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Mercy Choir Stays True To Work Ethic

Paul Belbusti is a focused man with a work ethic that defies the norms of this distracted social media age. As the man behind the New Haven-based band, Mercy Choir, Belbusti has recorded three full length releases (two released earlier this year, Waabaayo, Apostrophe Music, and another to follow this November, His Noiseless Ball, His Boxwood Rattle) and one E.P. with Lys Guillorn, Trouble, this year alone. That’s industriousness at its finest.

Mercy Choir in Angst
Mercy Choir

Belbusti writes, plays and records solo; he’s the man doing all the chores by his lonesome and loving it. Alternately described by the music press as a lo-fi, psychedelia folk-freak, Belbusti would instead put himself firmly in the camp as a pop songwriter. This past September, Belbusti as Mercy Choir, released his second full length release of the year, Apostrophe Music, a collection of instrumental cinema verite-esque tunes constructed around virtual instrumentation in various apps, overdubbed with authentic instruments and field recordings blended and manipulated together — a tedious and arduous task.

On the eve of Mercy Choir’s upcoming support slot at The Space in Hamden, CT, opening for Lauren Mann & The Fairly Odd Folk, Belbusti discussed his predicament as a pop auteur with this writer.

Examiner: Apostrophe Music, according to the bits and pieces that I've read was influenced by Del Shannon's "Runaway." I know this is really about an artist's process, and while it's quite obvious that nothing on Apostrophe sounds remotely pop-like, talk about where precisely the song (Shannon's) informs your album or your ethos.

Mercy Choir: Very often, I get obsessed with songs and I'll listen to them over and over. This year, "Runaway" was one of those songs, which led me to a particular YouTube video of Del playing the song live for some kind of rock 'n roll nostalgia TV show.

It was from later in his life, about a year and half before he killed himself, and he sounds great. He's playing the only truly successful song in his long songwriting career and something about it is very tragic. It's also really exhilarating to watch, because Del and his band are at the top of their game, and the audience is thrilled. He was a real rock 'n’ roll workhorse and was set to replace Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, but shot himself before he had the chance to see any kind of real third act to his career. I don't want to romanticize his life because there's not too much there to feel romantic about, but that particular performance of "Runaway" and the way he smiles while he sings those incredibly dark lyrics and the way rock music has destroyed certain people. . . . those are all things I couldn't shake when I was making Apostrophe Music.

Examiner :The new album's compositions are very cinematic but at the same time very evocative of nothing in particular unless you let your mind direct the imagery, in particular, "Bad Guys With Guns." To me it sounds and feels deliberately vague for the listener. What's the creative processes behind the the tracks? Pick some of your favorites.

Mercy Choir: There are no pop songs on the album, but they all feel like pieces of a puzzle that can be assembled into something resembling rock ‘n' roll music to me. I know they might not sound that way to anyone else, but that's what I had in mind. I also wanted to make an instrumental album that had songs that were all quite different from one another. So many instrumental albums, particularly when it comes to experimental music, have pieces that resemble one another because they're meant to flow together in some way. For instance someone will make a record of synthesizer and prepared piano and oboe, or something and all the songs will kind of sound alike and have the same approach and be more about the sound of a particular recording session. I love those kind of records, but that's not what I was going for here. I have a short attention span and I love short songs and short pieces of music.

These tracks were recorded in pieces, and all have their own lives independent from one another. That's maybe why the album feels scatter-shot to some people. I guess the album is more like a collection of pieces, rather than an "album." I'm glad they feel vague and want to keep it that way, so I'd rather not talk too much about the inspiration behind some of the songs, also some of that is personal. My favorites are probably "Our Hearts Were Young," "Rosary For The Old Friend," and "Apostrophe Guitar."

They were made the same way my last few records and the next record were made. I record on an iPad and use some of the virtual instrumentation in various apps to write and record the basic tracks and then I overdub "real" instruments, field and cassette recordings, and blend and manipulate those sounds together. It's actually tedious work, but I like working this way and the results sound to me like some sort of new type of lo-fi music.

Examiner: You’ve said in the past that collaborating is a chore; are you getting any better at collaborating with others?

Mercy Choir: I'm good at collaborating with others. Others are not good at collaborating with me. I work fast and on a schedule and don't suffer fools gladly, which are not common traits in (and with) musicians who want to work for free. I'm really pleased with the E.P. I made with Lys Guillorn this year, and I hope we can make a full length soon because we have a lot of good ideas. As for assembling and leading a functioning Mercy Choir backing band, I already am a parent to one child, I don't need to babysit any other children, so I'll continue to work alone for now.

Examiner: You're prolific this year. Any particular reason?

Mercy Choir: No particular reason, but probably a combination of things. The main thing is my current recording technique allows me to write, record, and mix simultaneously, which is kind of a revelation to me. I imagine electronic musicians have been living with that reality for a long time, but for a pop songwriter, it's amazing to me that I can be writing a song and also be working on the final product that will end up on the record at the same time. It cuts so much crap out of my workflow.

Also, this was the year I realized that so many of my favorite outside artists have absolutely massive bodies of work and I want to be a part of that. I'm talking about people like Richard Youngs, Jason Molina, Robert Pollard, and Jandek. If you want to be a songwriter and a recording artist, then you have to do that work. The idea of taking a few years to write and record an album feels antiquated to me and maybe some kind of holdover to an old idea of "the music business," which is something that no longer exists. I'm not scared to put out an album like Apostrophe Music anymore. I'm not scared to make an E.P. of electronic speed metal, or a 30 song album of 4-track acoustic folk music. Why wouldn't I do that? I'm not going to lose fans, because the few I have seem to be sticking with me. I'm not going to get a bad review because no one reviews my music. I'm not going to confuse some club booker over this because I barely play live. So I decided I need to just continue doing what i want to do and make the amount I want to make.

Mercy Choir, The Space, Hamden, CT, October, 26, 2013. 7 PM. $10.