One evening last November, singer-songwriter Michael Mullinger played a short set at Servant Jazz Quarters in east London—a cool, poky, cupboard-under-the-stairs venue in cool, poky Dalston. There were a few people milling around in front of the stage and when the first song sparked into life, the floor filled up. The material, taken largely from Michael’s six-song “Rounds” EP, was fine-grained and plangent, melancholy but also in places jubilant. Nowhere more so than on the rousing title track, which boasts a chorus so infectious that the term “ear-worm” doesn’t begin to cover it. I still compile CDs for friends. I’m old-fashioned like that. I’ve made six or seven over the last few months and each one has had that song “Rounds” as its centrepiece. It’s the best song Michael has written to date, but the really exciting thing about it is that you sense there is even better to come. This is only the beginning.
The last time some of us had seen Michael play live was three years earlier at his first gig. Back then, Michael picked his way through songs from his self-recorded “Dirty Fingernails” EP including the achingly delicate “Lovely Boy” and a tender cover of Bob Marley’s “Mellow Mood.” It was just him and a clutch of fragile compositions.
The difference in sound and poise and purposefulness these days is incalculable. Backed at the Dalston show by a family trio of Brendan, Katherine & Jennifer O’Neill, there was a muscularity to the sound. The beauty was still there but the songwriting and the band’s tight, surging playing set it in a fresh context. Michael has been gigging regularly on London’s acoustic circuit ever since that debut, with breaks for rejuvenating bouts of recording which have taken his sound in new and sophisticated directions.
A few years ago he met veteran drummer Brendan O’Neill (Nine Below Zero, ex-Rory Gallagher) the pair set out to capture the mood and feeling evoked in Michael’s work and increase the depth of the songs by adding further instrumentation.
“Working with other people to develop songs was new to me but really rewarding especially with someone who had so much experience,” notes Michael. “One day I spotted a Chinese gong that Brendan had bought in the 1970s off of some other drummer. I wanted to put it in and it just clicked into what we were doing. Self recording was a steep learning curve but I enjoyed the challenge.”
The next step was to take it to Kenny Jones at Alchemy Studios London to be mixed and then on to the renowned Metropolis mastering studio in London. The result, the “Rounds” EP, was released in late July 2013. It displays an array of influences, from Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, John Martyn and Fleetwood Mac to Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith, Jose Gonzalez and Grizzly Bear. Michael studied the style and craftsmanship of Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and Nick Drake but it was while listening to Jimi Hendrix that he had first appreciated the sounds and shapes that could spring from his guitar and such is the recording.
The “Rounds” EP is only the first fruits of that process to be made widely available. From the reflective opener “Playing the Clown” (“Nothing but dust in my pocket…”) to the ebbing “Peppermint Bay” and the multi-layered “My Right”, the EP is both an accomplished work in its own right and an auspicious sign of things to come.
Ryan Gilbey. (New Statesman / The Guardian)