Singer-songwriter-guitarist Peter Mayer, performing Friday (May 19) in Olympia, plays soul music of a different kind.
His songs are best categorized as folk, but they’re concerned with matters of the spirit and the sacredness of science, with the beauty in the world and the matter of which it is made.
“There’s no dispute about evolution,” he said in a phone interview last week. “How do we not just begrudgingly accept an idea like evolution but celebrate it and wonder at it?”
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In his song “The Play,” he describes the way the world works as more magnificent and unlikely than all the “fantasies and fairy tales and wishes.”
“ ‘What gives meaning to our life?’ and ‘How ought we to live?’ and all those questions continue to really interest me,” said Mayer of Stillwater, Minnesota. “At the same time, how can we create a relationship with what science is telling us about the story of our lives on Earth, our connection to one another, our connection to the planet, everything from the Big Bang and the universe itself to the story of evolution and the fact that all life is one.
“These are things that have strong spiritual implications, and yet oftentimes, religions run away from some of these ideas.”
His “Holy Now” was chosen as the title selection of the 2006 songbook of Association of United Churches. (Sample lyric: “Wine from water is not so small/But an even better magic trick/Is that anything is here at all.”) His “Blue Boat Home” appears in the supplementary hymnal of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
While he clearly puts a lot of time and thought into his words, Mayer gets as much attention for his musicianship as for his songwriting.
“Mayer’s songs are crafted like Shaker furniture, with no place for superfluous embellishments or throwaway lines,” according to a review in Acoustic Guitar magazine. “Mayer’s fluid, clean and tremendously intriguing guitar playing is topped with warm, rich vocals. This is music for the soul.”
He’s sold 70,000 albums independently through word of mouth, according to his website (petermayer.net), and that is despite what he calls “abysmal promotional skills.” Indeed, he is far from a household name. (One complicating factor: There’s another singer-songwriter-guitarist with the same name who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and tours with Jimmy Buffett.)
“I’m a pretty obscure musician, and it’s interesting because I have been making a living for years doing it, most of my adult life. And I’m 53 now,” Mayer said.
These days, he tours mostly on weekends and focuses on parenting daughters, 5 and 9, during the week, while his wife, Beth, is at work. (He scheduled the interview with The Olympian while the girls were at school.)
He’s been performing at Traditions Café in downtown Olympia once every year or two for at least the past 15 years.
“It’s been a regular place for me,” he said. “I love the place.
“Sometimes when I play Traditions I have a full house and sometimes not quite a full house,” he added. “That gives you a sense of the fact that I am a pretty obscure name in the world of music.”
Mayer grew up Catholic and attended seminary for a few years, but found himself looking for a spirituality that fit with his interest in science and its marvels.
“The scientific method is the most powerful way that’s ever been invented to determine with a good degree of certainty what is true,” he said. “Once I came to understand that process and what it’s been revealing the last few hundred years, that began to challenge a lot of the ideas I had grown up with.”
While he has strong opinions, Mayer doesn’t want to give any sermons. He includes lighter songs and personal stories in his shows along with ones that express his values.
“I write songs that try to help us all, including myself, fall in love with the world, not to point fingers of blame or say how messed up we humans are,” he said. “I do feel that I’m a songwriter on a mission.”
What: The critically-acclaimed Minnesota singer-songwriter-guitarist makes one of his regular appearances at Traditions Café.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (May 19).
Where: Traditions Café & World Folk Art, 300 Fifth Ave. SW, Olympia.
Tickets: $18, $12 for students and those with low incomes.
Information: 360-705-2819, traditionsfairtrade.com.
Listen: “Holy Now,” likely Mayer’s best-known song, can be heard at tinyurl.com/lafqh5y.