Tim Gearan

Retro: Quick Q and A with Peter Mulvey

Peter Mulvey is one of the most prolific songwriters I know. Since this interview that I had with him in 2007, he has released ten more albums of original music. He’s also written a children’s book and has given a very well-received TedTalk. Perhaps most of all, Peter has kept us all aware. Peter is not one to sit idle and he jumps to the occasion to help us perceive social injustices in a timely and thoughtful way.

You may recall that Peter was responsible for writing “Take Down Your Flag” soon after the mass killing of members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. That song went viral and hundreds of other musicians added verses to it. Peter words and music to our grief after this despicable event and helped us process it.

Peter is a touring machine, sometimes riding his bicycle hundreds of miles from gig to gig. His intense curiosity about life and is big heart permeate all his songs and we’re all the better for it. Peter has been know to do marathon concerts — 12 hours with a few bathroom breaks! Yes, he’s a force to be reckoned with for sure! This past fall, Peter was awarded with the inaugural Activist Award of the Year at the NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) conference.

I’m linking to Peter’s TedTalk. I hope you love it as much as I do.

I highly recommend finding out more about Peter Mulvey on his website. He’s got an array of merchandise that you can purchase including music, t-shirts, books, posters, and drinkware. He’s a hard-working musician whose touring life has been nonexistent since COVID-19 happened. Give him support.

And here’s my interview from 2007.

One reviewer’s reaction to the title song of “The Knuckleball Suite” was that it was “Our Town” put to music. Was this the feel you were trying to convey with this song?

Heavens, that’s high praise. I’ve always loved that play, but I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote the song. I suppose it fits as a generalization, since the song is a sketch of some of my favorite characters (as in, “he’s such a character!”), lurking in my favorite small town. And I guess, on reflection, that I was trying to catch some feelings about that transience of mortality that comes of loving a place and its people, which is the feeling I get after seeing Wilder’s play.

This CD was recorded in two and a half days. That must have been an incredible experience. Do you recommend this fast and furious type of recording? Or do you generally like to take more time with the recording process?

I’ve done almost every record that way- maybe it’s unusual but it seems perfectly normal to me: get some players you like to work with, figure out how you’d play the tunes, and then play them, while someone you know and trust is recording the tunes with microphones. Even if I had months, the process would be the same: we’d just have time to try different approaches.

Would you say that this CD is more “political” than previous ones?

No. When I hear politics referenced overtly in a song it goes “clunk” to me. So I leave things open: “Horses” is about the execution of Timothy McVeigh, but he is never mentioned, and though I personally am against any use of the death penalty, it’s more useful to ask direct, challenging questions, so the last line is “Who are we, anyway?” Perhaps the most overt line I’ve ever written is in “Abilene”, addressed directly to Dwight Eisenhower: “Highwaymen have made off with your creed”. That’s as clear as I can be without hearing that “clunk”, and I think it’s pretty direct: I think the Bush Administration are highwaymen. Robbers. Thieves. Bad guys. Of course, put directly like that, it becomes opinion, and opinions do not make good songs. My job is to try to make good songs.

In addition to your original tunes, you often play an interesting assortment of cover tunes. Are you working on any new ones these days?

Oh, always. The last couple were “But I Do” by Bobby Charles, a New Orleans guy, and “Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies”, the old traditional ballad. Plus I revisited a Sheila E cover recently.

What kind of music do you listen to on the road? Or are you a talk radio kind of guy?

Lots of NPR, yes, but now that I finally got an iPod it’s Tom Waits and Bach Sonatas and Wilco and Rickie Lee Jones and Hank Jones and Bulgarian women’s choirs and Irish fiddle and Radiohead, that kind of stuff.

If you could play in an all-star band, what musicians (living or dead) would you choose to play with?

Hm. Well, really anybody I revere. Brian Blade, Marc Ribot, Charlie Haden… heck, Ella Fitzgerald, Bix Beiderbecke… sure, that’d be fun, but to be honest I don’t think of that much. Probably because I get to play with Paul Cebar and Kris Delmhorst and Kelly Joe Phelps and Tim Gearan and Anita Suhanin and Chris Smither and (for crying out loud) David Goodrich, and that’s a fulfilling lifelong conversation. I suppose it’s as simple as this: I have so many interesting, whup-ass musicians as friends, and I get to play with them all the time, that I don’t really have time to even consider some imaginary greener grass.