When singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier goes onstage at Sebastopol's HopMonk Tavern Friday, it'll be just her, a guitar and the audience. No band, no backup singers and no entourage.

"I don't like employees coming out of my ears," Gauthier said by phone from her Nashville home. "I like the freedom of going my own pace."

She has lived in Nashville for more than a decade, but she's no country star. Her name is Cajun — pronounced "GOH-shay" — and her roots are Cajun, but her music isn't.

Gauthier has been described as a folksinger and a troubadour, but her work isn't easily categorized. She is a poet and storyteller, using voice and guitar as her medium.

Her singing style is understated and straightforward, but she has no trouble being heard when she performs in clubs and auditoriums.

"Nobody talks when I play," she said.

Gauthier is not a big talker herself, keeping her conversation direct and succinct, almost minimal, even in an interview. But her lyrics are poignant and powerful, earning praise from the likes of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan.

The imagery in Gauthier's lyrics is rich and evocative. Consider these lines from "Blood on Blood":

"Clouds are spreading like bruises on the evening sky. I walk the streets alone again tonight."

Ask her about that lyric, and she simply says, "Sometimes, the sky does look like that, doesn't it?"

Many of Gauthier's songs follow a strong narrative thread.

"Generally, I try to play the story songs, because that's what people want to hear," she said. "Stories are so important to people, so I try to write and play story songs, and they never get old."

Gauthier's own story is remarkable. She was born in New Orleans, and after being abandoned by her mother at birth, grew up in the small Louisiana town of Thibodaux.

After running away from her adoptive parents at age 15, Gauthier eventually went to the Cambridge School of Culinary arts and ran her own Cajun restaurant for 11 years in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood.

Finally in 1997, at age 35, she recorded her first album, "Dixie Kitchen," named after her restaurant, and has recorded a half a dozen more since then.

The most recent album was released last year, "Live at Blue Rock," recorded at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio outside Austin, Texas, and she plans another album soon.

Now 51, Gauthier considers herself "totally free." She sees her roundabout route to a music career, and even her relatively late start, as advantages.

"I don't really have anybody telling me what to do, so I've tried everything I ever wanted to try," she said. "I'm a free agent, absolutely, and I have been since the beginning. It's a blessing."

Gauthier guesses that she has written "a couple of hundred" songs, and like most songwriters, refuses to cite any as her best work.

"They're all my babies," she said. "Sometimes, some of them are annoying little brats, and sometimes, they're just endearing. My relationship with them changes over time."

You can reach Staff Writer

Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.