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Music as a ‘restorative force’ drives Mary Gauthier ever onward

Mary Gauthier | Laura Partain Photo

Singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier wasn’t sure what to expect when she walked into her first retreat with the nonprofit group SongwritingWith:Soldiers. But one thing she knew for sure was that she was terrified.

Co-founded in 2012 by fellow songwriter Darden Smith and his longtime friend Mary Judd, the organization sponsors two-day retreats where established songwriters pair up with combat veterans and their families to collaborate on songs about their experiences in hopes of moving toward emotional and spiritual healing.

Mary Gauthier

When: 8 p.m. March 8

Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $24-$26

Info: oldtownschool.org

“I was afraid I didn’t know enough about the military to be useful,” Gauthier recalls now nearly five years after that first session. “Plus I carried a handful of stereotypes like so many civilians do about the military.”

All that fear quickly evaporated as Gauthier was enveloped by the reality of simply sitting with someone and listening to their story and letting the music take over.

“Bearing witness in a nonjudgmental way is a big part of the process,” she says. “No matter what they say, no matter what they’ve done, my job is to simply listen and try to get the best possible song out of what they are telling me. I think music is the highest form of healing.”

Gauthier (pronounced go-SHAY) has now amassed more than 40 songs born out of successive retreats. After she began performing some of the songs at her shows and getting a positive response, she realized it was time to get them before an even bigger audience. Eleven of these songs now make up Gauthier’s arresting new album “Rifles & Rosary Beads.”

Gauthier, 55, has long seen music as a restorative force. Over a two-decade career, she dug deep into her own troubled past (abandonment as a child, addiction), found salvation and created some deeply moving songs along the way.

Songwriting on a deadline was another thing Gauthier had never done before. “It can take me many months to write one of my own songs,” she admits, with a laugh. “So at first this new process was frightening. These songs were written in two hours. I’m still surprised every time how well it works.”

The songs on “Rifles & Rosary Beads” are folk songs framed in Gauthier’s smoky vocals. They go a long way to revealing the underlying traumas of a soldier’s experience serving in a war while also laying bare the equally traumatic experiences of their loved ones.

“The War After the War” (co-written with fellow songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman and a collection of veterans’ spouses) is a haunting account of changed lives from a spouse’s point of view. “Iraq” (co-written with veteran Brandy Davidson) is a harrowing account of what it’s like for women in the military. “Brothers” (co-written with veterans Meghan Counihan, Britney Pfad and Georgia Midleman) is a heartfelt account of a female soldier’s deployment just after giving birth.

The album’s title song was inspired by a poem written by Joseph Costello, 37, a veteran from Kalamazoo, Mich., who at 20 joined the Army and served in Iraq and subsequently battled his own demons. Home life became a struggle, and he says he tried many avenues searching for relief from something he couldn’t quite identify.

Costello admits at first he was apprehensive about working with Gauthier but he soon discovered this was the place where he could let himself go and “melt into the moment.”

“We shed a lot of tears and shared a lot of stories and found a kind of sacred place to be creative and honest,” recalls Costello, who is now a medical librarian/instructor at Western Michigan University’s Homer Stryker School of Medicine.

“Now knowing that people I don’t know are listening to this song feels remarkable and kind of surreal,” Costello adds. “Like Darden says if you dig deep enough you hit a primal nerve and that general human experience we all go through.”

Politics are intentionally kept out of the songs but Gauthier hopes they help “build a bridge between left and right” and foster empathy and a discussion about “what war does to soldiers and their families so that we might not be so quick to send them into these situations.”

Gauthier is often asked about what she personally gets out of her songwriting sessions with the veterans. The answer is one she says she wouldn’t have predicted.

“I’ve learned tenderness. I’ve learned humility and kindness and sacrifice from these men and women who have served. I think that’s a pretty big thing.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.