Peter Mulvey: Americana's Reluctant Folk Hero
Singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey's career was humming along nicely last year - recording, writing, European tours, annual week-long coffeehouse productions. Long stretches of concentrated writing, creative options opening everywhere, and even extended backroads bicycle jaunts with performances on front porches and wayside gas stations across small-town America.
Then Charleston, South Carolina, happened. A Bible class at Mother Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston was gunned down in a homegrown hate-crime that claimed nine people's lives. In response, in mid-June, Mulvey wrote "Take Down Your Flag," to make sense of the deadly Charleston attack, but also to highlight the state of South Carolina's refusal to take down the Confederate flag after the church killings.
"I wrote the song because I felt so appalled and demoralized and helpless and angry, but when the wave of support came, I think, we all felt that at least there was one small thing we could do -- one small, imaginative act of compassion," Mulvey says.
"Take Down Your Flag" ended up being a challenge to musicians -- professional and otherwise -- and society at large. Mulvey penned the first verse and then the chorus, and left the rest up to the contributors.
"It became a thing that I and a bunch of other people became part of," he says. "Once you're geared up and working and out there playing shows and writing songs and meeting other artists and trying to be productive in your greater community, your home, these things just keep dropping in your lap because your lap is everywhere you go."
Amateurs and professional musicians from around the globe joined in. Pages and pages of YouTube are filled with version after version. Friends and stars like Keb' Mo', Paula Cole, Ani DiFranco, and Anais Mitchell, all joined in. Some added the second verse, while others redid the whole song. With nine innocent victims, there's plenty of material.
"And much more pragmatically, we put together a benefit concert and sent $3,700 down to the church. Because compassion and catharsis are good but shattered families have material and personal concerns that extend for years, and we are obliged to look after each other."
"My model for [protest music] has always been more along the lines of Ani DiFranco and Bruce Springsteen, instead of along the lines of Phil Ochs or Pete Seeger. I've always just tried to delve into personal experience," Mulvey says. He points to the Springsteen tune, "American Skin," and the Ani DiFranco song "To the Teeth" as his guiding light.
"In 'American Skin', [Springsteen is] sort of stepping into the shoes of Amadou Diallo, who got shot by the police," he says. "Ani DiFranco is not stepping into anybody's shoes, but she's making the intersection of the personal and the political where the song lives."
Mulvey's "Just Before the War," is another fine example of his approach.
Not an old folkie
Mulvey kind of bristles at the mention of folk music, since that's not what he's limited to. He explores genre-blending: jazz, spoken-word and full-blown productions.
"I love folk music and I do sometimes draw on those tunes," he says, "but that's not the bulk of what I do. I tend to think of myself as just trying to tackle songwriting. I guess I'm trying to [draw from] as many sources as I can. ... I try to draw on jazz, certainly folk, certainly blues and rock and roll -- broadly speaking, all those American forms. I'm just trying to get it into a light where it's awake and alive, and means something."
Last fall, Mulvey organized a show on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, with plans for a dozen 45-minute sets over the span of 12 hours. The show proved not only to be the perfect way to say thank you to his Boston friends and fans, but also helped raise money for four charities: Zumix, Raw Art Works, the National Youth Science Foundation, and the Passim School of Music.
"It's kind of going back to my subway days," he says. "I'd spend six or seven or eight hours [at a time] down in the Davis [Station] T and that's how you build up ... your repertiore. I just wanted to do the busking thing, but I didn't want it to be all about me, so that's why I did it for four non-profits."
The 12-hour concert also promoted Mulvey's "Lamplighter Sessions" -- an annual almost-week-long series at Club Passim in Cambridge. In 2015, he hosted a different show each night, with different players, material, and vibe. The run offered plenty of room for Mulvey's deep catologue of his own originals, but he also delivered round-robin offerings with musicians like Catie Curtis, Kris Delmhorst, Vance Gilbert, Duke Levine, Tim Gearan, and David Goodrich.
Before finishing the run with a Luthier night with Goodrich, he hosted the show that included, among other shenanigans, the entire Tom Waits' Rain Dogs album, complete with "Crumbling Beauties."
"I think it's sort of like Shakespeare, the Old Testament, Dylan, and Joni Mitchell," Mulvey says of Waits. "There are things that, as an artist, you just have got to confront. On a personal level, I think the reason that I'm drawn to Tom Waits is pretty similar to the reason I'm so fired up by Shakespeare. I love the collision of the high-faluting. I'm just a middle class white kids from a Rust Belt city -- a middle-class white kid from Milwaukee -- and I've always loved this thing about Tom Waits. [There's] that Oscar Wilde [saying], 'We're all in the gutter but we're all looking at stars.' [It's] that union of high and low. I think that's where [Tom Waits] is for me."
Humanist bike ride
"I've always been small 'c' catholic," Mulvey explains, when asked about religion. "I'm just interested in a lot of things. ... I'm interested in -- there's no other way to put this -- humanism. I was just looking the other day of this shot of the Earth from space. I guess it was one of the Apollo astronauts who said that he wished he could drag politicians up there a few million meters. When you look at the Earth from up there, you get sort of a fellow feeling for everyone.
"I see it everywhere," he adds. "I do all of these things, to me they are all interrelated. I do these tours by bicycle, because I feel very identified with a bunch of generations of people I'm never going to meet, because I'll be dead. I still feel very identified with them. So I do these tours by bicycle for my own purposes but also for them. But then, I'm out there along a river somewhere, looking at the water, and I feel, at that moment, connected to Chinese poets, and I feel connected to the science camp that I play at every year -- the national youth science camp. It all looks like the same disciple to me."
Mulvey's most recent release, 2014's Silver Ladder, contains "What Else Was It?" -- a song about the big questions in life.
"I do a lot of work," he says. "I make a schedule for myself, to force myself to write. What you're doing [when you schedule] is making yourself ready for when a really big song kind of comes knocking.
"For me, ['What Else Was It?' is] a pretty big song," he adds. "I don't think we change in our lives. Anyone who has ever tried to change I think has found that it's fairly difficult to change. But you do change sometimes. You can change a little. Usually what provokes that change is some sort of personal crisis. You get a couple of those junctures -- three or four, in your life -- and [change] just happens. That song was about that.
"That song was about one of those turns you take usually when your kind of shooting the rapids of life," he contiunes. "[That] certainly was the case for me. Personal stuff. I was trying to get at that feeling of letting go. When you name the tough and sweet things of life and then ask yourself, 'Were you expecting something else?' Or, 'Are you willing to accept this has been your life?'"
Mulvey loves the small rooms, small coffeehouse gigs like Saturday's show at the New Moon Coffeehouse in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The singer-songwriter wouldn't rather be anywhere else. "That's my day-to-day life's work," he explains. "That's what I do. I love playing tiny, little [venues] as long as there are people in them. It's just the nature of what I do."
Intimacy offered by coffeehouses in farflung places like Haverhill, St. Paul, or Lafayette, can make a good show great. It creates a special connection with the audience, the fans, the strangers who have never heard him play before. "I actually have a harder time getting across to 300 people than I do to 100 people," he says. "I don't know why that is, but is just kind of that way. I can do the bigger shows, but it's a different language. There's something about playing a place where it would be no big deal to toss a tennis ball to the farthest person in the room. I don't know why, but that's what I'm good at. That's what I enjoy and that's what I seek."
With a 20-CD catalog under his belt, an illustrated book about to be published, and tour dates near and far, Mulvey is in high-gear. He's has a slew of projects in the works, but playing the Northeast is always a homecoming of sorts. He was part of the Boston scene from '92-'95, and he still says its music scene is pretty much second to none.
"I still feel it's one of the most fertile, cross-pollinated, supporting scenes I've ever seen. There are so many great musicians and they play in so many configurations," he says. In Boston, there's a connection, a nurturing camaraderie. "Everybody knows everybody. And there's this whole spectacular new generation coming up – Caitlin Canty, Matt Lorenz, Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards, Dietrich Strause. One of the centers of it is [Club] Passim [in Cambridge]. I think it's one of the testaments to the Boston scene that Passim is just one of the talented communities."
Ask Mulvey what's in his CD player and he'll surprise you. "I'm actually listening to a couple tracks by Lyle Brewer, over and over," he says. "He's a great local player there in Boston. He's an immensely talented and rigorous dude, and I'm taking my inspiration from him."
Out of the blue last week, Brewer sent Mulvey a couple of instrumental leftovers from his last recording session that he thought had Mulvey's name written all over them. "So I've set myself a deadline to basically paint the fence he had built."
What's Ahead for Peter Mulvey?
- Just tracked a record in New Orleans, produced by Ani DiFranco. Working title: "Are You Listening?" and it comes out hopefully this year. The band is her rhythm section - Todd Sickafoose on bass and Terence Higgins on drums - plus Anna Tivel, a violinist and singer from Oregon with a long career ahead of her.
- "Vlad the Astrophysicist" will be published as an illustrated book. Woodcuts by Peter Nevins.
- Another record's worth of songs to record with Todd Sickafoose, with producing. Sickafoose produced "Hadestown" by Anais Mitchell.
- Plan to do a covers record with Anna Tivel, possibly as soon as this summer
- Another duo record with David Goodrich is due.
- Gig at the annual science camp with the National Youth Science Foundation.
- Has recording of a live concert in a barn in Lancaster, Wisc.
- Touring docket including Europe and a couple of bicycle tours, one in July and one in September.
- Annual Lamplighter Sessions at Passim.