GUY RAZ, host:
Folk singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier's new record, called "The Foundling," opens with a haunting a cappella and the story of an abandoned child.
(Soundbite of song, "The Foundling")
Ms. MARY GAUTHIER (Singer): (Singing) A foundling, a foundling, looking for home, wanders through darkness and travels alone.
RAZ: "The Foundling" is Mary Gauthier, and this record is the story of her life told in 13 parts.
Gauthier was born in New Orleans in 1962 to an unwed mother who immediately gave her up for adoption. As a young woman, the pain and sense of abandonment led her to a life of alcoholism and drug abuse and eventually, crime.
She's been clean and sober since 1990, but she never stopped searching for a way to soothe the pain. Gauthier's new album, "The Foundling," chronicles her attempt to reconnect with the mother who gave her up so long ago.
And Mary Gauthier joins me from our bureau in New York City.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. GAUTHIER: Hi. It's great to be with you today.
RAZ: Did you start to do this project to kind of work through what you were going through?
Ms. GAUTHIER: I write all my songs to work through what I'm going through.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GAUTHIER: It gives it a beginning, a middle and an end, and a reason for existing. My experiences make more sense to me when I write about them. Life seems to make sense in that three and a half minutes.
(Soundbite of song, "Goodbye")
Ms. GAUTHIER: (Singing) Born a bastard child in New Orleans to a woman I've never seen. I don't know if she ever held me. All I know is she let go of me.
RAZ: On this song, "Goodbye," you have a line in there, you say: I hit the wall and then I hit the highway. Has that been a pattern in your life, that kind of restlessness?
Ms. GAUTHIER: Yeah. That's the nature of that song, is to talk about the sense of being constantly, compulsively needing to move on, as though when I was passed out of my mother's womb into the hands of a stranger, it started a process that I couldn't stop. Over and over again, I've left people that I love, and I've left towns - and I've left, and I've left, and I've left. And part of my journey in this part of my life is learning how to stay.
RAZ: Mary Gauthier, before you started writing this album, you played a show in New Orleans, the city where you were born, and you visited that very spot where you were dropped off for adoption after birth. What was that about? Why did you do that?
Ms. GAUTHIER: Well, it was a coincidence, really. I played a show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. And the next day, the person who was involved in booking me at the museum was taking me to lunch and she said, you know, you mentioned on stage last night that you lived in New Orleans once, at St. Vincent's, when you were a baby. And we just happened to be passing by. Would you like to see the place? It's a guest house now.
And I said, OK. I'd never even thought about going back there. And we stopped, and we walked up to the front door. And above the front door, chiseled in marble, was the words: St. Vincent's Women and Infants Asylum.
And I just got this flash of my mother walking up those steps pregnant, and then walking out without me. And for the very first time in my life, my birth mother became real to me.
It's strange when you're adopted. My mother who adopted me is my mother, and I never thought a lot about my birth mother as being real. It was more like a Disney story. But when I walked up those steps in that orphanage, she became a human being, and I empathized with what she must have gone through as a young girl, pregnant, unmarried, 1962 - the shame, the horror, the terror she must have felt. And it all became real.
(Soundbite of song, "Mama Here, Mama Gone")
Ms. GAUTHIER: (Singing) Basinets and babies, St. Vincent's infants home. Orphaned in limbo, helpless and alone. Paradise receding, paradise withdrawn. A tiny heart is beating. Mama here, mama gone.
Ms. GAUTHIER: And that's when I embarked on writing this record, and really committed myself to making a song cycle to tell this story of the foundling.
RAZ: And it also inspired you to try and track down your mother, right?
Ms. GAUTHIER: Yeah, I hired a private detective and was able to locate her in, believe it or not, in three days. It took me six months, though, to get the courage to pick that phone up and make that phone call.
RAZ: And the centerpiece of this new record is a song, "March 11, 1962," and that song recalls that phone conversation you eventually had with your mother.
(Soundbite of song, "March 11, 1962")
Ms. GAUTHIER: (Singing) Hello, hello, say something, don't leave me hanging here like this. If there's something right to say right now, I don't know what it is. This is the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'm terrified. Now you asked me why I'm calling. I don't know why.
RAZ: It's such a heartbreaking song. What was that conversation like?
Ms. GAUTHIER: Heartbreaking would be a good adjective. Look, she had to let her baby go, and she is a traumatized human being. She never was able to tell anybody that she was pregnant. She married someone who was not my dad, and was never confident or comfortable enough to tell him that she had had a child out of wedlock before she married him.
She raised his children and never told them. She's a woman with a secret, and she's in a lot of pain about it and...
RAZ: And that was the last time you spoke with her?
Ms. GAUTHIER: That was it.
RAZ: If you'd had that face-to-face meeting with your birth mother, what do you think, ideally, you would have wanted to come out of it?
Ms. GAUTHIER: Boy, that's just so hard for I mean, I don't know. It's hard to answer these questions because I don't have all the answers. All I know is I was looking for something, and maybe I found it. Maybe I've got a period at the end of the sentence where there once was a question mark. At least I have some information that I was looking for.
RAZ: Does your mom know about this, your birth mom, does she know about this record?
Ms. GAUTHIER: No, uh-uh. I've contemplated sending it to her. When the private detective found her, I had the private detective give her my website and give her my phone number. And six months went by and my mother, she never called or reached out.
And so eventually, I reached out to her, and she hadn't gone to the website or read the information or she can't. She can't look at this, and I have to honor that.
RAZ: It's a really difficult album, in terms of the story. It's a beautiful album but of course, it's difficult to hear as well, because of the story. But one of the things that's really great is you - you sort of leave us on an upbeat note with the song "Another Day Borrowed."
(Soundbite of song, "Another Day Borrowed")
Ms. GAUTHIER: (Singing) Passing through, I'm passing through, I might be gone tomorrow. Wild and worn, I'm hanging on to another day borrowed.
That's where this song cycle landed me - is in a place of gratitude, really. One of the big lessons I've learned, taking these songs all over the world, is that everybody has a story. And I'm not all that unique. And ultimately, every day aboveground is a blessing and a good day.
I'm grateful for the sacrifices that were made so that I could have a good life -and I could have a life at all. And the best way to honor the people who have made the sacrifices would be to enjoy this life, and embrace love, and embrace community and connection. And that's what I fully intend to do, and that's why I wrote this record.
RAZ: That's Mary Gauthier. Her new album is called "The Foundling." If you'd like to hear full tracks from that record, go to nprmusic.org.
Mary Gauthier, thank you so much for sharing your story.
Ms. GAUTHIER: It's a pleasure to be on the show. Thanks for having me.
(Soundbite of song, "Another Day Borrowed")
Ms. GAUTHIER: (Singing) Midnight water dark and high, it's pressing on the levee. Snakes are bound for higher ground...
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.