On Friday, Mercy Choir, a New Haven band that was never really a band, begins a monthly residency at Never Ending Books — a New Haven bookstore that's not really a bookstore.
"It's a local hangout that's barely open," says singer-songwriter Paul Belbusti, who's been recording and performing as Mercy Choir for more than a decade. "It's a place where you can take a class and learn how to do something that you probably shouldn't or wouldn't ever want to do."
It also happens to be one of the best-sounding rooms in New Haven, Belbusti says, and one of the most fun venues to see a show in Connecticut.
"It probably has no business being that, because it's just a room. There aren't too many of them left, probably, in the country."
Belbusti, 36, started writing songs in college.
"I hungered to not be in a band anymore, to do a solo thing," he says. "I wanted to be in complete control of every aspect of it. I wanted to write the songs I wanted to write and have them sound the way I wanted them to sound. I didn't want to compromise one single bit."
In 2005, Belbusti booked time with producer Vic Steffens at West Haven's Horizon Recording Studio, after convincing Steffens he was a competent multi-instrumentalist (a gentle stretch of the truth). He later adopted the album's title, "The Mercy Choir," as the name of his ongoing project. Since then, Mercy Choir has released a steady stream of singles, EPs and full-length albums.
Band members come and go.
"I always admired bands like Queens of the Stone Age," Belbusti says. "If you want to be in my band for a little while, let's do it. Come and play and record with me and do a couple of shows, and let's keep bringing in new blood. All the people who have played before can come back in any time."
Mercy Choir went for long stretches without a percussionist. (Belbusti admires the ability of bluegrass bands to create rhythmic drive and propulsion without a drummer.) Keyboardist Chris Zollo has been a steady presence. One lineup that lasted nearly two years — Belbusti, Zollo, bassist Thomas McMillan and violinist Christian Laursen — took cues from traditional country and honky-tonk. "It went well," Belbusti says. "It succeeded."
Belbusti moved to New York in 2008. "The person who is now my wife was there," he says. "I went to go get her." He stayed for four years.
Musically, it was a solitary period. "I did a lot of recording by myself. In New York, music never felt right to me. I couldn't make a statement. I couldn't make an impression."
"The Very Great and Horrible Harshness," recorded entirely on an iPad, came out in 2012, soon after Belbusti's return to New Haven. Everything Belbusti now needs to make a record fits into a small bag he carries around his neck.
"[The iPad] opened up a lot of flexibility for me. I hate computers and sitting in front of a monitor. I do it all day for work. Being able to touch and move things around is completely invaluable to me."
Personal experiences sometimes find homes in Belbusti's lyrics.
"I made a home here in northern Manhattan, Crossed the big bridge just to see what would happen," he sings on "Where Is My Heart?", a gentle waltz-time ballad recorded for "The Very Great and Horrible Harshness."
Last year, Mercy Choir reprised "Where Is My Heart?" for "Mercy Choir Sings in the Traditional Rock and Roll Style," a popular album-long retrospective of older material. "Traditional Rock and Roll Style" ushered in what Belbusti calls a "more serious" lineup of Mercy Choir: Zollo, guitarist Tim Goselin, drummer Bruce Crowder, singer Loralee Crowder and upright bassist Brian Slattery.
"This is by far the best lineup there's ever been," Belbusti says. "Everyone is a multi-instrumentalist. I have a drummer who's extremely tasteful. I no longer am obsessed with having a drummer-less band."
Belbusti, who also performs in the experimental-noise duo Rivener, is working on a follow-up to "Traditional Rock and Roll Style." One new song, "Friendly Fire," is built upon a droning, three-note guitar figure and a high, wordless falsetto melody. "Let the evening sun render your ghost," Belbusti sings in the second verse, "Let your blood wash over every coast/Gloria, Gloria.
The bridge (and the rest of the song) drifts off into a new, major-mode direction:
But where is the captain of this foggy island?
Where is the razor that can cut away the underbrush?
Where is the picture of you I had hidden in my pocket?
Where is your whispering voice so pure and so fine
Promising sweetly your sin are much different than mine?
"Stories, fictional characters, fictional people pop up a lot," Belbusti says. "A lot of songs are people's names. ... I've been obsessed with how the album sounds, and luckily the songs are high-quality too."
Ideally, Belbusti says, Mercy Choir would sound like a rockabilly band from the 1950s, transported across time to 2016 and instructed to play something other than rockabilly music.
"That production style, that instrumentation: They're all things I think shouldn't have stopped in the 1950s," he says. "If I could only have one pedal, it would be for slapback echo."
Mercy Choir performs on the last Friday of every month for the foreseeable future, with an ever-changing cast of guests and opening acts. Quiet Giant, a Bethel band with a knack for connecting scenes and musicians across the state, opens the Friday show, along with Swamp Yankee, a virtuosic New London guitar-cello instrumental duo with a decidedly political streak. Admission is $5.
"New Haven is an awesome music town," Belbusti says. "It's amazing what people make with what little we have."
MERCY CHOIR performs at Never Ending Books in New Haven on the last Friday of every month, beginning July 29 at 7:30 p.m., with Quiet Giant and Swamp Yankee opening. Admission is $5. Stream and purchase Mercy Choir's music at mercychoir.bandcamp.com.
Editor's note: Press Play is a column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.