Mark Mulcahy has made the best album you'll hear this year

Prince, Thom Yorke, Wilco & R.E.M. love Mark Mulcahy. Meet the man with the most intense and urgent record of 2013

Published July 17, 2013 11:59PM (EDT)

Mark Mulcahy    (Facebook)
Mark Mulcahy (Facebook)

"Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You" (Mezzotint) is the first album in eight years by Mark Mulcahy, the singer and songwriter in Miracle Legion, the much-admired indie band of the '80s and early '90s.

The untimely loss of Mulcahy’s wife was among the many hardships of those eight silent years, the kind of crisis that would stop many a songwriter in his tracks. And yet somehow (and while raising twin daughters), Mulcahy managed at last to get back into the studio, and to craft one of the very finest albums of his career. The recording bristles with wordplay, with memorably inventive lyrical turns, contains some of the best singing by a musician known as a singer’s singer, is full of despair and provocation, and rocks harder than almost anything that has come out this year.

Considering the context, the result is explicably full of loss, from the first song to the last. But astonishingly, "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy" doesn’t find itself preoccupied with confession and grief; it is suffused rather with the observatory impulse, with perceptions of friends and relations in the complexities of romance and adulthood. Without a doubt "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You" is among the very best records of 2013, and well worth searching out at, for example, Mulcahy’s own we site, Mezzotint.

And if you don’t know the work of this remarkable songwriter, you’re in luck -- this album is a very good place to start. The interview was conducted last week on a very balky and unforgiving Skype connection.

Did you write all these songs specifically for this album, or are they a sampling of what you amassed during the eight years since the last record?

Well, I made another one before this one. I still want to put that one out, and I still will put that out. I know that I will. And it wasn’t shelved because it was not good – actually, I really like it. But, anyway, when I came to making this record, we made this decision to try to do one song a day. That was the plan. So then my plan was to write a song for that session. The days were pretty far apart, six weeks or a month. It took about a year to actually do it all, but when we picked a day, say, three weeks out, I’d write a song for that session and give it to everybody who was gonna play on it. Then we’d all learn whatever we’d learn and invent whatever we invented -- and then we’d just make the most out of an eight-hour day in the studio, and quit whenever everybody was satisfied.

So does that mean you did the basics on the day of recording?

Just everything in one day. I knew the vocals I was gonna do – I knew what I was gonna sing. That I worked out in advance. But the drums and the bass and whatever sugar that added, was all pretty much invented on the day. Someone would say, “How about this?” or “How about that?” It was a great experience. I always wanted to do it that way. I’ve always contended that was a great way to make a record: to do a song on the day instead of building a lot of foundation and then adding to the foundation until you felt satisfied with it or had an idea that you were heading in that direction. Those are great ways to make them, too, but this is a very – it’s a very forward way to work. You’re never looking backward at what you still have to do. You’re always looking ahead to the next thing you’re going to do, which is a sort of very Frank Lloyd Wright approach, just to move to the next thing. The question was how did the songs get written? They were written for the purpose of writing for a session.

Was there then an idea of what the record should be thematically in advance of composing? Or did the themes of the songs appear in the process of getting them down?

Some of the lyrics I had sort of in the bank and some of them I wrote for the album. There was listening to my friends or something, and seeing someone’s circumstance. Hunting, you know? It was funny, ‘cause beyond wanting to record this way I also wanted to write songs that were more about the wordplay and more about – more trying to impress myself. (chuckles) Not so much writing about me as much as observing. It was fiction. A lot of what I’ve written in my life has been fiction, and this was more to write nonfiction. I probably had a lot of time on my hands to think up what I wanted to do, so I had a lot of time to think about how it was gonna happen. I thought about the next record more than I ever have.

So some of the lyrics were actually written in advance of the music. Is that a way you have always worked?

I would say most of what I have written was written that way. I write the lyrics on their own and then try to find music that suits them, or write music that suits them, or marry them later. I find it better to unconsciously write instead of writing for a reason. That’s harder. I did the theme song to “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.” I was so afraid they were gonna tell me to write a song that just goes, “Pete and Pete and Pete and Pete.” Then they said, “We don’t want you to say Pete and Pete,” and I was like – well, now it’s really wide open. So I had a song that I had already written and I gave that to them, and they said: This is perfect! So I was really off the hook on that, and it’s already turned out to be one of the great theme songs on TV, so it’s funny.

Does that imply then that the vocal melodies sort of happen on the spot once you finally have the words in hand and you pick up the guitar? You just make up a vocal melody depending on what line length you’re toying with?

Yeah, I guess I don’t really work that way. I’m not thinking about melody or harmony – I’m not thinking a lot about how musical it’s gonna be. I rely on myself, I think, just to invent something that I like, you know? Not everything works, obviously, but making this record, we went until we were satisfied, and I’m that way about writing songs. I write until I’m satisfied. Sometimes I might be too satisfied too soon, but – there was a song on the record that was really just the demo. I brought the demo in, and everyone said, “You know what, man? That’s it. That’s enough. I don’t think we’re gonna make it better. I don’t think it’s gonna be better or different than when we really do it.” So that was a day we didn’t even do anything. It was a funny process.

Is that “Bailing Out on Everything Again”?

Yeah, you’re smart, yeah.

It’s got such a different instrumental flavor from all the other songs.

I thought we were gonna do that one with drums and everything, and everyone was gonna make up parts, but Henning – the guy who was producing it – he’s a pretty laid-back person, and he said, “Look, I dunno. I don’t think we're gonna – we can change it, but I don’t think it’s gonna be better.” I just kinda went with that, and then you can upgrade something technically pretty easily these days. It certainly wasn’t any great technical recording, I’m not anybody that’s good at that.

The rest of the record is really rock ’n’ roll. More so, really, than anything since Polaris, or Miracle Legion. Was that uncovered in the process of working with these players?

Part of it was that I listened to some Miracle Legion, which I haven’t listened to that much, and we were much more of a rock band than I remembered us as. When I started going solo, I was very – I got pretty quiet. Yeah, I thought about that, and I think I’m just a little more capable. I can play a little better; I can play a song a little faster than I used to be able to. And I also wanted to have music that would be fun to play live, that would be good to play live, kinda upgrade the catalog a little bit. This all makes me realize how much I thought about it while I was doing it, and most of my other records have been very accidental in a way.

What does the not-yet-finished album sound like?

It’s kind of a little trippier. The songs are longer, for sure, just as a really super-large umbrella. It’s kind of a Pink Floyd type thing – maybe song-ier songs, but longer jams, and yeah, it’s good. I really like it. I wish it was coming out – I feel like I’ve let it down, but it’s really had a hard life, you know? It’s funny to say, but it was hard to get it going, and it was hard to mix it. It’s been mixed a couple times, but it’s a real mystery, you know? Hopefully one of these days. The last time I heard it, I thought, “That sounds pretty good. Might keep going on that.”

To my ears this release is incredibly dark. Do you hear it that way?

I do. I do. And that’s OK, I think that’s a good thing to write if you see it happening, but I wanted to not write about myself but I think I might’ve gone too far in the other way. But still, I’m happy.

Does the album amount to a despairing analysis of man and woman attempting to relate to one another?

It’s not just man and woman, though. I mean, there is some of that, but it’s probably just a bleak view of people. In the last several years, I’ve seen a lot of – I’ve had a lot of great things happen to me, but I’ve seen a lot of other things too, that are surprising, that I either wouldn’t have noticed or wouldn’t have seen in the place I was. So I did see a lot of things that I was surprised by, for sure. People are always surprising you in every direction. I just wish I could notice less. You ever feel that way?

(chuckles) I feel that way sometimes.

I’m far from the greatest observer in the world, but sometimes when you’re looking, it’s like maybe you didn’t want to look.

Can you tell me why the record’s called what it’s called?

I could tell you that I had that as a note from someone, and it summed a lot of things up. It struck me in a way that it summed up the last couple of years for me, with a lot of people that have been really good to me and encouraging to me, and so, yeah … and as much as I’ve seen, I feel like I’ve portrayed some sort of dark side of man, most of what I’ve seen makes me feel … lucky, you know? Lucky, blessed, all those things.

I could never have gotten through everything I’ve done in the last few years without all the great help I’ve gotten from a lot of people. It just seemed to sum up a lot of things. I definitely wavered on it a few times, but … (chuckles) you know, I’m happy with the title. One day I was sort of spinning it around on my ride home and all of a sudden I realized that I didn’t have to put my name in it, my name was the title. It wasn’t “something something by me,” it could be all in one, like a movie title. I was so happy. That was the moment I matured. And then I called up my friend Will, who’s also a writer, and we were just discussing the grammar of it. I say, “Do you dig the comma?” and he says, “Oh, man, the comma’s the whole thing!” (chuckles) So it was a fun title because it gave us plenty to think about. “The comma’s the whole thing.” Right! The comma’s the whole thing!

There aren’t many rock ’n’ roll albums wherein comma placement is essential to the success of the title.

There’s a good top 10 for someone.

The song on the record that I love the best, that I’ve been going back to again and again, is the song called “The Rabbit.” I think that’s the song that makes the record sort of cohere in a way, because it’s positive, on a record that’s incredibly dark. So I’m wondering how you came to that one.

Right. Yeah, it’s the optimistic moment observed. The person talking is someone who sees only good in someone or something bad, and they’re trying to tell this person that he or she is good. The other person never says anything, as far as I can tell. It’s a one-way thing.

And I think – not that I really like to blend my kids into anything, but you don’t really experience that in your real life. No one’s telling you you’re good no matter what you do, but your kids do. Even though I say stuff that I know is wrong or awful or not good. They’re like, “No, man, you’re good. What are you talking about?”

It’s not even that they want you to be good – they just don’t see you any other way. And that’s not what that song is about, but that’s the theme of that song: I can’t see you any other way but good, and here’s all the reasons why you’re not good. I’m showing you that you’re not good, but I still know you’re good. It’s a great trick, and the great trick of the song has a sort of magic, magician-based thing to it. But when the kid – it kills me every time, and it’s killing me now — when the kid says, “There. You see it? That’s the rabbit,” that’s the whole thing. That’s the moment where I still ... It kills me every night. I’ve sung it a few times, the first time I sang it, I could barely even get through it. It’s really something – I really am talking about myself in some way that makes me say that I think that I’m great, but I don’t think I’m great. I just think I did something with that that I wanted to do, and I’m surprised with myself that I did it, and I’m happy and crying and – it’s such a great moment. And that’s what I was saying before – that song was a last-minute entry, and it was just a lucky decision to make. There’s this 100 pounds and somehow that song is – 10 songs are 10 pounds each, and this song’s 100 pounds on its own. Somehow. I think. And it was gonna be last, and I thought, last is too much weight on that. So let’s get back to the brutality – that last song is just brutal.

That’s a bleak motherfucker, that last one (“Where’s the Indifference Now?”).

That’s one I had written another time, obviously, but that was about watching all the coverage of Heath Ledger’s funeral. I didn’t really know much about him – I thought he was cool, but – just watching that whole thing, it’s really not about – I’ve seen some people write it’s about suicide, but it’s mostly about not knowing what it is, not knowing if it’s suicide or something like that.

What about “I Taketh Away,” the opening track? Who’s the narrator there?

(chuckles) “I Taketh Away.” Let me think ... Nah, that’s me, I think, probably. It’s probably me commenting on things. It’s a little bit like – there’s the song called – do you know the song called “In Pursuit of Your Happiness?” It’s kinda like the next step. I try to be nice, but look at you, look what you’re happy with. You haven’t learned a thing in eight years. You’re worse. You’re human – remember that movie “Runaway Train,” where Jon Voight is like, “You’re an animal. Worse. Human.” Like that. (chuckles)

So you’re touring now, right?

Somewhat. Just here and there.

Is there a band?

Yeah. I have a pretty steady trio. Henning, the guy that produced, and this other guy Ken, who’s played with me a lot. Just a pure pillar of music. He plays drums and keyboards at the same time. You say something to him, and he goes, “Right,” and just does it, and plays the song. Anything, really. That’s pretty much it. I’ve added a couple of – like, maybe a saxophone here for one gig or another. I had a pretty great gig – I played the WilcoFest, and I got one of the guys from Wilco who I know, two sax players and J. Mascis to kind of filter on as the show went on. And that was just great. That was a real highlight. J. is such a cool cat. And I kept trying to say, “Hey, you know, you wanna figure this out a little bit?” “What? No.” ‘Cause he’s known for his volume, but he played it exactly as he should in great parts. He’s really a top guy. I never was a big Dinosaur fan, but he’s a great guy. This whole place where I live, it’s full of people that are just really thoughtful, great musicians. Not all so talented with what they can do – what they can play – but with what they can do. It’s really a great area, Northampton.

Isn’t it true that you played with the Miracle Legion drummer recently? I heard that.

Yeah, at Mercury Lounge. That was a great night.

And so one must ask, considering that you recently played with the drummer from Miracle Legion, is there ever going be another Miracle Legion album?

You know, that’s a real unlikely thing, I would say. I mean … obviously show business, anything can happen. Doesn’t seem like ... I’d be surprised if it went that way. That’s the least likely direction I’d be heading in. But I have to say, the music: I’ve pretty much turned my back on all that music once I started playing – for a long while, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t that, when I first started playing solo. And I could see how disappointing that would be to anyone who came to see me play – they’d say, “No, we have to hear something, whether it’s one song or ...” And I’ve gradually done one or two songs. A lot of it is that I don’t know how to play really well. Ray [Neal], when he would play guitar and I would sing, I’d sing anything I wanted, so I wasn’t really worried about – I wasn’t trying to do both. So for me – ‘cause I’m not really that great on guitar – they didn’t go together well enough for me to do it. But then again at that Solid Sound festival, Pat Sansone, one of the guys in Wilco – he used to come see us. Do you know him?

I know Jeff a little bit, but I know Pat just from what sounds he’s contributed to Wilco.

I know him because he’d come see us in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was always there. He was a pretty memorable guy. But he seemed like a kid. He told me he was older than I thought he was. So I knew him from that, just as a fan. And then one day I saw him on a train in Manhattan, and he goes, “Hey, man. It’s me, Pat, from Tuscaloosa.” I’m like, “Oh my God, Pat!” He was always for us the guy with the beautiful girlfriend. (chuckles) I was like, “What are you doing now?” He was like, “I’m in Wilco.”

So he was a really big fan. And when we were at Solid Sound a couple weeks before, I said, “What about we play some Miracle Legion songs somewhere?” You know, Mass MOCA is a very big place, and they actually do these organized pop-up concerts, so you do your regular show, then you go into the galleries, and do this impromptu set of whatever, with no P.A., nothing. And he goes, “Yeah, let’s do a bunch of Miracle Legion songs.”

We went in somewhere, he printed out a bunch of lyrics, ‘cause I couldn’t really remember them all, and we just started doing them. I’m singing these songs I’ve sung a million times, that I haven’t sung in a million years, and I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me and we’re really getting very emotional, visibly emotional, so much so that this emotion – I won’t say crying, but it just infected the whole place. People just all of a sudden showed up, and all of sudden there was 150 people there. And people afterward were like, “Man, what was happening there?” And I was like, “I dunno, this thing was so deep.” So it really slapped me in the face. What are these songs I’ve just ignored? So the music that we’ve made, I really wanna find my way back to it, and I wanna sort of reinvestigate. But as far as making new music with Miracle Legion, I dunno, you know? We’re all kind of far apart, I dunno what would make us get together again. But that’s just an unknown unknown, or whatever Dick Cheney used to say. Or maybe it was Rumsfeld.

I ask just as someone who loves the songs.

Well, that answer I just gave you – you asked it at just the right time. ‘cause I’ve just come off from thinking about it a whole different way. The music, I think, it exists, but in a great way now. Like in the middle of the show at Mercury Lounge, we played “The Ladies From Town.” Normally I’d save some sweet thing at the end, we’ll do some Miracle Legion thing and throw it in there, but man, I tell you, it was such a – it was the first time we’d done something like that. It was so great. It let all this weird tension out of everyone’s mind. There’s something, there it is. I wanted that, and I got it, you know? (chuckles) And they were so happy, and they were singing, everybody sang – it was pretty surprising, because it was not necessarily people of that era – there were a lot of young people tuned into it, too. The thing about all that stuff is that it’s a shame – those records are not really available, not even in iTunes or anything, so … I would someday like to put out some of those old records, but their [rights are] so mixed up in Hollywood that it’s hard to see any of that happening any time soon.

One last question: I guess I feel like your voice is incredibly great on this record. Your range seems totally intact to me, and you’re singing with great feeling. So I’m wondering how you approach singing. Most people, at this point, have lost something, but your instrument seems totally intact and perhaps better than ever before. How are you thinking about your voice?

It still works pretty well. It still does what I hope it will do. When I wanna sing something, I usually can. So that’s very satisfying – that I can. I think I started out somewhere that I had plenty of room to improve, maybe? So I think I’ve just discovered things. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of singing. I feel like I still keep discovering things about singing that make it seem like I’m a better singer than I am. I think a lot of people start out at such a high level – if you’re Paul McCartney, or Steve Perry, or something, you’re doomed. You’re already at this incredible point. You started off so incredibly that you can’t possibly sustain it. I feel like I just keep exploring it, and I love it. I love singing. I had high hopes of being just a singer on this tour, but that didn’t really work out. I’d kinda like to get back to fronting a band. It’s really so much fun to not play anything. I was watching the National today, I was like, “That guy’s got this 10-piece band.” You don’t see that many bands around where there’s just a singer. But thank you. Thank you, I take that as a compliment. I don’t wanna be over-proud of myself (laughs) but I’m happy that I can sing, still.

One can name many people who’ve fallen off precipitously in the course of their careers, certain rock ’n’ roll singers of our childhood who are such pale shadows of the singers that they were. But your voice seems really more expressive, maybe from some combination of human wisdom and technical ability, but it’s lovely to behold.

Thanks. Thank you. I know what you mean, ‘cause I see it, obviously, in a lot of people. When reunion things come around … I saw X, they were very good. Their reunion was so great. They didn’t sound a second different to me at all. They sounded exactly like they always did, the two of them. They’re a unit to me. You know who else I saw? Ian Hunter. Kind of a little more off the track, dunno if you’re a fan of his … I’m pretty sure he’s somewhere in his 70s. I saw him play at the Iron Horse in Northampton, which is pretty small. I dunno why he played there, but he pretty much looked the same? The glasses and the hair? He did six songs in a row to start the thing off, like one, boom, and blam, the next one, which I loved. And I was like this is amazing, that guy is like an astounding Dorian Gray or something. This is really good. And I knew all the tunes, so I was so happy, you know? Then you take a guy like Robert Plant, who’s done amazing things. He just keeps going down a different street, trying to find another thing he wants to do. It’s really genuine.

I saw him play in Marfa, Texas, last year. It was just remarkable, he made everything sound spectacular. “Black Dog” as reggae, or whatever he felt like doing, and it was all great.

And doesn’t he sing background vocals and play tambourine? That’s just unheard of. That’s Robert Plant. But he probably so doesn’t want to be Robert Plant. I think some people are great about – even Paul McCartney. I know he probably mostly does Beatles stuff, but I saw him do some stuff on the Jools Holland show a few years ago and it was great. It was just really – you can tell that guy really wants to make music somehow. One time my friend knew a guy at Abbey Road, and he said – if you guys wanna take a tour at Abbey Road, come on down. So we went and it was still basically the same. He goes, that’s the piano the Beatles used, that’s the organ. It’s still the Beatles’ place, in a lot of ways. So he goes, You know, Paul practices here, whenever he goes on tour he comes here to practice. He goes: matter of fact, he comes here all the time – just hangs out, sits around. He doesn’t know what to do, he just wants to be there. He could choose anything to do, that guy could go anywhere. (Imitates Paul McCartney) I’ll just run down to Abbey Road, see what’s happenin’.

By Rick Moody

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, two memoirs, and a volume of essays on music.

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