Mark Mulcahy found a kindred spirit through a book of short stories while writing songs for his latest album, “The Gus.”
Fond of lyrics that pick up without preamble in the middle of a tale, or offer vivid images without providing context, the Springfield indie-rocker was inspired to find a similar sensibility at work in “Tenth of December,” a 2013 collection by the writer George Saunders.
“The way I thought I connected to him was that he was writing without explanation, and that’s what songs can be,” says Mulcahy, who performs Friday in the Red Room at Café 939. “You can write this thing where nobody knows what you’re talking about, only you. The vagueness of the guy really took me, plus his stories are great.”
“The Gus” is full of songs at once vague and detailed. Accompanied by jangly guitars, Mulcahy steps in and out of different perspectives, including someone facing a lover with murderous intentions on “Daisy Marie,” a long-lost friend with a forgiving streak on “Taking Baby Steps,” and a narrator describing a satisfied Trump supporter on “Mr. Bell.” In each case, Mulcahy attempts to locate the voices of characters who might not otherwise be heard.
“Everybody deserves at least some introspection,” he says. “It’s like, this person needs someone to say something about them, and I come with this little Bazooka Joe comic of a song and do that.”
Mulcahy started as a drummer before switching to guitar and cofounding his first band, the New Haven indie-rockers Miracle Legion, in the early ’80s. He became the group’s lyricist by default, and discovered he liked the job. “I got a lot of joy out of writing anything,” he says.
Over the years he’s honed an ability to write lyrics that are casually offhand, and sometimes off-kilter. “Wicked World” on “The Gus,” for example, opens with him stepping out to walk the dog and asking someone to save him a piece of pie, before things take a more inscrutable turn. Though the stories in such songs can sound enigmatic to listeners, they make perfect sense to Mulcahy, in part because they’re not, strictly speaking, conventional stories.
“When you start singing it, it becomes a different thing,” he says. “It’s not a poem, it’s not a short story, it isn’t any of those things. They’re lyrics.”
His sensibility hasn’t made him as famous as some of his fans, including Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., who contributes guitar to a track on “The Gus.” Yet Mulcahy is influential in his own way, with a tight circle of collaborators and admirers centered in the Western Massachusetts music scene.
“In my mind, I am stealing from him constantly,” says Philip B. Price, a Northampton musician who has known Mulcahy for years (and opens the show at Café 939). “Mark is just one of those utterly unique voices in rock — inimitable. Theatrical and raw at the same time. His songs intriguingly opaque but intimate. Full of weird, fully developed characters, which is something I’ve never been able to pull off in my own writing, so I greatly admire those who can.”
Mulcahy has been doing it for more than 35 years, starting with Miracle Legion and continuing in the ’90s with Polaris, a sort of house band for the Nickelodeon TV show “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.” His solo career began in 1997 and yielded three albums before going dormant for nearly five years when his wife, Melissa, died unexpectedly in 2008. In the wake of her death, Stipe, Yorke, Dinosaur Jr., Frank Black of the Pixies, the National, Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne, and Price’s band Winterpills were among the artists who recorded songs for “Ciao My Shining Star,” a tribute album intended to help support Mulcahy while he raised twin daughters and continued to make music.
After returning with a new album in 2013, Mulcahy reunited with Polaris for tours in 2014-15, and then Miracle Legion in 2016-17, and resumed releasing solo albums in 2017. “The Gus” is his sixth full-length solo release.
“I’m trying to have a system working where I make as many records as I can, because I spent so long not making records,” says Mulcahy, who now works on multiple projects at once to narrow the gap between releases. He still sometimes comes up against barriers that are out of his control, including manufacturing glitches and a fire that gutted a studio where he had been recording.
Releasing an album usually means touring, which had become a grind for Mulcahy in the years after resuming his career. Lately, though, he’s been feeling refreshed. He credits the change in part to having a new batch of songs to sing, and also to reuniting with his old bandmates in Polaris and Miracle Legion. “Getting back together with those guys, playing again with people I know well and really, really enjoy playing with, that gave me a dose of how good it could be,” he says.
With new albums coming at a steady clip, songs he’s enjoying singing onstage and, thanks to Saunders, license to be vague, Mulcahy is at a high point in his career. As he puts it wryly, “I’m making good decisions, man. I don’t know why.”
With Philip B. Price
At Red Room at Café 939, 939 Boylston St., Boston, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets $16 advance, $18 door, 617-747-2261, www.berklee.edu/cafe939