Not many singer-songwriters possess the triple talent of an incredible voice, virtuosic guitar playing and heartfelt songwriting. Peter Mayer is one such rare artist. He's painstakingly building a loyal following of fans, not by capitulation of his art to music executives as is the usual course, but by word-of-mouth, taking his music directly to the people with a rigorous schedule of touring that includes some very far-flung venues. Mayer was gracious enough to sit down and chat with us at one such locale, a house concert in Alpena on the shore of Lake Huron. Touring in support of his most recent release, "Earth Town Square", Mayer was nursing a tendonitis in his left hand, a surprise to us considering the vigor of his performance.
This is my first house concert. It's a great concept from the perspective of the audience. How is it from the perspective of the performer?
Well, I mean in general, I think it's wonderful. I think it's been a way to support music in a very "non-music business" kind of way. It's a very cozy, community thing that has a lot of dimensions to it that a normal show doesn't have… a neighborly, community feel to it. There's nothing more intimate than playing in somebody's home, there's really a wonderful feeling to it. And typically at a house concert the artist gets all of the door, which is wonderful. The limitations are that you can only get so many people into a home. And the other limitation sometimes is the fact that, like tonight, they didn't have a P.A. And that sometimes is a problem, depending on how the room sounds. It's a little bit more difficult sometimes to communicate the subtleties of what you're doing.
It probably makes you work harder, as far as actually playing the guitar.
Yes, and singing. You just have to be concentrating more, projecting and what-not.
Your recordings make use of a lot of overdubbed harmony vocals. Touring solo must make it feel like there's something missing.
Well, you know it's funny, because I think maybe for the audience it might feel that way if they have been familiar with my records, when they come and see me. For me, it doesn't really, because I do it all the time. And I write my songs solo. And then when I go to the studio, I just kind of build on that, but I usually record the tracks solo first. And so for me, I'm more accustomed to it, but I do think that it's a trick to try to make records that aren't too produced, so people experience a disconnect between me as a live performer and the records. And so "Elements", that was actually a response of mine to people who wanted something that represented the live thing more because they got kind of frustrated... perhaps they saw me live first and then they'd buy my records and think "well, this doesn't really feel like the experience".
The title track from your latest CD "Earth Town Square" seems to espouse the virtues of the global village and an international exchange of ideas. It's nice to see a positive spin on the concept since a lot of social observers focus on the negative… like McDonald's taking over the world... cultures losing their traditional heritage. Is a shrinking world really a good thing?
Well, at the end of that song, for me anyway, is a question mark. And the question mark is, will there be room for everybody there?... in the song that's the lyric. I do think that it's a real concern. The people who are, to put it simply, "anti-globalism"... I mean, we are global. That's just the way the world is right now, and I think a global consciousness is very, very good. But I think a global economy needs to be constructed in a very compassionate way, mindful of people's rights and what-not. And I think that's the problem. You know, corporations have tended to get there first, before the laws protecting people's rights. And not only that, but I think oftentimes corporations look for the places where there aren't any laws protecting people's rights in order to make money. And so there's a real problem there, and I think all of that is really important to try to learn about and try to be conscientious of, and to develop regulations, and just a consciousness of that in corporate America. But I do think, other than that, it's probably inevitable, a lot of that stuff is inevitable.
It's just going to happen.
Yeah, it's going to happen. It's just... how can we do it in a very humane way that's going to respect everybody? Can you? I don't know, but... try anyway.
Tell me what made you put Rowland Prichard's 1800's hymn to words on "Blue Boat Home".
Well, that song has been a part of my life always. I mean, I grew up in the Catholic church singing that song.
It sounded so contemporary the way that you did it.
Thank you, you know I definitely sort of "folkified" it in my own way. But it was, for me, always a church song, and always just something that really... I've just always have loved it.
It's a nice melody.
Isn't it? It's beautiful. And so, anyway, it just kind of came when I was messing around on the guitar one day, and I kind of had that melody in my head and I had an idea, a concept on the guitar for it, and so, worked it out. At last musically it happened on the guitar, and then it was a matter of trying to come up with some words. Because I like to try and come up with lyrics that aren't quote unquote "sacred" in a specifically Christian sense, you know, I like to try and find something that's a little more that crosses boundaries and be perhaps, more global in that sense. So the words were harder for me, as they usually are, frankly, on that song than was the music.
You're based in Minneapolis and it's always amazing to me that so many great acoustic musicians come from there: Steve Tibbetts, Preston Reed, Dean Magraw, Michael Monroe, John McKone... Why Minneapolis?
Well, I'm thrilled that you know about these people, that's really cool. Well, I don't know! I have no idea!
The long winters... you don't have anything else to do but play guitar?
(laughter) Maybe so!
Are you from Minneapolis originally?
I am, technically now, you know, we Twin Citians take issue with... if you're from St. Paul you're definitely not from Minneapolis because that's over ten miles...
Excuse the faux-pas...
(laughter) No, but I'm originally from St. Paul, the Twin Cities, and now I live in Stillwater, about a half an hour east of the metro. Stillwater is a bedroom community in a lot of ways, but it's a very historic town. But that's a long answer to say "yes", I am from that area. And I still live there and I imagine I'll pass away there as my family all lives there as does my wife. But that's a good question, I've really been just inspired over the years by the music there, but I don't know why that is necessarily. I'm glad that somebody who sees it from outside that community thinks of it as a hotbed, because that's nice to hear.
There seem to be a disproportionate number of great artists from there. Marc Anderson... I'm familiar with him from Steve Tibbetts, but his experimental jazz is 180 degrees from your music. Did you have to twist his arm to help you make mainstream music?
Well, you know, he really just produces my records. He hardly ever plays with me because I travel.
You're a great match because you have a very percussive style, and he complements your style.
Yes, well, thank you. And I love Marc, I just love him as a person and a musician. He plays with me... we usually have a big fall show in Minnesota, and then he'll play with me at that, but other than that, I'm solo, like all year, and usually playing out of the area. He can't really tour with me. But I have great respect for him and admiration for his sort of "out-of-the-box" way of approaching music. Well, I just really, really like him a lot. He's a real spiritual person and a very grounded person and easy to work with. So, I'm glad to say it wasn't that tough to twist his arm. But I think it's getting even easier now that we know one another and developed a relationship.
Who influenced your guitar style?
Well... Preston Reed. Michael Hedges. You know, a lot of the great fingerstylists over the years. I've really been just a student of American fingerstyle guitar. I have a good friend, Dan Schwartz who's based in the Twin Cities, and he among other things, makes my transcripts. I have a half-dozen transcripts of my songs, I'm sort of doing them one at a time. Anyway, Dan has passed along a lot of tricks from people he's studied over the years too, because he shares that interest in American fingerstyle. So, I'd say anybody who really pushes the instrument in creative ways I've really been interested in, and tried to learn what they're doing. I'm kind of slowing down now. I mean, my hands have affected the intensity with which I approach the instrument as a student. Because I love to learn on the guitar and see it as this endless world of possibilities. But it's a physical thing.
Are your transcripts available publicly?
Sure, yes, yes, I'd be glad to send you some of those.
Are they on the website?
Yeah, they're available at Peppermint.
Are they written out in tablature or standard notation?
They're very detailed. Tab... notation. You know, chords, lyrics, performance notes. Very detailed, yeah. There's only about six of them now, but I'm intending to do a book down the road. But I'm just trying to do them one at a time.
What do you do when you're not playing music? I think folks especially want to know if you own a Harley-Davidson...
(laughter) Oh god, no I don't. I don't.
So that was all fantasy, huh?
Well, the thing is that my wife and I used to live across the street from a bar that was frequented by Harley riders. So we would kind of observe the comings and goings.
You saw your dentist over there?
(laughter) I'm convinced that I saw some dentist! But, it's an interesting culture, the Harley culture. I think it's worth a little bit of a jab. But, anyway, what do I do? Well, I spend time reading and writing songs. That's one thing that I love about songwriting is that I feel like you take your whole life, your whole life kind of becomes this process by which you generate songs. Like any writer, I suppose. You draw from all aspects, so I feel like, gee, every time I read a book I can justify it because, well, "I'm a songwriter", you know? So, I like to read. I'm a very slow reader, but I try to keep reading because I like to continue my exposure to the language, I feel that's good for my writing. And I really just love the place that reading puts me in, in terms of my view of the world. And, I don't know, I'm an aspiring amateur astronomer, just like I mentioned tonight. I mean, I kind of am, you know, I'm excited about that right now. So that's about it, I guess. I have a little kayak that I go in. We have a beautiful river, and we live very close to that I go paddling on occasionally.
There's probably a lot of introverts out there who love you for writing "The Introvert Song", since ducking into a bathroom stall to avoid someone might seem OK now. Do introverts have an edge over extroverts when it comes to creating artistically?
Oh, I don't know. I would never presume that because I just don't know. But I tend to think that "introvertedness" lends itself toward creativity. Because the introverts are the ones that don't engage with others, they just stare out the window...
And think up tunes and poems...
Yeah, exactly. They're the daydreamers, I guess.
You're known for soul-searching themes. Was there ever a time when you wrote plain-old love songs?
Nope. There never was. And, I mean, I have to say that, to some extent, it was a deliberate choice on my part to not write love songs because I was a little bit ticked off, in my own righteous way years ago, about the appalling superficiality and clichéd nature of popular music...
Yeah, well, I'm glad I'm not offending you. But I just see the song as this incredible and potential carrier of meaning for every subject that you can think of, and yet we have sort of reduced it to, in some ways, the common denominator among people. It's like, well, who doesn't like love? I mean, of course everybody likes love, it's a great thing. But it has truly gotten out of hand.
It's been beat to death.
It's been beat to death, yeah! So anyway, it was somewhat of a deliberate choice for me to just say, OK, I'm just not going to do it. I'm not going to write a love song. But nowadays I think partly I see it as a bit of a deficit on my part. Because I would love to write a love song for my wife. I just can't do it. I mean I can't do it in a way, at least so far I haven't been able to do it, that just doesn't make me stop halfway through and say "it's stupid". You know? Even though I'm crazy about my wife, I'm just crazy about her.
Well, when you finally do it, it's going to be great.
OK, well I'm glad you think so.
You're building up to it! One of your themes is recognizing the fantastic in everyday events, such as in your songs "Holy Now" and "The Play". Why do you think people have so much difficulty in viewing life in this way rather than as a drudgery?
Well, that's a really good question. I think life can be difficult. And here I am, not to focus on my tendonitis, but here I am like "Oh my hand hurts". So I spend my days worrying about my hand, and "is it going to be OK?", and blah-blah-blah. And that's just my hand… I mean, my sister-in-law has cancer, you know, and my brother's battling depression. I think that our lives can be very stressful and it's easy to forget the sheer mindblowing fact that we're alive and the ultimate, the extremely mysterious aspect of that. When you think about it, I cannot think of a weirder thing, really, than life itself. The fact that we're all here, that we're talking, that we're alive, that we're breathing... that's the most amazing thing, you know?
Carlos Castaneda said step outside and look up, and we're surrounded by forever. Talk about a fantastic mindblowing thing, you know, you've just got to look up and go "jeez"...
Yeah, and once you get into that space, really, it is transforming, isn't it? If you can take the time to go outside and look up and sort of behold, and put yourself there, I think something happens to you. But it's kind of an exercise. I don't think it always happens naturally, especially depending on your personality.
Well, your song "The Play" really put that poetically, very well and very succinctly, and thanks for that.
Thank you for saying so.
Just a couple of other questions... Another theme of yours is people seeking or finding an extraordinary defining moment in an ordinary life, such as in your songs "John's Garden" and "Astronaut Dreams". In both these songs the subject has to exert some incredible will to rise above the expectations of his peers for him to underachieve in order to fit in. You must believe that there is value in just the act of taking a risk for a dream, especially given that failure can be a real outcome for some.
Yeah, it's funny because the older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of that way of living because I think it tends to be more difficult. To be kind of that risk-taker...
It's easier when you're young isn't it?
Yes. Yeah, isn't it? You kind of tread the same paths as you get old and you get a little more...
Fossilized is a great word. Afraid. And I think it's probably in the chemicals of the body in some respects. But I do think there are moments when you can step outside of the box a little bit and do something crazy. Which becomes less of a threshold… or, you know, something crazy when you're our age is less crazy than when it was back 20 years ago, so it doesn't take as much to make you feel alive, and getting back to that whole sense of wonder. You know, kind of getting back to that, I do think that in some ways that's kind of … almost the key to life, learning to cultivate that in oneself. Because a lot of us, because of some dissatisfaction with life or a sense of unhappiness will do all sorts of things to kind of fill that. Whether it's consumerism or materialism, which I think is a real problem in our society, or whatever… drugs, or whatever one can become addicted to. And so, I tend to think that the person who can cultivate that sense of wonderment about life itself really is doing society a service, because you become this presence then for other people, kind of this catalyst for happiness.
We are surrounded by paradigms. An introspective person can see that we are stuck behind our paradigms. That's how I live my life is to recognize those paradigms and keep open to that.
Yeah, for sure, we have certain paradigms and think "that's just the way it is".
And there's nothing past it.
Exactly. This is the way you live life. It's so easy to get caught up in that stuff.
What can you tell us about your next release?
Well, I'm working on... I wish I would've played some... I didn't play a single song from it tonight. I have several songs finished. It's basically a Christmas record, a Christmas solstice record. And I want to do all original songs. I always joke with people that it's mostly because there's not enough Christmas songs in the world, you know? So I just felt like on a mission to do that. (laughter) But I do really like the theme because it's just so what I'm drawn to in terms of my spiritual bent. It's all about light and darkness, and magic... and all these things about that time of year that people practice, all the rituals. And in some ways it's kind of a dialogue with the stories and symbols of my childhood. I grew up Catholic, and I'm no longer Catholic, but I still see power and resonance within me with those things. And so, how do they play in life now? So there are a few things kind of taking the symbols of Christmas and other things that cast a wider net and talk about solstice time, which I think really is the mother of the holidays.
These are not traditional carols, these are original songs?
They're all original songs, it's a fair variety. Like there's one about one of the wise men, told from the point of view of one of the wise men. This is inspired by a T.S. Eliot poem about one of the Magi who's telling the story as an old man now. So there's one of those, and one called "Stables" which talks about how there are stables in the world today waiting for love to come to them. And there's one about the stars called "The Star Man", inspired by the galaxies and this metaphor about there being galaxies as there are snowflakes in a snowstorm. So there's meditation on that. So there's just a variety of things like that, kind of loosely or more specifically around solstice and Christmas.
So you don't necessarily have to market this for Christmas sales?
Well, yeah, it's going to be weird. Because when you put out a Christmas record most people think "Oh gee, there's going to be all my favorites on there! They're singing my favorites!" I think in some ways that's going to be a negative, that I'm not going to offer that to people. I'd like to think that the positive thing is that this is going to maybe be a record that people don't just spin during Christmas. Maybe there will be something in there for other times of the year, too. But it's fun, it's fun for me. It's a little more excuse to delve into sacred music, which is... even though I don't think of myself as a Christian anymore even, I have a real love for sacred music.
That comes through.
Yeah. My background is liturgical music. I love church, I love that meditative aspect of what music can give us. So, it's a little more step in that direction maybe, with some of this stuff.
© 2003 Alan Fark
Here's a discography for Peter Mayer: