Trey Anastasio has released his first-ever solo acoustic album, Mercy, on Friday, March 11. The album, produced Bryce Goggin and Robert “rAab” Stevenson was engineered and mixed by Mike Fahey.
Music journalist David Fricke shared in the album’s liner notes, “Mercy is a genuine and surprising first for Trey Anastasio: his studio debut as a solo, acoustic singer-songwriter. The nine songs were all written in the emotional ricochet of recent, pandemic life, then recorded with the absolute purity of one man with a guitar and a microphone. There is nothing like it in Anastasio’s lifetime of albums, even after nearly four decades as the singer, guitarist, and primary composer in Phish, numerous side projects, collaborations, and the long-running Trey Anastasio Band.”
Anastasio shared “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
The past two years of fear, loss, and, at times, devastating quiet have been unlike anything many have ever known. Mercy is Anastasio’s account of that confusion and isolation in unresolved questions and conflicted passions, in a music of quietly gripping force.
Mercy also arrives just weeks after Anastasio recorded it and two years, nearly to the day, since New York City went into lockdown. Anastasio adds, “Mercy is like a bookend. It’s two years since we went into hiding. This is still going on, and it’s an even lonelier trip.” Even with the release of the Phish studio album Sigma Oasis in April 2020; Anastasio’s ‘Beacon Jams’ charity concerts later than fall, and Phish’s return to the road in the summer of 2021, Anastastio still looked inward as he wrote these songs. “Here I was, still at home, playing acoustic guitar. I thought, ‘These songs just want to be one guy with a guitar, singing.'”
The roots of Mercy go back further, to Anastasio’s first tours as a solo, acoustic performer, starting with three shows in 2017, followed by longer runs in 2018 and 2019, highlighted by a sold-out two-night stand at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall. The setlists were largely made up of Phish songs stripped to their chord progressions, signature licks, and vocal melodies.
But I found this weird thing happening, where “Maze” worked on acoustic guitar. Who would have thought that? It’s about the jam, the organ solo. Turns out it wasn’t. It was about the lyrics and the music.Trey Anastasio
In June 2021, Anastasio played his first shows for live fans in more than a year, with a week of solo, acoustic gigs in Saratoga Springs, and a pair of shows at the Beacon Theatre. The songs again were mostly from the Phish catalog, but the emotional exchange was, per Anastasio, “like a direct path from my heart to the audience. The honesty and simplicity of those shows – without it, this album would not have happened.”
As noted in the press release, Anastasio plays on Mercy a custom-designed guitar, hand-crafted from century-old wood by a luthier in Burlington, Vermont. McConnell commissioned the instrument as a birthday gift, presenting it to Anastasio last fall during a Phish rehearsal at the Barn. “That was the turning point,” Anastasio declares. Back in New York, “I’d get up early every day, make coffee and write these songs on that guitar.” Then while recording Mercy, “The decision was made very quickly: ‘Let me double the guitar.’ I was listening to the first take on headphones and playing off it. It was like jamming with myself.”
Mercy comes with long, deep echoes: Laurel Canyon’s golden age of woodsmoke and introspection; the confessional streak running through Britain’s folk revival in the late Sixties; the slow-dance spell and modal-guitar inventions of Joni Mitchell. A future waits in here too. “Definitely,” Anastasio replies right away when asked if he can imagine playing these songs with Phish or TAB, improvising in the psychedelic glow of “6 and 1/2 Minutes” or building on the eccentric guitar ride at the end of “Arc.” “Songs are like children,” he says. “They will tell you what to do. But when I was writing these songs, I thought, ‘I have to go direct to the finish line’ – to be able to play these songs on acoustic guitar first.”
He mentions a favorite quote that goes back to Leonardo da Vinci: “Art lives by constraint.” Mercy “is a perfect example,” Anastasio says. “One mic, one stool, one guitar. It’s a new outlet. And I love it.”