From The Current: From Spark To Finish: Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now"
The muse gave Mary Gauthier “Mercy Now.” But it took work for her to give it to the world.
“Mercy Now” was conceived in a hotel room in Canso, Nova Scotia, one of seven in the whole maritime village. Sitting alone on the side of her bed, Mary Gauthier thought about her dad, his failing mind and their tormented relationship. She was ready to make peace.
“When he became incapacitated, he became childlike. All I could feel for him was mercy and forgiveness,” she remembers. “You can't be at war with someone who's now a child again. I wanted to take care of him, and I wanted him to be OK. It just opened up my heart. That's where that song started.”
Mercy, it occurred to her then, was the only choice. She caught her inspiration. The voice spoke to her. Her dad needed her to write “Mercy Now.” Mary needed to write “Mercy Now.” The world needed her to write “Mercy Now.”
The way Mary talks about writing songs, inspiration is just the beginning, a spark for the craft. It’s a calling, loud or gentle. A bug tickling at your ear or crawling up your skin. Before “Mercy Now” became a classic — certifiably one of the all time saddest country songs — Gauthier toiled. God gave her a first verse, her father, but she needed to take it the rest of the way.
“I recall trying to put my mom in the second my mom in the second verse but the song wasn't having it. She kept getting spit out,” Mary chuckles. “I tried to put my sister in and that wasn't going to happen. I tried to put my brother in, and it fit right in. Father and brother, back-to-back, was where that song wanted go.”
Second verse firmly in place, Mary chipped away at the rest, swapping out ideas in a process of elimination. What finally made “Mercy Now” click was a trick from a master: Mary studied Lucinda Williams’ scornful blues “Changed the Locks.” At first, Williams’ narrator changes a lock on her front door to keep an abusive lover away, by song’s end, she swaps out the name of her hometown. It’s a widening focus from close-up to panorama.
Mary cribbed the concept and slotted in her own expanding universe: her father, her brother, the Catholic Church, the world.
She carried the song across Canada to a festival in British Columbia. There, in another lonely hotel room, “Mercy Now” was born.
The very next day, she performed it for the first time — the lyrics taped to a microphone stand. Even walking up to the stage, she wasn’t sure it was complete. The absolute truth she sought, a weight on her solar plexus, had yet to land. After her performance, she had her answer.
“I often try it out on an audience to see if I'm confident with it in front an audience. If I'm feeling as though I need to mumble a line that I’m not proud of, that's a giant red flag,” Mary says. “You're not singing those words clearly because you know it's not the absolute truth. You're not done yet. If I can sing out clearly, all the words, that's how I know it's done.“
“Mercy Now” has since become Mary’s signature song; that’s a testament to its timelessness and relatability. True craftsmen hone songs into vessels for listeners’ experiences. We don’t forgive Mary’s father. We forgive our own.
That may seem like magic. But Mary says its a teachable skill. At the SOLO Songwriters Festival, Mary will show us how it’s done.
Mary will curate an all-star faculty of the world’s great songwriters, gathered in one place for four days to exchange tools of the trade and collaborate on new material. Throughout the festival, local and visiting songwriters will perform for public audiences, giving onlookers the chance to hear music in the making.
SOLO was created in partnership with the Buddy Holly Foundation. It’s a workshop for aspirers and admirers of song craft. The festival is open to participants and passersby.
Visit https://www.solosongwriters.com/events/ for programming and ticket details.