it is to talk to people who’ve been there: let’s tell their stories, and talk to their families too.
There’s a great song – Stronger Together – at the end of the album, that gave the families a voice.
That came from the wives of veterans. A couple of them also served, but they were married to people in the military. The wives have plenty to say.
So for much of 2018, you’re going to be touring.
Yeah, the tour dates are pouring in. I’m going to be living in hotels this year!
And you’ve tried the songs out on a live audience?
I played Milton Keynes, and it went so well. People do care, and want to know the stories. I’ve had many people here come up in tears and say their relative was in World War Two, and they say, “I didn’t know what was going on with my grandfather, but you’ve just told me.” Because war is war. There’s no difference. The stories are timeless, and the impact was the same on soldiers back when Homer was writing. The wars are fought differently over time, but the emotional impact and the human experience doesn’t change. The UK carries a weight still, from World War Two, and families were forever changed. Fast forward to this crazy, messed up war in Iraq, where nobody can explain why we’re there. But it keeps going. Soldiers don’t ask why – they just go and do their job. They take orders and protect the people next to them. As a civilian co-writing these stories, I want to say, “OK, this is what happens when we send them in; now make your decisions – is this really what you want to do?” There’s no point bringing in politics because people have their positions. My job is to say what happens, and the impact on the people caught up in it.
Is that your hope for the album – that people hear the untold stories?
My hope is to create empathy and to break down the stereotypes that pollute our thinking around soldiers. Music is strong. It goes all the way into the core of who we are, the essence of us. We may even be made of music. But when I’m writing songs with people who have been traumatised and you see the liberating effect it has on them – you can see why I’m addicted to doing this work. It’s what I want to do. I love it.
We tell Mary we love the album too. Rifles & Rosary Beads is out now, and you can check out the extensive tour dates over on MaryGauthier.com.