Peter Mulvey Live in Harrisburg, PA November 23, 2019. An Interview.

Interview with Peter Mulvey: Gigging is all I’ve Really Wanted to Do

By Curtis Rockwell

Singer, songwriter, and musical troubadour Peter Mulvey plays and performs music with a deep and abiding respect for his craft, for his audience, and for the enormity of time.  I had the delightfully good fortune of discussing the craft with Peter, who will be performing for the Susquehanna Folk Music Society concert series this Saturday, November 23rd, at 7:30 pm Fort Hunter Centennial Barn, 5300 N. Front Street, Harrisburg, PA.

Concert tickets are $20 General Admission, $16 for SFMS members, and $10 for students ages 3-22 and can be purchased here https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4272207 or at the door. For more information, visit the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website at http://www.sfmsfolk.org.

Early Years and the Boston Scene

“I suppose my first gig in front of people was when I was 16 years old.  It would have been New Years Eve, 1986.  I had a little 12 string guitar and already I’d been playing for eight or nine years at that point.  That was my first proper gig, and I think that gigging is what I’ve always wanted to do.  I spend quite a bit of my time writing, and that’s certainly part of my art form, but I’m only writing so I can put some material together and play a gig, and that’s been my overarching mission in life since I was a little kid.” 

Early influences of Mulvey’s included the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel, which preceded a phase of exploring progressive rock before settling on the troubadour singer and story teller.  “By the time I was in college, I had seen Leo Kottke play music, and I’d seen Michael Hedges play music, and I was fairly certain that I wanted to be a guitar weenie.”

A move to the Boston area in 1992 introduced Mulvey to several musicians who would strongly influence the development of his skills. “I fell in with a fairly wide group of players there and I got turned on to all kinds of things…  Ry Cooder, and Los Lobos and Soul Coughing, and at the same time I met Patty Larkin, and Cliff Eberhart, and John Gorka, and of course they were all kindly people and very good to me and good with an audience. 

Musical Friendship with Chris Smither

But the most influential thing was that I met my mentor, Chris Smither, and we hit it off and we became friends. He brought me on the road and his manager took over and began managing my career and, truthfully, over the next four years, everything that I still have, I built out of the raw material that he gave me which was to wake up at the hotel and get in the car with Chris and drive to the next city, find the venue, sound check, show up, go find food, come back, hope that the audience shows up, and then pay attention to them.  And then take it seriously that human beings have taken time out of their day to find you and to see you.  And that’s been my life since then.”

While in Boston, Mulvey also spent time busking on the subways underneath the city where he describes the experience as “like the movie Groundhog Day except it’s the same nine minutes repeating over and over and over.  There’s silence and an empty platform, a train has just left, and now strangers come down an escalator and you sing them a couple of songs.  Much of it is chance and luck.  If the first person is in a bad mood and doesn’t want to hear a songwriter, then everyone takes their visual cues from them walking past you.  All you have is the tool of singing a song over and over and trying to truly inhabit that song and make it come alive.  Every young painter goes to whatever museum and learns to put their brushes in the places Cézanne put his brush… It’s just muscle memory and repetition.”

TED Talk

As if to continue his subterranean experiences, Mulvey now performs for high school students who are participating in the annual National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia.  “They put them (the students) onto yellow school buses and they take them to this underground cavern.  They take them to this field and then they walk through this long passageway under the roots of a tree into this underground cavern and they are not told anything other than to dress warm, and then the lights go on and I play them a concert there in a cave.  And it’s brilliant.”  

The experience helped Mulvey land a TED Talk in which he performed two songs and a philosophical, musical monologue he referred to as “Vlad” based on an encounter with a scientist he met at the West Virginia camp.  It’s deeply profound, and demonstrates the kind of understanding of time and space one often encounters when talking with a geologist or astrophysicist.  Clearly, Mulvey has a deep perspective regarding time, art, music, and his place in the creative cosmos.  

A Troubadour

When questioned about his future as a troubadour, and whether the life of a traveling folk musician will remain relevant in the days of smart phones and information overload, he reflectively said that, “I’m at peace… I think things are going to be fine.  I’ve done a few shows opening for Colin Hay who was with that band Men At Work, and you know now he plays the larger end of the kind of venues that I played and he packs them.  The guy doesn’t need any of it – he had major hits.”  “He’s on the road because the thing he does is a human need.  It’s bigger than any of the people in the room and it is ephemeral.  You cannot commodify it.”

“I live and die by the live performance.  Live theater has not been replaced by the radio.  It has not been replaced by the phonograph.  It has not been replaced by the cinema. It has not been replaced by the internet.  It has not been replaced by video games.  Boise, Idaho still has a good theater program – I have no doubt that there’s a decent play that’s staged in Boise, Idaho every year.  I’m not worried.  I’m just not worried.”

There is a wonderful intimacy to be experienced at the Fort Hunter barn where the audience is in close proximity to the artist, surrounded by ancient timbers that have stories of their own to tell, and run by an organization that delights in supporting the troubadours of our time. 

“I always appreciate a venue that has a sort of a crowd that is willing to trust the organization that brings people in.  So I take all of that seriously and I try to really make sure that we are there and going to have a good time.  I guess I’m going to shoot for magic, but that’s always the goal – that we’re going to get magic to walk through the room.”  

—-This interview was conducted by Curtis Rockwell, musician, and luthier extraordinaire! Find out about Curtis here: http://www.curtisrockwellguitars.com/

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