Updated: Nov 15, 2022
Photo credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I was seven the year of the Bicentennial, and that summer I met a camp counselor who played guitar. I asked my parents to get me one and by winter, I was trudging to guitar lessons with my Sears & Roebuck nylon string.
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
See above. And no, it vanished into the endless landfill ages ago.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
My mother played classical piano, my father played a little guitar. My great-grandfather was a cheesemaker and fiddler.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I have a bunch. My stalwart is a 1939 Martin 00-17. It used to be my main touring guitar but I fell over on it while bicycling to a gig, and though it escaped unscathed, I realized I need a road guitar. So I became a Martin endorser and they sold me a 2017 00L sunburst at cost. Love it. I always try to keep a high-strung guitar lyin’ around, and recently Corey Arndt, of Ardent Guitars, built me a black walnut and sitka 00 that is magic. And finally, the deepest guitar I own is the Black Crow, a Washburn from 1898 that Garrett Burton of Old Country Strings in Milwaukee resurrected as a nylon-string guitar. It's full of songs. The inlay in the fingerboard came from my great-grandfather's fiddle. Yes, that one- the cheesemaker.
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
I use Elixir Nanoweb strings and I change them maybe every several weeks. For nylon strings it's whatever I can find, I'm not picky.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
Yes, Dunlop nylon 1 mm.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
I use a Boss Bass EQ pedal to boost 50hz, cut 120hz, and cut 1000hz. That's been my sound for twenty-seven years. Lately I've added reverb from a Neunaber Seraphim, and any old Tremolo.
Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?
I bring them to a tech! I apprenticed to a repairman and holy smoke I'm bad at that. I recommend Trevor Healey, Stubblebine Lutherie, and Wade's Guitar Shop. Here: let me google that for you.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
At what age did you start writing songs?
Seven. My first song was an opus called "Cowboys and Indians". The first song I wrote that I still sing is "On the Way Up", written eighteen years later in 1994.
What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?
I write best when I write often. The thing that works for me is to put myself on the hook with a songwriting group, and then to write every week. I pick a prompt for the group, and then let my subconscious worry for all seven days, and then blurt something out at the end. A little editing and it's done - about eleven per cent of them are keepers. It all happens in a jumble, as it should. I use whatever I have at hand.
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
David Goodrich, Kris Delmhorst, and Tim Gearan. It's always the people you've actually played with, your colleagues. The people you've loved songs with, written songs with, cried frustrated road tears in front of. I mean, guiding stars are great but a hand on your shoulder is better.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
Bill Frisell. He plays like a toddler who happens to have a giant harmonic vocabulary and vicious chops and an encyclopedic understanding of every tributary of song. But he still sounds halting and innocent and spontaneous and pure. I don't know what explains him.
Photo credit: Michael Hoefner
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
Emmylou Harris "Wrecking Ball", Tom Waits "Orphans" and Greg Brown "The Poet Game".
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
First concert ever was the Police. And I played last night in Pasadena, and for a moment here and there I was present.
The Beatles or the Stones?
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
Busking at the bus stop at North Avenue and Oakland in Milwaukee. I was fifteen. I made a quarter.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
It's a lot more like hiking in the mountains: there have been vistas. It has been my immense privilege to levitate rooms full of people; you get to transcend time in communion with other humans on the face of this sphere. I once got my ass pinched by someone while pushing through the crowd toward a thunderous encore in a bar in Anchorage. I met the Brown Eyed Girl in Northern Ireland; she was with a guy named Speedy Mullin. I've had people come up to me and tell me the music averted their death by suicide, and had to struggle with how to acknowledge that they did the heavy lifting. I've been the first concert, over the years, for several babies. I've sung songs I didn't know I knew in front of people I'll never meet again. I was in-the-round in San Diego and a total cheeseball showbiz bombshell was singing "Hallelujah" and when she sang, "All I ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you" she made a finger-pistol shooting motion. I threw up in my heart a little. I bet she's famous today. I sang "Closer to Fine" onstage with the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, and a few other people, and a nine-year-old girl was reaching up to the stage and Dar caught her hand and dragged her up and she stood there looking around hopping up and down and Emily Saliers looked at her and caught my eye and did the little headshake that said "This is why we do this shit" and I almost cried and definitely laughed. All these things will be lost, like tears in rain.
What has been your worst gig so far and why? You don’t have to name names.
Wexford, Ireland, March 20, 2003. Nobody came, because they were all glued to their televisions, watching my country invade Iraq, a country that had done nothing to us. I drank Bushmills with the bartender and we shook our heads and spoke in low voices. Reporting on the "Shock and Awe" campaign that the Bush administration had sold to the world, the Irish Times headline was "Shocking and Awful."
What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?
Honestly I just love any small room where I could toss a tennis ball underhand to the furthest person from me. Club Passim, the Cafe Carpe (I've made three records in that room), the Old Adobe Church in Corrales, NM, Siar ó Thuaidh, which is Irish for "West of North", a folk society that holds its gigs in the most Westerly Cowshed in Ireland. A cave underneath West Virginia where I've played dozens of times. The Kennedy Center, in the foyer. I'm a foyer kind of guy. My Uncle John McCabe, who was a Chaucer scholar and the chair of English at Marquette, used to call the lingering after a party "vestibuling" and somehow I've made a career of it.
How do you work out your setlist?
I don't. I just get up and sing the first song and see what wants to happen.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
Yes. I wish someone had said, "Buy the house you are renting. Buy it right now. Find a co-signer. Do it. Trust me." My wife, one of the smartest people I know, a planner by profession, a massage therapist by trade, and a dancer by calling, was reading an article when she was (somehow) single in her forties, and the gist of it was that of all the famous tap dancers of the 20th Century, the single determining factor on whether they died in poverty or in security was whether they bought a house during their earning years. Economically speaking I've been a tap dancer all my life. Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick, who both worked for Bain Capital, are apparently devoted to the idea of turning every single working American into a tap dancer, economically speaking. With all the compassion in my heart, I'd like to gently say fuck those guys. Until we get a just society, just do your best to buy property, and then for the love of god don't stop there: turn around and help a renter to buy property. Or at the bare minimum vote for candidates who are opposed to vampire capitalism.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Yes, write a song every week. Get yourself a couple colleagues and just do it. Put yourselves on the hook. You will write bad songs. That's the ONLY path to writing good songs.
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I've had this idea for a small business for years: I'd buy a time machine and a Ghost of Marley costume, and then I'd appear to people who are about to ruin houses in the past and talk them out of it. Like, when a plumber is running a pipe and they decide to cut through a rafter, which will cause the house to sag in seventy years bad enough that it'll have to be ripped down to the studs, I'd appear in a cloud of smoke and be all, like, "Motherfucker, just put four elbows in that pipe and go around the rafter! You're gonna charge them for your time anyway!!!" Or when Marvin and Melvina decided in 1958 that their oak-paneled dining room is dark and depressing, just at the moment Marvin dips his paint brush in the can of Sea-Foam Green Glidden paint, again, BAM!!! Big cloud of smoke, and there's me, warning him off. I'd fund this business through current homeowners.
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
I'll have upcoming shows and merchandise at petermulvey.com until September 17th, 2054, when, blessedly, the Internet will cease to exist and there'll still be enough warm days to go for long walks and fall in love with your partner all over again.