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Life in the slow lane

Traveling musician Peter Mulvey prefers two wheels to four



Peter Mulvey promises the next time he visits Colorado, he'll do his whole tour, starting in Denver, by bicycle. The 42-year-old singer-songwriter from Milwaukee wrapped up his fifth Tri-State Bicycle Tour in September — a 10-day, 700-mile trip taking him from his house down to Chicago, over to Rockford, up to Madison, over to La Crosse and the Mississippi River, then up the river to the Twin Cities — but he's never cycled the Front Range.

"This tour's in January," he says, "so absolutely nothin' doing" — though he does pause when told it's been in the low 60s here lately.

Even though of the hundred-plus shows Mulvey does each year, only a few rate a bicycle tour, he says cycling really is the best way to get around. "We have everything on our bikes with us. 'Everything' for me is one guitar and a little bag of clothing and that's it."

"Flying is not what it used to be," he adds. "And driving over time becomes, it's just like sitting in a cubicle, only a cubicle that's on wheels." Cycling helps him to add more joy to the road trekking he's been doing for 15 to 20 years now, being able to regularly explore "the idea of traveling at human speed."

And, of course, he adds, "Once you get on the road, you can sing all day ... at the top of your lungs."

Knothole in a fence

The concept of voyaging plays heavily in the musician's discography, especially his eighth and latest solo album, Letters From a Flying Machine, a compilation of songs and spoken word — and a bit of background noise that makes you feel like you're in seat 19A peering over the wing of a 747.

Mulvey describes the kind of professional traveling he does as getting to know a little bit about a lot of places, or having "a tiny little window or a knothole in a fence that rolls around the universe."

"Traveling equals experiences, and experiences are the input and art is the output. And the artist is sort of the valve that all of this goes through," he says. "To me, I see that traveling is very much a part of the art, a necessary part of the art, but you do also have to take time — it's amazing how much writing is just sitting around, waiting [laughs]."

But then that's part of the slowing down that Mulvey weaves throughout his life, whether it's in meditating or listening to music or reading "kick-ass" poets like Mary Karr, Billy Collins and Shakespeare.

"What I like about poetry is just the idea of its attention to detail, and its capacity for vividness, and also the whole sense of slowing down and really attending to a feeling or a thought or a situation or an image or a moment. And to me that gets more and more appealing as our culture speeds up.

"It seems like our culture has been accelerating, and accelerating the rate at which it accelerates, for quite some time. Certainly the last 30, 40 years, you know, in our lifetimes, which seems to be really rocketing along."

Gotcha covered

Mulvey's shows are always a mix of original songs, instrumentals and covers, and some of those covers — pieces by everyone from Tom Waits and Willie Nelson, to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk — will make it to a new album coming out in March called The Good Stuff.

Mulvey says he keeps a "steady diet" of covers, that he's perpetually learning songs.

"I think the last 10 years was about Tin Pan Alley and the way that it intersected with pop music. Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and approaching those things as just a guy with a guitar instead of the sort of old folky things." But now he's thinking it might be time for a change.

"I just bought a tenor banjo, which is a four-string banjo, and I put nylon strings on it and tuned it up as though it were an octave mandolin — what is sometimes called a bouzouki in Ireland. Or a cittern. The point is, that I learned my first few fiddle tunes recently, and I'm kinda going native for a year or two. I figure I'll soak up a few hundred fiddle tunes and see what happens."

Mulvey refers to an October 2011 Tom Waits interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, in trying to explain. Waits said, "Most of us have the residue of thousands of songs in our ears, that I think if you wind up songwriting, I think you're mostly smoking the residue of all that material that you've absorbed over time."

"That's all we do," Mulvey says. "I have this feeling that what I'm doing now with the Irish fiddle tunes — and I want to also really dive in with some of the old, old ancient ballads and folk tunes. All of that great old stuff, where people are killing each other, I love all that scary stuff — I'm interested to see what happens and then put that through the mill."

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