Sitting down with the mind behind Mercy Choir
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In between gigs at a University library and the wine business, Paul Belbusti has been busy writing and recording under the flag of Mercy Choir, a one-man band that has churned out some interesting low-fi/pop/rock creations in the past few years.
The latest is Waabaayo, an eight-song record that is arguably the most interesting and engaging music yet to carry the Mercy Choir name. It’s available now on the band’s bandcamp site, and, thanks to the magic of email, Belbusti was nice enough to sit down with us and talk about the album, his working process and how he approaches the art of recording.
SF: In listening to Waabaayo, there are a lot of textures and sounds that are pretty familiar within the realm of low-fi. But there’s a songwriting sense that seems to be coming from a more classic place. How many of the decisions in writing and recording are conscious, and how many are simply a matter of environment?
PB: Every single piece of music I've ever done, for the most part, is coming from the same place. I am attempting to write a very good pop song. That may sound strange, because a fairly large percentage of what I do wouldn't be considered pop. Even the abstract instrumental pieces start with me sitting down and attempting to write a structured, melodically rich, lyrically dense, pop song. Of course, if you listen to my records, you'll see it doesn't always work out that way, which is fine.
The craft of pop songwriting is deeply important to me and I wish I was better at it. For the past few years, I've been thinking a lot about a Paul Simon song called "American Tune." It's not necessarily my favorite song, nor my favorite Paul Simon song, but I think it's one of the best songs ever written, if that makes any sense. It's melodically complex; the lyrics are moving and thoughtful and lack cliché. It's concise. It's a simple sounding song, even though it's structurally very strange. Frank Sinatra could sing it. If you sped it up, a punk band might have some luck with it. I bet you could even put a dance beat behind it and have a hit. However, it still sounds perfect and beautiful on acoustic guitar. I don't even think it has a chorus or a catchy hook, but it still reads as a pop song to me.
That's the sort of song I try to write every time. That being said, I'm kind of glad I don't, because the twists and turns away from traditional pop music is where i come up with ideas and sounds that can be pretty interesting.
I'd like to think that environment doesn't influence the writing and recording, but it does very much, indeed. The last two albums were recorded onto an iPad and the sounds I can make with that and the way I'm able or even forced to record things have influenced the songwriting quite a bit.
SF: I really like all the shifts and changes in “There Is A Soul I.” With a song like that, was that mapped out? Did you want an epic to close the album?
PB: There was something conscious about the writing and recording of that song. This album was the first time I've ever written lyrics first and then wrote music to accompany them. So this song was a pretty good example of how a page of lyrics can be a blank slate for something texturally dense.
A lot of the songs I've written in the past few years have been really short. I love short, concise songs, but this was my attempt at writing something longer and based more on mood and ambiance than what's hidden underneath. It didn't come out exactly how I intended, but it's a pretty nice song. My wife thought I was losing my mind when I was recording the vocals. There's a lot of hooting and hollering and whining happening there.
SF: It’s short, but you seem to have a real sense of an album as a cohesive collection of songs.
PB: Singles are great. And I toy with the idea of releasing songs one at a time, and may still do it someday, but the idea of a cohesive group of songs that were written and recorded at the same time is still important to me. My favorite artists are the ones who only make sense within the context of themselves. One of my favorite writers, Jason Molina, is often criticized that all his songs sound the same and that he continually uses the same lyrical imagery over and over. Those people are missing the big picture. He's constructing a narrative and a language that is taking his entire career to develop. It's beautiful. He's reusing a guitar riff that he used once three albums ago as the main riff in a new song. Fantastic.
That's why I still make albums and repeatedly reference things within and outside of the album itself. I love getting lost inside the song, the album, and then entire body of work.
SF: You write and release a lot of songs. Why do you record so many?
PB: Musicians these days underestimate the importance of quantity. That's because a lot of them are operating on an older business model of "release 12 songs, play shows, write more songs, go in the studio, spend months recording, a year and a half or more later, release another 12 songs."
It still works for some bands, but the problem is, most people don't consume music that way anymore and they have no reason to be patient. They want more, more and more. When you release an album, unless it's an absolute masterpiece, people are going to be done with it and done with you in a few months, tops. There's just too much new media to consume to be bogged down with one particular thing.
I'm fine with this, not because I wouldn't mind a break, but because it keeps me working all the time. The idea of writer's block and not releasing something for two years is not an option anymore, and that's great, because I don't want to have any excuses. I want to be always working on my craft, even if it's frantically.
That being said, the idea that I'm prolific because I release an album or two a year is laughable. I know musicians that come out with an EP every couple of months and have tons of music in the can. I know poets that write an excellent poem every day. Photographers take photos all day long.
SF: You dabble in poetry and other avenues — what keeps bringing you back to music?
PB: I guess because it's what comes easiest to me. I'm certainly not saying making music is not hard for me. It is. But poetry is so painfully difficult to me. As is painting.
And of course, music is the most universally recognized and loved art form. It's amazing to me how almost everyone loves music. I only remember meeting two people in my life who said outright they didn't like music and both of them are horrible people.
Making music is frustrating and exhausting, but I can't stop.
SF: I know Mercy Choir is you, and occasionally you have other folks play with your on your live outings, but does anyone else ever crash your home studio?
PB: A friend, J. Rosser Lomax, did some playing on an EP I made called Sings. And I think the first Mercy Choir album has one song with someone else playing bass, but otherwise, I've always played everything in the studio. I'm not a very patient person, and collaborating with other musicians requires an amount of patience that I just don't have. I'd like to someday get to the point where I have the time and the maturity to let go of a little control, have fun and play with a band — even if it's just for one song in the studio. Right now, I don't. I suck at collaboration.
SF: You played a show recently; how was it? Do you have more planned?
PB: The show was nice and low key and pleasant. My voice and fingers were cooperating.
Not having a regular band when I play live makes things confusing for bookers and venues, I think. I usually play solo, but what I do live is not always appropriate for a bill shared with a bunch of solo, acoustic singer-songwriters; likewise for a bill with a bunch of four-piece indie rock bands. I'm OK with that. I don't get the thrill from performing live that a lot of my peers seem to get. I never really had that "I'm getting my rocks off right now jamming with a bunch of my pals" feeling. I don't feel the sense of community and it's not an emotional release for me. It's often just the opposite.
If I had a band of three or four wonderful musicians that showed up on time for everything and learned songs very quickly and contributed thoughtful arrangements and all played multiple instruments, then maybe I'd be more inclined to play live. Also, if they worked for free and booked all the shows for me then we'd really have ourselves a deal. Shit, I might even consider a tour!
SF: Do you have many music projects outside of Mercy Choir?
PB: I released an EP of abstract music last year called Pungs Finch, which I put out under the name "The Long Black Dogs." It was an experiment in creating a fake band with no one's real name attached. After a few months, I realized no one noticed or cared, so I re-released it under Mercy Choir.
After that, I realized that anything I do, no matter how stylistically different it might sound, should be released under Mercy Choir. I like the idea of having a body of work all sitting in the same pile so it's easier to find when I'm gone.
Listen to more Mercy Choir on bandcamp.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org