The Kitchen Connection
On his new album “Kitchen Radio,” singer, songwriter and guitarist Peter Mulvey’s songs are filled with small, sharp details. Not only are songs set in specific locations at certain times, but even precise days of the week are mentioned. Mulvey uses exact numbers of things as well: two song titles are “Thirty Buddhas” and “29¢ Head”; the album opens with a listing of “six rabbits, two dogs, one cat, one cow” on the song “Road to Mallow.”But when it comes to the bigger picture, Mulvey prefers to be less literal. The details of setting and imagery don’t necessarily add up to clear narratives, or even an exact idea of what a song is about. Mulvey issues hints of story and suggestions of emotion more than beginning-to-end stories, finding that to be a better way to engage an audience.”They’re allegorical, if anything,” said the 34-year-old Mulvey, who performs at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale – where he was a hit opening for fellow singer-songwriter Chris Smither in November – on Monday, June 4. “All my favorite songwriters – Tom Waits, Greg Brown, Smither – they leave room in their songs for listeners to draw conclusions. I assume that a lot of what they write about arises out of personal experience. But If you leave enough room for the listener, they’ll assume you’re talking about them.”Mulvey finds that less often means more. Write a song with a specific story, and an audience will respond as if it has been handed a complete, gift-wrapped package. Sketch out a setting, characters and a few details of emotion and image, and the audience will, hopefully, climb into the songs and attempt to complete the picture.”If you show somebody in detail a corner of the room,” said Mulvey, not even realizing he was slipping into allegory mode, “they can come into the room. But if you describe the whole room, they can see the room but not come into it.”
Part of the beauty of “Kitchen Radio,” and it is an exceptional record, it how Mulvey puts those same ideas about lyrics into the music. The sounds on the album are likewise not fully fleshed out with beating drum and steady bass, but are thoughtfully placed wisps of guitar, rhythm and backing vocals.”You’ll always thrive if you use precise, specific notes, recognizable simple things,” said Mulvey, who nods to David “Goody” Goodrich – his co-writer, frequent touring partner, guitarist and producer on “Kitchen Radio” – for the album’s sound.At the same time he works with loose images and spare sounds, Mulvey also infuses distinct themes into “Kitchen Radio,” his eighth album. The album as a whole is about the two places Mulvey knows best: home and the road. Mulvey plays some 150 shows a year – half solo, half in a duo with Goodrich – which translates to six months on the road. When not touring, Mulvey prefers to stay home. When I called for the interview, Mulvey was painting a riser on the stairs (and had just finished stealing a neighbor’s rhubarb). And home is really home: He lives in the same Milwaukee neighborhood where he grew up, and he studied theater at Marquette University, in that same neighborhood.”I just sort of live here, which is fine by me,” he said of Milwaukee, where he knows few musicians. “It’s nice to live in a place where you don’t know anybody. I get to be just a regular schmoe.”The “kitchen radio,” he said, is the fulcrum upon which home and road balance. “The kitchen radio is a homey thing,” Mulvey explained of the album’s title. “The world pours into the kitchen through that radio. The CD’s about being both home and away. Those are the major topics of the lyrics: Denver, Dublin are the road. And ‘Shirt’ and ‘Charlie’ are sort of travelogues of home, details of home. That’s what the record keeps touching on.”
While he keeps close to home and makes his living on the road, it is the sidewalk where Mulvey has learned many of his most important musical lessons. In Ireland, where he was supposed to be studying for a semester in 1989, Mulvey spent most of his time on the pedestrian way Grafton Street, busking for the passersby. Living in Boston in the mid-’90s, he was again no stranger to the street.”There’s a thing you’re after, no matter who you are – a guy on a street or U2 in a stadium,” said Mulvey. “You’re trying to really connect and create music between the musician and the listener. That’s the job – inventing a space where music can arise.”The reason street musicianship is so valuable is it’s endless. You try to make that happen, and you succeed or fail – and then five minutes later, you do it again. And then again. It’s a beautiful, living sketchpad. It’s all day, for real, in front of people.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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