Thibodaux, La., native Mary Gauthier’s song “Wheel Inside the Wheel”—from her new album Mercy Now—is rich with references to the colorful lifestyle of her home state’s most famous city, New Orleans. In Gauthier’s version of the Big Easy, where fantasy and reality become one, “Marie Laveau promenades with Oscar Wilde and big funky Stella Twirls her little red umbrella.” The song—reminiscent of Mule Variations-era Tom Waits—wafts like smoke from the dingy doorway of a New Orleans cocktail lounge.
“In ‘Wheel Inside The Wheel,’ I wanted to write about the way people in New Orleans treat death,” Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay) says. “I love the way they handle it down there, from the perspective of the passage in Ezekiel—that part about the wheel inside the wheel, and how death is not the end or beginning of anything, that life is just this big thing that swirls and whirls. I love the idea of them throwing a parade when someone dies and celebrating the release of the pain in this life and celebrating the spirit entering into a new phase, whatever it is. We can’t possibly know, of course. Some people call it Heaven or have other names for it, but there is a mutually agreed presumption down there, deep in the culture, and the people believe it absolutely. I think it’s beautiful and I wanted to try and tell people about it.”
Mercy Now, Gauthier’s fourth release, is inhabited by hard-living characters akin to those of her earlier work. The album abounds with vivid descriptions of the disappointment and pain of lost love, but—even if her creations can’t—Gauthier has found a way to make sense of the dilemmas in her own life.
“You can count on spiritual principles,” she says. “That’s what I count on. And they won’t let you down because they are absolutes—not in me, or in you or us, but in themselves. And that’s where I hang my hat. People [will] let you down, and you’ll let them down, because we’re human. ‘When you wake up with that ache before you’ve even opened your eyes,’” she says, quoting her song “Drop In The Bucket,” “you have to find comfort in knowing that the love that is killing you right now is going to be able to save you when you find someplace to put it.”