Singer-songwriters never tread an easy path and the demands of the journey are filled with unseen twists and turns. One such travelling troubadour, Peter Mulvey, has navigated this chosen path with great élan and joie de vivre as his career has developed. Take his prodigious energy for continuous touring and his ever- impressive recorded output and you are close to the perfect example of the creative drive involved in turning dreams into reality. Lonesome Highway asked Peter to give us a peek into his current state of mind and also, reflect on the past, as he prepares for his Irish tour.
Your next Dublin concert is coming up on 21st April next at the Workman’s Club in the city centre. Is this to highlight your latest release, Are You Listening?, which came out in March last year?
I’ve been on the road all my life. Every show is just about the audience, and myself, and the room. A moment that comes and then goes. Sure, I’ll play stuff from Are You Listening? but I’ll play very old stuff and brand new songs. I imagine I’ll play a song or two that get written between now, when I’m typing these words, and that day at the Workman’s Club.
The record was produced by Ani Di Franco, and released on her record label, Righteous Babe Records. Was it your song in 2015, Take Down Your Flag, that led to your initial meeting?
We’d met long before then and been peripherally aware of each other. But in 2014 I did a show with her in Anchorage, Alaska, and we had supper and bonded a bit, and she brought me on a few little runs here and there. It was during one of those that the murders at Mother Emanuel happened, and we sat together with her bandmates Terence and Todd just mulling it all over. I went in the dressing room, wrote Flag, went onstage, sang it, and when I came off Ani said “teach me that tune” and that’s where it started. So, it was natural that she would shepherd my next batch of songs out into the world.
That song was written as a result of a mass shooting at the AME Emanuel Church in Charleston and there was also an online benefit concert which you organised in support of the victims and their community. Were you pleased with the support of the music fraternity and the results, which generated quite a lot of media attention.
I was pleased to be of some small help, and to be some tiny drop in the river of our ongoing American awakening. We have a long road. We are a country awash in racism. Our current president is clearly racist, and an awful human being. I hope that this whole era is a wound being lanced.
As a musician, Ani Di Franco has always displayed a very eclectic vision, delivering a mix of folk, punk, rap and more recently, jazz leanings, across her records. How did she impact on your song-craft and the overall production?
She’s a born leader and a tremendous listener (those are the same thing, now that I say them out loud.) All of this ran through her lens. My favourite part was when she was overdubbing all the subtle vocal flourishes and piano and glockenspiel.
Her guitar style is very percussive and rhythmic, something that you share in common; is there anything you learned from collaborating with her that has changed your approach to playing?
Everything, though most of that is probably so deep in the past that it’s unavailable to me consciously. It’s just in the DNA now, Michael Hedges and Ani DiFranco and David Hidalgo...
You have been influenced by Chris Smither in your formative years as a musician and collaborate regularly with David Goodrich. What do these artists bring to you in terms of your musical development?
They’re my mentors, and still my dear friends. Smither brought me along into the world and taught me everything, and Goody and I grew up together.
You are looking back at 25 years of playing, recording and touring, averaging 100 gigs a year. What drives you to keep up the unrelenting pace over so many years?
Actually it’s 130 gigs a year over that span. But I’d go with “brisk” rather than “unrelenting”. I just love my work. I love a room, I love listeners, I love songs. At my age, I do have to engage in better self-care than I used to. More walking. Less drinking. More sleeping. I hope to keep a brisk pace into my seventies. Smither sure does.
Has the dynamic of touring changed much over this time?
Not at all. It’s a familiar thing and I wouldn’t really want it to change.
Does the relentless travel take its toll on your performance levels?
The opposite is true: I really feel I get into the swing of things as a run goes on.
Is getting paid from performing live the main source of income?
Yes, and it always has been. I probably just break even on records. I usually only sell three or four thousand records over the release, and that’s not a huge amount.
The lack of royalties on downloads and streaming has driven many talented artists out of the music business. How do you survive in an environment with the many constraints on income generation from all sources these days?
I never depended on it in the first place. I was lucky enough to find the part of the job that I love, and that hasn’t dried up.
You have been a frequent visitor to Ireland over the years but we have not seen you for a while (three years?) – did you decide to finally take a time-out from your demanding touring schedule to take stock?
Not at all. I just didn’t have someone booking me tours over here. Now I’ve found, strangely, an American agency that does a decent job.
When did you first visit Ireland and how do your experiences of that time compare with the Ireland of today?
I was an exchange student in 1989 at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth. Mostly I just cut classes and hung out on Grafton Street with all the young buskers who were doing songs from Fisherman’s Blues and This Is The Sea. Peter Gabriel tunes, and Violent Femmes tunes. I made money in Irish coins and spent it on a used army jacket in Temple Bar ... I’d take the money and go hitchhiking and stay in youth hostels. And then I didn’t come back until 1997, Celtic Tiger and all that. Things change. Things don’t change. People are people. We’re all just primates with cell phones.
You display a real lust for life and draw your influences from a number of creative sources - including poetry/ literature/narrative/daily encounters. Does your writing tend towards the personal perspective as a preference?
I tend to veer pretty widely. I have two records written right now, and just put the personal one down. I’ll follow with the universal one after. I will say, over the years, that those two antipodes have merged.
In 1995, your release, Rapture, included a hidden track and spoken word song, Aurora Borealis. Is there a factual story behind this track?
Yes indeed. A friend of mine was the kid. Hitchhiking in the South, taken in and given a place to stay by a racist, sexist jack wagon. The whole story is true. I stole it. What an unmerry band of thieves are we writers.
Your release, Letters From A Flying Machine (2009), was a departure in that it was a concept of sorts; letters from you to your nephews and nieces, read as spoken word pieces. What was the motivation behind the recording?
It all just arose from real life. I was setting down artefacts in my relationship with my brothers’ and sisters’ kids, things for them to dredge up when they become adults. And it seemed vibrant enough to make a record out of it.
You have also written a book, Vlad The Astrophysicist. It is dedicated to Children, Adults and other Old Souls. What was the original idea behind this?
It was one of the letters. And it’s a true story: I met an astrophysicist from the Czech Republic, and I asked him “Why haven’t we heard from another civilization” and he gave me an honest answer. It blew my mind, and so I really, really needed to find a way to get it into the world. So, it became one of the spoken word pieces on Letter... and then it became a TEDx Talk. And then a book.
Was this the key factor that lead to your appearance on the Ted Talk programme?
The curator of the TED event got dragged to one of my shows and immediately asked me to participate in TEDx. It’s invite-only and it doesn’t pay. Which normally, as a working artist, I’d be a little wary of. But it’s a pretty beautiful idea.
In 2014, Silver Ladder was your 16th official release and was funded by a kick starter campaign. Have you happy memories of that experience?
Indeed I do. It’s a great feeling when you realize that you have the stalwart support of an audience that goes back decades.
Chuck Prophet produced this record. What did he bring to the project?
He is an instigator, a born antagonist, a court jester and a devil’s advocate. He made me walk the plank at every moment. The opposite of Ani. Both of them got good results.
You embark on a yearly bicycle tour in America. Apart from promoting fitness levels beyond most musician’s comprehension, have you encountered many close shaves on the American highways and byways?
Occasionally, yes. Cars are suspect. They isolate us in our glass bubbles and make us aggressive and careless. It’s part of why I do the bike tours in the first place: to find yet another way to stay human.
The latest release, Are You Listening? suggests a growing frustration at the creeping indifference to hardship, inequality and suffering in the USA over recent times. Is the title a reflection of this?
The lynchpin of the whole record is an Anton Chekov quote: “Art should prepare us for tenderness.” It appears as an epigraph in the poem that made it onto the record, Winter Poem. I’m actually very hopeful about my country: Trump is clearly one of the worst people ever to hold the office, but, significantly, he is the oldest to hold that office, too. He’s the past. Frankly, my generation is kinder and softer and more creative and more nurturing than his was — the evidence bears that out. And the kids, don’t get me started. The kids are great. I’m very hopeful. I can’t help but notice that Sinn Fein’s new president is my age, and that she quoted Maya Angelou in her acceptance speech. I don’t know much else about her, but those two things seem promising from this distance. I think the future’s promising everywhere.
Your high energy performance levels have been captured on your live records (Glencree/Ten Thousand Mornings), collaborations (Redbird/The Knuckleball Suite), instrumental projects (David Goodrich), recorded standards (The Good Stuff) and indeed your entire body of work. How important is it to challenge yourself and step outside of your comfort zone when it comes to taking on different projects?
Picasso said that art shakes the dust from ordinary life. My experience is that you’d better be growing, always growing, if you want to be of any use to an audience. I’m just looking for ordinary magic.
You often include cover songs in your live shows and recorded output. What motivates your choices when it comes to selecting specific songs?
Oh, it’s just like trying on a jacket in a thrift store. Does it fit? Does it feel good? Sold.
Is the glass half full or half empty right now?
The glass is twice as large as it needs to be.
So, looking forward to seeing your return to Ireland in April. Is there a full tour this time around and what can we expect?
Oh yes. Dublin, Cork, Galway, Belfast, Ballymore, Dundalk, Leap, Limavady...
Peter Mulvey plays Dublin Workman’s Club on Saturday 21st April next. There will be other Irish dates announced shortly.
Make sure you catch this superb musician on his upcoming Irish tour. His live performance is always one that stays in the memory and Peter Mulvey gives everything he has got in communicating, entertaining, motivating and inspiring an audience to go out there and live life to the full.
Interview by Paul McGee