"Tough question," says Mary Gauthier when asked why so many people forge such strong bonds with her music. "I never know what people will like or not like. I just do my best to be honest and then hold my breath and throw the songs out there."
Gauthier's been throwing out plenty worth liking: Last year's slow-boiling Mercy Now (her fourth release, and first for Lost Highway) claimed the No. 2 spot on No Depression's year-end list, and it finished third in the New York Daily News' annual sweep.
Perhaps most striking is Mercy Now's title track, a hushed powerhouse that whispers like a prayer and hits like a summer storm. Poised by Gauthier's brisk realism, it avoids becoming a plea: "Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now/ I know we don't deserve it/ But we need it anyhow." Elsewhere, on "I Drink" (a reprise from 1999's attention-demanding Drag Queens in Limousines), she spins lines like "Chicken TV dinner/ 6 minutes in defrost, 3 on high" that play like haikus for the disenchanted. And, in hindsight, the album-closing "It Ain't the Wind, It's the Rain" paints the Louisiana native as soothsayer, though the song's hurricane is as much internal as external.
In fact, Gauthier's ability to write deeply personal songs with an unflinching, almost documentary quality makes her folk-rock feel like trance music, a penetrating, beckoning gaze. But has she ever worried about being too unflinching?
"Yep, I have. Songwriting is all about perspective, and I have got to get the right perspective on my story before I can make it into a song worth listening to. So the issue is not whether the subject matter is too personal. It is whether or not I have a good perspective to write from," Gauthier says. "I don't like to write a song that's got no hope in it, and, if I can't find the hope thread, then usually it is because I am not looking in the right window."
Mary Gauthier plays The Pour House on Saturday, Sept. 23. Joining her on the bill is Slaid Cleaves, another gifted songwriter who, on his new Unsung, puts his own compositions in the cupboard temporarily and covers songs from writers he admires. Tickets are $15, and the show starts at 6 p.m.