A letter to a young songwriter, from Mary Gauthier

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Mary Gauthier, songwriting advice

[This post is part of a series of letters from established artists to young musicians. We’re honored to have the incredible singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier contribute the very first entry.]

“Nearly everything that matters is a challenge, and everything matters.” — Rilke

You’ve watched your musical heroes take the stage to thunderous applause, adulation and love, and you burn for that, for yourself, and you want to be a professional writer of songs. The songwriting call has whispered in your ears for years now, and you’ve decided to answer it. You are ready to embrace it, to begin your journey as a songwriter. I congratulate you, and would offer you a few considerations (if you are open to hearing from someone who has trudged this path for decades now).

Warning: a songwriter’s life is not what you think it is.  

Music is more than a bouquet of sweet vibrations; it is something from a higher world, which we humans have been given the power to invoke. Artists are alchemists, with our hands in the holy. The Sacred. Yes, there is great power in creating music, but also great danger. The journey of the artist is filled with pitfalls. Where there is great beauty and the power to move millions on this path, there is always great risk.

Songwriting is a noble calling that requires more than talent and perseverance. It requires courage. If you are willing to face yourself and honestly reveal in your songs what you’ve seen in that unveiling of yourself, then you have a chance of writing songs that will outlive you. What can we gain by walking on the moon and planets if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages, and it is the job of the artist. The object of art is not to make salable products. It is to save one’s self, and to be a part of saving us all. Either we tell our story, or our story tells us.

And know this: A half-truth is a whole lie. Character, like integrity, is much easier kept than recovered. So write from your true self, not the self you think you should be. Do not try to impress us, and do not hide behind thin walls and smoke screens. It will only bore us. Brutal self -honesty is your challenge, and will reward you with much more than you can yet imagine.

You must learn how to reject acceptance and accept rejection. People’s opinions of you and your work are irrelevant. The search for love and applause has no place in the creative process. Here is what I know: thriving artists suffer from a feeling of inferiority, a feeling of reaching for something that keeps being just outside our grasp. We make contact with it, and then it turns to smoke. It cannot be held. So our work involves a constant striving. Those that don’t know this feeling are pretending to be close to art and live in secret fear of the aloneness of the deep creative process. Art requires audacity, and if you are not afraid, you are not taking risks. You will simply skim the surface and offer the world nothing new. Ultimately, your songs will not matter.

An artist’s job is to reach communion with truth, and bring that holy light into the world in order to soothe souls trapped in dark places. It is exceedingly difficult work and most who attempt it fail. That said, there is no safety in success either. In fact, triumph brings a greater danger, because the intense light of success is a wick that draws in darkness. Stars burn up.  Flame out. Stars overdose, suicide. Some become oldies acts that create no new magic but simply repeat what has already been done over and over again, not for beauty’s sake, but for cash. And they suffer this as a humiliation and become bitter. A deep grounding in solitude is necessary to remain vital and creative. Solitude courts the muse. So know this: you have chosen a lonely path.

As you work, you will have to learn to embrace each failure as an unavoidable part of the process. There will be many false starts and errors, and even though it is terrifying, you must continue to err, and to do so on the bold side. Have the audacity to lose face, don’t worry about saving it, and embrace each glorious failure as a necessary part of the journey. The chief danger in songwriting (and life) is taking too many precautions. There is a very real relationship between what you contribute and what you get out of this life, but satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. The point of the work is the work. Being vulnerable in your work will bring you strength.

And here is a final warning. If you do succeed and people come to know your name and your songs, the creative process gets harder, not easier. Fame and success attracts parasites, clingers on, and wannabe’s. These non-creators will do everything in their power to attach to the light around you thinking it will bring them out of their own darkness. It will not, but they do not know this. If you let them in, their hungry mouths will suck the light from you and when you are emptied they will simply move on and attach to someone else’s glow. You must rid your life of these people, or suffer their debilitating and soul crushing manipulations.

Fame and success also bring laziness, and ego swelling. With success comes the confusion of believing you are doing great work, backed up the reassurance of people on your payroll, when you are not. It is easy to become delusional and get lost. Fame is a full time job. So is songwriting. A choice is often required. Choose wisely.

So then, again the point of all this work is simply the work. Struggle is the path, and there is no destination, only the path. We do not get “there.” There is no there. There is only here, now, on the path, in the struggle. We all must face the daunting blank page in front of each of us each morning. In this, we are all alike. I wish courage and perseverance for you as you embark on this life’s work of writing songs. You will need it.


Check out Mary’s music on CD Baby, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

[Photo of Mary Gauthier taken by Rodney Bursell.]

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  • Rebekah Ann Curtis

    This is so beautifully written, so poetic and so full of truth. Mary, you are a harbinger of light in a dark echo chamber, radiating truth. Thank you.

  • Sandra Dean-Marlowe

    Wow. Great read, Mary . . . authentic reflection on the journey. Impressive. Thanks for writing it.

  • Dale Geist

    I’m 53 years old. I’ve been writing songs since I was 13. Almost all of them are lies, but all of them are attempts at truth. This piece is filled with a truth so direct that I am humbled in simply reading it. Humbled, and grateful. To Mary Gauthier, and to songwriting.

  • Paul Nye

    Seriously? Thanks for narrowing the “art and craft” of songwriting down to a tiny, narrow box of your opinion for us.

  • Ayuba Oluwaseun High-bee

    im wale from lagos nigeria…im a powerful writter,you can listen to my songs on superhighbee/soundcloud.com….buh still i need help to put me out there,so the world can benefit….thanks

  • jw_pfeifer

    This is one of the best articles I’ve ever seen about following your own artistic path and all that goes with it. All this time I thought there was something wrong with my brain. Now I realize that so much of these same things I felt as a composer were shared by anyone trying to push themselves to create their best creative work. Fantastic read!

    • OfficialMaryGauthier

      I am happy that you connected with this writing, and glad it may have brought some relief. Thank you for letting me know.

  • Cyndi Dickey

    Only the real-deal could write this–I found every point, THE point. Songwriting Isn’t for those looking to get rich or famous. I started writing when cancer threatened to take my life away. Something turned on, or up in me–I had done music for decades before the writing started, but I didn’t know that I had anything much to say. I am most alive now when I am completely alone and empty–or so it seems, writing a song. I agree, so very much with you, Mary, about the awe of one defining, Holy moment, when I realize that, from a place I do not know, a gift has just been handed to me. I know that it is unexplainable and not ment for me to cheapen or exploit–and, either someone else’s soul will be found in its mix with my own, or will be as rejected as the Creator who gave it to me.

  • Dylan

    Narrow? An artist was asked what advice she’d give to a creative person attempting to create, which she did…

    Amazing writing (though, to assist you (Mary) in dodging the ‘laziness and ego-swelling’ bullet maybe I should say, “Terrible writing! Just terrible!” 😉

  • Bill Mackechnie

    Wow! I didn’t exactly feel enlightened by that letter at all. Perhaps it was written to a particular type of songwriter, a deep introspective, soul-searching, truth seeking songwriter. The impression is given that only the songwriter who looks within and bears the honesty of their own life and experience is the valid songwriter creating art. That argument would seem to invalidate millions of songs written that were nothing more than expressions of joy, or mindless fluff that have stayed with the public for years and years and years and are treasure. They were not introspective, they were not the result of some deep quest for art. The brief time I spent in Nashville pitching songs to producers and actually learning how to write was filled with lesson after lesson of how the songwriter’s life could be filled with joy, wonderful relationships, and blessed creativity. I finished reading the letter left with the feeling that if one were to follow Mary’s advice they would view songwriting as this tremendous burden that one had to bear. Nowhere in her letter does she speak to the inestimable joy and simple,pure fun that I have had over 40 years of writing songs. Very rarely do I face the blank page in the morning with the sense of gloom that she seems to express. I agree with the previous commentor who suggested that her viewpoint was rather narrow.

    • Sara Torres

      LOL! You are right! There are many other people with a totally different view on this subject. I liked the article because I am a very introspective soul who feeds greatly from my own existentialist struggles and my inner wounds. Therefore, I must agree with you that there are lots of happy, funny, creative, positive, light hearted people whose songwriting brings great uplifting joy to us all. We all need people like you too! Why don’t you write about your own songwriting process. I would be a very avid reader because I too get tired of being too serious and would love to have insight into a more uplifting process for myself. Thanks for ringing this bell of truth!

      • James Blair

        I think it’s possible to consider that article from all perspectives. When you right a song about pickups, girls, and drinking beer, that too must come with some “truth”. It may not really be you in truck with the girl. If you’re writing for someone else to sing, maybe it doesn’t matter. But “real” songs that come from somewhere tend to stand the test of time. Write light and fluffy, write dark and introspectively. Either way, keep it real.

  • calder

    I wouldn’t normally comment on these kinds if articles. But this piece of expressive and passionate writing cannot fail to ignite something in me. I’m using colourful language for a reason. Really enjoyed this article. It struck up many strong feelings varying from, yeah I feel that, to..I’ll make sure I bear that in mind. I can relate to all this but also I can hear the wisdom and experience in the way the article was written. Massive respect. A really good read. Thanks. I’m inbetween sets at a wedding gig
    . Not what I planned as a songwriter and artist.. But I do have some appreciation for my work.. True art is only to express, not impress tho!! I’ll bare that.

  • Nathalie Ontheplatform

    What a relief to finally read about the truth of songwriting. There is no shame in exposing my true pain in my own words to an audience. Also, if there are only 8 people in the audience, it’s not failure, it’s a chance to touch 8 souls with my songs.

    • OfficialMaryGauthier

      I completely agree with this Nathalie. We are lucky to be able to touch ANY souls with our work, grabbing 8 at a time is amazing, if you really think about it.

  • D e e p . . Best thing I ever read on CD Baby..

  • RALS

    Mary, Thanks for putting this “depth” into words. It sounds the deep chord within an artist. To humbly add for consideration: An artist’s life is an Alone life, but not necessarily a Lonely life.
    It can be rich with the creative spirits that are invoked, and by those that may be touched by it’s subsequent vibrations. – RALS

    • OfficialMaryGauthier

      You know, I believe you are are right. I may have worded that poorly. What I was trying to say in that there’s no one but myself to turn to for answers as I create my work, and I often want someone to help me, or guide me when I get stuck. But there’s no one that can…it’s between me and me!

      • RALS

        Yes, agree! The creative process is the Alone part.

  • Aaron Gibson

    Good read, Thanks, Mary!

  • Avrim Topel

    If Mary’s brutal honesty didn’t resonate deep within you, you are probably not really a songwriter. We are a nutty bunch; who else do you know sets themselves up for rejection day after day ? Beautiful, heartfelt summary of our path. Great job, Mary.

    • OfficialMaryGauthier

      Thank you Avrim.

  • MrKnobs

    I’m not easily impressed but.. wow. Every word of that is true and so well articulated.

  • Ankie Keultjes

    Thank you Mary for this beautiful analysis of a songwriter’s existence , I was looking for a way to explain it to my son who is taking his first steps on this uncertain path and I couldn’t have said it better than you just did. lots of love from Ankie and Ad from Eindhoven

    • OfficialMaryGauthier

      Ankie and Ad!!!! Hello! It’s a wonderful life, this life we’ve carved out as artists, yes? Not easy, but wonderful. How many years ago was it that I did that show for you in Holland? Do you remember putting me up in the room that Townes Van Zandt stayed in?

  • Andrew TX

    Wow, just WOW! Thank you so much for sharing! Let the writing continue.

  • I read a LOT of stuff about making music, and candidly, I rarely leave comments. But have to say this article hit a chord (no pun intended) with me. Not quite as much about the “taking risks” part, although true, more impressed with the authors realization that the Journey IS the goal, not the destination. Not saying I dont have an objective, plan, metrics, etc etc, but what I really enjoy about creating music is the process, the work involved, the focus achieved during the process, and those fleeting moments of happines once in a while with being excited about somthing I created. I agree an artsist needs, if possible, to focus on the art, and less on what the current market thinks about it. Just because you feel a song in your heart does not mean it will be any good, but if you dont feel it in your heart, sure to be only average at best.

  • Ken Finton

    Yes, Mary …. this is so.

  • drazonix

    Truth. The Best. A page to be bookmarked.

  • The Pema Chodron of songwriters. Well done.

  • Roger Silverberg

    The solitary path, that’s for sure. I’m used to that. Even embrace it because it gives me time and room for contemplation and pure experiencing of my temporal space (past + present + future). Definitely rings true, Mary. And, I know, you’ve been there.

  • Wow Mary thank you so much for your brutal honesty here! Exactly what I needed to hear at this point in my life and songwriting and performing…..

    • OfficialMaryGauthier

      Joanie, Glad it helped.

  • Benton Oswald

    Amazing that a single article could put songwriting back into the dark ages. This is not advice for young songwriters.
    If you are starting out there are three things you have to know.
    1. The likelihood is that you won’t be successful. Find another reason to be a songwriter. Express yourself, write stream of consciousness lyrics, study poetry. Love it. If it’s your hobby then indulge yourself.
    2. It is primarily a craft. Learn it. Listen to great music. Be obsessive. Be self-critical. Know your limitations and learn to make them your strengths.
    3. Social networking is no measure of success. The ether is full of thousands like you, yammering and hoping that someone will listen. The song is enough. It sits there and waits for your voice or if you’re very lucky, someone else’s.

    This type of blog that indirectly calls us alchemists is demeaning. We are artists insofar as the people who listen to and live their lives to the soundtrack of our work are also artists. There is no ego in songwriting.
    No doubt this lady is a rare talent. That doesn’t mean that she has anything to say to the countless others out there who would give their right arm for the smallest measure of her success.

  • Ronnie Neuhauser

    I felt that way about the process from the very beginning. It was always about the art form to me and business wise it’s obviously been a nightmare, lol, but for the soul, it’s been fabulous. It does save one….

  • Sheryl Diane

    I agree with a lot of this, nicely done. However I was never lonely on the path because I had kids : )

  • Michael Graetzer

    Wow, that’s the real shit. Thanks so much for writing that, Mary, it reminds us that we’re not alone and that the reality is quite different from what the media shows. Thank you.

  • David Prentice Pearsall

    David Prentice Pearsall of Tricks-N-Mixed Emotions. This gentleman knows what he’s talking about. I can spot a musical fake from miles away. He’s right about the solitary life style. Being born a loner it comes natural to me. I don’t mind it at all, and boy can I tell you about failure. But ya know what? Failure is just that thing that happens before success. So what if you fall on your face nine hundred and ninety nine times out of a thousand. All that means is you couldn’t get your music heard by the right people. You don’t write & perform because you expect to become rich & famous (though rich would be nice). You do it because you love it, and could never see yourself living without it. My personal goal is to leave my mark on this world. To let people know I was here. To leave something behind that will live forever. When I see someone laugh because I’ve written something humorous. It makes my day. When I see some hard hearted soul cry because I’ve reached a part of them that hands cannot touch. That is my reward. I’ve seen my music reunite couples, cause the birth of children, and do real good in this world. That is worth more than riches and fame. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t mind making a living with my guitar. But even that would be a simple by product of my love for craft. I can make the listener feel what I feel when I write & perform. So all in all, I’m a pretty lucky guy. So what if success never comes. I love writing, so I’ll do it until the day I die, and Lord willing. For eternity.

  • Roger Bourne

    Don’t worry Mary I’ve been on this path a lot longer than you and this is just the depressive stage you are going through. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Anthony Ranieri

    Bla, Bla, Bla tell it to Irving Berlin???

    • OfficialMaryGauthier

      And you point is what, Anthony?
      Irving Berlin was a Russian immigrant, raised in poverty, who came to America and fell in love with this country. He became the songwriter most able to express who we are as Americans, and the dreams that shape our lives. A truth teller of the highest order, whose songs will live on forever, he gave voice to the hopes and dreams of millions. I admire him deeply.

  • Steve Thompson

    Thanks Mary, love your article! I was born creative and I’ve been staring at
    that blank sheet of paper all my life with excitement and maybe a bit of
    trepidation. I’ve been drawing images,
    writing poems, taking photographs and I’ve had a book published, I’ve also been
    writing songs for fun for years and people always say to me you’ll be famous or
    rich one day and I say maybe but that’s not why I do it and they don’t understand. The truth is I don’t know why I do it, I just
    have to. The problem is, is that as soon
    as you get to where you wanted to be you automatically see you next calling
    your next blank sheet of paper. So I’m
    sitting here today in my own photo gallery with my recording studio upstairs
    with my book on my book shelf and with yet another blank sheet of paper in
    front of me, excited and apprehensive so Mary you are one hundred percent right
    it’s the journey not the finishing line because the journey is real the finishing
    is just a carrot on the end of a stick and only donkeys fall for that one .


    • OfficialMaryGauthier

      Steve, I get it!….best of luck with that blank page.

  • Jeremy Wray

    Whilst I think there is some subjective truth to this article, many of us will be all too acutely aware of the exceptions that probe these lofty artistic ideal-isms. Namely the amount of formulaic and half-truth ridden content that litters our pop charts – these songs may “not matter” to the “alchemists, with [their] hands in the holy” – but they certainly matter to the masses that listen to and buy them. Is this material inferior in some way, does it come from a lower place because it is commercially driven, albeit finely crafted? Were the writers in the Brill Building huddled in fervent and fevered reverence, studiously attempting to “cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves”? Maybe. Maybe not. Noble thoughts indeed but I think the reality is possibly more nuanced and down-to-earth.

    • Charles Butler-Grace

      I really like your last line Jeremy… “nuanced and down-to-earth…”. I sense that we, as writers, attempt that at every opportunity to express ourselves. Yet I’m torn, Jeremy… on the one hand I was not as moved by your “pristine command” of the “English” language as I was by the emotive “language” used by Mary…
      “Mary” may be having a, “bad” day, an intolerable week, an insurmountable year and yet “Mary” poured her heart out (in what might turn out to be remarkable first draft for a song). I do not agree, entirely, with every sentiment Mary expressed however “Noble thoughts indeed”…? Is that not what we as writers aspire to?

  • Glen Burg

    Mary, thanks for your insight. Your letter is very, VERY well written, and touches honest keystones and pitfalls to songwriting as an art, but I think it misses a point (most likely unintentionally). For a listener to feel what a songwriter is channeling in a song, the listener must be able to relate to what the song is saying, on either a compositional, arrangement or lyrical level. A songwriter can have the best, most inspired message or thought embedded within a song, yet if no one can relate to it, who is going to “get” it? This, in my opinion, is basically why so many write about love: mostly everyone has experienced, or is experiencing something they call “love”, be it real, an illusion, or a seriously misguided set of emotions that one has come to accept as affection/connection.  

    One can pursue music solely as an art to express oneself. For every songwriter whose message ultimately is heard (forget appreciated), there are piles who “fall between the cracks”. Lately, the word I’ve been reading seems to be “play live”, yet so few of the singer-songwriters (or bands who wrote their own songs)  I’ve come to cherish over the years I’ve actually seen “live”: it was all a process of “Wow, here’s an album I can listen to, I wonder what’s on it?” And the songs and recordings I heard on those albums blew me away. Now, I go to see performances where I find the songwriter ultimately writes forgettable tunes which do not stick in my mind whatsoever, yet they repeatedly get gigs (so I’m presuming someone out there can relate to their songs). Or sometimes a song sticks with me, but more so from its arrangement than what it’s actually saying. On the other hand, I find an open mic-type evening where someone brings out a composition that just knocks me off my feet and leaves me saying, “Who is THAT?” But I may be the only one listening. Am I a music snob? Perhaps. Do I prefer stuff that others don’t? Perhaps too. But ultimately, and whether unconsciously or consciously, I try to find music to which I can relate, whether it feels familiar or seems completely revolutionary to me. (And I’m sure you agree, the “revolutionary” is getting rarer as time goes by.)

    And it’s best for me not to get started on discussion of YouTube, SoundCloud, MySpace, or any of the myriad of sites which offer songwriters of all levels an avenue to share their songs to others online. Without any type of reference point, I’m left wading through seemingly _millions_ of channels to find something which might hit me in the right way.

    So I’m left wondering how to apply how I feel about other people’s songs, and how I best come to relate to them and appreciate them, to my own work and how I succeed (or fail) in sharing them with others. I’m thinking of the open mic’s. I’m thinking of collaborations. So far, all that seems to have worked is to basically help someone else present their work, usually through accompanying them. Does it mean they write better songs than I do? I’m sure I share most every songwriter’s sentiment that there are songs in my back pages which are not only the best I’ve ever done, but just as great as any song I’ve heard elsewhere. So why do they still languish in obscurity? I’ve come to the conclusion it’s all because I’ve yet to master the art of _connecting_ with people, and then using connection to my advantage.

    To me, songwriting is more than an inspired moment or message received by a sole songwriter, or songwriting partners. It’s also about the listener, and ultimately how he or she can understand the message or moment the songwriter is trying to bring across. I doubt anyone becomes a songwriter, who actually consciously calls himself or herself a _songwriter_ just to sing to themselves. There is the childlike joy of creating a song one can sing to oneself during work or play, but does the child who lovingly sings creations to oneself stand up and say, “I’m a songwriter”? I feel someone who takes the step in calling themselves a songwriter ultimately wants their song to be heard; they may not want the fame or the multi-person business model, but they still want to reach as many as possible. And just writing the best song ever, from what I’ve seen, doesn’t guarantee anyone will even listen to it. There needs to be consideration of the inspiration, yes, but there also needs to be consideration of effective communication as well: otherwise, we 
    songwriters might as well just be musical monks, spending our entire lives in pursuits that end up serving no one but (hopefully) ourselves.

    Me? I think I’m going to try an open mic fairly soon.

  • Great Article… dead on..

  • Mark Andre Augustus

    This article covers not only songwriting, but LIFE! It is itself a work of art!

  • Jay Wilson

    I don’t think the writer has listened to Neil Young. And half truths are not whole lies — particularly in music lyrics. This article is not without value but is not exactly ideal advice. One writers opinion only. Read some others. Esp if you have no idea who this writer is.

  • tjcole

    Now they tell me..

  • Perfectly true. Thank you for this most eloquent affirmation.

  • Steven Notice

    I agree with Glen Burg’s comments, The article by Mary Gauthier, at first, struck me as very profound and truthful. As I read his, and a few other reactions, I was tempted to say “how dare they disagree?!” But, trying to be open, I started feeling that maybe that was just HER reality. I checked out her songs and saw she’s into slow rhythms and “pensive” moods. That’s great, but that’s not all there is to life. All the really great artists, who have made my life better or more meaningful, have a big range of emotions, tempos, and styles – and work hard at reaching out – not just inward.

  • CmTa

    I have to agree with Bill M, Brenton O., and many others.

    Mary’s article is for the highly depressed individual who could probably use some psychotherapy. She is way off base in her attempt to convince the world that choosing a path of songwriting is to set ones course to an unattainable goal of utter gloom and doom. Although I believe she creatively expressed her own introspective darkness well, this individuals message certainly does not apply to masses of songwriters that I have met in my 40 plus years of being in the music business. Mary’s article crushes more than it inspires. Who would follow that sort of advice? Such a path will ensure complete failure. I can assure you, I don’t look at every morning as “blank page” and I cannot think even one musician/songwriter that I know who does the same. What a bleak outlook on life. It’s sad to see that someone would convey the experience of songwriting as such a hopeless endeavor. She also refers to the art of songwriting as “Holy and Sacred”. I seriously doubt she even understands what she’s attempting to say. I’m sorry, but I found this article to be nothing more than a negative downer of gloom and doom and at best, a feeble and baseless approach at eloquence. Honestly, I hope Mary finds her way out darkness and jumps the REAL path to happiness and success where there are no “Blank Pages”. For all you aspiring songwriters out there…don’t listen or be influenced by this sort of struggling artist garbage.

  • dave

    This article is a good lecture for aspiring roots-music Nashville-based folk-singer-songwriter-poet-performers. But to apply this high-minded ‘spiritual quest’ rhetoric to someone who’s a young aspiring songwriter is misguided at best. Some of the greatest songs that exist would never be written under her valediction. One needs to get over oneself and go do it.

  • M-Twist*.*


  • You are such an awesome spirit, thank you so much for giving a little bit of it to the truly needy. I felt so enriched and empowered by your words and your nature, and dare I say even overwhelmed by the truth of them both. This article put all of my fears under a microscope but at the same time has the power to set one free from bondage.
    You were able to paint a picture of an artist I never full thought could exist, and gave my mind a buffet of mental food worthy of a scholar, to muse over for many days to come. You told me the truth and you made me feel like a little liar.
    I cannot really say for sure how much you will impact my music cause I need more time to think about your words, to see how I can apply them in my life and music and then let them take root, but no matter, I am grateful and appreciative. Thank you.

  • You hit the head on the nail in those first few paragraphs, for sure.

  • ben

    The call for creative courage is expressed nicely in this speech also by the legendary Oliviero Toscani: http://adcawards.org/creativity

  • LaTasha M. McPherson

    I’ve never read my own personal journey of songwriting as well as I did today. Yes, it is a sacred expression and one not to be taken lightly or selfishly. It’s our own personal truth, experienced and on display. Very precise Mary and thank you!

  • travelergtoo

    There is quite a bit of good advice here. I would’ve felt better hearing advice from Stevie Nicks or someone with at least one number one single. I guess it’s nice to hear about what it’s like to be famous from someone who’s never been there.

  • RALS

    Thanks for putting this “depth” into words. It sounds the deep chord within an artist.
    To humbly add for consideration: An artist’s life is an Alone life, but not necessarily a Lonely life.
    It can be rich with the creative spirits that are invoked, and by those that may be touched by it’s subsequent vibrations.
    – RALS

  • Bmack Mack

    Writing songs is sooo easy for me. How do you get it to the established artist to sing. What do I do with it after it is written? Smokey Robinson wrote a song in my sleep for Mariah Carrie and I have tried to get it to her but have not been able to. How do you get the songs to the artists after writing them? Now that’s where I don’t have a clue. If you do, email me at bmack36117@gmail.com Thanks!

  • Well, Mary may not have had a #1 hit, but she’s a hell of a songwriter, and written far richer songs than most you hear on pop radio. This is from her Wikipedia page:

    She was awarded “New Artist of the Year” by The Americana Music Association the same year. Mercy Now was voted the No. 6 Record of the Decade by No Depression magazine. Her second Lost Highway release, Between Daylight and Dark, appeared in September 2007. She has had her songs recorded by numerous artists, including Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Bill Chambers, Mike Farris and Candi Staton. Her songs have been used in several TV shows, including Nashville on ABC, Masterpiece Theatre’s Case Histories, Showtime’s Banshee, and HBO’s Injustice. Her latest release of new songs is called The Foundling and was released by Razor & Tie Records in 2010. It was named the No. 3 Record of the Year by Los Angeles Times music writer Randy Lewis.

    @ Chris Robley

  • Sara Torres

    I am totally impressed by this article. It tells it as it is. I have been asked about the songwriting process by many people, but my answers have never really satisfy me. In reality, I have never sat down to give serious thought to the why or how I write songs. These words do. I definitely would like to share them, but my following is hispanic. I would like to request permission to use the article as reference, which will require some translation to Spanish. Please let me know if this is ok. Thank you so much for your valuable contribution.

  • Judy Pancoast

    Mary, thank you for your letter. I have been writing songs for children for many years, and recently stepped out onto the road less traveled with a song about a subject very close to my heart…teaching children about same-gender love. I posted the song on my website and on YouTube and have been called horrible names and been told I was “leading children down the path to hell.” People have written to tell me they are destroying my CDs. Still, I feel strongly about the song, and I’m leaving it out there. I feel that it IS the important song that i have to offer the world. So I’ll never be rich or famous…if my song helps one person to bring up an open and loving child, then I’ve accomplished something with my music, which was always my goal.
    Thank you so much for encouraging audacity.

  • Regina Sayles

    “So write from your true self, not the self you think you should be.” This was a very good reminder and I needed it today. Thank you Mary 🙂

  • Steven Neal Wagner

    Thanks very much for this, Mary. I am currently at that crossroads with my writing and my life. I have reached a good level of comfort with solitude but I find I am still presenting some fictional “me” through my songs and I know that’s not the way to create songs that have a life and that touch lives. Your message rings so true.

  • Steven Neal Wagner

    Thanks very much for this, Mary. I am currently at that crossroads with my writing and my life. I have reached a good level of comfort with solitude but I find I am still presenting some fictional “me” through my songs and I know that’s not the way to create songs that have a life and that touch lives. Your message rings so true.

  • If it were easy, Everyone would do it……

  • Tom Hendricks

    Good advice. Here is some that as a songwriter for 50 years, people may not like – 99% of the musicians writing songs shouldn’t be – you wouldn’t make your own guitars would you? You would leave that to experts that have been doing it for decades. Writing great songs is not for everyone. It’s not easy. It takes years to be any good at it. And it takes some born talent, and who knows where that comes from. It’s like playing the guitar, sure you can learn a few chords and play a song, but to be a great guitarist takes decades of practice. Songwriting is no different. Most of the songs written in the last few decades have not been good. The truth is – the real truth is – that it’s harder to be a good songwriter than it is to be a great musician or vocalist. The Beatles opened the door for everyone to write their own songs. Good, be creative, go for it, but when it comes to being a professional songwriter it is not easy – matter of fact it is just about the hardest part of music.
    Someone along the way has told musicians that they can make a lot more money if they write their own songs – no – it’s better to record a great song that you did not write, then a 100 bad songs you did.

  • Although I loved the text, it should be noted, as some have already suggested, that this is based simply on her experience and perspective about it. There are many ways to write songs: you can be with someone else or by yourself; you could write on a paper, a computer, or even not write at all (some artists, specially rappers, have all the lyrics solely on their heads); you can write about yourself or you can write as if you were somebody else (check out Chico Buarque, probably the most respected Brazilian singer-songwriter still alive)… the possibilities are endless, and none is necessarily better or more authentic than the others.

    Personally, I find that some of my biggest references in songwriting actually come from painters like Picasso and Van Gogh, who used to paint really fast (both were extremely profilic). This doesn’t mean that their paintings were superficial, it simply meant that most of the “work” was usually done before they actually picked the brush. Also, they didn’t have a very “romantic” view of the whole process: Van Gogh, for example, used to compare an artist with other manual workers (like farmers), and this certainly helped to make him very productive during his painting years (although I also know that some artists don’t like the use of the word “productive” here, I think it fits really well in this discussion).

  • I’ve read this a few times now… and it still amazes me. Great advice, but also beautifully written! Thank you for taking the time to share with us!

  • Interesting points. I think that’s interesting about the work/process being done before the actual production. Thanks for commenting.


  • marnigillardstoryteller

    I am an oral storyteller (sing occasionally within that genre, but most “tell”) and what you are talking about here is true of that art. MANY of the best storytellers are very FUNNY. The world needs to laugh. However, I must say that I loved Gauthier’s letter.. She’s a “Rilke” fan and his original Letter to a Poet said much the same You GOTTA go deep. To be successful – you DON’T in today’s world “gotta” do anything. Some really “reality” trash sells big on the big and small screen and on the airwaves, and on stage. The point is do what YOU “gotta” do. Follow YOUR bliss. Work hard. Go to what ever depth your called to go with. Me. I’m somewhere closer to deep and serious than funny and fluff. But once in a while I can be really funny (surprises me every time) because by doing the work I’ve learned timing, intuited a connection no one else made before, or finally relaxed. “Lighten up” people have told me all my life. And I like to but can’t till I’ve gone deep and cleared out (often) some of the dark. GO FOR YOUR ART… whatever and however you can. Thanks to my bro for finding and sending me this great post and comments.

    • Great point. It’s not about becoming a successful artist in the eyes of the mass media or a giant pop music fanbase. It’s about being a successful artist in your OWN eyes. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.


  • marnigillardstoryteller

    Well said, Mary!

  • Agnieszka Olszewska-Kaczmarek

    this article is incredible… and I find it a paradox that it gives a lot of support; I do not feel lonely any more in my feeling that it is a very difficult path….thank you…

  • Agnieszka Olszewska-Kaczmarek

    this article is incredible… and I find it a paradox that it gives a lot of support; I do not feel lonely any more in my feeling that it is a very difficult path….thank you…

  • billy allen

    This is a great article. Songwriting is something from a higher world, which we humans have been given the power to invoke. Artists are alchemists, with our hands in the holy.Songwriting is a noble calling that requires more than talent and perseverance. It requires courage. If you are willing to face yourself and honestly reveal in your songs what you’ve seen in that unveiling of yourself, then you have a chance of writing songs that will outlive you.


  • Jane Chesebrough

    This article resonated with me as a person who has sold a couple of paintings and photographs and struggles to get out of my own way.Very important not to take myself too seriously or other’s opinions either. Most important is to just keep creating.

  • Brendan Kopp

    I would like to say I was moved by this article. It really hit home in many ways. I wrote my first song a week after picking up the guitar, and have been writing for about a decade. I have written/destroyed/decapitated/combined hundreds of songs, and I feel I am only starting to scratch the surface. It’s hard to explain to new songwriters how I write my songs… cause I don’t know how I do it. Melodies come to me out of the strangest of places. When birds sing, the way the wind whistles, or even the sounds in my dreams. I hear melodies everywhere. And as a songwriter I feel it’s my duty to capture these melodies in song, and experiment with time signature and chord progression to create the best possible lighting for these melodies to shine. And overlap these melodies with lyrics that completely show what these melodies are trying to say to me. There is nothing else more frustrating and gratifying then writing a song. A song that invokes an emotion in another human being. Songs can change moods, change minds, and even change the world. I’m lost for words now… which is probably the most frustrating part of writing songs. hahah

  • Nice! Thanks for sharing some of your experiences in songwriting. Glad you liked Mary’s article.


  • Yaki Raw

    I had already read this, but Its so poetic and true I allways come back, I would love to read more from you, I was looking on google for books. My gengre is very different (reggae and rap) but this article really speaks to me.

  • Wao!! What a great post read.. This is best letter i have seen addressed specially to songwriters. Your letters speaks a soul of a songwriters.