Talk about pursuing challenging occupations: Trenton native Phil McAuliffe has had plenty of experience as a struggling musician and freelance photographer.
Yet he is lucky to have found a comfortable level of success with two of his passions and will be playing bass and singing backup vocals with David Brahinsky and the Roosevelt String Band on Sunday, February 23, at Morven in Princeton.
A bassist, guitarist, and singer-songwriter, McAuliffe was born in Trenton and raised in Allentown. His late father, Charles, was an architect and visual artist. His artist mother lives in Browns Mills and works with horses and paints.
“Maybe even more so than my father, my mother really supported my musical career all along,” McAuliffe says during a recent interview. “I wasn’t very good at first, but they both supported me.”
About the same time the music bug bit him, so did the photography bug. Initially, his interest was in photographing musicians and getting to hang out with national touring acts backstage.
“I started photography as a hobby as a teenager and began going to concerts. I began doing some freelance work for the Mercer Messenger. The editor’s name was Wayne Davis. He used to get me press passes for concerts. I’d go down to the Spectrum in Philly. Some of the times I was more interested in getting backstage,” he says.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s he did a lot of work as a roadie, sound man, and light man for various Trenton-area bands, including those of veteran Hamilton guitar teacher and studio owner Ernie White. His interest in photography really took off while he was attending Mercer County Community College.
“I was in my 20s when I was photographing a lot of these bands and getting to meet them. It was very inspirational. It was everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Allman Brothers to Genesis. I got to see Led Zeppelin on one of their tours, so that inspired me. I picked up the guitar mainly to write songs.”
He says he also played bass and got into some garage bands.
McAuliffe, whose wife, Cathy, works in the insurance business, lives in the Mercerville section of Hamilton. He cites everyone from Tom Petty to Bruce Springsteen to Heart to newcomer country artist Chris Stapleton as his songwriting influences, but more recently he has discovered the beauty of traditional American folk songs.
He says his first big break as a struggling musician came with a trio called Rox from the Princeton area. “Andy Haley and Brian Jeffries used to play with Montana Mining Company. I was lucky enough to get in a band with these guys, and I learned so much.” The band’s venues included John & Peter’s in New Hope and the Tin Lizzie Garage in Kingston.
He moved to Clearwater, Florida, for a time with Rox and then got involved with a Miami-area band called Lix, which had a big following on Miami’s vibrant club scene back in the mid-1980s.
“While I was in Florida I started doing freelance photo work for local paper north of Fort Lauderdale, and they were about to start flying the space shuttle again [after the Challenger disaster in 1986], and I had driven up the coast to see that launch. I managed to get a press pass to see the next launch.”
There, he met photographer Scott Andrews, who worked with Nikon at the Space Center, “and we ended up doing a lot of remote photography,” he says.
“That whole experience got me seriously into photography. There were so many professional photographers around. You could go to the bookstore and find their books and there they were, working next to you at Kennedy Space Center. I got into photojournalism and kept doing that, and that ended up being my career outside of music.”
Once he came back to the area he found a job at the Princeton Packet and worked there for two decades, finally as photo editor, while continuing to go back to the space center in Florida for additional freelance work. His big break with photography came in 2005 when he hooked up with an agency, Polaris Images, in New York.
While his musical career may appear to have entered dormancy while he was working at the Packet, he says he has never stopped writing his own songs. Finally, just a few years ago, he released a debut disc of his own songs, accompanied by some of the top-shelf musicians from the Trenton-Princeton corridor. His disc, “The Great Road,” of all original songs, was recorded at White’s home studio in Hamilton and released in 2017.
Of Sunday’s matinee gig at Morven, McAuliffe says the Roosevelt String Band is basically David Brahinsky’s baby.
It is named for the small, politically active Monmouth County borough launched as a workers cooperative in the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression.
The performance complements Morven’s current exhibition, “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey.”
Says McAuliffe: “I met David years ago when I was photographing him for the Princeton Packet. I told him I played bass, and I ran into him a year or so later at an Arlo Guthrie concert at McCarter. I saw him in the lobby, and he asked if I would be interested in joining him for a gig, and I‘ve been playing with him ever since.”
“I was pretty much ready to quit playing bass, but he began teaching me a lot of these old folk songs. One of the things that opened my eyes, writing-wise, was that these folk songs had amazing lyrics. So I kept writing new songs, and since the early 2000s I’ve come up with a whole new catalog of originals.”
Aside from Brahinsky on lead vocals and guitar and McAuliffe on fretless electric bass, the Roosevelt String Band includes Guy DeRosa on harmonicas, Paul Prestopino (son of the late Roosevelt artist Gregorio Prestopino) on acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and a variety of other instruments, and sometimes Noemi Bolton on acoustic guitar and short-neck banjo.
“With Roosevelt String Band, David will always pick new material, so it’s basically a new set list every time we play,” he says, noting the band has done themed shows with the songs of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and others.
Of his own disc, “The Great Road,” which he sells at the smaller coffee house gigs he has come to appreciate, he credits White with a phenomenal job producing the album.
“I’ve got some good players on the record: Steve Mosely, a drummer who plays with David Bromberg, he’s great; I played bass and sang; and Guy DeRosa plays some harmonica; and then Jeff Gunther and Paul Prestopino played on some tracks. Lisa Bouchelle sings with me on a few tracks, and that’s like comparing my rusty nail voice next to a diamond.”
Sunday’s show at Morven “will be a variety of folk music by a variety of artists, most of them pretty well-known.” Appropriately so – no folk music purists here — Brahinsky and others involved in Roosevelt String Band assume a broad definition of folk music. Sunday’s repertoire will include tunes by Bill Withers, Johnny Cash, Chris Smither, Eric Andersen, Tom Waits, Stan Rogers, and older traditional tunes like “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” “Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”
Looking back on what is now more than four decades in music and photography, McAuliffe says there is a connection between the two art forms. As a photographer, he has won awards for photos from 9/11, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Superstorm Sandy, and Kosovo refugees in 1999.
“For me the connection with music and photography is I’ve written a lot of songs based on experiences I’ve had as a photographer. I’ve seen a lot of things first-hand that most people maybe only would see on TV. I’ve been there, so there are a lot of songs I’ve written that touch on or were influenced by these events.”
Roosevelt String Band, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Sunday, February 23, 2 p.m. $10. The exhibition “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt” is on view through May 10. Wednesdays through Sundays, $8 to $10. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.