Thursday, July 12, 2012
"Mercy Now" by Mary Gauthier
ARTIST: Mary Gauthier
SONG: "Mercy Now"
WRITER: Mary Gauthier
ALBUM: Mercy Now on Lost Highway Records
SITE: Mary Gauthier
BUY: Mercy Now (Bonus Track) - Mary Gauthier
I don't know what I could possibly say about this song that you can't hear for yourself. A friend gave this to me when I was on a solo tour, and I think I might have grown up a little just from listening to the wisdom and compassion contained in Mary Gauthier's words. I count this among the great songs of our time, and was so thrilled to talk to Mary about her experience with it.
BA: Hi Mary! I'm so grateful for your participation in the series. I think your song "Mercy Now" is a profound and important piece of writing.
MG: Thank you very much for saying that. It’s been a song that has had a longer reach than I ever dreamed possible when I wrote it. I honestly didn’t even know if it was a good song or not after I finished it. I was also afraid it might be too simple, too folky for most people’s taste. I played it for my publisher and it was received with a yawn, and I think that threw me off. Once people started responding to it, I realized I might need a new publisher!
BA: Your words soothed a deep part of my soul when I first heard them. Though you initially apply your sentiments of acceptance and forgiveness to specific people and institutions, it is a universal message you carry. Was it healing to write?
MG: Forgiveness is something I contemplate daily. I need it and I would be lost without it. That said, I’ve also had to learn how to extend forgiveness, to grow up emotionally and put away childish emotional grudges, and it has been a long and drawn out ordeal for me. I had to start at the beginning and work my way out. I had to forgive my dad for his alcoholism and for the things he did to me and my brother and sister when we were kids, and doing that was a huge step in the process of working for my own emotional maturity. When my father got dementia he went from a terrifying figure to a broken and lost child, and it just tore me up. I could see how, underneath all of the mental illness and the disease he lived with for most of his life, was this small boy who didn’t get the love he needed as a kid. How could I not forgive him once I saw that? It was a huge revelation, and I think it was the key to me writing "Mercy Now."
BA: Was it an intellectual decision to make the focus of the mercy start with very intimate relationships and then grow to include larger entities, like the church, country, and all living things . . . or did the song just unfold in front of you that way?
MG: It was not an intellectual process at all. I started writing about my dad and my brother and the pain they were in, coming from a place of compassion for their hurt. But then the song needed more verses, and it occurred to me that the Catholic Church was being ripped apart and losing many of their faithful because of the way they were dealing (and not dealing) with pedophile priests. And at the same time Bush was gearing up to a war I was not comfortable with . . . it just expanded itself out naturally based on what was going on at the time.
As I was working on it, I remembered a Lucinda Williams song called "Changed The Locks," and I went back and studied it because it used this expanding device . . . it goes from changing the locks on the door to changing the tracks under the train so an ex-lover cannot find her. It’s a great song and I believe she might have gotten the device from an old blues song. Who knows? All I know is that it fell in my lap and I will be forever grateful because it unlocked the structure of "Mercy Now" for me.
BA: I think that music has the power to unify us with a much larger purpose. Have you found that this song has connected you to others you might not have been otherwise?
MG: Oh Lord yes! I’ve had people come up to me and say “I love Rush Limbaugh and listen to his show every day and "Mercy Now" really speaks to me.” It sure makes me wonder . . . what the heck? I’ve had positive write ups in Catholic Magazines, and even had a Baptist minister tell me he used the lyrics of the song in his sermon. It has been recorded by everyone from Candi Staton to Boy George, and I never know what will happen with it next. The song seems to transcend the barriers we commonly think of as deal breakers in human connection. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of.
BA: I did hear that Boy George just recorded a version of the "Mercy Now." I'm a huge fan of his and all that he does. Have you heard his version yet?
MG: He sent me a message telling me he cut it, and he loves it. I have not heard it, but I am thrilled that he’s recorded it, and look forward to hearing his take on it. I too am a huge fan.
BA: One of my favorite lines is in the verse about your brother:
"The pain that he lives in, it's almost more than living will allow . . ."
Did you sob after that first came out of your mouth?
MG: It’s a sad line indeed, and as I travel the world I meet people everywhere who tell me stories about their own brothers' struggles. It’s a universal theme, a universal experience. It is so hard to watch someone you love suffer, and not be able to help. But that’s just how it goes in life, people’s pain is their pain, and often times the “help” we feel compelled to offer is not help at all, but a subtle form of control. People need the dignity of their pain, they need to be seen and heard, but most of the time, the most we can do is to just let them know we see them and will be there for them with love when they fall. It’s certainly been the thing that I’ve most appreciated from people who love me.
BA: Who were your biggest influences when you wrote this song?
MG: I can’t remember what I was listening to when I wrote it, but certainly I stand hat in hand in the shadow of early Dylan and the folk singers of the 60’s with this one.
BA: Am I correct in my understanding that you have recently re-tracked the song? How does the new recording feel different from the first one for you? And when do we get to hear it?
MG: I did re-cut it. I added a bit of gospel to it, put an amazing singer from Memphis on it named Joanna Cotton who brings it to another place, less folky and more gospel influenced. I re-recorded it for a television placement, but I will probably put it out in some other ways at some point soon.
BA: What has been your greatest victory with this song so far?
MG: Well, I am not sure there’s a single event I would call a victory, but I think that just having the song continue to do work in the world has been very gratifying. When a song takes on a life of its own, and goes out there and works its way through human hearts one after another over a decade or more, I know it’s a good song, and that is a victory in and of itself. Gillian Welch likes to say that we don’t know if a song is great until 50 years after it's written, and I agree with that. A song is great if it continues to be played and sung long after the writer has passed. I hope that will be the case with "Mercy Now," but I won’t be around to see if it will be so.
BA: What’s your favorite song right this minute?
MG: I am into a couple of songs, and I’ve added them to my show . . . "Cigarette Machine" by Fred Eaglesmith, and "Thought I Heard a Train" by Tom Mason. I love those two songs!
BA: Again, thank you . . . for both the interview and the music
MG: My pleasure, thank you for including me and "Mercy Now" in your work.