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The Trouble with Peter Mulvey
By Matthew S. Robinson
(more articles from this author)
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In the past year, singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey has had more than his share of strange and often tragic happenstances. His previous recording label dissolved. His trusty Chevy has been broken into three times. He has lost clothing, a computer and his beloved hand-made Irish guitar. And if that weren't enough, he recently had an odd exchange with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Oh woe, Peter!

Still, despite a year which might drive a lesser performer to quit (or at least to join Teddy in a drink or two or three), Mulvey has persevered, continuing to tour relentlessly in support of his latest album The Trouble With Poets (Signature Sounds). Come Rain or Deep Blue or even Rapture, Mulvey just keeps on plugging.

During a recent stop in Boston (where Mulvey got his start playing in the subway tunnels), Mulvey took a moment to put things in perspective and explain why he has not gone mad (at least, not so much that you'd notice).

[Matthew] I hate to drag you through it one more time, Peter, but tell me about your recent misfortunes and how they have affected you.

[Peter] What, the car thing? Well, sure, my car has been broken into three times in the last year, but that's nothing! I was recently introduced to Ted Kennedy and had the presence of mind to say 'Thanks, Man!' Considering the first thing I did as a performer was an all roller-skating production of "Oklahoma" and the most recent was Ted Kennedy, the break-ins were just a blip.

Losing my guitar was kind of a drag. Well it was more than kind of a drag. But I got two new guitars- On the road I play a Seagull, but it does well. In the studio, I use an guitar built by Julius Borges III which is a bit too delicate to take on the road.

[Matthew] When and how did the new album come together?

[Peter] Well, the material was almost totally written in June- two months before we recorded. Goody [i.e., producer, co-writer and accompanist David "Goody" Goodrich] and I sat in my apartment in Milwaukee and just cranked out tunes. He brought in more than half of raw guitar configurations and then we just bashed stuff around and came up with melodies and then the lyrics just fit in those syllabic constructions. Sometimes, they come so quickly, it's hard to tell, but usually it's the music first. At least I hope it's first. I'd suspect it was the music first even with guys like Robert Frost

[Matthew] What does the new album mean?

[Peter] I have NO idea! This one is the furthest open to interpretation of any record I have ever done. Most of it is narratives and characters speaking, some of whom your guess is as good as mine. It's a good record with good stories. I like them. But I don't even know what they mean anymore. For example, ""Wings of the Ragman." I thought it was about a dead guy trying to talk to the living who can't hear him. But perhaps I'm wrong!

[Matthew] So how do you choose your subject matter for songs?

[Peter] Some sounds will emerge and a line will solidify from those sounds. Then if you keep your mind open and as k who is speaking, the lines just write themselves and follow each other. Goody was definitely part of the lyric-writing process, if only as a barometer for the interest level. I could just read it on his face if a song was interesting or not. And if I couldn't, he'd tell me!

[Matthew] What will your fans recognize in the new album and how would you describe it to new listeners?

[Peter] What I hope people will here is all the records I've done mangled together. This one felt like that. It has the buoyance of Rapture and compositional technical hoo-ha of Deep Blue (both on Eastern Front) and freedom of Glrencree (a live album recorded in Ireland). It's getting harder to describe as my interests are branching out. From a marketing standpoint, it's getting harder to define. It's American music, but there's some Radiohead in there, which is British .... The quickest thing to say is that it's Nick Drake meets Los Lobos. Oh, God! That's the type of thing some marketing guy says and that makes me ill

[Matthew] How are things at the new label?

[Peter] It's great! They're real low key and laid-back and also they have the machinery that put out the RESPOND benefit CD and all their other great artists. I mean, it's really cool being in the same stable as Richard Shindell and Mark Erelli and all them. It's cool!

[Matthew] Will you be taking the album anywhere new, in terms of touring?

[Peter] No, unless we go to Europe. We pretty much play everywhere in US and I play Ireland a lot, so the UK would not be new. So except for Europe, perhaps, there won't be much new. This is the tour circuit I'd love to playing at 50. I'd love to be filling the venues where I am an opening act now and maybe be able to play three-night stands at some of the smaller venues.

[Matthew] Do you still go back to the subway?

[Peter] Oh sure! The next time I come to Boston, I got five days there, so I figure I'll spend the morning playing in the subway and the afternoons biking to Walden Pond. Not that I can guarantee I'll get a spot because it's so competitive.

[Matthew] Is the subway scene more competitive than it was when you started there?

[Peter] Not more competitive, but it has reached its equilibrium.

[Matthew] What else would you like to be doing when you're 50 (or a few years before that)?

[Peter] I have got to learn more music and find a method for writing that is more constant. That's the one thing I want to develop more- discipline. I am now working on standards from the 30's 40's and 50's and I also spend time trying to figure out what guys like Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill are doing. If I can incorporate more discipline, that would be great. I do so many live shows, I have become adept at watching and learning from what I do. It's the rest of that thing - the repertoire and stuff - that need work. I think I'll find the time as I go on, but I'd really like to expand my horizons.

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