Signs of Intelligent Life

Peter Mulvey performs at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts, U.S.A., Earth, Milky Way Galaxy…

Despite living in the greater Boston city of Somerville for a mere four years, folk singer and songwriter Peter Mulvey maintains many Massachusetts connections. He records on local label Signature Sounds, plays a regular Harvard Square summer stint at Club Passim as part of the trio Redbird (with Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst), and considers several local musicians—including Pamela Means, Tim Gearan, the Blue Ribbons (who back him up this Thursday at the Iron Horse) and Rusty Belle (who open the show)—to be his “musical tribe.”

“I tour constantly, but I play more gigs in Massachusetts than anywhere else,” Mulvey tells the Advocate. “In many ways it has remained my artistic home, though I moved back to Wisconsin in 1996.”

But it was the combination of a cave in West Virginia and a Czech professor from the University of Washington that caused the curator of the Kansas City TEDxTalks to ask Mulvey if he would give a lecture last year. Titled “Lyrical Astrophysics,” Mulvey’s talk was based on his song “Vlad the Astrophysicist,” which he recorded on his 2009 album Letters from a Flying Machine.

“Vladimir Chaloupka is a professor in the physics department,” continues Mulvey. “I met him at the National Youth Science Camp, which is a gig I play in a cave underneath West Virginia every summer.” The song tells of the conversation the two had over beers in the back of a motel in West Virginia.

Mulvey and Chaloupka discussed the Drake Equation, and the likelihood—or lack thereof—that there are other civilizations in the cosmos. “Vlad’s take on it is that even if we last a million years, we’re unlikely to meet another concurrent civilization, because space is too large and time too long. It’s the way he put it, in colloquial language, that I wanted to put into a piece I could perform from stage,” notes Mulvey. “The point is to further a growing understanding of our place in the cosmos: infinitesimally small and insignificant, and yet very significant to ourselves and to each other.”

Mulvey performs at the Iron Horse in support of his new album Silver Ladder, which was produced by Chuck Prophet and released by Signature Sounds on April 1 (no fooling).

“The whole record is about coming through hard times—just ordinary human hard times—and coming out swinging, light on your feet and ready to enjoy life,” says Mulvey. “I feel like I’m turning in my best stuff these days, and people seem to be getting sustenance out of it. There’s nothing more than that an artist can ask for.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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