During the past four and half years, Mary Gauthier has written more than 50 songs with U.S. military veterans and their families via the Songwriting With Soldiers program. She’s releasing the first 11 as Rifles & Rosary Beads on Jan. 26 — whose “Brothers” is premiering exclusively below.
“It’s really a unique program, and it spoke to me from the first time I did it, something just clicked inside of me,” Gauthier tells Billboard. “I didn’t have experience with veterans or their families prior to doing this. I was introduced to a whole new world of people, and I really bonded with them. It’s a very emotional process. I’ve cried with so many of our veterans now, but they’re not tears of what I would call despair or even sorrow; It’s more the tears of human connection, when you really empathize with someone and get it. It’s powerful.”
While she’s used to creating songs from her own experiences after 23 years of releasing music, Gauthier says that with the veterans “I’m midwifing their stories, their songs, into the world. I take 10 records of songwriting experience into the co-wrote, but it’s their stories and their words, and as they talk I start to listen to what they have to say and let it take shape. It’s going to have a Mary Gauthier feel to it because I’m playing and singing and writing the melodies, but the words and stories are really theirs and (the songs) never would’ve been written without me sitting there and listening to their experiences.”
The tracks on Rifles & Rosary Beads run the gamut of those experiences, from a female soldier’s harrowing encounters with sexual abuse in “Iraq” to the combat imagery of the title track and, in several songs, the impact service and deployment has on family relationships. And “Brothers,” co-written with Army veterans Meghan Couninghan and Britney Pfad and fellow singer-songwriter Georgia Middleman, tackles another kind of military gender inequity.
“I think this is groundbreaking because we don’t know the full story of what happens to women when we put them in combat. There’s a lot of silence around that,” Gauthier explains. “They send women into combat without being prepared for women in combat. The men resented them being there, and it was just very, very difficult for them, and they had to fight for the respect they were earning. And that’s all they want is the respect.
“When they came back home they noticed on Facebook that someone they served with raised a flag on his Facebook page for all his brothers who served with him, and that was devastating. The song became ‘aren’t your sisters your brothers, too? I was there for you. I would’ve died for you.’ The military uses all male terminology and has not updated it. They’re still service men. And that’s devastating to (women). There’s a big story here, and I just barely touched on it.”
Gauthier considers Rifles & Rosary Beads to be the first of a series of albums she anticipates releasing from the Songwriting With Soldiers sessions, and she plans to continue working with the veterans and their families on more new material. And she’s hoping other writers involved in the program, and others to come in the future, will also turn the material they create into albums.
“These veterans truly are service members,” Gauthier says. “In the truest spirit of service, they want to give. That’s their calling — ‘If my story can be of service to someone else, let’s do it.’ So it gives me great purpose in this time of chaos and many people wondering ‘what’s the point?’ I’ve got an answer for that, and this gives me something really solid to focus my work around — more than I could ever give them.”