Mark Mulcahy: A Musical Lifeboat

In his 25-year career, Mark Mulcahy has never had a hit, but he's had his successes—opening for Jeff Buckley; getting a chapter in Songbook, Nick Hornby's collection of essays on music; and earning high-profile fans. REM frontman Michael Stipe admits he "took more than a few pages" from the songwriter.

Stipe is one of many singers on Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy. It's what you might call a tribute album, though it's more of a musical lifeboat. Mulcahy's wife, Melissa, died unexpectedly last September, at 41, from causes the family has not disclosed. In addition to Mark, she left behind 3-year-old twin daughters. Losing Melissa meant not only losing his biggest inspiration. He also has no one to care for the girls, which means he can't tour or leave home to record. All the artists on Ciao, including Thom Yorke and Frank Black, donated their recordings so that all royalties can go to Mulcahy. "All of a sudden someone tells you there's this record being made for your sake of your songs by all these people—I'm really humbled," he says.

Mark and Melissa met in 1994, when she saw him performing at the Bay State Hotel in Northampton, Mass. "It was really simple. She said something to me and I looked at her," he says. "We just were very much together after that." It's possible Mulcahy wouldn't have a solo career without her. At the time, his indie band, Miracle Legion, had broken up. Melissa pushed him to start a record label—Mezzotint was born in their apartment, and Mulcahy still uses it. In his 1997 solo debut, Fathering, his songs retained their impishness, but they were also unaffectedly pretty. It's a testament to Mulcahy that the covers rarely match them. Though he undoubtedly wishes there had never been a need for this album at all.