"I think we're starting to get to where we know each other on a deeper level," says Gauthier. "After you're in a relationship with somebody for a number of years, you can tell by the look in their eyes what they're thinking. So he doesn't have to say as many words, and neither do I. We're starting to be able to communicate like people who have been in a relationship for a long time. And we are in one. It's nice to be able to move that way with somebody and because I'm not afraid of him in any way - there's no harshness or edges to him - I'm able to say, 'Let's try this, let's try that.' And he'll say, 'What about this?' And even if I'm thinking, 'I never thought of putting a tuba on it,' I also go, 'Well, he's been right before. Let's try it.' The willingness to try things and the spirit of trust has deepened."
Although Gauthier and Morlix have a longstanding creative partnership, there is nothing rote or by-the-numbers about their process. Gauthier's songwriting on "Mercy Now" remains as confessional and as brutally honest as it has ' always been, but this time Morlix's sonic appointments have the dusty Americana ambience of Tom Waits and Joe Henry.
In addition to Morlix's flawless musical accompaniment, he and Gauthier utilized the talents of gifted session players including guitarist Rich Brotherton, drummer Rick Richards and violinist Eamon McLoughlin and guests Patty Griffin and former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan.
As crafted and deliberate as "Mercy Now" sounds, Gauthier insists that its sound is every bit as spontaneous as her first three albums.
"I never know," says Gauthier of the general direction of her albums. "I go in when I've got eight or nine songs, and I give him a call and see what his schedule looks like and get on the books. Then the pressure's on to write two more. And I just bring them to him. I've been a solo artist all along, so I don't know what these songs are going to sound like with a band. I don't have that opportunity to flesh them out with a band, so I bring it to him with just a voice and a guitar, and we grow them up together. I have a little bit of an idea of the vibe of the songs, but I never really know what it's going to sound like until we start putting stuff on there."
One example of Gauthier's general vibe was her impression going into the sessions that she could sense the presence of the Fairfield Four singing gospel harmonies in the context of the songs "Wheel Inside the Wheel" and "Falling Out of Love."
Given Gauthier's budget, it was unrealistic to imagine that they could actually book them, but the idea was valid.
"Gurf could do background vocals that sound like the Fairfield Four without me having to figure out to get 5 80-year-old black guys on a plane to Austin. It would have cost $50,000. They all need handlers. They all need cars. But he was able to hear what I heard and just duplicate it by layering his own voice and making it sound like that. Isn't it cool? He's got this one guy named Buddha who sings in gospel band and got him to come in to lay down the middle part, and he just layered himself on top and bottom of Buddha's voice, and it sounds like the Fairfield Four. It's incredible. They're the Austin Two. Don't tell everybody that they're white."
Although "Mercy Now" is Gauthier's major label debut, the tone and theme of the album are not indicative of her relationship with Lost Highway.
Gauthier was introduced to label head Luke Lewis by her publisher Melanie Howard, the widow of legendary Harlan Howard at one of Gauthier's shows at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe. The next morning Lewis proffered a deal to Gauthier by e-mail, but it took the lawyers nearly a year to hammer out the details.
In the interim, she and Morlix created the distinct sound of "Mercy Now" without any input from Lost Highway, and the album they recorded is the album that Lost Highway bought.
From a songwriting aspect, Gauthier feels that her evolution is continuing apace and "Mercy Now's" sparse and emotional songs are proof. Perhaps for the first time, Gauthier has shifted the focus of her extremely personal songwriting to a more universal perspective without losing any of her soul-baring intensity. It is a process she is well aware of.
"Every record, I get a little more information as to who I am as a writer and what I sound like," says Gauthier. "In the beginning, most all of us - even Dylan - sort of sound like our heroes. You come out of the stands imitating the ones that you think are great. So when I first started out, I was doing my best Woody Guthrie, as well as Steve Earle and Merle Haggard and John Prine. You could smell it. Of course it was there. It's all starting to come together into this Mary Gauthier sound. I'm finding my voice, which is really just an amalgamation of all these influences. I can't lay claim to being a true original. I'm not. I'm just a gigantic fan of these people that came before and influenced me and I'm just trying to sound like what all those guys would sound like blended into one girl."