Mark Mulcahy: The Fresh Air Interview The smart songwriter behind the much-beloved "Hey Sandy" returns after eight years. Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You is full of smart wordplay and Mulcahy's unmistakable voice, but it's also driven by loss.
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Mark Mulcahy Is The 'Moving Forward Type'

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Mark Mulcahy Is The 'Moving Forward Type'

Mark Mulcahy Is The 'Moving Forward Type'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're not familiar with my guest, songwriter and singer Mark Mulcahy, this might get your attention. The novelist Rick Moody describes Mulcahy as a remarkable songwriter and called his new album among the very best records of 2013. In an article in Salon, Moody wrote, quote, "the recording bristles with word play, with remarkably 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," unquote.

The context Moody is referring to is the death of Mulcahy's wife in 2008. Their twin daughters were almost three at the time. To meet the demands of single parenthood, Mulcahy stopped recording and touring. To help raise money for him, a tribute album was released in 2009 called "Ciao My Shining Star," featuring Michael Stipe, Thom Yorke and others performing Mulcahy's songs.

The album Mulcahy released earlier this year is the first since his wife's death. It's called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." Before going solo, he was in the band Miracle Legion in the '80s, and he formed a house band called Polaris for the Nickelodeon series "The Adventures of Pete and Pete." Polaris performed the theme song.

We asked Mark Mulcahy to bring his guitar to the studio, and he did even more than we requested; he brought his guitar, as well as a great guitarist he's worked with for many years, Ken Maiuri.


MARK MULCAHY: (Singing) Impolite and insecure and in spite of it all, he thinks you're perfect. You're fully focused, honey, on the prize. Hold his hand, dear, until he cries uncle. Where does it hurt? Everywhere. Can you stand up? I don't care. Are you worried, worried? Yes. There's no explaining her behavior, we know, we know, we know. She makes the world turn backwards.

(Singing) Like a liar lost...

GROSS: That's "She Makes the World Turn Backwards," from Mark Mulcahy's new album. Mark Mulcahy, Ken Maiuri, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here. I really love that song, Mark, and I think in terms of the writing, I really especially love the line where does it hurt, everywhere. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired the song or your approach to writing it, especially with the Q&A part there?

MULCAHY: I think what happened when I started writing that song was just after I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was getting divorced and was surprised by the divorce. And so he was talking in that sort of desperate way, and I imagined his circumstance, maybe.

GROSS: Did he use the expression she makes the world turn backwards?

MULCAHY: No, I think I - that's my invention, I suppose. But I think because of how surprised he was, and in fact I had spoken to him just before he was meeting his wife, and I spoke to him just before he found out, and he was so happy. And then three hours later his whole life is different, over in a lot of ways. So I thought, you know, this is a backwards moment for this guy.

I don't know. I'm not sure exactly, but - and it's not necessarily completely about him, but that was the idea for the song.

GROSS: The title of your latest album is "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." Where does that come from?

MULCAHY: It's a note I got from somebody, and at the time when I got it, I just had it. I didn't think of anything about to use it, and I hung it on the wall. And when I was trying to think of a title for my record, I walked past it, and I thought, you know, that's sort of - because of the way I made the record I have and because of my life at that moment, I felt very lucky to have a lot of people, you know, that I know cared about me.

And so I thought it summed up something about not only just the record but just everything. Sometimes you look at a title for a long time, and you have other titles, like, you know, "Bazooka Man" and, you know, "Let's Jump in the Ocean." And so you have this little list. And that one seemed like the best one.

And I tried it out on people, and, you know, I have some friends who were like please don't call your record that, it's the worst title I've ever...


MULCAHY: And then one day I realized - I was driving, and I realized that it was kind of like a movie title and that the whole of the information of what the album was was in one sentence, and I didn't have to be, you know, "Bazooka Man" by Mark Mulcahy. It was all just one sentence. And I really just loved that, and that's when I made the decision that - you know, it's sort of like a movie name.

GROSS: Who wrote the note? Was it a fan?

MULCAHY: Who wrote the note? It was actually my daughter.


MULCAHY: So I don't know why she called me Mark J. Mulcahy. That's just a little joke they have, to call me by name. They think it's hilarious. So it's - you know, it had a lot of things - there's so much going for it that I can't...

GROSS: Oh, I can see why that would really mean a lot to you.

MULCAHY: It's just an undeniable thing for me to call it that.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well I know your wife died five years ago, and since then you've been raising your children alone, two twin girls who were three when...

MULCAHY: Three, yes, almost three.

GROSS: So - and this is your first album since then.


GROSS: Why was the time right now to do an album?

MULCAHY: Oh, well, I, you know, I felt like I could probably do more than I was doing because when I started taking care of my children by myself, you know, it's really, you know, it's just an - I was just so unqualified in the beginning, and it just took me so long. It's such a steep curve to figure out how to do it that it took me, you know, a few years.

I mean, it's still obviously, it's still something I'm still learning how to do, but it took me so long just to be able to make it all work, you know, to get all the meals and, you know, everything, you know. So I felt like, you know, they're - and, you know, they're at an age where they can - they're very, you know, functioning people now in a lot of ways. So I just kind of thought I could probably get away with it.

And it's been a struggle in some ways because children take up a lot of your time, and there's only X hours in the day. So it's been a struggle, but I've had some great help to get away with it. I feel like I'm getting away with something on some level to be able to go play shows and to, you know, do this and do interviews and things.

But I've always thought that, you know, you have to do your own thing. If you're going to have children, you can't just be the parent all the time. You have to be something else, otherwise you don't really - you're not bringing anything to it, you're just this, you know, monolith of orders and rules and things.

And so I want - I'm a happier person, a happier person to be doing what I'm doing.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song from your new album, and this is called "Where's The Indifference." And would you say a few words about writing it before we hear it?

MULCAHY: This is a song about Heath Ledger. And just, you know, it was just watching the mania of his death was just unbelievable. So this is just about really just the news and the family reaction and all that.

GROSS: OK, so this is Mark Mulcahy from his new album "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." And Ken Maiuri, who is also with us, is featured on guitar, and we'll be hearing him accompany Mark Mulcahy on guitar a little bit later


GROSS: That's "Where's the Indifference," from the new album "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." My guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist Mark Mulcahy, and with him also is Ken Maiuri, who will be accompanying him on guitar a little bit later.

I've got to ask you about the sha-la-la break in the middle of that song.

MULCAHY: OK, so most of the fluffy things that are on the record - I record at home. Especially this record, I really had a pretty elaborate demo of it. And so all those things are just the stuff that, you know, you just make up at 1 a.m. when you're just sitting there, and it's all just - there's no - as a composer, you know, I'm a fraud in some ways because I just make up what comes out of my head at the moment.

And I'm usually pleased with it enough that I don't think about it too much because I always think that I'm going to write - I know that I'm going to write another song. So I don't - I feel like I don't want to get too bogged up in one song because this is what this song is, and the next one is the next one. It's something like The Beatles.

You know, their records are so crazy because they knew they were just going to keep making one song after another and had an incredible kind of system of making records. So they could just invent anything and say let's have this. So those things, like sha-la-la-la-la, it doesn't have much to do with anything other than I just thought it would be a good idea at that point.

GROSS: So, you know, before we heard that song, we were talking about raising twin daughters and what a different life that was from what you were used to. How did you make a living if you couldn't perform?

MULCAHY: Well, there was about - there were three concerts people put on to raise money for me, which, you know, that's - that is a very kind of humbling thing, you know, to have - I've never had anyone raise money for me. And it's very strange and humbling, and I wasn't sure - I didn't say anything. I didn't say a word because it was all done. I didn't have anything to do with it.

And, you know, they give you the money at the end, and I thought God, I didn't know how to react in any way. But that money was very important, and it was very helpful to keep things going. And, you know, and then also there was a record that they made that a bunch of people...

GROSS: A tribute record.

MULCAHY: A tribute record to my wife's name and to people covering my songs. So there was some amount of fundraising going on. And, you know, somehow I - you know, we made it - I mean, we somehow we made it.

GROSS: You know what might be nice here? Maybe there's a nice lullaby that you've sung to your children that would just be really nice to hear now.

MULCAHY: Sure, there's plenty, but a great one is a Raffi song that Kenny and I have played many times called "Robin in the Rain." Do a bit of that?

GROSS: Yeah, that would be great, and this is Mark Mulcahy and Ken Maiuri featured on guitar.


GROSS: That is really sweet.

MULCAHY: He's one of the greats, Raffi. I know he gets a lot of negative attention, I think, I don't know. I've given him negative attention, but since I've had kids, that guy is just incredible.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are singer and songwriter Mark Mulcahy and guitarist Ken Maiuri. Mark Mulcahy has a new album, which is called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Mulcahy. He's a songwriter and singer and has a new album called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." And it's...

MULCAHY: Sorry, Terry.


GROSS: It's such an odd title.


MULCAHY: Just use initials.


GROSS: And also with us, accompanying him on guitar today, is Ken Maiuri, and they've been playing together for about 10 years. Mark, I'd like you to do an original song, and this is a song you haven't recorded yet, and it's called "Don't Talk Crazy."

MULCAHY: It's actually - there is a recording of it, but it's not really - we're going to re-record it.

GROSS: Is it on an album, or...?

MULCAHY: It's not. It came out in a book of poems. The book of poems had a CD, and they asked me would I want to put a song on it. So I did, and I just sort of didn't - I really didn't even think of the song, and then I just, I'm so proud of it now. A friend of mine suggested we play it about three months ago, and he remembered it, and I forgot it, and we played it. I thought my God, this song is just so - and I know this is Mark J. Mulcahy talking, but it's just a great song.

I just love the - I love that it's so complete, you know.

GROSS: It tells a story, and it tells a story kind of in dialogue with the two characters. Do you want to describe the two characters, and then you can do the song for us?

MULCAHY: Yes, it's a guy who volunteered to go to war, and it's the story of - him telling the story of what happened to him, and his wife comes in on the chorus to reassure him. And it's what I imagine happens in the world of people that go to war, which I haven't done, but I think it's pretty realistic in some ways.

GROSS: OK, so this is Mark Mulcahy performing for us, and Ken Maiuri is playing guitar. And I should say this is a kind of long song, so I've asked you both to shorten it. So I just want our listeners to know that this song is a little bit longer and fuller than what we're going to hear.

MULCAHY: Yeah, thank you for letting us do it.


GROSS: Thank you for doing that. That really is a beautiful song. That's a song by my guest Mark Mulcahy, who just performed it for us, singing. And backing him up on guitar is Ken Maiuri, and they've been performing together for about 10 years. Mark Mulcahy and Ken Maiuri will be back in the second half of the show. Mulcahy's latest album is called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with singer and songwriter Mark Mulcahy. This year, he released his first album since his wife's death in 2008. It's called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." The writer Rick Moody described the album as among the very best records of 2013, and called Mulcahy a remarkable songwriter. Mulcahy is playing some songs for us, and with him is Ken Maiuri, a guitarist he's worked with for about 10 years.

You have such a beautiful voice, Mark, and you seem like just a natural singer, it just seems to be there for you. Were you always able to sing?

MULCAHY: I, you know, I - when I first was in - playing music in bands, I was a drummer, so I didn't really. And then after being in, you know, a bunch of bands where when the singer quits the show is over, a friend of mine and I decided to start a band of our own, write our own songs and things. And that's when I really started singing. So I didn't - I haven't been singing my whole life or anything like that.

GROSS: Did you know you could sing?

MULCAHY: I, you know, I didn't really think that much about it. I sang a couple of songs when I was the drummer. And then, so then yeah, so I started singing in a group called Miracle Legion and, you know, I liked it, I loved it, and we did that for a long time. And, you know, your voice is such a sort of a - it can be anything, you know, if you just try to discover. So I've found a lot of ways to do things with my voice that I didn't know I could do, basically. So, yeah, I love to sing. I love the fact that I can sing and I'm still able to sing which is I think probably, you know, lucky.

GROSS: So before you started singing you were a drummer.


GROSS: And you became a singer when you started singing lead in Miracle Legion, the first named band...


GROSS: ...that you were in. When did you start writing songs?

MULCAHY: Well, right about that time. I never wrote anything before. We were actually called Plaid On Plaid and we wrote a song called...


MULCAHY: ...I always wore a plaid jacket and plaid pants, different colored.


GROSS: Like different plaid, like clashing plaids?

MULCAHY: Yes. We should've been called Clashing Plaids. That would have been better.


GROSS: It's too late now.


MULCAHY: Well, we never did much. But we did, the first song we, yeah, that was probably the first song I wrote. I'm pretty sure it was...

GROSS: And what was it called?

MULCAHY: It was called "Until She Talks."

GROSS: OK. A few bars of that?

MULCAHY: Sure. Sure. Kenny, give me a little taste of "Until She Talks."

KEN MAIURI: All right.



MULCAHY: I mean I love that song. I'm not laughing at it but I'm laughing to be playing it, I think. I was so proud. I mean we couldn't - we were just beaming that we wrote a song.

GROSS: Because you didn't know you could do it.

MULCAHY: No. And, and also we'd been in groups with guys, they were, you know, these guys could write songs and we were like, wow. Well, how'd they do that, you know.


MULCAHY: So yeah, we were so happy that we wrote "Until She Talks."

GROSS: So, you know, so you get into a band, Miracle Legion, and it does well but not that well. I mean like it's not like an incredibly famous band.


GROSS: It had its following, but - and then you got into record label hell with the band too, right?

MULCAHY: Right. We had a great start and then it was just sort of a rollercoaster of ups and downs. And then the end of the ride was really when we signed to a really big Hollywood label. We were on maybe three, three labels, and the Hollywood label was just very difficult to figure out what they wanted. They would let us out and they wouldn't let us in and so we just flopped around for about two years and ended up fizzling out. You know, everybody was just fed up with the whole thing. I mean it's, you know, it's just such a, it's not a business that, you know, most people should go into. And then if you have good luck, great. If you don't have good luck, it's complicated. So we fell apart and two of the guys joined another band, one of the guys just kind of quit the whole thing. And I fell into this TV show, doing the music for a TV show on Nickelodeon.

GROSS: "Pete & Pete."

MULCAHY: Right. "The Adventures of Pete & Pete." Which I didn't know anything about that either. I never did know the show because obviously, it wasn't on. But I didn't know really what it meant to compose music to order. I had never done anything like that. And they were, you know, they were very specific about what types of, they wanted a type of song, this type, that type, this type and it was, it you know, a pretty big challenge to do it. But they were good. The writers of that show, they knew what they wanted and they wanted me to write the theme song. And it was write a theme song for the show but don't say anything about the show.

GROSS: Well, you succeeded.


MULCAHY: So luckily, I had a song that I thought would be good but I just, I had recorded it some other time. And so I pretended that I wrote that for them and they loved it right off the bat. So it was lucky because it's hard when it's bad, it's one thing to write a sad song or a happy song or, you know, a funny song or something. But to write a song that's very specifically about a certain topic or meant to be a certain, like the theme song seems like a really big responsibility.

GROSS: Well, it's a funny thing. Like you say, it had nothing to do with the show. The song is called "Hey Sandy." And in the opening credits for the show, you see all the different characters and their names are written on the screen. There's no Sandy.




GROSS: So it's like...

MULCAHY: You're waiting for Sandy.

GROSS: What does the song have to do with the show? But obviously it worked.

MULCAHY: Somehow instantly they loved it.

GROSS: Yeah. Play us the song.


GROSS: Would you do that?


Three, two, three, four.



GROSS: OK. So that's the theme from "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," the old Nickelodeon series, "Hey Sandy," written by my guest, Mark Mulcahy, who is with us to talk about his music and sing some. And accompanying him on guitar is Ken Maiuri.

So I was hoping I'd understand that third line that, everybody wants to know what is the singing there. Because after the first two lines, hey smilin' strange. You're lookin' happily deranged. No one knows what you're saying.


GROSS: There's this big thing on the Internet with people wondering like what is, that third line. It sounds to me like I'll give you some lashimbey(ph) or what can you say lashimbey. You would make news if you told us what the heck you were saying there.


GROSS: You're going to do that for us?



MULCAHY: I don't - I don't want to tell anybody that I have so few secrets in my life. But also I don't think anyone would want to know what it is. That's become my opinion about it. I don't think it would please anyone to know what it is. The 30 percent...

GROSS: Ken, do you know what's he's saying?

MAIURI: I have no idea.

MULCAHY: No one knows.

GROSS: Seriously? You don't know either?

MAIURI: No, I don't.

GROSS: How many times have you done it together?

MAIURI: I don't know, 10 or something. But...


MULCAHY: Not that much. But no.


MULCAHY: You know, come on, how often do you get a secret, you know?


GROSS: So now that, you know, you've done a theme song that was, you know, very much loved by the people who watched the show...


GROSS: you have any favorite TV themes? Like did you grow up really enjoying any TV themes?

MULCAHY: Oh, well, yeah. I mean think there was, I don't know now, but I think it was the golden age of, you know, it was very important to write a great theme song when I was watching more than I am now. So, yeah, there's a million great ones.

GROSS: Would you sing a favorite TV theme for us?


MULCAHY: Yes, I would. I would sing "Maude" if I could. Yeah, I think I love that one. You know, the show it's called "Just Maude," right?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MULCAHY: It wasn't called "Something-Something Maud." Yet let's try...


MULCAHY: Let's try "Maude." I didn't know I was getting into when I walked into this place.


MULCAHY: But I didn't plan on singing "Maude."



GROSS: That was really fun. I love TV themes and jingles and stuff like that.

MULCAHY: Yeah. I'd love to get in the game of writing stuff like that, jingles.

GROSS: Would you really?

MULCAHY: Yeah. I...

GROSS: Why would you want to do that?

MULCAHY: Well...

GROSS: Because it's so catchy you have to come up with hooks? It's all a hook. It's...

MULCAHY: It's very short, yeah. It's very like you have...

GROSS: It's just a hook.

MULCAHY: line.

GROSS: Yeah.

MULCAHY: Sing the name of the company. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

MULCAHY: It's really funny.


GROSS: My guests are singer and songwriter Mark Mulcahy and guitarist Ken Maiuri. We'll talk more and hear more of their music after break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are singer and songwriter Mark Mulcahy and guitarist Ken Maiuri. They've performed together for about 10 years. Mulcahy's latest album is called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You."

Do you want to choose one to do?

MULCAHY: We're going to do "Badly Madly," maybe? Yeah. Sure. "Badly Madly."

GROSS: Do you want to introduce it, says the stories behind your songs are always so different from what you'd expect.

MULCAHY: "Badly Madly." Well, the thing is this record, I made a lot of it up. Some of them are about somebody. There's the Heath Ledger one and there's the one about my friend. But I also wanted also to try to just be fictional and write up - write songs that I just invented a story in my head to write about, which I don't usually do. I'm usually writing about me or somebody else or things I see. And my goal is to try to, you know, be just clever, you know? So some of it's just clever. This is probably one of the more just attempt at cleverness. So I hope it sounds clever.


MULCAHY: Now that I said that.


MULCAHY: It's so - he's so clever. I love him.


MULCAHY: OK. So "Badly Madly." And one, two, three, hmm, hmm.


GROSS: That's great. That's a Mark J. - Mark J. Mulcahy song. It's a Mark Mulcahy song...


GROSS: ...that he just performed live for us. He was singing and playing guitar. And backing him up with guitar and backup vocals was Ken Maiuri. And that song is also featured on Mark Mulcahy's latest album, which is called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You."

I just love saying that over and over again.


MULCAHY: I feel so guilty.

GROSS: So, finally, Mark, before you go, since it's the holiday season, I was hoping you could play a holiday song for us, one that you really like or, you know, one that you think is special, that still has meaning for you.

MULCAHY: Sure. I would love to.

GROSS: What would you like to do?

MULCAHY: I would - if it's OK with you, I'm going to do "Auld Lang Syne," even though it's not necessarily totally a Christmas song.

GROSS: Definitely a holiday song. No, it's a New Year's...

MULCAHY: That's a holiday...

GROSS: New Year's Day.

MULCAHY: Yeah. I just love this song. I love, you know, what it's about. And, you know, should I remember - should my memories be remembered. It's an amazing thing to write about.

GROSS: Do you want to say anything about the song or its history that appeals to you?

MULCAHY: Oh. Well, you know, it's asking: Should we remember old things? Is it relevant? I think - my understanding of the song is it's asking: Is it relevant to remember old times? Is there a point to that? And that's a great question, I think. You know, it's a really deep question to think about for yourself. I think about it, should I move forward or should I - I'm sort of - I feel like I'm a moving-forward type.

But when I listen to this song, I think maybe that's not necessarily the way - I don't know. It's a good question to ask, is what I like this song. "Auld Lang Syne" coming up. OK.


GROSS: That was really nice. You obviously know a lot more verses than the rest of us do.


MULCAHY: Well, you know, I'm well versed in a lot of songs, I guess.

GROSS: Mark Mulcahy, it's just been wonderful to have you here. Thank you so much for performing.

MULCAHY: (unintelligible) Terry.

GROSS: It's really been a pleasure, so I'm very appreciative.

MULCAHY: It's such a treat to be on this show.

GROSS: Ken Maiuri, thank you for coming.

MAIURI: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: It's really been special to have you here to, you know, accompany Mark and lend your voice and your guitar to the songs. Thank you.

MAIURI: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And I wish you both happy holidays.

MAIURI: And you.

GROSS: And a Happy New Year.

MULCAHY: Thank you so much. Thank you.

GROSS: Mark Mulcahy's latest album is called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." You can hear a track from it, the song "She Makes the World Turn Backwards," on our blog at Coming up, tech writer Alex Madrigal has some tips about how to use the Internet to share photos with family and friends without sharing them with the world. This is FRESH AIR.

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