To make an anti-fascist record, you must keep kindness and compassion in the foreground. That’s just what singer-songwriter-guitarist Peter Mulvey and SistaStrings (cellist-vocalist Monique Ross and violinist-vocalist Chauntee Ross) did, along with drummer Nathan Kilen. Love Is the Only Thing—out on August 22, 2022—started when the musicians gathered at their beloved Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson, WI to record a live album and a studio one. Live at the Café Carpe was released in October 2020, but the pandemic put the studio album on hold.
The bright light of family illuminates this record and all that went into making it. Its existence hinges on the way we take care of each other, from its fan-supported funding to the sanctuary of Café Carpe to the blood sisterhood of the Rosses to Mulvey’s newfound fatherhood. “This album is basically a happy family song, then a song about how fucked up things are, then a family song, then a song about how fucked up things are,” Mulvey laughs.
Fellow Milwaukeeans SistaStrings bring all the beautiful versatility of their cello and violin music, along with vocal harmonies, to the project. Classically trained string players who grew up singing in church, Monique and Chauntee were destined to defy conventions of genre and race alike, blending R&B, gospel, and classical sounds. In 2022, they performed at the Grammy Awards with Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile, two artists SistaStrings toured with during summer 2022. The Rosses will also be performing with Carlile at a Madison Square Garden concert in October.
Mulvey met the Rosses in 2016, and all three felt an instant kinship. “Peter has been the complete definition of an ally. We found a home in the folk/americana realm when we began working with Peter and that gave our career the direction it was lacking,” says Monique. Making this album at such a tumultuous time in history reinforced their role as activists just as much as musicians. “Finding refuge and rejuvenation in these songs with this group of musicians was healing and personally some sort of mission statement for why we even make music in the first place,” Chauntee remembers.
The album explores loss, tension, and the love that sees us through it. Folk classic “Shenandoah” longs for a kinder America, while “Old Men Drinking Seagram’s” is a snapshot of a small town full of hate. “Soft Animal” offers tender sensuality, while “On the Eve of the Inaugural” finds the narrator turning his care to a baby in a stranger’s car. “Song for Michael Brown” is a humble plea for compassion for Brown and for all of us living with the threat of violence and hate.
Some songs are more focused on the loneliness of the pandemic and its flipside of love and togetherness. “You and (Everyone Else)” addresses the pandemic loneliness and fear for others safety, while “Five Hundred Days” promises a happy reunion. That promise is fulfilled on “First Day of Summer,” a catchy song about a day when it’s safe to hug everybody, wait in line for tacos, and feel free again.
The record finishes with the title track, a Chuck Prophet cover. With jangly acoustic guitar, rousing drumming, bold strings, and an anthemic chorus, this is the sound of musicians having fun together. It’s also a reminder that it’s not easy to make a better world, but ultimately that work reveals our humanity. “Love is a hurting thing/ Oh, but love is the only thing anymore," Mulvey and SistaStrings belt out in the refrain. It’s then abundantly clear that the love songs and the protest songs have been about the same thing all along.