Home > Interviews > Peter Mulvey

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Boston Beats:  Could everybody please state your name, age, and current occupation for the record?

Peter Mulvey:  My name is Peter Mulvey. Iím thirty-seven years old and Iím a singer.


HISTORY

BB: How did you get into music? When did you first learn how to play?
Peter: Itís just about thirty years ago I was at summer camp, and one of the counselors played guitar and I thought this is what I want to do. I asked my parents for a guitar and I got one and I started taking lessons. I used to walk up to North Avenue in my neighborhood in Milwaukee, and this guy named Norb Kaminski would teach me the chords to all kinds of things. Beatles tunes, and that old tune ďThereís a Kind of HushĒ by Hermanís Hermits. I would play the chords and he would play the melodies. So that took seven years. Then I studied finger style guitar at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music with a guy named Peter Roller. Learned a lot of the old blues tunes and ragtime tunes. From there I discovered Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, got seriously into the guitar and then I moved out to Boston in 1992, to Somerville. I met David [Goodie] Goodrich, in a guitar shop, The Music Emporium, which used to be on Mass Ave in Cambridge. He got me into all kinds of music. So I really feel like Iíve begun to study more as I go on.

BB: How did you come to write your first song?
Peter: [Laughs.] A childhood friend of my brotherís, we were sitting around and I was playing
Pink Floyd tunes from The Wall in the basement, and Simon and Garfunkel tunes. And I remember, he was like, ďYou know, you should write your own songs, Peter.Ē Having said that, the first tune that I wrote that I kept is probably ďBlack RabbitĒ or ďOn the Way Up,Ē which I still play at shows. But those must have been the fifteenth or twentieth tunes I wrote. Actually, this is not true; I played with a band in college when I was maybe nineteen or twenty years old, and those songs stuck around for a while. Some of those wound up on my first record, on Rapture. ďI donít know.Ē Thatís maybe the shortest answer. Iíve written a lot of songs.

BB: Where have your songs ended up?
Peter: They used that song ďOn the Way UpĒ in that television show Felicity and then they used a song called ďTake ThisĒ in the DVD for Felicity and that was kind of cool to see that they would want to do that, and it paid good. And then there was an independent film called ďThe Origin of Species.Ē That didnít make me any money but the filmmaker wanted to use the song, and that was very touching. And thereís this weird Japanimation video that someone set to ďThe Trouble with Poets.Ē I have no idea why, or who they are. All I know is that if you add my name into the search engine in YouTube, this is one of the videos that comes up which is pretty amusing if nothing else.


SONGWRITING AND MUSICAL INFLUENCES

BB: How does a new song usually come about for you?
Peter: For me, it comes as a piece of music. It usually comes as some sort of guitar idea. Either itís a chord structure that then I sing a melody to, and then the melody gives rise to words, or itís a finger style structure that has a melody in it, and then I just put words to that
melody, and learn to play it.

BB: What are some of your musical influences?
Peter: Lately itís been my friends. Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault, and Goodie and Chris Smither. But as a kid, I was way into the Police. I had all five of those Police records when I was younger. And obviously I went through the phase of digging Led Zeppelin, and I was into the whole prog-rock thing. Rush and Yes. It was certainly very interesting, there was a lot of creative stuff there, although not very groovy when one looks back on it. You canít really dance to Rush. And obviously ignoring Dylan would be like ignoring the King James Bible. And Tom Waits. Lately itís been a lot of more old-timey stuff. Louis Armstrong and old old country tunes. Old Hank Williams tunes. Old Willie Nelson, like early Willie Nelson, the suits-and-short-haircuts Willie Nelson.

BB: What are some of your favorite albums?
Peter: One of my favorites is Kiko by Los Lobos, thatís a perennial favorite. I think that was one of their high water marks. Iím really fond of that Greg Brown record that wasnít an official Greg Brown record. Itís called ďOne Night,Ē and itís just a concert that he did. And the reason Iím so fond
of it is that it reminds me of his concerts. Theyíre full of songs that youíve never heard before. I love that about Greg Brown. Heís always writing songs, and when you go see him play he just plays you a bunch of songs that he has lying around right now. Itís not like he feels like since heís touring some new record that heís got to play the songs from the new record. Heíll just play you what heís got.

BB: How would you describe your guitar style?
Peter: Itís a hybrid of two things. I use very low and very broad guitar tunings to create a fuller sound, a sound with more low-end in it and a sound with more space in it, wider intervals, because I think the space defines that sound. Thatís about half of what I do with the guitar. The other half is a more traditional approach using standard or alternate tunings and finger styles to try to be melodic. To try to build chords over time instead of throwing them out there all at once. So most of what I do is to try to introduce space into things, and play just a few notes to imply movement and to imply chords.

BB: Whatís your singing style?
Peter: My singing style, if I have one, has to do with playing to my strengths and downplaying my weaknesses. Iíve never had a lot of pure tone, but I have a decent grasp of phrasing. I donít have a particularly wide register, but I have a lot of strength right in the bottom third of my register so I play to that.


RECORDING

BB: What has been your experience recording music? Whatís your process?
Peter: Iíve only done one record with a lot of overdubbing. It was my first record, Brother Rabbit Speaks, and it took me a lot of time. It took me weeks of going in for a day or going in for two days. It took me weeks and weeks across a summer. And it was fun, but ever since then Iíve tended to work very quickly. My next record was a live record, obviously recorded in a couple of hours. The record after that, Rapture, was recorded in two days and thatís about generally the pace I like to work at. Just find some musicians that you know, learn to play the tunes, go in, everybody set up, turn on the tape machine and play. I think, for me, that at least leads to a certain vitality in the performances. It doesnít sound like a constructed juggernaut, it sounds like something that happened. And what Iím after there, though I have never gotten it to the extent that he gets it, is what Tom Waits does so successfully. When you hear a Tom Waits recording you get the feeling that he and the boys were just playing the songs, and some anthropologist happened along and just happened to tape that event. Does that make sense? Like it was a real event that was happening, and weíre just lucky enough that somebody had a tape recorder there. He sounds like those old third world recordings that guys used to bring back to the Smithsonian after they traveled the world with a tape recorder. And Iím after something like that, maybe a milder version of that, where what youíre hearing on the recording is sort of an ďoverhearingĒ of a conversation between the musicians.

BB: Of all the albums youíve done so far, which ones are the most personal to you?
Peter: Either Kitchen Radio or Deep Blue. Deep Blue, I was just going through a sad time, and itís a fairly dark and sad record. And Kitchen Radio is drawn, I think, most directly and closely on a personal experience.

BB: Which ones do you think are your best albums?
Peter: As far as the best written songs, I think thatís the last two. Kitchen Radio and The Knuckleball Suite. I feel like Iím finally hitting some kind of a stride, and itís a stride that I really hope to continue and kick into an even higher gear. And thatís because I think it has sunk in, all of the study that Iíve done. I read a lot of poetry. Two of my favorites are Billy Collins and James Tate. I think Billy Collins has everybody beat in terms of simplicity, and the colloquial, the every day. James Tate is just spectacular and narrative, although heís a little surreal. Iíd like to get into that surrealism but I think it would take a lot of study. So, I feel like my albums are constantly getting better. The hopeówell, not just the hope, the goalóis to keep some kind of youthful spark of creativity as you get more skilled, so that your more skilled stuff still has that resonance. Itís a shame that itís once you learn to write you also donít have that much to say. So the goal is to always try to keep that youthful spark alive as you get more and more mature as a writer. 

 

 

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*Pictures courtesy of http://www.petermulvey.com

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