is a podcast that turns stories into songs, featuring David Gilmour, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Earle, Roxane Gay, Amanda Shires, Susan Orlean and Katie Melua. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring Mary Gauthier and Kelley McRae, only at Paste.
Grammy Award-winning songwriter Mary Gauthier never expected to know who her birth mother was. She was given up for adoption as an infant, at a time when orphanages tried to intentionally and irrevocably sever connections between parent and child. But Gauthier found a person who specialized in reconnecting adopted children with their birth parents, and soon she had her birth mother’s phone number.
“It was scary. It took months and months of circling the phone before I could pick it up and dial,” says Gauthier.
Gauthier had few expectations, but she was still surprised to hear that her birth mother did not want to meet her. Her birth mother had gone on to have a family, and had never told her husband or her children about the baby she had surrendered to the orphanage all those years ago.
“She wasn’t unkind. She was unwilling. Because it would blow up her life,” says Gauthier, concluding, “It’s not a Hollywood ending.”
Yet over time Gauthier has been able to transform her sadness and hurt into empathy, and she attributes that transformation to grace. She writes eloquently about that process in her memoir, Saved by a Song.
“I think it is grace—if you can empathize with people who hurt you, and understand that they weren’t doing it to you; they were just doing it,” she says. “It wasn’t personal. Hell, she doesn’t even know me!”
Songwriter Kelley McRae is a longtime fan of Gauthier, not just of her songwriting, but of her philosophy on life and art. In fact, she is such a devotee that she spent her honeymoon at one of Gauthier’s songwriting retreats, and it changed her life.
“I went home to my husband and said, ‘Congratulations, not only did we not take a honeymoon, now I want to go live in a van and sing my songs full time,’” McRae laughs.
McRae and her husband Matt Castelein are partners in life and in art, and they spent years traveling the country. They played house concerts, and clubs, and, on one memorable occasion, a dog’s birthday party.
In response to Gauthier’s story, McRae and Castelein wrote a song called “What Do You Do,” and recorded it in their backyard studio. The song was also inspired by a conversation during one of the songwriting workshops that McRae now teaches.
“When we don’t do the work that Mary has so clearly done—and that I’m trying to do—we pass on that pain,” McRae says.
Ben Arthur (@MyHeart on Twitter) is the creator and host of SongWriter. His latest song, “Persistent Ghosts,” is about traumatic memory.