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Training Ground

Profile: Peter Mulvey


Published October 2, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Aspiring singer-songwriters set up on nearly every street corner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and any time of day, it seems, the tubes are alive with the sound of music. International superstars Tracy Chapman, Mary Lou Lord and Martin Sexton all got their starts on those sidewalks and subway platforms around Harvard Square. Milwaukee expatriate Peter Mulvey seems on the brink of joining this elite crowd. One difference, though: After getting good enough to climb out of the tunnels, Mulvey was eager to return. He recorded his latest album, Ten Thousand Mornings, in a subway station.

"It's where I got my start, playing for people in the area," Mulvey explains. "It was always my favorite spot. I like the way it sounds."

Mulvey says he originally moved to Boston for the music scene and, like so many others, went underground for the money. Busking for change in the subway was an alternative to getting actual gigs.

Known for his wise-beyond-his-thirtysomething-years patter, throaty, soulful delivery and bassy, percussive guitar work, Mulvey has made a distinctive mark on the singer-songwriter scene. He has recorded six previous albums in the U.S. and Europe. Despite tours that now take him all over the country, Mulvey says he always makes a point of returning to the tubes whenever he returns to Cambridge. He decided it was the perfect place to record his next album, "so it would be different and to pay homage to those days in my career," he suggests.

Mornings was recorded during Mulvey's Boston-area tour stops between June 2001 and March 2002. "It's about the people who come through that station every day," Mulvey says. "It's a reference to my becoming an element of their mornings -- those 10,000 mornings."

Though Mulvey has written hundreds of songs, Mornings is a collection of covers, including the toe-tapping jangle of Paul Simon's "Stranded in a Limousine" featuring Chris Smither's toes; the bluegrass rhythms of Bob Dylan's "Mama, You Been on My Mind," mandolined by Sean Staples; and Mulvey dueting with Anita Suhanin on Lennon and McCartney's "For No One."

"I considered almost every song I knew that I liked to sing," Mulvey says, "and we recorded each one and picked the ones that clicked the best."

Though the songs on Mornings are all by other master songwriters, Mulvey gives each one his unique perspective and a fresh new sound that may make listeners reexamine their favorites. "There is so much great material out there, I just wanted to do my part to contribute to the canon, as it were," he says.

Among the special guests on the album are Eric McKeown and Mulvey's right-hand guitar man David Goodrich, who waft through Lew Brown's "Comes Love." Reverse's Mike Piehl pounds through Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army." Jennifer Kimball contributes vocals on Leo Kottke's "Running Up the Stairs." Even the MBTA's "announcement lady" contributes, interrupting Randy Newman's haunting "In Germany Before the War."

"I have a lot of friends around here," Mulvey says of the Boston music community, "and I would just call them up and tell them I'd be [in the subway], and they would come down and join in."

Though the 12 tracks on Mornings sound almost perfectly timed between trains, Mulvey notes ruefully that this was far from true. "In the end, we wound up with over 100 takes of the songs," he says. "At least one in five got ruined by a train coming... Because it was so difficult, the only thing to do was surrender. It was a Zen experience."

In coming months Mulvey is planning to release some of those extra takes on his Web site at "I missed a couple of good ones in the sorting process," he admits.

Apparently he's not the only one who finds recording in the subway interesting: A team of documentarians is currently preparing a feature-length film about Mulvey and the making of Mornings.

"That was my manager's idea," he explains. "She knew these filmmakers and thought it was an interesting project, so we did it."

The DVD is scheduled for release in 2003, but a five-minute trailer is available on the CD. "It helps bring the experience to life," Mulvey says. "What I like about records is hearing the moment that makes you realize it is real."

In other words, Mulvey doesn't really mind hearing those trains coming on his disc. "This album takes place somewhere. It is not in some hypothetical place," he remarks. "It really gives a sense of a person playing in a space for people, and that gives it heft and makes it real to me. It makes it feel alive."

This Saturday, Mulvey performs live upstairs, at the Burlington Coffeehouse.