Have Mercy! A Residency Turns One

Every single thing I do, I question daily whether or not it’s worthwhile to make art. And I always come to the conclusion that it is. - Paul Belbusti

On July 29, 2016, Mercy Choir frontman Paul Belbusti and his band kicked off a residency at Never Ending Books on State Street, a small, seldom-open bookstore that has served as a makeshift campaign headquarters, impromptu gallery space, and improviser’s collective in the past two years. 

With New Haven duo Swamp Yankee (Danny Ravizza and John Longyear) and soloist Danielle Capalbo (of Quiet Giant), the group drenched the small space in sound, a quirky melange of cello and reverb, fingerpicking and yearning-filled vocals. Then, they packed up, and went home with no idea of how long the residency would actually last. 

But it has -- at least for a year. 12 months in, Belbusti took a few minutes to reflect on the past year, and the future of the residency. Here’s what he had to say when The Arts Paper caught up with him, as he took his lunch break in the band's Shelton Avenue rehearsal space.  

Okay, So you’re one now. Did you think you would make it to a year? What was the thinking there, when you started?

It was like, well, we'll see. I wasn't sure if there would be enough interest from the audience standpoint. I also wasn't sure what kind of a life I wanted it to take. In March [of 2016],  Lys Guillorn and I had done the Wobbling Roof Revue for four Fridays, and that was the inspiration for the residency. The last night of the revue, I said : “Wow, this is so much easier than trying to book shows.”

I was kind of tired of it. I wanted a place where we had something to do every month, where we had a reason to practice every month. We [Mercy Choir] have six members, so it gives us a reason to rejigger things. It kept us on our toes and it continues to keep us on our toes. it exceeded our expectations in a lot of ways. 

Was a sense of variety really important to you, coming out of the Revue?

It’s not out of the ordinary for me to invite different openers who seemingly have nothing to do with us, or the other opener. I have a great relationship with the folk community, the avant garde community, for instance. Those are all pretty disparate people who don't necessarily play together in the same circle, but now they do … The way that its [that sense of variety] been preserved is one of the best things about the residency.

What about getting audiences to show up?

It’s difficult that no one — including me — knows what Never Ending Books is.

Like, existentially?

Yes. But also something that has been an interesting little quirk is its also obscured by a giant tree. So it's kind of metaphysically and spiritually hidden, but also physically hidden. 

It’s really an ideal place in that way, and I feel like its likely that it won't be around forever, so I think the community should take advantage of it while it can. 

You think it’s going to go away?

I mean that in the sense that most DIY [Do It Yourself] spaces and most community spaces end up disappearing because of capitalism. 

How do you think the series has changed and grown?

It’s changed a lot in that I think the word’s gotten out. A lot more people that I don’t know are showing up, which is really nice, that’s a happy thing. I think we have the … we almost have figured out how many cables to bring, and how many microphones to bring, and Mercy Choir’s gotten better

Let’s go back for a second. You were talking about the importance of community spaces. You play a guitar that has Resist written on it. Especially now — do you feel like having those spaces is any more important?

Absolutely. I think that as cities gentrify and as art is devalued in our society, having a community space that is just a place where art and community happens is increasingly rare, unfortunately. But we are lucky to have a few of them in New Haven, and this is certainly my favorite one. 

Staying on that thread — last year at this time, the Democratic National Convention had just ended in Philadelphia, and I think we all thought it was going to turn out differently. Do you feel that shift in everything you do, including your music?

You mean in the sense of the administration that we’re dealing with?

Yeah. This was a politically shitty week, rolling back a lot of rights for a lot of people.  

It’s been a shitty week. It’s been a shitty year, in a lot of ways. Every single thing I do, I question daily whether or not it’s worthwhile to make art. And I always come to the conclusion that it is. In fact, one of the most worthwhile ways to resist the disregard for art is probably to make more of it. 

What’s next for the group, and the residency?

Well, every month of the residency right before the show, I say: “Okay, that's enough of this.” And then, the minute the show is over, I say: “That was so great, let's keep doing this.” I'm booked until December, soI figure well keep going. 

Is it going to feel different? Like, do you want it to feel different?

As much as I want there to be something radically new, it always is radically different. As soon as we [Mercy Choir] sit down for one month, we have to start figuring out something for the next. No matter what we do it ends up being pretty different from the last time, and pretty unique.

And Swamp Yankee and Danielle?

If it goes another year, I'll have them back on the second anniversary. I think that they're both amazing acts, and amazing for the community.