“Art should prepare us for tenderness” – Anton Chekov, as quoted by Peter Mulvey
“Guess I colored a bit outside the lines but that's me,” Peter says, after returning an email interview with some unconventional answers. It’s an apt description of his own career, which started in the subways of Boston and on the streets of Dublin and has seen Mulvey through 25 years as a recording artist. His journey has been marked by departures from the norm: an album recorded in the Boston subways; annual tours by bicycle; performing Tom Waits’ uncategorizable album ‘Rain Dogs’ live; 12-hour live performances in person and on the internet, often for worthy beneficiaries; and an album of spoken-word letters to his young nieces and nephews. Twenty-five years in and still fired up, he traveled to New Orleans to record his latest, ‘Are You Listening?’ with Ani DiFranco producing at her Big Blue studio. In February, DiFranco Tweeted, “Can’t wait for folks to hear it! What a beaut this one is, what a joy it was to make.”
‘Are You Listening?’ is his Righteous Babe Records debut with a March 24, 2017 release. As DiFranco says, "Mulvey has been honing his craft for many a decade and it shows. He can play some badass guitar, sing to touch your heart, and write a song that will knock you down – and by knock you down, I mean lift you up."
Mulvey is an iconoclast within the singer/songwriter world. Restless and inventive, he has made seventeen records, spanning rock and roll, folk, Tin Pan Alley, spoken word, and Americana. His spoken word piece “Vlad the Astrophysicist,” which arose from a conversation at his recurring gig at the National Youth Science Camp, became a TEDx talk and then, in 2016, an illustrated book. In 2007, he began an annual late summer tour by bicycle instead of by car or airplane – the 10th annual bicycle tour will happen this September. He has also taught songwriting and guitar workshops at the Swannanoa Gathering and at various folk festivals across the U.S.
Seeing a Mulvey show is like sitting in the living room with a keenly observant friend and raconteur, albeit one who’s also a dazzling fingerpicking guitarist and a master of alternate tunings; an astute poet; a social and political activist; a world traveler; and a great listener. On the album, Mulvey semi-jokingly opines, “I’m a pretty good listener, I get it from my mother.”
Listening emerges as the central theme: listening to a friend’s troubles; listening for the heart of America (as in “Which One Were You (For Trayvon Martin)”; listening to the bullied as well as for the insecurities of the bully (“Just Before the War”); listening to the earthly creatures around us with tenderness (invoking that Chekov quote in "Winter Poem"); listening for the path through hardship (“It Can Get You By”); listening to what’s happening in the moment instead of ceding to the stimulation of one’s phone (“D.I.A”); and listening for the song in a newly resurrected guitar (the title track, written in just three minutes, spilled whole from a 1957 Martin.)
“Just Before The War” is a step inside a bully’s head. Peter explains, “The narrator presents as a truly awful person. Still, I felt sympathy for him as the story unfolded. Every bully got damaged some way or other. That’s worth remembering, especially these days.” Meanwhile, “The Other Morning Over Coffee” gives us a narrator listening to a friend's troubles for the umpteenth time: listening without judgement.
Musically, the sure hand of Ani and her touring band, bassist Todd Sickafoose (who has also played with Andrew Bird, Anais Mitchell, and Nels Cline) and drummer Terence Higgins (who has also backed New Orleans legends Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino as well as Norah Jones), along with newcomer Anna Tivel, shape the songs as they run the gamut from the full-on Americana rocker “The Last Song” to the jazzy dissonance of “The Details.”
The friendship between DiFranco and Mulvey deepened in the summer of 2015. Mulvey was opening a run of shows for her when the shootings at the Emanuel Church in Charleston occurred. In the basement of the Calvin Theater in Northampton, after a long heart-to-heart conversation among the band members, Mulvey went into his dressing room and wrote “Take Down Your Flag.” He sang it twenty minutes later, and as he came offstage, DiFranco asked him to teach her the song. She sang it two days later, and substituted her own verse, written for Tywanza Sanders (one of the victims) in place of Mulvey’s verse for Susie Jackson. Within a few days, their versions were posted to YouTube and over the next few weeks, hundreds of songwriters added their own versions, including Anais Mitchell, Keb’ Mo, Paula Cole, and Jeff Daniels, reaching 200,000 cumulative views. This movement also led to an online benefit concert for the Charleston community.
Mulvey’s first love is playing music in a room for other people. He has performed some 4,000 concerts and traveled over a million miles to do it. He expects to continue to play upwards of 100 concerts a year this year and every year. DiFranco isn’t the only A-list supporter. Mulvey has shared stages with Emmylou Harris, Richard Thompson, Greg Brown, the Indigo Girls, and many others, and media have long praised his work.
NPR Music’s Bob Boilen has called his music “beautiful…. touching.”
Rolling Stone.com hailed his music ”haunting... A voice lush and hushed that occasionally sinks into a whisper."
The Washington Post said, "The subtle power of his voice, a husky, hushed baritone... understated, at once sophisticated and intimate ... song as cover-worthy as Randy Newman or Elvis Costello."
All Music testified, "For sheer musicianship, it is difficult to think of many contemporary guitar playing singer-songwriters who can claim superiority to Peter Mulvey."
With the forthcoming release of ‘Are You Listening?,’ more ears will turn Mulvey’s way as well.