Quick Q and A with Peter Mulvey

Peter Mulvey is one of the foremost urban folkies on the scene.  His literate, socially conscious lyrics combined with subtle and sultry right-on instrumental accompaniment has intrigued and impressed many.  Although a Midwesterner (he calls Milwaukee home), he has many, many connections to the Boston music scene since he moved there in the early 1990s.  Peter is know not only for his solo work but for his collaborations with Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault as part of the band, Redbird.  Peter’s shows never fail to entertain and educate.


How long have you been doing bicycle tours?  What gave you the idea to do them?
 This will be my sixth year.  I’ve always enjoyed long bike rides, and there’s a bike path that goes from my house in Milwaukee to the Cafe Carpe, a club in Fort Atkinson that I’ve been playing all my life.  It’s about fifty-five miles, not too tough to do, even for an amateur like me.  I’d always thought that if I could find a way to transport a guitar on a bike, I could ride there.  And then, six years ago, it occurred to me that from there, it’s only another 40 miles to a gig in Madison, 70 more to a gig in Green Lake, and so on.  I went from there.  Thousands of miles later, I’ll be rolling up to Marblehead.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes about riding the highways and byways toting your gear along behind you?  Do you people give you double and tripletakes?
People do see the guitar and smile.  But I also guess that mostly it wouldn’t occur to them I might be going hundreds of miles that way over the next week or two… I doubt that occurs to people.

I don’t know how it changes other people but these tours have changed me.  I usually travel with a small group of friends, and there’s something very tribal, very primal, very human about long journeys performed together under your own power.  You all get hungry together, sunburned together, rained on together.  You fight the wind together, you enjoy the long twilight together, you see deer and cranes and hawks and goldfinches and hillsides and cornfields… it’s something that most of us only read about.  It’s a journey.  It winds up having heft in your memory.

This tour also celebrates the release of one new CD, The Good Stuff as well as an EP called Chaser.  First, let’s talk about the the full CD.  It’s a collection of standards. What’s your own personal definition of a “standard”?
 Well, for this record, I wanted to avoid the cliche of the singer-songwriter doing a “standards” record- you know, I’ve dusted off a bunch of schlink-ey tunes, and hired a pianist and an upright bassist, put on a suit… it’s been done.  So I decided to widen the lens;  alongside Monk and Ellington, I decided it was all right to include Tom Waits and Willie Nelson, Jolie Holland and Joe Henry, and also my colleagues Chris Smither, Anita Suhanin, Melvern Taylor.  The point here is that a standard is exactly what the word implies: a song that is so good, so stand-alone, holy-crap good, that other songs want to measure up to it.  I think that’s true of all the songs on the record.

Your version of “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen is perhaps my favorite on the album.  You give it a clean, pure interpretation and even though I know the song inside out, it made me listen to the lyrics in a different way.  It truly speaks to the condition of the world these days, doesn’t it?
 Oh, it sure does.  The song is a gem, a conspiratorial whisper, a loving little murmur from the archetypical wise old sot on the proverbial sinking frigate.  That whisper has been made by many a poet but seldom more genially.

Did you have any other standards on your list that didn’t make it onto this CD?  (Hint: maybe a second volume is to come?)
 Lord, I could have made this record four or five times without repeating any of the tracks.  I mean, musical history is awash with precious artifacts.  My fondest hope for this record would be that it has some kind of kinship with Elvis Costello’s Kojak Varieties, and Emmylou Harris’sWrecking Ball, and Chris Whitley’s Perfect Day.  Hopefully it’s an iteration of that gesture: you’ve found your voice, as an artist.  You’ve written a ton of songs and learned five tons of songs.  So you cast your eye on the landscape you emerged from, pick a dozen landmarks, hire some great players you know, and dive in there.

So what about Chaser?  You’ve got an eclectic mix of songwriters on this compilation as well.  I love the fact that you’ve got Randy Newman and Cole Porter in the same collection…and it works!  Your aim, I take it, was to provide a more lighthearted collection.  
 It is the lighthearted little deal, after the heavier, darker main course.  I didn’t really set out that way: we just had the musicians and we took swings at tunes, and recorded twenty.  Goody sequenced what he thought was the best line-up and that became The Good Stuff.  What was left over, we noticed, hung together and was sweeter and quicker.  So we put it together.

Your recent work seems to explore and perhaps stretch your repertoire into a more jazzy / swing genre which is exciting.  Is this a style of music that you have always gravitated toward?
 Oh, sure.  I love the art, the simplicity, the light touch.  I came up Catholic and Midwestern and earnest, and all that is in my artistic makeup, but gradually you realize that life is heavy enough: we all have heavy stuff going on, that’s a given, and artistically, a light touch works as well to get at it as anything.  Shakespeare understood that, I think, as well as Cole Porter did.

Like Timmy Gearan says on his new tune, “Riverboat”, 

“Step right up, it’s another flying circus
Some of us need a percoset to get us through the week
Put back on another side of Mingus
Nothing much to bring us up we got to slow it down”.

That speaks to me.  Let us take it as read that the world is heavy.  Let’s swing while we’re able.

Are there any key players whose style inspires you within the world of these “standards/”
 Well, yes: Hoagy Carmichael did so much with a fairly modest instrument (his voice).  And Jeri Southern, who could be so plain, so un-ornamented, so straight ahead.  Of course there’s Ella and Louis, both individually and the records they did together.  What a contrast!  She’s so superlative, artful, effortless, and then he comes in like the apple with the dirt on it, rough and actual.  But both of them so captivating, so sensually overwhelming.  You’d run out of adjectives and never get near them.

I’ve been merrily lost in this stuff for some time now, there’s so much territory here, and it’s so much more vivid and engaging than, say, the blogosphere, or the political landscape, or (heaven help us) Facebook.  Just putting a record together, with the premise being “Think of a dozen great songs.  Got ’em?  Go!” — it’s been such a rich season, and now I’ve been writing and writing, not really thinking too hard, just seeing what grows from all the seeds I’ve watered so far.  This stuff is endless.

 For more information about Peter Mulvey, check out his website. Dig around the site and take some time to watch the posted videos. They give a great representation of what this man does in concert.  For even further musical treats, let your fingers do the walking to the official Peter Mulvey YouTube Channel.

Peter will be playing at the me&thee on Friday, September 28.


  1. Matt Robinson is such an incredibly knowledgeable music lover/writer that I learn as much from his questions as I do from the Answers!

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