Boston Beats: Could
everybody please state your name, age, and current occupation for the record?
My name is Peter Mulvey. Iím thirty-seven years old and Iím a singer.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.