B&L: What animal do you associate yourself with (given our ties to oxen)?
Peter Mulvey: I have a barred owl tattooed on my arm. I was just in a thicket by the Bark River in Fort Atkinson, WI, my temporary home, and saw a barred owl and her mate. It was thrilling. I so emphatically did not reach for my phone to take a picture. I looked at her. She looked me full in the face, shat, hooted, and dropped into the cold air to unfold and cross the river. Her mate followed.
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
Mulvey: I can’t remember. I got my first guitar at seven and for the life of me I can’t dig up a memory that precedes music as a central thing in life.
B&L: What’s the making of a great show?
Mulvey: My dear friend and colleague and font of inspiration, Kris Delmhorst, once said something to the effect that she just shows up, and goes as far into the music as the music will let her on that day. That’s gospel to me.
B&L: Let’s talk about your latest record, “Are You Listening.” What sort of goals did you have for yourself when you set out to make this record?
Mulvey: I’m gonna go all John Cage here and say, “The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation.” I sent Ani twenty songs. And then I put myself in her hands, and the hands of her crew.
B&L: How has it been received? Are people listening?
Mulvey: Very much so. There’s a stillness that pervades much of the record and these days we could all use a stillness to go into, to rest within.
B&L: As you alluded to above, it’s produced by Ani DiFranco, which is very cool. What did her involvement add to your music/songs? How does she inspire you as a writer/artist/activist?
Mulvey: She is just wonderful. She’s a deep soul, she’s funny as fuck and magnetic, a natural leader. And she listens hard. The thing she did that made the biggest difference was to listen to every suggestion, and then with simplicity and grace to choose a course of action. I don’t want to get corny but she is a born leader. Also, she sat with us all in the room as we tracked, tiny and cross-legged on a chair with big headphones on her small head, and she listened. To every take. Which created the space where the songs happen. She was the silence where the songs happened. It is a gift she gave us as we played. (Speaking of “we”, Todd and Terence and Anna were amazing as the entire band on the record.)
B&L: Is songwriting an easy or arduous process for you? Are you a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants kind of writer, or do you schedule “office hours”?
Mulvey: I just write all the time. I used to write less often. Once I truly began to write regularly, my writing improved noticeably. Surprise, surprise. Among the many benefits of writing regularly: I know, now, that I will never find room on all the records I’ll make for all the songs I’ve written. Many of my songs will go unrecorded, including ones that both I and my audience really dig. Which is fine. I love that old-school thing, where a song just exists in the world. That’s how most songs were, for millennia, before the invention of recorded media.
B&L: What led you to pick up a guitar and start singing in the first place? When did you think, ‘yup, this is something I ought to try for a bit…’?
Mulvey: I saw a camp counselor with a guitar. I said, “Mom, Dad… can I have a guitar?” It is in this way that many lives are ruined.
B&L: What’s the power and/or importance of observation and, perhaps, the power and/or importance of being a decent listener? Maybe they’re one in the same…
Mulvey: We need to be heard. We all need to be heard, to be seen, to be known. On the last day of my best friend’s life, the nurse shaved his head, so that he got to leave the world wearing his hair the way he had always liked to: shaven. I love that nurse, and will always be grateful to him. We might sit down and have a beer and I might find him tiresome or arrogant, or he might think I’m a flake. That’s fine. He helped my friend feel heard, seen, known. There’s nothing greater than that.
B&L: What’s one tune (or, heck, a couple) that exists out there in the ether that blows you away that you kind of wish you had written yourself?
Mulvey: Oh, good lord, there are a zillion. I’ve written maybe 200 songs, but I’ve learned maybe 1,500. Maybe 2,000. I could play you a dozen Anais Mitchell songs from memory. I could play you three-dozen by Greg Brown. I could play you I don’t know how many Beatles tunes, or standards. Y’are whatcha eat.
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you perform at the Word Barn on March 2nd?
Mulvey: Lately I’ve been adopting a mantra from a friend who is into improvisational dance:
- Show up
- Pay attention
- Tell the truth
- Let go of the results
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
Peter Mulvey will make his first visit to the Word Barn in Exeter on Friday, March 2nd at 8pm. For tickets and information click here.