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Issue Date:  September 8, 2006

Songwriter points to life's mysteries, miracles

By GREG RUEHLMANN
Hoboken, N.J.

It’s late in the evening, and singer-songwriter Bill McGarvey stands at a microphone, his guitar hanging from his shoulder. His band members, the Good Thieves, wait for his cue to play. The cluttered rehearsal space, housed in the second floor of a former wallpaper factory, is strewn with instruments and speakers. Everything could use a thorough cleaning, but McGarvey has added some homey touches. Christmas lights, Captain America figurines, and posters of Bob Dylan and the Beatles add color to the expansive space.

If he wanted, McGarvey could cover these walls with glowing reviews from a musical career spanning two decades. The Philadelphia native’s thoughtful, melodic solo work has been featured in several publications’ year-end best-of lists, earning celebratory album reviews in The Chicago Tribune and Time Out New York, and a profile in The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the 1990s McGarvey caught the attention of music journals such as CMJ when he was a founding member of the acclaimed band Valentine Smith.

NCR Podcasts
NCR Podcasts presents four songs by Catholic singer-songwriter Bill McGarvey. To hear the songs:
Double-click on the icon at left or right click on this link to download: Girl Meets God (3 min. 41 sec.)
Double-click on the icon at left or right click on this link to download: Please Don't Go (3 min. 43 sec.)
Double-click on the icon at left or right click on this link to download: True Blue (3 min. 3 sec.)
Double-click on the icon at left or right click on this link to download: Turn Around (2 min. 53 sec.)
Used by permission. Bill McGarvey 

These makeshift surroundings do not tell the whole story. While McGarvey names Dylan and the Beatles as influences, he could just as easily have decorated these walls with photos of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. These Catholic authors have profoundly shaped McGarvey, who, in addition to his musical pursuits, has served for the last two years as the editor-in-chief of BustedHalo.com, a growing online magazine for “spiritual seekers” in their 20s and 30s.

Raised in a West Philadelphia family where Catholicism forged much of his identity, and where the archdiocesan newspaper “loomed large” over his boyhood, McGarvey studied English at Washington’s Georgetown University, the place where he eventually decided to pursue music full-time. While his songs don’t qualify as liturgical -- McGarvey is as unapologetically rock ’n’ roll as they come -- his art has always had a spiritual dimension. The themes of “Beautiful Mess,” McGarvey’s latest album, are rarely Christian in an overt sense.

“I know as much about making a praise and worship record as I do about building a spaceship,” he said. “And I’ve personally never gotten as much transcendence from church music as I have from an Elvis Costello record.”

Even so, McGarvey’s lyrics often are charged with a sense of spiritual exploration.

“The elements are there,” he said. “I never set out to make a religious record, but if you’re making art about what’s important in life, those beliefs and that longing will come through. More than anything, the language is there, a language to talk about love with.”

Often the spiritual elements emerge in understated ways. Like the great Catholic writers whom he admires, McGarvey doesn’t proselytize. Rather, he points his listeners toward life’s great mysteries and miracles -- such as love and grace -- with subtle care. In his lyrics, questions are frequent and answers aren’t forced. But the questions come from the voice of a believer. McGarvey sees a parallel with Flannery O’Connor’s work in particular.

“In her stories people are haunted by doubt and faith,” he said. “It’s never a Pollyanna kind of faith. It’s one that explores real issues and questions. And the sacred often doesn’t come out in the expected way.”

This sense of earnest exploration was instrumental in bringing McGarvey to Paulist-sponsored BustedHalo.com.

“Between albums I would pick up extra work, and I fell into editing,” McGarvey said. “To my surprise, I eventually realized that being a musician is actually what made me a good fit for editing a magazine like Busted Halo. When I learned … that Busted Halo’s target audience was ‘spiritual seekers,’ I immediately felt at home because that was an area I knew something about and could contribute to. That was essentially what I always felt was a part of my music anyway.”

In the middle of the Good Thieves’ Hoboken rehearsal, McGarvey crouches in front of the soundboard, fidgeting with knobs and adjusting sound levels. He returns to the microphone and counts to four. Immediately, McGarvey and the Good Thieves are off and running -- moving from standstill to spirited in a flash on the strength of a jangling, sunshiny guitar melody. McGarvey cups a harmonica with both hands, raising it to his lips. The harmonica’s notes cut through the band’s sound for a few bars before the instrument is back at his side again.

McGarvey sings: “I still lose my faith, nearly every day. Wonder if I’m still awake at all.”

This is “Turn Around,” one of four pop gems from the tentatively titled “Beautiful Mess” album. “Turn Around” is a quintessential McGarvey tune, showcasing his knack for captivating lyrics and infallible ear for melody. He delivers each line in his weathered, but powerful tenor.

Gary Solomon, a recording engineer who has collaborated with McGarvey for nearly a decade, recognizes McGarvey as a real talent.

“Bill’s an excellent lyricist with thoughtful lyrics,” said Solomon, who has also worked with Bon Jovi and Cher.

“My usual tendency is to get drawn into the music first, then discover the words later,” he said. “But with Bill, it’s different. He has the gift of both.”

Solomon recognized a uniqueness in McGarvey’s lyrics that has carried over to his solo work.

“There’s a spirituality there,” Solomon said. “There’s a deep thoughtfulness and a lot of compassion. As he reflects about himself or his position in his own world, he questions things. And I think as he questions things, he provokes his listeners to question things.”

Between rehearsal takes, McGarvey listens to a CD player on the floor to test the band’s sound against the definitive source, a recording of “Beautiful Mess” that features 14 songs. McGarvey hasn’t finished mastering the record yet, nor has he found a suitor for it, but he is enormously, and justifiably, proud of the work. “Beautiful Mess” bends genres in a remarkably cohesive manner, brandishing everything from slick, horn-heavy arrangements to tender piano ballads. Like McGarvey’s earlier work, the new songs dig their way into the soul and stay there.

It’s a “more personal record,” McGarvey said.

While “Beautiful Mess” will benefit from some additional production, McGarvey does most of the work himself at home, operating under the same motto he used to describe his debut release: “Recorded in the kitchen and mixed in the living room.” The raw, homemade sound pays dividends for McGarvey, showcasing his songs’ honest, intimate feel. But the do-it-yourself approach, coupled with late-night factory rehearsals, flatly dispel the glamorous mystique of the rock ’n’ roll life.

“At first my parents were worried I was searching for one big, long thrill,” McGarvey said with a grin. “But being a musician is hard work. Tedious work. I love it, but if you were an outsider seeing us mix or rehearse all night, you’d probably rather watch paint dry.”

But hard work, tedium and the unpredictability of the music business are challenges McGarvey is willing to endure with a tenacity that stems from his belief that being a musician is a vocation, and a mutable one at that.

“A vocation is something you grow into,” he said. “It’s something you decide continuously, and it changes. It’s like faith in that it’s dynamic.”

For McGarvey, that decision started at Georgetown in the early 1990s. After graduation he moved into a basement apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. At first, he worked as a drummer for multiple local bands, lining up so many gigs that he couldn’t keep the performance schedule straight. Then he secured steady work with an up-and-coming group with a major recording contract and a world of promise. But the band self-destructed.

Fortunately for McGarvey, cofounding the band Valentine Smith in the mid-1990s provided a chance to try a band again, and to indulge his growing passion for songwriting.

“At the time I couldn’t play guitar,” he said. “So I’d come up with these songs in my head, and sing them into my answering machine. I recorded them, and then I’d sing them to my writing partner.”

From this modest start, McGarvey developed into an accomplished songwriter. Valentine Smith toured widely, released three heralded albums, and drew the attention of major labels and leading industry publications. But the members of Valentine Smith called it quits in 2000 after the release of their third album.

“Bands are unnatural organizations,” McGarvey said. “There are so many conflicting, multiple personalities, even in the ones that work out great.”

The breakup motivated him to try a solo act. He began playing small gigs, singing while playing a set of cocktail drums. He learned to play guitar. Within a short time, he invited musician friends to help him bring his own songs to life. In 2003, with the aid of his lineup of Good Thieves, McGarvey released “Tell Your Mother” on his personal label, Thievery Records.

Now McGarvey is hard at work on a follow-up album. He’s making plans for concert dates, and hopes for a tour once the album finds a home. He and the band need some practice before they hit the road, and McGarvey knows there’s a lot of work to be done: rehearsal upon rehearsal, and the task of shopping for a record deal.

There’s also the editorial gig to balance, too. Every day, McGarvey has BustedHalo.com to maintain, articles to write and edit. Spiritual seeking is hard work too, after all. But McGarvey enjoys everything too much to complain. He’s doing exactly what he wants with his life.

“There can be something good and holy in doing what you love,” he said, exuding the joy of someone who has found his calling and grabbed it with both hands.

Greg Ruehlmann is a freelance writer and currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

Related Web sites
Bill McGarvey
www.billmcgarvey.com
Busted Halo
www.bustedhalo.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006

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