In today’s music landscape, especially with artists facing a need to recover some ground from what they lost during the height of lockdown and loss of live performances, a pressure often arises to compose, record, and release anything remotely interesting that comes to mind so that there is something for fans connect with amid the still shaky resumption of live shows. Some artists have opted to take up this hustle-based approach in order to get back into the swing of the typical release cycle as quickly as possible. However, for others like New York singer-songwriter Pete Mancini, the decision to write and release with both purpose and circumstantial sensibility in mind remains a factor of centralized importance. This is no more evident than with his decision to release two new singles, “Old Wooden Cross” and ‘Potter’s Field,” with non-commercial purposes in mind and no intent to rush to immediately push them into the background in favor of a larger, more commercially oriented project.
The two songs, which were put together in a Mississippi studio during the peak of the pandemic’s difficulties last summer, tell two separate and distinct stories. Mancini, who has thrived in the folk, Americana, and roots, music space for several years now, has carved out a reputation for himself as a storyteller. That said, his style of musical delivery in arrangement often gives equal weight – both in creative contribution and dynamic presence – to the element of his backing band, as much as it does his lyricism and vocal performance. Here though, with “Old Wooden Cross” and “Potter’s Field,” there’s a sense of restraint on each song, with the melodies and sonic spaces for both being given room to breathe. That’s not to say that with these songs Mancini is focusing on propping himself up in a vain way. Rather, given the kinds of stories being told – one a historical tale based on a real-life possession and the other a tale inspired by something learned and a reflection on that new understanding – there’s an embrace and prioritizing of the stories, their characters, and especially their settings, more so than usual and the reason for that is based around reflective encouragement more than Mancini’s own performative priority. This selfless intention takes on even more appreciation when coupled with the understanding that “Potter’s Field” is a song Mancini co-wrote with Travis McKeveney – a good friend and fellow singer-songwriter who recently passed away – during a session where the pair were bursting with creative energy.
“Old Wooden Cross” is inspired by a story my friend told me about a cross he had hanging in his home. “[Meanwhile,] Potter’s Field’ started with a writing prompt,” Mancini explains.“We wrote [the latter] at Travis [McKeveney’s] old apartment in Brooklyn. He said he learned about a potter’s field being a place to bury vagrants and criminals, and we just wrote it right there. Both are story songs. “Old Wooden Cross” is inspired by real events. “Potter’s Field” is a work of fiction.”
There’s less melodic hustle and less sonic bells and whistles to compete with the imagery Mancini is laying before listeners and this allows for more thoughtful and less hurried consideration of everything happening in each song. The relaxed melodies and comfortably conventional chord progressions in “Old Wooden Cross” are a prime example, as it’s easy to fall into where Mancini will go next with the melody and find oneself humming along, even if one hasn’t heard the whole song before. Having a melodic and harmonic structure that leans into conventional resolution ensures the notes themselves aren’t demanding to be the focus, thus allowing attention to go to the story. This aspect of both single is really delightful in the respect that the added ability to simply latch onto the end of a melodic phrase and join in, really highlights the communal element of folk performance and connection. Listening to either really bolsters that feeling and gives the music a sense of actionable consequence, rather than seeing any of Mancini’s stylistic or creative choices as ones he made solely for their musical aesthetic.
I’ve got an old wooden cross, that nearly got lost
but it made it through the second World War.
It still shines a light, through the darkest of nights
And I’ve got it hanging on my door
–Lyrics from “Old Wooden Cross”
At the same time, the sonic structures of both songs weren’t designed to be fully bare acoustic presentations, offered in the style of traditional oral recollections either. In this way, each track manages to walk the line of nodding to old fashioned folk delivery and more modern arrangement and production for entertaining enhancement. Listening to each, there’s enough appreciation of the foundational core of folk’s storytelling roots that it’s incredibly easy to settle in and give Mancini one’s full attention, so as to find out what the end of each tale will bring. Yet, Mancini doesn’t make it solely his responsibility to manifest each story in full with his guitar and voice alone. One can come for the intriguing tales and stay for the colorful sound that supports them. The production style applied to the songs complements the decision to leave lots of open space around both melodies. By dressing the vocals and the instrumentation – particularly the more naturally malleable tones of pedal steel and softly rippling cymbals – in enough polished reverb to prevent the songs from feeling too rough, jagged and lo-fi but not doing much past that, the overall sonic quality of the music doesn’t take away from the intimate storytelling atmosphere Mancini is looking to cultivate and the end result is an well executed shift in musical hierarchy that still feels very much aligned with Mancini’s established style.
Mancini accomplishes all of this subtle and appreciable artistry without an underlying current of forced urgency or commercial influence pushing him along. And this ultimately serves as a nice reminder of the natural place music has in everyday life, removed from the often artificial forces implemented by an industry that frequently leads to undue hardship on one’s mental health. It’s more than fitting for a folk-minded artist like Mancini and this mindset toward music is a creative detour more artists could stand to make time and space for, both in the interest of the art itself and their own well-beings amid the unyielding tides of the music business.
Old Wooden Cross / Potter’s Field is available now.
Find it on Bandcamp.
All proceeds from Potter’s Field will be donated to Backline, a non-profit focused on connecting music industry professionals and their families with mental health and wellness resources, including research, group-based, and individualized support. To learn more, visit backline.care