In the first single off his new album, “Let Them Talk,” Central Coast native Jody Mulgrew issues a sweetly vulnerable invitation to the women of his new hometown.
“Girls gather ’round, I’m the new fool in town,” Mulgrew sings, backed by Sebastian Luna on bass and Anthony Langston on drums. “You can help me make a new start. Treat me sweet, sweep me off my feet … You could be the next to break my heart.”
Mulgrew, a Morro Bay High School and Cuesta College graduate, moved to Nashville, Tenn., last fall. But he’s back in California this month to celebrate the June 17 release of “Let Them Talk” with two local shows — a solo gig Friday in San Luis Obispo, and a June 19 concert with his backing band, the Skeleton Crew, in Cambria.
According to Mulgrew, “Let Them Talk” chronicles a challenging, yet creatively rich, time in his career.
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“We started this album at a time … when I was ending one chapter in my life and beginning another,” he said. “Those transitions are amazing places for growth, but they can be real difficult.”
Seizing an opportunity
An established member of the Central Coast music scene, Mulgrew found a local following first as the front man of jazzy combo The Johnny Starlings, then as a 1950s-influenced solo act.
But when a longtime relationship ended, the retro rocker, then living in Los Osos, was left without strong ties to the area.
“I was ready for a change and at a place where I could take some chances,” he said. “I was ready for an adventure.”
Invited to attend a friend’s wedding in Nashville, Mulgrew seized the opportunity to explore the city known as the songwriting capital of the world. Once there, he decided to stay.
“There’s so much going in that town. It’s nearly overwhelming, but it’s also inspiring,” said Mulgrew, who has been working with Nashville vocal coach Ron Browning. “It’s a very creative environment.”
Mulgrew and the Skeleton Crew started work on “Let Them Talk” before his move, laying down the first tracks during a sweltering August session at Erickson Sound Labs in Buellton, sans air conditioning. The band wrapped up recording during two frosty days in December.
“It was just the most uncomfortable experience you could have recording,” Mulgrew recalled with a laugh.
“I hear a big difference” between the tracks recorded before and after his relocation to the American heartland, Mulgrew said.
“Recording makes you understand yourself better,” he said. “It’s like looking back at yourself under a microscope and making adjustments — conscious or not — about how you want to play, how you want to be heard.”
One consistent theme of “Let Them Talk” is heartache — distilled alternately into love (“Love My Little Baby”), lust (“Windowshade”), longing (“California Wait For Me,” “When My Luck Comes Around”) and angst (“Saddest Day”).
Mulgrew wrote half the tracks on “Let Them Talk” himself, including the defiant title track. He teamed up with Nashville resident Bob Rea on “Love My Little Baby,” Buellton resident Peter Claydon on the playful yet pleading “Girls Gather Round,” and San Luis Obispo resident Derek Senn on the laid-back folk rocker “I Got Stoned.”
The album features two distinctive cover songs, including a heart-wrenching take on “Ring of Fire” that recaptures the raw emotion of Johnny Cash’s original version.
“For me, that’s one of the most angsty, burning, heart-on-your-sleeve songs of all time,” Mulgrew said of the song, written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore.
“Ring of Fire” seems positively dirge-like compared to the band’s hard-driving cover of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.”
“We just get to rock on that,” Mulgrew said.
A vintage vibe
Also reflecting Mulgrew’s affinity for modern music with a vintage vibe is the album’s old-school, “one and done” approach to recording, complete with crackling speakers, creaking floorboards and echoing drumbeats. In some cases, Mulgrew and the Skeleton Crew gave themselves a single shot to capture a song before moving on.
Overdubs were few, Mulgrew added. Producer/engineer Bear Erickson contributed backing vocals on “Let Them Talk,” while U2 multi-instrumentalist Terry Lawless, who performs locally with Burning James and the Funky Flames, played organ on two tracks.
“When you make a mistake in the studio, the tape ends and everybody groans, ‘Oh it was perfect but we made a mistake,’” Mulgrew said. “(But afterward) almost your favorite moments are the mistakes. …”
“We long for the unexpected. We long for the personality that comes through in those moments of weakness and those moments of vulnerability,” he said.
It’s that same vulnerability, he explained, that aids him as a singer-songwriter.
“When (you) get over the fear of ‘What will people think? How will I be judged when I lay it all on the line?’ … then you really have a channel to communicate to members of your audience, the people listening at home,” Mulgrew said.
IF YOU GO
7:30 p.m. Friday
Steynberg Gallery, 1531 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
547-0278 or http://steynberg-events.com
Jody Mulgrew and the Skeleton Crew
7 p.m. June 19
The Wise Owl, 2164 Center St., Cambria
927-8888 or www.wiseowlcambria.com
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.