8:30 p.m. July 12 at the Spaceland Ballroom, 295 Treadwell Street, Hamden. (203) 288-6400, spacelandballroom.com. With The Mountain Movers, Jounce and the Backyard Committee.
Mark Mulcahy's been drenched. He's shot himself in the foot again. He's been staggering. He's been out to play. He's been the one (Lee). He's been glad.
Now he's… well, the song titles of Mulcahy's new solo album include such un-upbeat sentiments as "Bailing Out on Everything Again," "Poison Candy Heart," "Badly Madly" and the pick hit "She Makes the World Turn Backwards."
But when asked how he was doing, in a phone conversation last week, Mulcahy answered quickly and unequivocally, "Everything's great." He has a new album, done on his own terms (as has all the input of his solo career). He's playing out "like a madman." He refers to recent shows as "the best time I've ever had there" or "such a good time."
Mark Mulcahy has just released his first album of new work since 2007's Love's the Only Thing That Shuts Me Up. In 2008, Mulcahy's wife Melissa died suddenly, and in 2009 a worldwide community of the singer-songwriter's fans — including Michael Stipe, Frank Black, Thom Yorke and dozens of other well-known acts — showed their support with some all-star concerts (including one at Toad's Place in New Haven) and the tribute album Ciao My Shining Star, which contained covers of 41 separate Mulcahy songs.
Mark Mulcahy's compositions can be layered, contradictory, disarming. Some of the lyrical observations can seem disingenuous, pretty pictures from a distant dream, but they invariably get deeper and richer and scarily honest. With his rangy yet perfectly controlled voice, candid and confessional lyrics, theatrical character development and intricate instrumental arrangements, Mark Mulcahy songs aren't always easy to digest. They linger in your soul.
In late April, Mulcahy played out at the Meriden Daffodil Festival, where he's played off and on since the mid-'90s, but not for the past several years. This August he'll play the renowned indie rock festival End of the Road in Dorset, England. In late June he surfaced at the Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA, where he played a full set with his band but also took part in a "pop-up concert" in one of the modern art museum galleries, performing "Even Better" from his days as frontman for Miracle Legion, accompanied by Pat Sansone.
"I've known Pat for a million years," Mulcahy marvels. "One time I ran into him and he says 'I'm in Wilco now.' Have you seen Wilco? Pat's at stage left, playing guitar and piano. Doing that old song [in the MoCA gallery], we were just looking at each other, probably thinking about everything that had happened since those days."
On July 12 — the day before he does a show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in his current musical stomping grounds of Western Massachusetts — Mulcahy will perform at the Spaceland Ballroom in Hamden, just a few miles from the downtown New Haven where his music career began in the 1970s and '80s. Back then, he was a drummer in bands such as the Saucers and a promoter at one of the area's most important punk/new wave venues, The Grotto (now the site of Gotham Citi at the corner of Church and Crown streets). New Haven is where Mulcahy turned from drumming to singing and formed Miracle Legion. That band's 1984 debut cassette The Backyard EP has been deemed "a landmark" by no less a music-history authority than the Trouser Press Guide. It led to a series of albums that helped define, then expand the definition, of alt-rock or indie rock. Miracle Legion was assumed in many circles to be ascending at the same speed, with the same stature, as REM or the Smiths.
That propulsive momentum stalled and collapsed in the early '90s when a big-label deal went awry. Miracle Legion squeezed out one final album, Portrait of a Damaged Family, on its own. Then several of its members became Polaris, performing songs Mulcahy wrote for the cult classic kids-TV series "The Adventures of Pete & Pete." (Polaris, which can be seen playing "Summerbaby" in the classic episode A Hard Day's Pete, was part of an ecstatic Pete & Pete reunion last year in Los Angeles.) When the show was cancelled after three seasons, Mulcahy quietly regrouped as a solo artist, teaching himself guitar and finding a new sonic context for his expressive singing voice.
It seems convenient to divide Mark Mulcahy's career into the Miracle Legion years, the Polaris years and the solo years. The Spaceland Ballroom show may seem to unite them quite handily, since Mulcahy will be bringing work from his Springfield singer-songwriter days to his old band-scene stomping grounds of New Haven. Opening bands on Friday include Jounce, featuring actor Danny Tamberelli ("Little Pete" from "The Adventures of Pete & Pete") on bass and the Mountain Movers; while igniting his solo career in the '90s, Mulcahy played drums for a bit in Mountain Movers frontman Daniel Greene's Butterflies of Love.
But as Mulcahy puts it, the rules for how he makes music keep changing, no matter who he's working with. The career phases can be meaningless. That's how he likes it. When Miracle Legion's original rhythm section left, for instance, Mulcahy says he and the band's founding guitarist "Mr. Ray" Neal changed up their whole working style, perused a list of tunes that hadn't worked for the band, reshaped the tunes and did their next album — the classic Me & Mr. Ray — as a duo. The songs on Mulcahy's first solo album, Fathering, were developed over a long series of live performances at bars and small clubs, many of them in New Haven, then recorded and rerecorded at various studios until the ideal sound was found. "I would do the same songs a couple of different times, at three different places. I didn't even know I was doing it, in a way."
This year, Mark Mulcahy could have simply reemerged with a long-gestating album, produced with New Haven-based producer Scott Amore, that he put aside years ago. "But I didn't put it out. It was all over the place. It can't be tamed, can't be finished. I wanted to put out something I did now, today." To that end, he and producer/bandmate Henning Ohlenbusch put together a plan where, Mulcahy explains, "We'd pick a date when we would record, then I would write a song, we'd figure out who was going to play on it, and then do it."
Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, was made in 11 days. "With Miracle Legion, we'd always keep a list of the songs we had and then, because it was such a long time between records, we'd just choose songs from the list. But I always wanted to be in a situation where I could record a song in one day. It's nice to have a purpose, to know that I'm writing a song, and then be able to do something with it right away."
"Some days were easier than others. One day, we needed a cellist, so that's a whole day. But another time, I brought in my demo for 'Bailing Out on Everything,' and Henning said 'I don't think we can improve on that,' so we were done for the day."
Mulcahy continues to write modern "pictographic ballad operas" with Ben Katchor (the writer/cartoonist behind Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer)—they've done five so far, staged at small New York City theaters and even at the New York Public Library. But mostly Mulcahy takes full advantage of the vast musical talent found in Springfield, Mass., where he's now lived for over 15 years. "It's really a wonderland. I was watching my friend's band the other day, and everyone in it has like two solo records out." Mulcahy has a neighbor who is in the Young@Heart Chorus, an ensemble of modern-pop friendly elderly singers who were the subject of an award-winning documentary. Mulcahy arranged for the group to appear in the video for "She Makes the World Turn Backwards," acting as the song's empowered chorus that berates the singer with responses like "I don't care" and "We know, we know, we know." That dramatic device was also used on the underrated Mulcahy track "Pasadena Love Song," a bonus track on the UK edition of his 1997 solo debut Fathering. "It's a live audience participation thing that I designed," Mulcahy muses. "When I play these songs, I want people to be so excited that they join in... but only when I want them to," he adds with a chuckle. "When we did [the Miracle Legion standard] 'Ladies from Town' [at Mass MoCA] the place was going bananas."
When asked if an upbeat number such as "Let the Fireflies Fly Away," which is full of jokey phrasings and redolent with zoo-animal imagery, comes from playing with his 7-year-old twin daughters, he suggests that "that may come from a notion in my head," then avers, "I kind of wrote this time just to write songs, to get completely out of my own head.