“The story of the universe as we have discovered it through science and still are discovering it, is and ought to be our sacred story.”
Peter Mayer is in his twentieth year as an independent musician. Late last year he released Third Street, his ninth studio album. (See my review here.)
Mayer’s work is varied, but always anchored in a powerful sense of spirituality. He sings by turns of the vast sweep of the cosmos, the intimacy of a couple sharing morning coffee or the sense of possibility that comes with a newborn child. He may set out to make you think, or warm your heart, or make you laugh with novelty songs about how to make hot pickles or why we should start wearing hats again.
Songs such as “Ordinary Day” and “Heaven Below” from the Heaven Below album, or “Holy Now” from Million Year Mind, “Awake” from Earth Town Square and “My Soul” from Midwinter are examples of his hymns to the universe.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that we human beings create meaning. It’s not something we discover. It’s our nature. I find that my music and my writing has been interested in that since the beginning,” he said during an interview with The God of the Hinge.
For Mayer, meaning comes from the wonders of existence. “The story of the universe as we have discovered it through science and still are discovering it, is and ought to be our sacred story,” he said. “It’s a story that we all have in common, that we all share.”
The natural beauty of Minnesota is a fitting backdrop for a man who considers himself a “religious naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist,” as he describes his spiritual outlook.
“I’m more interested in what we can know about the world. What we can know is so vast and amazing, it’s all you can do in a lifetime to grasp what we can know that speculating about what we can’t know is of little interest to me. Although I am deeply interested in religion and how these stories and metaphors and techniques help connect our whole selves to our story, our world.”
Mayer was brought up in a devoutly Catholic home and educated in Catholic schools, to the point of earning a theology degree from a Catholic university. After two years in a Jesuit seminary, however, he determined that the celibate life was not something he could devote himself to, so he left.
After that, he worked what would become his last regular job, as a music director for a Catholic church. It was then that his views began to change. A voracious reader, he found inspiration in books by Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Thomas Berry, who painted the majestic grandeur of the cosmos in words, words that the young church music director found to be meaningful and much bigger than the words of the historic creeds. Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin were influential as well.
“A lot of what I read ultimately caused me to not be able to recite my own creed in good conscience,” Mayer said. “The most import thing that one believes is the creed you say on Sunday morning, if you’re a churchgoer, and I couldn’t recite it. It didn’t seem relevant.”
Current events also played a role in his departure, he said.
“I was already sort of a progressive-thinking Catholic, but environmental crises had been happening and there was something called the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in the early ‘90s. I remember that the two main spoilers, the two institutions that were trying to thwart the efforts, were the United States and the Catholic Church. My country and my church. And I thought, what’s wrong with our institutions that they can’t be agents for change?”
All of this led to his ultimate decision to leave the Church, but the process took some time.
“I think I had been sort of evolving away from the creed for a few years” before formally leaving, he said. “I was tied up with the church professionally, but I had already checked out personally. In my time as a music director, I stood there mute when the creed was recited for two or three years.”
As such major changes of outlook can do, Mayer’s decision caused some family friction, but not as much as it might have.
“My mom and dad are still devout. I was kind of mute on the subject for a while with them, but eventually we had to have the talk,” he said. “Interestingly, my siblings and I, all five of us, none of us are Catholic anymore. I was the last to leave the Church, so by then they were kind of worn down.”
1995 was an eventful year for Mayer. He left his childhood faith, left his last salaried job to become an independent musician, and married his wife, Beth. Fortunately, his wife as willing to give up the steady paycheck too.
He made the decision to make a go of music after having had some early success.
“It had been a gradual building up of my own career,” he said. “I had been playing out at clubs and coffeehouses. I had a couple of CDs out. So I was already on that path of being a singer/songwriter. My wife was the bookkeeper at the time, and still is. It seemed like a sensible decision at the time, and here I am 20 years later still doing it. I think there is some naiveté that is required at the beginning to go forward.”
Working the craft
These days, Mayer records his vocal and guitar parts in a home studio made from a converted shed. He sends the tracks as digital files to other musicians, who record their parts on their own. Finally, he and an engineer mix the tracks at a professional studio.
Like Damh the Bard and many other independent musicians, Mayer creates fully arranged multi-instrument studio songs, but then performs live alone, accompanied only by his own guitar. It works because the songs are initially written with that in mind, he said.
“The songs themselves are written just on the guitar,” he said. “I like to be conscientious about the guitar parts themselves and hope that they support the song fully. The guitar part [in the studio recording] is virtually identical to the part that I play when I’m playing live.”
Sometimes songs take a while to come to fruition. A song on the new album, called “Winds of October,” is an example. The song is something of a lyrical departure for Mayer, with themes of the thinning of the veil and contact with ancestors.
“It started with the guitar part, and that doesn’t always happen with my songs. For years I had that musical idea and I didn’t know how to weave a melody into it,” he said. “I felt it was really wanting to be an instrumental. Then it was a question of what to write about. It’s a very moody song.”
Eventually, the music connected with Mayer’s fondness for Autumn, and in particular, Halloween. Connecting it to All Saint’s Day and pre-Christian celebrations informed the lyrics.
“I’m fascinated by what I think is a more serious undercurrent to [Halloween],” he said. “Of course there is the Day of the Dead tradition in Mexico, and there is a family tradition where you’re honoring ancestors. That seemed so beautiful, and something we don’t really have in America, where it’s more about entertaining the kids or being scared.”
Finding an audience
Mayer’s concerts are typically held in Unitarian Universalist or liberal Christian churches, and draw audiences in the dozens or low hundreds. While his CDs sell fairly well, he said a larger audience would be nice to have.
However, the freedom of not being tied to a label is valuable, he said. An artist can “mess up the art” by thinking more about selling than creating.
“I think it’s really important for me, because what I’m writing about just can’t really be a market-driven kind of thing,” he said. “I like to think it would appeal to more folks if they knew about it, but I don’t know how to do it.”
(Note: There are two Peter Mayers out there in the singer/songwriter scene. Check out this Peter Mayer’s website to keep track of which one is which.)
Peter Mayer’s website: petermayer.net
Peter Mayer’s Facebook page: Peter Mayer – From Minnesota!