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Peter Mulvey's 'The Knuckleball Suite' Not Your Typical Folk Music

Singer-songwriters come in many different types. Some are always political. Others write mainly love songs. Some are serious. Others witty or plainspoken. And some, like Peter Mulvey, are a mixture of all of those. VOA's Katherine Cole reports.

The Knuckleball Suite, Peter Mulvey's ninth solo album, opens with "Old Simon Stimson," a song that drew varied and immediate responses when it was first played on VOA's Roots and Branches program.

In short order VOA received two emails: One from someone saying 'I love that song. It makes me very happy.' And somebody else saying 'Is that man very sad?'"

"That is exactly what I was going for," Mulvey said. "I establish the guy. Right away, the guy speaking in the song establishes himself as an unreliable narrator. He starts saying these things that make no sense. He says 'but that was then, now … ' And he proceeds to say a bunch of things that again make no sense. So, that's [the reaction] good. That's exactly perfect."

Peter Mulvey grew up in Wisconsin, and spent his college years playing in bands and studying theater. After graduation, he went to Ireland, and spent some time working as a street musician, or busker. After a few years, he returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston, a town known for producing successful musicians. He now lives back in Wisconsin, and spends most of his time touring all over the country and in Europe.

"I do about 150 shows in a year, and that takes me about 180 days," Mulvey said. "So, about half of any given year I am gone. I believe that I've driven something like 600,000 miles [960,000 kilometers] in the last 10 or 15 years. That's to the moon and back. It's a long way. It's many times to the center of the earth, if you were doing either of those things."

How can he write when he's traveling like that?

"When I write, I can write anywhere," he said. "When an idea pops into my head, I carry a notebook with me, and a tiny little tape recorder. But it really comes in waves. I just put a record out. So, I'm not really feeling the pull to write songs right now. I mean, I'm always writing down ideas, and I'm always writing and cataloging stuff. But as long as you're aware of them, they kind of grow on their own. At least it seems like that."

"The Knuckleball Suite" is the title track to Peter Mulvey's latest album. If you like what you hear, Peter suggests a few other contemporary writers for you to investigate.

"Chris Smither … a huge influence on me. And Jeffrey Foucault," he says. "It would astonish you how many great writers there are in the world. It's a bustling, bustling scene down here, under the rock at the roots of the tree."

And, how does he suggest people go about finding these things that are 'under the rock?'

"Well, you know, the Internet is great tool," he says. "A great tool for that. On my webpage, I have [links] to their websites. That's thing one. And thing two, just asking people … and being inquisitive. A big record for me was Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball. And there are songs on that record by Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and it's produced by Daniel Lanois. So [you ask], what else has Daniel Lanois produced? Larry Mullen, Jr., plays on it. He's in that band called U2. It goes on and on and on. Steve Earle is on it. So then you get a Steve Earle record, and he rages about Kelly Joe Phelps, and how good he is. Soon you cultivate it in yourself, being the kind of person who just asks 'Well, if I like this, what do they listen to?' It's as simple as that, and bang!, you're moving out on the spiderweb, and pretty soon you're spending all your money on books and records, and people are starting to worry about you."

While you can find Peter Mulvey's albums listed under "folk" in the catalogs, this is not your typical "guy and his guitar" kind of record. The other songs on The Knuckleball Suite include an electric guitar-based love song and a country waltz. Peter Mulvey wrote 11 of the 12 songs on The Knuckleball Suite. The sole cover is a jazzy take on U2's "The Fly."