BOOK REVIEW: Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting

Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting
by Mary Gauthier
(St. Martin’s Essentials)

“A powerful exploration of the inspiration and struggles behind a true troubadour”

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On a recent, must-listen episode of Brian Koppelman’s “The Moment” podcast, songwriter Mary Gauthier discussed the difference between herself and a career Music Row songwriter: “If you’re signed to a publishing deal on Music Row in Nashville, your job is to feed hits to the publisher so that they can monetize your songs, and you’re writing for a very specific, small window [commercial radio]…that is where you throw your darts. That is the little red circle in the middle. Will radio play it? For me, I just take the dart board off the wall and throw it out the window…For me, what I’m trying to do is get to the truth.”

That explanation reads like a thesis statement to Gauthier’s poignant book. Part memoir, part song examination (both her own, as well as John Prine’s “Sam Stone” and John Lennon’s “Mother”), Saved by a Song showcases what makes Mary Gauthier a master at the craft: commitment to the truth. Much like in her songs, Gauthier doesn’t hold back here, detailing a troubled upbringing, serious substance abuse problems, and personal and relationship issues. This journey culminates with an attempted reconnection with her birth mother and the recognition of the trauma she experienced as a child.

While this journey can make for an intense read, it’s deftly balanced by Gauthier, who uses these real-life examples to shed light on her writing process (and highlight the healing part of her book’s subtitle). There’s also more humor than might be expected, with anecdotes about early open mic disasters that are sure to resonate with aspiring songwriters and a dry wit that permeates the book.

Even more helpful for songwriting readers, Gauthier shows early drafts of her songs and details how and why she continued revising to get to the finished song. This drive — for a shift in a song’s perspective, or a new bridge, or even the change of one word — is instructive and encouraging. While this is not a songwriting “how-to” guide (Gauthier appears to shudder at the thought), it is an incredibly revealing look at the hard work and mystery of what makes a song and a songwriter.

If Gauthier was attempting to write a timeless work about the creative life and the choices one makes to write deep, true songs – she hit the bullseye.

For more info, please visit marygauthier.com

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