A recent two-hour coffee shop conversation with musician Peter Mulvey started out with him sharing an adage often said by his father: You lose the battles and you win the war.
Although a peaceful gent who carries a healthy load of kindness and resistance, Mulvey faces battles on a daily basis: from Trump’s politics to his own emotions. Most likely, he doesn’t actually measure his life as "winning" or "losing," since from across the cafe table where he shared heartfelt stories of family, frustrations over incongruities in gender and race, and the joyful and cathartic role music has played in his life for decades, he seemed quite on top of his game.
Last month, Mulvey released his 17th album, "Are You Listening?," on Righteous Babe Records, owned by his friend and powerhouse musician/producer, Ani DiFranco.
"Saw me in half and count the rings," says Mulvey, joking about his longevity in the music world – as well as on the planet.
But age isn’t a show stopper for those who don’t let it be. In January 2016, Mulvey traveled to DiFranco’s living space and recording studio in New Orleans – which she shares with her musician husband, Mike Napolitano, and their two children.
After a prolific couple of years, he showed up in New Orleans with about 25 original songs.
"It was literally make a mess and then try to ‘feng shui' it into something that made sense," says Mulvey. "And we did."
The result is a tapestry of serious and hopeful songs that are modern yet timeless, something made evident in the opening track "D.I.A." with references to both manual typewriters and Google maps. Other high points include a beautiful, heartbreaking song about Trayvon Martin called "Which One Were You?" and another from the perspective of a bully called "Just Before The War" that opens with the chilling line, "We used to hate that little f*cker, we used to beat him up, and when he cried, it made us hate him more ..."
DiFranco produced the album, narrowed it down to 12 songs and one poem, and lent her voice and musical stylings to the project. Members of her touring band, Terrence Higgins and Todd Sickafoose, and Portland singer/songwriter Anna Tivel were also major contributors.
"This record is super personal but the personal is political – they’re the same thing," says Mulvey.
Mulvey says his recording experience with DiFranco and the gang was "incredibly inspiring" and "super civilized."
"We’d get up, make coffee and get the hell to work," says Mulvey.
"Are You Listening?" was created in five productive days and not even the flu stopped DiFranco from putting her heart and soul into the recording. Mulvey says she fell ill the first night of his visit, and by morning he had accepted that she might be too sick to work.
"Then I realized she was already at the board and had been working for an hour and a half," says Mulvey. "She is truly one of us: a working artist. Just one who happened to get really famous in her twenties."
Mulvey originally met DiFranco in 1994 at a folk festival and she later asked him to open for one of her shows. However, the two bonded after a show in Anchorage, Alaska and again after a performance at the Towne Crier Cafe in New York on June 17, 2015.
"We talked about this and that after the show, and then went to our respective hotel rooms for the night," says Mulvey.
Shortly after, Mulvey learned that a white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into an African American church in Charleston, S.C. and opened fire on a Bible study group, killing nine people. Hours later, the Confederate flag continued to fly over the grounds of the state’s Capitol.
Mulvey was so sad and enraged that he wrote a song – which he says took about 10 minutes – called "Take Down Your Flag." Soon after, he had another show with DiFranco and played the song.
"I almost chickened out, but I decided to try out the song anyway," says Mulvey. "And when I came off stage, Ani asked me to teach her the tune. She sang it the next night, with a new verse."
More than 200 musicians covered the song within days – including Jeff Daniels, Keb' Mo', Paula Cole, Peter Yarrow (from Peter, Paul & Mary) and Mulvey’s dear friend and former Milwaukeean, Pamela Means.
"The song became a movement and we raised a few thousand dollars and sent it down to the church," says Mulvey.
DiFranco's version, with Ivan Neville and Terence Higgins, of "Take Down Your Flag" is available for free or a donation to the church, here.
Mulvey grew up in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee. He graduated from Rufus King High School and started playing music in local coffee shops when he was 16. He later moved to Boston and lived on the road for a couple of years before returning to Milwaukee where he now resides with his wife in the Washington Park neighborhood.
"I love this town, but holy sh*t we have work to do," says Mulvey.
Mulvey performs about 120 shows a year, but says that’s "way down" from his past work history. He is an avid bicyclist – he rides a recumbent bike – and has rode to many gigs, including one in the Twin Cities and one in Boston (it took him three weeks to get there from Milwaukee).
Currently, Mulvey is mulling over the idea of traveling only by bike to all of his 2019 shows.
Although Mulvey has plans for the near future, he says he hopes to work with DiFranco again someday.
"I would work with Ani again in a heartbeat," he says. "Her lyrics in her song ‘Joyful Girl,’ say ‘the world owes me nothing and we owe each other the world’ and, for me, that’s art verging on scripture."
On Saturday, April 29, Mulvey will officially release his album "Are You Listening?" to Milwaukee fans in the The Back Room at Colectivo Coffee, 2211 N. Prospect Ave. Sister Strings will open the show and accompany Mulvey during his set. Tickets are $15 and available here or at the door.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.