“More Than Ever,” the title track from the New Haven-based band Mercy Choir’s latest four song EP, is a deceptively simple tune, mostly because it is not simple at all. The melody teases you and takes you in immediately with its sweet and jangly guitars until the lyrics implore you to stick around for more: “Treat me right, even though I treat you wrong / Hold me now, listen to my little song.”
From there on in the layers of the song are revealed one by one: more percussion, more bass, backing vocals. In less than three minutes Mercy Choir’s latest is now in your head, and guess what? You already want to hear it again. Paul Belbusti, leader, founder and heart of the band, may have made an almost perfect pop song.
“Mercy Choir is a vehicle for my own songwriting, my own imagination, and depending on the day, those songs could be anything from harsh noise to the poppiest of pop music. My idea of a perfect pop song is a very narrow framework, and in my mind I had never written anything that fell into that box. This song does,” Belbusti said, on a sunny afternoon in his rehearsal space.
Belbusti discussed his newest song and EP — the release of which he will celebrate with a show at Best Video on April 6 — as well as other projects and the craft of songwriting, a subject about which he is passionate.
“To me the EP is more of a single than an EP because it’s really showcasing the title trick, which I think is the best pop song I ever wrote. It is a puzzle I’ve been trying to put together for many years, and I wasn’t sure if maybe I was maybe a little long in the tooth to put together that puzzle. It turns out I can write a catchy pop song that is up to my own standard of what a good pop song is.”
But as it turns out, he thinks — or rather, he knows — he has even better songs inside of him. After a year that included releasing two full-length albums, performing at and organizing a monthly residency at Never Ending Books (which ended in November of 2017), and opening for Mark Mulcahy at Lyric Hall, Belbusti was ready to slow down, search inward, and take care of himself.
“There are only two things I care about in life, and those two things are my family and songwriting. Therefore, those are the two things I work hardest at, and the other things in life I’ve come to realize can be and are obstacles to me pursuing those two important things,” Belbusti said. “The tricky thing about it is the obstacles are things that people often consider as things that go hand in hand with songwriting like performing, like having a band, like having a rehearsal space. These things to me are distractions for my songwriting practice, so this is what I’ve learned and this is what I’m focused on now, so I guess my point is if you want to see Mercy Choir play you should come on April 6.”
At the EP release show at Best Video in Hamden, the band in its current and most populated incarnation — Loralee Geil on backing vocals and percussion, Bruce Crowder on drums, Chris Zollo on keyboards, Brian Slattery (in full disclosure, arts editor for the Independent) on bass, and Tim Goselin on guitar — will play its first live show in months, though it has been spending a lot of time together making this EP and rehearsing.
“We recorded at Lyric Hall in Westville with the wonderfully talented and generous Scott Amore,” said Belbusti. “We chose four songs, probably four of my better songs. Two of them are brand new and two of them are older tunes. One is about a year old and one is about ten years old. It was important for the other members of Mercy Choir to get together in a room and be recorded as a group and let people hear the vibe of the band. It’s something that’s not necessarily a priority of mine, so they were very persuasive and we decided to do it and I’m glad we did because it sounds pretty darn good I think.”
In addition to the aforementioned title track, the EP includes “13th of July,” a song featured last year in a more stripped-down version on his Fair Games album. On More Than Ever, the song receives the benefit of a fuller and more lush arrangement without taking away the original organic urgency of the tune. Also included are the songs “Matter of a Fool” and “Day I Finally Gave You Up.” The former reaches into a darker territory both lyrically and musically, the melody haunting and building along with the lyrics, imploring the listener with the line “something’s gotta change now” and a rolling drum beat from Crowder that reminds one of a call to march forward, toward something more than the current status quo. The latter is much slower and stays that way throughout, almost painfully so at times — a pain that is revealed in the lyrics, which offer a description of various stages of falling apart and coming back together in a new form. Belbusti excels at revealing the layers in a song, whether they are draped in velvet or edged in lace. Eventually another texture is found, even if it is merely peeked at, on the edge of a sleeve.
But then again, Belbusti is nothing if not an ever-practicing student of song, and considers himself in that respect a “20th century boy.”
He is so committed to the art and practice of songwriting that he has created two PDFs of songwriting hints and helpful prompts, one called Please Write a Song and the other called Don’t Be Scared, which he has happily shared with others. (Among the prompts: “Be generous to everyone”; “Help others whenever you can. Especially other artists. Especially other songwriters”; “Stop reading this and go write a song.”)
“I always want to stress the importance of songs and songwriting” he said. “I think that might be a futile effort in 2018 because I think the song craft is a very disrespected and misunderstood craft. It’s a very 20th century practice, but it’s still very important to me and that is always what I’m going to be focused on. I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor for those who consider songwriting their craft. It’s a worthwhile endeavor to pursue it and study it and not make it a supplement to your artistic life.”
For Belbusti this means a strict adherence to the study of this craft.
“Lately I think the most important things for me to study are songs that were written or inspired by songs that come from pre-rock ‘n’ roll and also songwriters who work in that vein, which is strong melodies, strong arrangements and concise ideas” he said.“I’ve been listening to standards a lot, older standards, and I think listening to that kind of music can only be helpful because I think a lot of people my age and younger forget that the music we are all influenced by that we all grew up on comes from pre-rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t exist without the song craft and without the idea of melody and composition, and those classic 20th-century popular songs that your grandparents listened to on the radio are more intricately connected to the stuff we all think is so cool like rock ‘n’ roll than people realize.”
“I think people should listen to Mel Torme, and stop listening to indie rock,” he added with a smile. “In a sense it’s a very lucky and beautiful thing that you can pick up a guitar and if you look interesting and make an interesting sound you can have a band and — I won’t say ‘have a career’ because no one can have a music career anymore — but I’ll say an artistic life, and you can get gigs and you can make records and your friends might come see you play, but without a song there’s no there there.”
Belbusti says all this not as a criticism of the current state of music, but as a revelation of the lessons he feels he has learned himself as he finds his place in the world as a songwriter.
“I’m not trying to say I don’t listen to bands and love bands that make repetitive, incredible-sounding, moving music, and the focus is more on the sound and the focus is more on vibe,” he said. “I love a lot of that kind of music, but let us never turn our back on the song. If you spend a lot of time or any time practicing an instrument, at least consider practicing your song craft the same amount if not more…. The song craft is a magical lasting thing ... and I think a lot of us share the same goal, which is having a legacy and a body of artistic work that outlasts our material physical lives. I think the song has a better chance, a good song has a better chance to be a horse you can ride than a really far-out groovy jam.”
Belbusti himself has been a part of numerous other musical projects — some that even play what one might consider music that is somewhat far out. He is half of the band Rivener along with drummer Michael Kiefer. That project released a well-received self-titled album last year. He also recently released five solo instrumental albums, Temporalities #1-5, in March of this year.
“That came after the residency ended and after I finished the album Fair Games. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to work on next, and that sort of instrumental music is kind of self-therapy brain-idea vomit for me. What I found was I produced five very austere minimalist instrumental albums that I assumed were of little interest to anyone but me, but I was in contact with a really great record label called Pale Blue Records that was interested in putting out some of my music. The only thing I had to offer them was some instrumental albums. I offered them any one of those five. They liked all five of them and we discussed what kind of release strategy would go into that, and they were interested in releasing them all at once as a digital box set sort of thing.”
I asked him if music in general was a form of self-therapy for him.
“Music is very much not self-therapy for me,” he said. “It’s a source of stress and strife and pain, but instrumental music — in particular improvised instrumental music — is a vacation from that sort of stressful practice of songwriting and arranging, which is why Rivener is the closest thing I would call fun that I’ve ever done, music-wise…. My only responsibility with Rivener is to show up fully clothed with a guitar,” he added with a smile. “Mike is the boss of Rivener. I am proudly not the boss of Rivener, of anything except Mercy Choir.”
Belbusti expects to record again with Rivener in the coming year to “keep the momentum going” but in general continues to plan on taking a hiatus from performing, though it does not mean Mercy Choir is disappearing.
“Mercy Choir is going to be a thing until I’m dead,” he said. He’s just not sure in what form it will reappear when we next see it.
“I just know that I spent over a year organizing and performing in shows for a residency in New Haven, and it wasn’t until after I decided to end it that I realized how much it drained me emotionally and physically and mentally,” he said. “I enjoyed it and I’m extremely glad that we accomplished that together as a group, but it sure was a lot of work.”
His love and appreciation for his band mates is at the forefront of his mind even as he strives to find a balance and to care for his own well being.
“I’ve been extremely lucky to have fallen into a band with the most lovely and talented people that you can imagine,” he said. “I expect to make music with these people that are playing with my band now for as long as I possibly can. I can’t say what that will look like, and I won’t say what it will look like.”
But, he said, “now as I finally start to feel like I am a full-blown grown person, I realize that there is no reason for me to do what the young people might call hustling. There’s really only a need for me to pursue the things that are rewarding to me when it comes to my artistic life, and the things that are most rewarding to me and have always been the most rewarding to me are writing songs and recording albums.”
I told him that to me it sounded like he was trying to take care of himself. He agreed.
“I really am trying to. I think the more I take care of myself the better the work will be. I still have a lot more music to write, songs to write. I haven’t even come close to making the best Mercy Choir album. I haven’t even dipped my toe in what I would consider to be the best Mercy Choir album.”
Yet Belbusti also talks like he’s in for the long haul. The drive that was born in him so long ago to craft songs that last does not seem to have slowed down in any capacity. I asked him where this drive came from.
“As soon as I got my hands on an acoustic guitar, which was around when I was 17 or 18, my only interest was learning enough to be able to write a song with it, and I can’t say why that is, but of course it probably came from the need to want to express myself and that was the way I felt I could best express myself,” he said. “Much to the chagrin of my guitar teacher I walked in with a guitar and the only thing I wanted to learn was enough chords to write songs and then I was done. I had no interest in learning the scales. I still don’t know how to play scales to this day. I can’t tell you the names of most of the notes. I don’t think I’ve ever played a guitar solo. All I wanted to do was find enough chords to be able to write a song, and it turns out six or seven of them will get you where you need to be for a fair amount of a career, but I’m trying to learn a little more and trying to learn a little more on the piano. Piano is the superior instrument, so I’m trying to learn a little more on that.”
Then he reached back even further.
“I hate to be cliché because cliché is the enemy, but my dad had an incredible record collection, which lives in my house right now, and I always loved listening to his records even when I was a very small kid,” he said. “I remember I listened to Abbey Road and at the end — you know the part, with ‘the love you take is equal to the love you make?’ — those string swells and the way that album kind of climaxes … I remember saying to my dad when I was very, very young, I could have been in kindergarten for all I know, I said when that ending of that album happens it makes me feel a way that I can’t describe, and he said ‘you don’t need to describe it.’ I don’t remember what he said after that but I just remember thinking that I wanted to feel that way all the time.”
“I realized that the power of that came from songwriting,” he said. “It comes from playing too, that music wouldn’t exist without the string players that sat in a room, but the power came from Paul McCartney. He sat down in a room, and he was probably alone, and he was able to create that out of thin air. I love that idea. It’s sturdier than this building that we’re in right now, because it will always be there until … I don’t know how long the human race will be around, but it will be around as long as the human race is around, because it’s a song, and it’s a very sturdy vehicle. It’s the best art form that I can think of.”
Mercy Choir celebrates the release of More Than Ever on a shared bill with Little Silver at Best Video, 1842 Whitney Ave., Apr. 6 at 7:30 p.m. Click here for more information.