A musical mosaic: Mark Mulcahy is back with new album, show at The Shea Theater

  • Aside from releasing a new album this year, songwriter Mark Mulcahy has toured with his old band Miracle Legion and starred in an independent film, “Father Willie.”  Image courtesy of Mark Mulcahy

  • Mark Mulcahy and his supporting band play the Shea Theater in Turners Falls Saturday night. Image courtesy of Mark Mulcahy

  • Mulcahy first began recording his newest album, shown at left, “The Possum in the Driveway,” in 2008.

  • Mulcahy, left, and guitarist Ray Neal during the reunion tour of Miracle Legion. Images courtesy of Mark Mulcahy

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Valley has no shortage of musicians who are dripping with critical accolades but who aren’t necessarily household names. There’s veteran folk-blues guitar picker Chris Smither, for one, and singer-songwriter Martin Sexton. Easthampton has Lloyd Cole, a pop star in Britain in the 1980s who today flies more under the radar; Northampton has Chris Collingwood, formerly of Fountains of Wayne.

Then there’s Mark Mulcahy, who might be Springfield’s best-kept secret; his songwriting and expressive voice have fellow musicians, music critics and novelists like Rick Moody and Nick Hornby, well, singing his praises.

As culture columnist Sarah Larson of The New Yorker wrote earlier this year, “Mark Mulcahy is the kind of musician that people proselytize about; several years ago, I started doing it myself.”

After first making a splash in the 1980s with the band Miracle Legion out of Connecticut — the group earned some early comparisons to R.E.M. before later dissolving amid various problems — Mulcahy embarked on a solo career and other projects that revealed a unique songwriting voice: alternately melancholic, whimsical, humorous, personal and universal.

Now, several years after having to put an album and his career on hold for a while following the sudden death of his wife, Melissa, Mulcahy has again been hitting stages — first on a reunion tour with Miracle Legion, and now in support of his newest record, “The Possum in the Driveway.”

Mulcahy, who plays the Shea Theater in Turners Falls Saturday at 7:30 p.m., says “The Possum in the Driveway” was largely recorded in 2008. Then his wife died, and Mulcahy spent a number of years taking care of his twin daughters, then about three; the disc remained unreleased.

In a recent phone call from his home in Springfield, Mulcahy said it has been a thrill finally to get the album — perhaps his most diverse — out into the world.

“I never had a record that lasted this long, that had this kind of strangeness to it, where it was basically done and then I skipped over it to make another record,” he said. “We ended up doing it in three different studios. But to me it also fits together really well. I’m happy with what we did with it.

“It was slightly cursed, in a way,” he added. “It kept sitting in a box, man, and wishing someone would put it out.”

It might have come out sooner, perhaps around 2012 when Mulcahy resumed some touring after about a three-year hiatus (numerous fellow musicians helped him out during that time by recording the tribute/benefit album “Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy” in 2009). Instead, he released a CD of all-new songs, “Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You,” in 2013.

“After not touring, I thought I would just try to do something about how I was at that moment,” he said. “I was just writing those songs as we went — everything was kind of fresh out of the box then, you know, which was great.”

But “The Possum in the Driveway” got its finishing touches last year and was released this spring to enthusiastic reviews. It has key contributions from a number of area musicians, most notably multi-instrumentalist Ken Maiuri, who has been playing with Mulcahy off and on for several years.

The record had its public unveiling in June when Mulcahy and all the musicians who played on it crowded onto the modest stage at The Parlor Room in Northampton and, before a packed house, played the album’s 11 songs in order.

“I’d love to put that eight-piece band together again at some point — that was a lot of fun,” said Mulcahy, who will be backed by a smaller group at the Shea Theater and several other shows he’s playing in the Northeast this month.

Layers upon layers

“The Possum in the Driveway” seems at first blush a somber affair, with an album cover with no possum in sight. Rather, it features an image of a dimly lit room with a framed portrait of a sad-looking clown on the wall. 

And the first track, “Stuck on Something Else,” is a moody number on which, over a spare electric piano, Mulcahy sings from the perspective of a dissipated character who’s trying to make amends for his past: “Can’t be all the / Things you want me to be / I’m stuck on something else … Staying in tonight won’t make things better / I might as well be in jail.”

“That song’s just kind of an observation of somebody — it’s not a true story per se,” Mulcahy said. He added that when he first played the tune live some years back, with Ken Maiuri accompanying him on electric piano, “people came up afterwards to tell us they really liked it… I like being real simple sometimes.”

With filmmaker Jason Mazzotta, he also has produced a downbeat but moving video for the song that shows him shambling about an anonymous urbanscape: playing scratch tickets, taking his clothes to a laundromat, and shaving off the mountain-man beard he wore last year during his reunion tour with Miracle Legion. 

After “Stuck on Something Else,” the new album offers plenty of variety, with upbeat, guitar-driven pop (“Jimmy,” “Hollywood Never Forgives”) the bluesy “The Fiddler,” and the goofy, ironic “Catching Mice,” with its prominent flutes and an opening lyric of “I’ve been around the mental ward a million times / I see the way they look at you.”

There’s also plenty of humor, notably on the Latin-flavored “I am the Number 13.” To a backing of tinny keyboards and mariachi-style trumpets, Mulcahy presents himself as an oily, mock-sinister character who warns that he’s “the broken mirror of your scene / I’m the hat on the bed / the visitor you dread / I’m number thirteen.”

Mulcahy recalls that much of that song was recorded in the studio of his producer, Scott Amore, with Maiuri playing an inexpensive organ that still had a fair number of bells and whistles on it.

“It had lots of options, and we used them all, from the bass pedal on the ground all the way up to the tiniest, tweekiest, mousey-little keyboard on the top,” he said. “That was the basic track. We added drums and trumpets in the other studio.”

Mulcahy credits Amore with giving “Possum in the Driveway” much of its layered, eclectic sound.

“He added things to it while he was mixing it, and normally I wouldn’t like that,” he said with a laugh. “But I really was so happy with all his tricks… we kind of come from the same place in terms of influences, so it worked out fine.”

The album, in fact, seems pretty representative of Mulcahy’s varied career. Aside from solo work and his time with Miracle Legion, he collaborated with cartoonist/writer Ben Katchor on five operas, and he was also the leader of Polaris, the house band of the Nickelodeon series “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.” (Polaris also reunited a few years ago to tour and release an album.)

For his November shows, including the one at the Shea Theater, Mulcahy and his band will play some cuts from the new album as well as other material from his career. And after the new year, he said, he’ll see what the schedule brings.

“It’s supposed to be an endless tour,” he said, laughing. “I guess the jury’s still out on that.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Mark Mulcahy plays the Shea Theater in Turners Falls Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Lou Barlow opens the show. Visit signaturesoundspresents.com for tickets and additional information.

Mark Mulcahy’s website is mezzotint.com/markmulcahy.html.