While the music industry has gone through seismic changes in the last 20 years, some things have remained the same. Peter Mulvey still travels all around his native U.S. and abroad to do what he has always loved, playing long, open sets for rooms full of people.
Mulvey learned how to work as a street singer in Ireland in 1989 and has been fine-tuning his skills as a writer and musician since. For most of his career he’s been playing the same touring circuit, which ranges from major markets like Los Angeles to performances in some of the quietest parts of the U.S.
These days he still operates out of his hometown of Milwaukee and has a new album, produced by Ani DiFranco, hitting shelves March 24. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of his debut album.
Of the journeyman, his colleague DiFranco has said, “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.”
His music has become much more topical lately and a recent 12-hour performance raised thousands of dollars for causes like the ACLU Nationwide, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Americana singer/songwriter/guitarist took some time to talk with Pollstar about the industry, and the relationship between politics and his music.
A press photo for Peter Mulvey.
So you travel a lot, but you still hang your hat in Milwaukee?
Yeah, I've lived here all of my life, except maybe four years out in the Boston area getting a career together. But this is my town, this is where I'm from.
I notice you still do a lot of touring out in Ireland.
Yeah, my father's people are from there. But I'm a Wisconsonite.
What do you like about performing there?
Well I love the country, obviously. I think they love language, they love music, and they have very old traditions of those things that they somehow manage to keep fresh and vibrant and funny. It's a fantastic place to do what I do.
Can you talk a little about the scene in the Midwest?
Well for me watching the guys at the Pabst and Turner Hall, they have, over the past 10 years, revitalized the touring scene. That's very apparent. They're doing really solid work. And down in Chicago, places like SPACE and the way that SPACE is branching out to have other venues like City Winery. And of course, there’s my little hometown venues. There’s a little place in Fort Atkinson called the Cafe Carpe I’ve been playing consistently for 22 years. They're still chugging along and thriving, a tiny little place.
The stories of your constant traveling and working on the road are reminiscent of stories about bards of old. Why did you choose the musician's life?
When I was a skinny little 11-year-old kid reading “Lord of the Rings” and stuff, I wanted to be a bard. That’s just who I am, that’s just what I wanted to do. It was just always going to be this way.
Do you still play on the streets, busking and such?
I haven’t really played in the subways and streets in 20 years. That was just around my start.
[Awhile] ago I did a 12-hour benefit concert in Harvard Square in front of my favorite club, Passim, though.
What does a Peter Mulvey tour look like these days?
Well, yesterday I flew home from gigs in Northampton, Boston, and Portland, Maine. This Friday I’m playing in Bethlehem, Rochester, and Ithica, N.Y. ...
I'm playing Portland, Ore., Seattle, ... A California run with the excellent Heather Maloney. An Alaska run, a whole bunch of shows with the excellent Anna Tivel. ... And that is all in February.
So you're on a lot of planes?
Yeah I fly a lot. Up in Alaska you've got those tiny little propeller planes. If you enjoy being terrified its excellent.
How would you describe the live show?
I'm fairly old school. I step onstage and I play whatever it is that comes to mind ... I have  records and  unrecorded songs as well. I don't get up and do the thing, "OK now we're doing the new record, so I have my setlist, so I'm gonna hit the setlist and say the things in between the setlist that I've thought through." I don't do that at all. I step onstage and I start with a song and just keep going until it’s time for the show to be done. Any given night, I've got songs that stretch back 20 years. I take requests. I've got an audience that's been with me a long time. I'm just in there doing what I do.
Wait, so you don't tour the album? You don't schedule things around an album release or a single?
[Well] I always wanted to be a live musician. I have learned that you have to reach out to your audience on social media. It's obviously important to make records. And I like making records, I'm not knocking making records.
But truthfully, I make records so that I can get in a club, and bring music alive, in a room with people. It's all I've ever wanted to do. And somehow I got lucky enough that I get to do that.
And by get lucky enough I would also add I have worked my ass off for 25 years.
So your goal was always to be a live performer?
I think that is THE goal if we are being honest about this. That's what music is. Music is not a piece of plastic. Music is not a bunch of 1s and 0s in a download or a streaming file. That's not music. Music is the person listening to the disc or listening to the streaming audio. That, the music, is where it meets the person. I think it’s at its absolute best when everyone can see each other and when it’s live.
It’s interesting you say that, because these days artists are having a hard time making money off album sales, so anyone who wants to be a musician has to have a killer live show. Can you talk about how you’ve seen the industry change?
You know, I think of myself as one of those little early mammals who were running around when the dinosaurs were around. And then everything changed. Kaboom! The asteroid came, or in this case streaming audio came and all this stuff changed above me. My life didn't change. I'm running around here eating eggs. I was running around playing little folk clubs, and little rat clubs, and little church coffee houses and little college campuses in 1993. And now I'm still doing that thing. Everything changed above me. But for me, again, like the little mammals … I think it helped me. Sorry dinosaurs.
And the nice dinosaurs, they seem to be able [to survive]. Like Sting appears to be able to go out on the road with Peter Gabriel, they can still [do well].
I won't tell Sting you called him a dinosaur.
(Laughs) Oh you can. Hopefully he would take it the right way.
Actually, you were talking about the megastar who sells tons of records. That doesn’t happen anymore and it becomes, "Can you play music that matters in a room?" And it’s beautiful to see.
My favorite guy who is roughly on the same circuit I am is Colin Hay, the guy from Men at Work. You know they sold 50 million records. And now he's playing at IOTA in Arlington, Va., or the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. I've opened shows for him and he’s completely happy. He loves it. And I know what's going on. He likes to play music for people in a room. He actually likes it. He's not touring to support the record label's investment in the product. He just wants to go and pick up a guitar and sing some songs.
Look at Kendrick Lamar. Clearly Kendrick Lamar is an outrageously talented person. And he makes outrageously, crazy deep records. ... But then live, he’s KILLER. I remember listening to [To Pimp A Butterfly] and thinking "this guy is a genius." Then you see him live and you're like, "Oh my God! OK the records are only some small portion of the story." I feel like those are the artists that are gonna stick around. And I would be interested to see him – I know he's just a kid – but it would be fascinating to see him at 40 if his career happens to become super small. I bet he would still be at it. I just have this feeling about people like that.
I noticed you raise money for a bunch of liberal causes. What's the relationship between your music and your politics?
It used to be implicit. And then in the past couple years it has become explicit. If you care about art then you care about beauty, and if you care about beauty, then you care about the truth. I used to think that was self-evident. But then when the grand jury in Missouri failed to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, when the grand jury essentially said, "We're not even gonna have a trial here to find out what went on," I wrote a tune in three minutes called “Song for Michael Brown” and I put it up online. All the song is saying is, “I am asking you to have some compassion.” I start with Michael Brown and I move out in concentric circles to his family. And his city. And the marchers. And the cops. And the soldiers. That's all the song is, a plea for compassion.
And a lot of people responded very, very positively. But a bunch of people also said just amazing things, which are not amazing because this is America. "He was a thug and a predator who would have stolen your guitar to buy crack!" To which I wanted to say "Wrong decade, wrong person. How do you know? You personally knew this man? This 18-year old? Because I look at you and you look like a middle-aged white dude who lives in Florida so I'm trying to figure out how you know so much.” ... I stepped in it, is what happened. ... And from [that point] there was no going back. When someone says to you, “You're just a musician, shut up and sing,” then you kinda have to make a choice. I don't feel like I had any choice at that point. If I care about art, I care about beauty and I care about truth, and I'm gonna try to say what's true. So I've been writing some songs that are very political these days, I guess. But to me they're just about compassion.
I wrote a song called "Take Down Your Flag" after the shooting in Charleston. You know, the Confederate Flag was at the top of the flagpole and I couldn’t stand the thought that the funerals had to go on with that symbol flying at the top of this flagpole, that there was no gesture of decency. So I wrote that song.
I've written a song from the point of view of a refugee woman – just using my imagination – called
“Maryam On The Train.” [It’s about] Maryam and her husband Yusuf, and she's pregnant and they're fleeing persecution.
I wrote a tune called “Jesus Wants To Take Your Guns Away.” I had a short argument with a dude, he wrote in and said, "That's a good song but the message is stupid!" and I wrote back and said "Well I'll let Jesus know."
So all of a sudden, I guess I'm a political songwriter. And that's fine. I've been touring with Ani DiFranco. But also I always was! I've written songs about trying to be a human being in our world. And trying to be a human being in our world means that you are probably gonna run afoul of politics. And it means you are gonna have to do something about it.
I guess I was forced to decide that I am a political songwriter and that's how it is.
You’ve been doing this for more than 25 years and you've seen the industry change. What would you tell a young person who is thinking about becoming a musician?
I get this question all the time from young musicians and I tell them "Go play as many live shows as you can between now and the end of the month. And then next month do it again."
My latest record, Ani DiFranco produced it. She has had me open a bunch of her shows. She brought me down to her house down in New Orleans and her band played on the record. She and I completely clicked. I felt like she totally understood me and I totally understand her. And I realized: She's a star and I'm not. I'm in AAA ball and she's in the major leagues in terms of the industry. But we're the same person. She wanted to sing some songs for people live and she did that, and that's what her whole career arose out of. And whatever career I have came out of the same thing. And I feel like that's the only thing that matters.
Anything else you want people to know?
I feel like none of us can say this enough. We should all say this about once an hour: "We are all in this together."
Peter Mulvey eyeing the city in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Here are upcoming dates to catch Peter Mulvey:
Feb. 10 – Portland, Ore., Alberta Rose Theatre
Feb. 11 – Seattle, Wash., Ballard Homestead
Feb. 15 – Santa Ynez, Calif., Maverick Saloon
Feb. 16 – Del Mar, Calif., Brick 15
Feb. 18 – Los Angeles, Calif., Hotel Café
Feb. 19 – Berkeley, Calif., Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse
Feb. 22 – Cordova, Alaska, North Star Theatre
Feb. 23 – Homer, Alaska, Bunnell Street Gallery
Feb. 24 – Talkeetna, Alaska, Latitude 62
Feb. 25 – Anchorage, Alaska, TapRoot
Feb. 26 – Palmer, Alaska, Vagabond Blues
March 9 – Denver, Colo., The Walnut Room
March 10 – Colorado Springs, Colo., House Concert
March 11 – Corrales, N.M., San Ysidro Church
March 12 – Santa Fe, N.M., The Kitchen Sink
March 17 – Sheboygan, Wisc., Paradigm Coffeehouse
March 18 – Egg Harbor, Wisc., Lost Moth Gallery
March 19 – Fort Atkinson, Wisc., Cafe Carpe
March 24 – New York, N.Y., Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2
March 26 – Vienna, Va., Jammin' Java
April 1 – Kingston, Mass., Beal House
April 2 – Nelson, N.Y., The Nelson Odeon
April 6 – Cambridge, Mass., Club Passim
April 7 – Cambridge, Mass., Club Passim
April 8 – Cambridge, Mass., Club Passim
June 1 – Leicester, Mass., Hezekiah Stone Coffeehouse
The new album, Are You Listening, comes out March 24. For more information visit PeterMulvey.com. You can also follow him at his Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.