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If rock stardom was the original goal, then New Haven's Mark Mulcahy came pretty close. But sometimes, music becomes something bigger than just success.
For about 10 years, starting in the early 1980s, with his melodic alt-pop band Miracle Legion, Mulcahy wandered the foothills of stardom, releasing major label albums, touring with the Sugarcubes, scoring a small MTV hit with "You're the One-Lee," and even making an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman."
When label and legal issues derailed Miracle Legion, Mulcahy and the band's rhythm section, drummer Scott Boutier and bassist Dave McCaffrey, reformed as Polaris - a studio-only trio whose job was to create the music for a Nickelodeon television program called "The Adventures of Pete & Pete." Infectious power pop tunes abounded, including "Waiting for October" and the show's popular theme song, "Waiting for Sandy."
When "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" was canceled, Mulcahy released several diverse but always compelling solo albums and earned accolades from many big name rock stars - Radiohead's Thom Yorke and REM's Michael Stipe among them. He also got married; he and his wife, Melissa, have twin daughters.
But the romantic notion of the respected journeyman songwriter came to a crushing halt in 2008 when Melissa Mulcahy suddenly died. Instantly, Mulcahy's sole priority was to be a father to his young children. His career was indefinitely postponed for all the right reasons.
During that time, unbeknownst to Mulcahy, several musicians organized and recorded an album called "Ciao My Shining Star: the Songs of Mark Mulcahy," proceeds of which went to help the Mulcahy family. In addition to Stipe and Yorke, artists such as Dinosaur Jr., The National, Frank Black, Vic Chestnut, Juliana Hatfield, Mercury Rev and the October Defense all contributed - a collective gesture that overwhelmed Mulcahy on several emotional and creative levels.
Four years later, Mulcahy tentatively emerged by performing a show with Polaris followed by a string of scattered solo dates. In June 2013, he released his first album in almost a decade, the critically lauded and confessional folk-pop work called "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You." He's continued touring - in March, he performed in Manhattan's Lincoln Center as part of their prestigious "American Songbook" series - and appears Saturday in New London's Hygienic Art Park.
Earlier this week, Mulcahy discussed his life and career and music. Here are excerpts:
On the impetus to record and release "Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You":
"I hadn't actually planned on it in any formal sense. I was hanging out a lot with a friend, Henning Ohlenbusch, and he has a recording studio, and the idea of making a record just came up in casual conversation. I'd had some songs I'd been slowly working on, but, talking to Henning, I thought it might be a better idea to put out a record written in the time that we were recording.
"The idea became to write a song for each day scheduled in the studio. That way the songs were fresh and we'd just use whatever musicians were available that day. When you're making a record a day at a time with that loose atmosphere, you're always going forward rather than looking backward trying to overdub or fix something."
The album is crammed with intriguing lyrical ideas and hooky choruses. At the same time, the sound is very spare and bare-boned. On the decision to keep it simple, so to speak:
"Sure, it could have been more produced. You can always keep going with digital multitrack and get lost in the endless possibilities. And that would have been one approach. But Henning (who produced the album) is a very 'That sounds good to me' kinda guy. The parts I wanted to orchestrate were the lyrics and vocal melodies - and I had already worked those up from home. As far as the band backing tracks, they were made up by the musicians on the day of the recording. They have their own ideas and interests, and once they were happy with what they'd done, I was happy.
"Sometimes what you have to watch out for is putting so much into a song that you take the magic out of it (laughs). The idea became to keep going until it was time to eat dinner. And it worked. I just really want to tip my hat to the ton of great players. They're all songwriters, as well, and were thinking about what's good for the tune rather than whether they got to do a drum solo or whatever."
On his thoughts when he heard about the "Ciao My Shining Star: the Songs of Mark Mulcahy" project:
"There were all kinds of emotions. I didn't know about it until they were pretty far down the line. I was pretty shocked and overwhelmed that anyone would do that for me without even telling me about it. Because of that, it kind of had a surprise party element. It took a long time to absorb it all. I finally said, 'I'd like to help with something,' and I got to work on the cover. You know, some of those artists I don't know at all and it was very surprising that they would do this. It was also cool because sometimes I'd hear one of the songs and think, 'This is a much better version of my own song than I would have had.'"
On music and songwriting as a healing property in the wake of his wife's death:
"Music ... (long pause) A big part of this last year was just getting back on the horse. Over my life, music has been my career and my way to make a living and all that - but it's also been very good for my mental health. And I hadn't done it in such a long time. To switch from being a musician to being a parent - something I didn't have much experience at - is very hard. In the end, music has always been great therapy. It's all I know how to do and, ultimately, if I don't do it, something is missing in my brain."
Who: Mark Mulcahy
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Hygienic Art Park, 79 Bank St., New London
How much: $10
For more information: (860) 443-8001