Mark Mulcahy: ‘What makes it fun to play the music is that the lyrics count to me’

Much-admired American singer-songwriter Mark Mulcahy sets out on a UK tour this week. He spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Thursday, 29th August 2019, 12:45 pm
Mark Mulcahy. Picture: R. Murray

In his book 31 Songs the best-selling author Nick Hornby talks about discovering the music of Mark Mulcahy via a recommendation by the owner of a small independent record store.

Mulcahy’s song Hey Self Defeater, Hornby says, “manages to convey an earned optimism and compassion through the filters of truth and a sort of conversational sarcasm” that speaks to listeners of a similar ilk and was “only ever going to find its audience through word of mouth”.

The American singer-songwriter’s 35-year career was ever thus. His first college rock band, Miracle Legion, were feted by REM and Prince but found only a modest audience; likewise his next outfit, Polaris, and his solo records. Yet Mulcahy’s fanclub among musicians has swelled, with Thom Yorke, Frank Turner and The National all among its ranks.

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Mark Mulcahy. Picture: R. Murray

Connecticut-based Mulcahy’s latest album, The Gus, came out in June; from August 31 he tours the UK. The Gus was, he says, inspired by the storytelling of George Saunders, among others. “A couple of records ago I made a record where I was trying to be clever and that was fun, you know, but clever is exhausting, I guess,” he says. “I always wanted to be careful with the lyrics and write about something. That’s what I get out of it, the lyrics. What makes it fun to play the music is that the lyrics count to me.

“This time I was trying to be well-edited or concise, or something like that, and not oblique. I wanted to be a little more straightforward with the presentation of the idea.”

Mulcahy admits to being “a real watcher” of the life stories and goings on of people around him. “I watch and I read and I imagine, and that’s kind of the process. But also things happen to me that I write about as well, but maybe less so, maybe less than I used to.”

The singer initially planned to make The Gus with producer Marc Seedorf with a group of strangers. That idea was nixed after a few recordings, with the pair turning instead to more familiar faces such as Ken Maiuri. “It was just a fit, it’s not about anybody being really wrong or right,” Mulcahy says. “I’m really comfortable with the people I usually work with, Ken Maiuri especially, the guy that I usually play with, we just understand each other so well that the recordings come alive quicker.

“I was reading this thing about Paul Simon and him having some guitar player do 85 takes of something. I don’t have that kind of circumstance, that kind of time. To be honest I don’t have that kind of energy. It’s either something or nothing. Anyway, it went kind of fine. It took a little longer to make this record than I thought it was going to take, but we went after as much perfection as I can create. That’s not really my game either, but that was interesting, to shoot for perfect, which I don’t usually do.”

Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis guests on this record, as he has done on several of Mulcahy’s previous albums. “I guess he’s an old friend – he’s a friend, anyway,” Mulcahy notes wryly. Rain Phoenix was someone who Mulcahy had “sung with live, but never recorded with” until now. “I loved her voice,” he says. “I met her at a gig and I think she’s just a really interesting, great singer.

“The rest of the guys are from round here,” he adds. “Where I live there’s just 100 different types of musicians and they’re all eager and it’s a really good scene.”

The studio they made the album in has a large library and a swimming pool. The relaxed vibe seeped into the record. “There was a swimming pool outside, books all over the place and it was in a rural area. It was in a dead-end road. We were pretty chilled, We didn’t do a lot of night recording, which is usually the case, most of it was all day into the evening. There was a great variety of books. The guy who set up the library he’s kind of a science and statistics-minded person so there were hundreds of books about integers and science interspersed with Dr Seuss and Naomi Klein, you were just always thinking. Book titles really make you wonder what’s inside them. It was just like recording in a giant mystery.

“Also, it’s a circular building. The bathroom was a church confessional and had like a sliding window. Everything was something to think about, even if you weren’t doing anything. That’s not usually the case in the studio, you sit on a leather couch and try to stay awake while the other guys are doing their stuff.”

Eleven years ago Mulcahy’s wife Melissa died suddenly. To help raise funds for the singer while he raised their daughters, a group of musicians who included Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke, Frank Black and Mercury Rev recorded an album of his songs, called Ciao My Shining Star. “That was a really big help in a lot of different ways,” Mulcahy says. “That was a time when I wasn’t playing music at all, so I looked at it as a strange way that I made a record even though I didn’t do anything. It was some way to satisfy the need to make a record. But also the obvious beauty that anybody would help me, I’ve never really been helped before in that kind of way. It was a strange, amazing, wonderful thing.”

Mark Mulcahy plays at Greystones, Sheffield on September 7 and Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on September 8.