At the risk of self-indulgence, I’ll begin with the briefest of anecdotes. Almost nineteen years ago in October 1999, I was on my first date with my now husband, in a much loved music venue; Bryson’s in Magherafelt. At that gig, I didn’t just find myself a husband – I found a love for two of my favourite artists, Peter Mulvey and Chris Smither who were sharing the bill there that night. Over the years I have seen both perfom live a number of times, but until recently, I hadn’t seen Mulvey for over a decade.
Then about a year ago I was dining in Bryson’s, when the owner came over for a chat. We got to reminiscing about that night nearly two decades earlier, and I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me that there’d actually been a recording made. And I really couldn’t believe it when he had a poke around out back and came back with a copy for me. Talk about a time capsule – our first date, immortalised on compact disc!
Last Thursday night I got to give a copy of that recording to Peter Mulvey when he returned to Belfast to play the Errigle Inn. He was as shocked and delighted as I had been, to have this recording that he never knew existed, of a night he’d played alongside one of his own musical heroes.
Gifts exchanged, Peter gave me a fascinating interview on music, science, and why he’s not really scared of Donald Trump.
Gigging NI: I always get a sense that Ireland is a second home for you, and I just wondered where that love affair with Ireland came from and if you still enjoy playing here as much as you ever did?
Peter Mulvey: Well, I am the great-grandson of an Irish immigrant, and in America we have a whole romance about Ireland. But then I lived here in 1989, I was an exchange student in St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth and that’s when I realised that the reality is always different from the romance; and I enjoy it more. So I have been back maybe fifteen or twenty times since then. And any reality is always richer and more complicated than any romance and so I just love touring here.
GNI: So do you feel kind of Irish in your soul?
PM: Sure – I mean I always hesitate to say that, ’cause it sounds a little “woo-woo”, right? But at the same time, yes, absolutely.
GNI: So do you think that is why audiences here are so appreciative of your music? They get you?
PM: Maybe so. I mean, here’s a way to put it – we can say whatever romantic stereotype we wish to say, but it’s just true that Ireland has cranked out many more heavyweight literary figures than most.
GNI: Oh, we’re punching above our weight for sure!
PM: Exactly – you and Russia. And that’s what has always drawn me to Ireland. I mean anyone who loves literature can rattle off a few South American authors, a few British authors, a few French authors – but then there’s John Millington Synge, and Seamus Heaney, and James Joyce, and Flann O’Brien, and Sean O’Casey; it just doesn’t stop – like on and on and on and on.
GNI: Speaking of poets and such; in your weekly “covers” slot on Facebook you have been reciting poetry as well as covering other artists’ music. And I wondered, do you consider yourself a poet as much as a musician?
PM: I don’t. I love poetry and I read poetry – but even my spoken word pieces are meant to be done with guitar. I hope that I am living in the song forest, over by the poetry swamp.
GNI: Poetic in itself! I wanted to ask too about the fact that you have addressed political issues in many of your songs; “Gasoline”, and “29¢ Head”, and most recently, “Take Down Your Flag”. The political climate in America at the moment; is that good fodder for song writing, or is it challenging?
PM: It’s challenging – but good. You know, America has some very, very deep divisive wounds, and honestly I have tended to think, not of Obama, but of the election of Obama, as lancing that wound. You know, one of our deep wounds is that we are a deeply racist country; right in the United States constitution, black people are labelled as three fifths of a person for purposes of census. It’s right there in the founding document! So that is racist. And that is one of our three deep wounds; the other two being that like every country we are as sexist as it comes, and third, that we genocided a continent full of people in order to live there.
But returning to the wound of racism; it’s never quite healed and it’s been a festering thing, not to be too graphic. And I really think that, not Obama himself, but the election of a black man to the presidency, was a white hot needle that a surgeon just jabbed into that wound, and it needed to happen. But then I think that makes Trump, the eruption of infection.
GNI: So do you think we’re back pedalling?
PM: I actually think we’re moving forward.
GNI: Really? I think he’s a scary dude!
PM: Oh he’s a terribly scary dude. And Americans think that America is special, but it’s just a country. Democracies devolve into autocracies – it happens. So I feel like we very much need to be on our guard. But then when I want to relax myself, I bring to mind the fact that Hitler was 42 and brilliant and thoughtful and shrewd, and Trump is 71 and an enfeebled old idiot. I am not as frightened of him. If he were truly brilliant and in his early forties, I would be terrified right now, as it stands, I am nervous.
GNI: That’s a reassuring perspective I have to say! On a different note, I really wanted to ask about Vlad the Astrophysicist. You obviously have a fascination with time and space and I wondered of you have always had that love of science and how did you feel about being asked to give a TED Talk?
PM: I have always had that love of science. I’ve never had the gumption for the details of it, I’ve never been good at the grunt work of science, but I love the synthesis of science. And I love the romance of science. Basically, years and years ago I began a yearly gig at a place called the National Youth Science Camp for secondary school students about to go to university; I met all these great kids and I met Vlad there. And then they just asked me to do the TED talk after they saw a video of me performing this spoken word piece. And then the publishing company reached out to me.
GNI: To do the children’s book?
PM: Yeah. You know, talking about time on that scale, and talking about death, I think kids can handle that.
GNI: I think kids are fascinated with all of that, and kids are much smarter than we are I think!
PM: The kids are alright.
GNI: I also wanted to ask about the most recent album, Are You Listening? Your music has been described as indie, folk, rock, Americana; I thought your last album Silver Ladder was much more country. Where does this latest album fit into that and do you consciously try to do something different with each new album?
PM: Yeah, well I just like to work with different people and so I worked with Chuck Prophet on Silver Ladder so it’s country and rock ‘n’ roll. And then after that I made Are You Listening? with Ani di Franco and that one was much more string oriented. And I’ve actually got another record recorded, it won’t be out for about a year.
GNI: You’re so prolific
PM: Yeah, well, plenty to write about, you know? But the thing about it is, there are no drums on it, it’s got a lot of avant garde instruments; a wine glass orchestra and a great avant garde bass clarinettist, and Jenny Scheinman who’s a really far out violinist
GNI: Your albums always have such beautiful backing vocals, but when you download everything you don’t get to read the liner notes so you don’t always know who they are – and I do download everything these days
PM: I do too, but I am a big believer in buying the record for that reason.
GNI: A lot of these guys gathering now for tonight’s show will have been coming to see you for years, and they will inevitably have their favourite among your albums. Do you still play songs from right across your back catalogue? Do requests?
PM: Oh yeah, absolutely. In any given night I’m just trying to keep it fresh and the easiest way to do that is to do the stuff that’s new and fresh to me – and then the stuff that’s so old and I haven’t sung it in so long, that it’s also fresh
GNI: When people shout things at you do you ever think – I don’t even remember how to play that anymore?
PM: Oh yes – I mean I’ve put out seventeen records and on those records I would guess maybe a hundred and forty songs – and I probably only know about ninety of my own songs. Anything you want to hear?
GNI: I made a list! There are lots but my absolute favourite song of yours is “If Love is Not Enough” from Rapture
PM: Wow, I’ll try it!
GNI: Thank you so much. Anything else you want to share with us?
PM: Well, I’m moving to the east coast of the United States so it will be that much easier to fly to Ireland, so I think I’ll be over quite a bit more.
GNI: Great – we’d love to see more of you.
And with that, Peter moseyed onto the the stage, picked up his guitar, perused the list of requests already waiting for him there, and began a set of some twenty-five-or-six songs – too many to list in entirety. Three or four songs in though, was “Charlie”, from the 2004 album Kitchen Radio. The song is a hymn to the great Jazz musician Charlie Haden. It’s a beautifully lilting, feel good song and, we’re told, a metaphor for everything that’s good about life and therefore about music. Small wonder then, that when Peter sent Haden a copy of the track with a letter telling him as much, he got no response. He had to admit that it might have been just a little much for their first correspondence.
Though best known for his own material, Mulvey is also a sometime member of The Crumbling Beauties, a band whose sole purpose is to play live, the tracks from Tom Waits‘ album, Rain Dogs. A worthy pursuit. On this occasion, Peter gave us the wonderful “Clap Hands”.
The gorgeous “Who’s Gonna Love You Now?” was one of several new tracks we got to hear. Then getting on the glasses to get a better look at the request list at his feet, Peter shared his reasons for planning to move to the east coast, explaining that Massachusetts is as close to Ireland as it is to California, and that he’s not convinced California is even a real place. After the classic “Shirt” came a much earlier track, “Better Way to Go” – the voice is so honeyed, the song such poetry, every now and again you remember to notice what a phenomenal guitar player the guy is. That’s evidenced in this song and several others, none more so than in the dexterous instrumental feat of, “Black Rabbit”.
Sipping hot water and lemon Peter explains how he’s lost a few notes from his falsetto in recent years; scary stuff if singing is your business. A camera down the throat and a good old look around determined that there were no troublesome nodes, but a fair bit of wear and tear on the voice box, caused in no small part by a total absence of a “warm-up” routine before those three hundred odd shows a year he’s been playing for the last couple of decades. And then he tells us he’s about to do a song that he hasn’t sung for a long time, one that has a lot of falsetto, before launching into my request, “If Love is Not Enough”. He refers to this as his folk disco tune and provides his own backing vocals. If you’re reading this Peter – sorry for straining your vocal chords – and thanks!
Back after a brief interval, audience members shout out requests, and Peter just goes with it; “Fool’s Errand”, “The Trouble with Poets”, all the songs the fans want to hear are interspersed with newer songs and a few select covers. Then there was an audible intake of breath when he began the opening bars of the stunning “On the Way Up”. Released way back in 1995 this song transcends time, it is simply gorgeous.
We are taken on a journey during the second half of the set; the Alaskan tale that is “Windshield”, followed by “When I was in Monaghan” (the song which took him 29 years to complete), back to “Trempealeau”, Wisconsin, then “The Road to Mallow”, and of course the great “Oh Shenandoah” – the songs rebounded back and forth across the Atlantic, proving that Peter Mulvey’s heart lies as much here in Ireland as in his Milwaukee home.
After almost two hours of playing, and a very brief pause, the audience demanded Peter back onto the stage for what felt like a genuine encore, not just one that was expected. Without conceit, he responded to calls for more Tom Waits by finishing up the night with “Bend Down the Branches” and “Innocent When You Dream.”
I certainly hope that Peter Mulvey sticks to his promise and makes his visits to Northern Ireland more frequent. Not just a great singer and song-writer, he has the soul of a poet and a charm and humour that he’s clearly inherited from that Irish great-grandfather.