With his ingenious blend of acoustic bass body pats, string pull-offs, harmony-implying pedal tones and double-stops, and counterlines seamlessly fit to his impassioned vocals and introspective lyrics, Scott Mulvahill paints a surprisingly colorful sonic picture for each of his solo-rendered songs. But that doesn’t mean Mulvahill, best known for his stint with bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs before breaking out on his own, isn’t hearing more in his head. That’s the idea behind the Houston-raised, Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s new EP, Surrounded, a follow-up to his landmark 2019 debut disc, Himalayas, and his tuneful second EP, Creative Potential. Mulvahill decided to go slightly bigger for the aptly-named, 6-track Surrounded, adding various chamber-size ensembles to his bass, voice, and guitar work. We reached out to Scott, who opened for Lauren Dagle and Cory Wong before the pandemic, and is is eager to resume his road dates, to get an inside view of his latest effort.
What was your concept for Surrounded?
The musical challenge I’ve faced since my first record is that I play solo most often, and that has a limited range of textures. I try to get as much as I can out of the bass and my voice, but my head is always filled with ideas on how to fill out my songs harmonically, rhythmically, and melodically. That’s what I was trying to accomplish here. Specifically, I had this idea to present my songs in a chamber setting; to augment them via a string quartet, woodwind quartet, and vocal group. In other words, various small, intimate ensembles with arranged parts.
Where did you record and what was your bass setup?
We recorded the EP at Southern Ground Nashville, which is an incredible studio, with a great engineer named Brandon Bell. I played my 1950 Kay acoustic bass, with Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Orchestral medium strings. We used only a FLEA 47 mic on it, no direct pickup or amp signal, and I love the tone we got. Brandon positioned the 47 well, away from my vocal mic. So it’s mainly the 47 and then some bleed from the vocal mic, which I think added some presence and top end to the bass sound.
The opener, “One Way Road,” has an interesting dual feel in your bass line, in addition to it marrying with your vocal.
I wrote the song at the same time that I wrote the bass line, which is why they dance well together. The bass part consists of hitting the body of the bass with my fist, to simulate a kick drum, along with pull-offs, hammer-ons, and plucked notes in-between. There’s a lot of interwoven rhythms, so it takes on a kind of 3 against 4 pulse. The song deals with what-ifs in an alternate universe, so I used shifting key changes between E and F to capture that feeling. The problem is when I go to F I lose all of my open strings. That meant having to hammer a low F from nothing, which is quite a physical task, even with my fairly low action.
How about the choice of a woodwind quartet?
I thought it would be fun to do something rare. I can’t think of another song I’ve ever heard that consists of flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, bass, and voice. I asked my friend Melvin “Maestro” Lightford, who is from Nashville and now lives in L.A., to do the arrangement. I gave him the spirit and direction I had in mind and we’d go back and forth, as he composed the parts. One thing I learned is the difference between the sound of the MIDI mockups and the real woodwinds in the studio. It’s like cleaning a dirty mirror!
“I Don’t Need Her Love” has a similar call and answer vocal and bass beginning, with woodwinds waiting in the wings, but it unfolds differently.
I originally wrote that with Beth Nielsen Chapman on our guitars as a basic three-chord song. It paints the picture of someone bitter and delusional. Then I revisited it and I wrote new chord changes and added an out-of-left-field modulation for the bridge. Beth got a kick out of what I’d done to it, but she provided the original spark. I came up with the bass line later, to compliment the vocal. And for the woodwinds, I took a jazzier, almost big band approach, having Maestro arrange for bassoon, tenor sax, and two alto saxes. Evan Cobb, who is a monster saxophonist here in Nashville, takes a killer tenor solo.
Your bass and your guitar are impeccably intertwined on “No One Anyway.”
I wrote the song on guitar and then I had the bass and guitar work together to drive the song, with the bass on the downbeats and the guitar on the upbeats. It has a fairly bright pulse but it still has the feeling of rejection, which was my goal because it’s a painful song about a forgotten lover. I also took on the challenge of doing the string quartet arrangement, mostly by following my ear. My approach was to spread out the chord voicings more widely in the higher moments and shrink them down to clusters or unisons in the more intimate moments, for dramatic effect. And in the final verse I switch to pizzicato for a little color contrast and playfulness.
What led you to cover “Up Above My Head,” the gospel standard by Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
In 2019, I saw an old video of Tharpe playing the song in front of a huge choir, while wailing away on a Gibson SG, and it blew me away. She’s an unsung pioneer of rock and roll who was right there with Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Soon after, I was traveling in Italy and my friends Lovesick Duo invited me to do their podcast. That song was swimming in my brain and I only had an hour to prepare to perform it, but somehow under pressure I was able to come up with an arrangement, including a new feel, new changes, a complimentary bass part using harmonics, and additional lyrics in the style of the song. When I was putting the EP together I wanted a track with a vocal group and I thought my arrangement of the song would be perfect. I reached out to the amazing Richmond, Virginia vocal trio Resound, who I’d met while I was on tour with Lauren Dagle, and Maestro did the vocal arrangement.
“Say I Love You” is just voice, guitar, and strings, and the EP closer, “The Here and the Now,” is just voice and strings.
I wrote “Say I Love You,” partly with Beth Nielsen Chapman and partly with Ben Shive, on guitar and piano, and I never tried to adapt it as a vocal and solo bass piece. I didn’t want to add anything busy behind the vocal because it’s all about the depth of the lyric, which addresses relationships and the choices we make to not be selfish and to care for each other. It sounded more open and vulnerable with guitar and strings only.
I wrote “The Here and the Now” with a buddy at the last minute and snuck it on the EP because it fit the project so well, and also because I didn’t know where else I would use it. The song is about the realization that our path in life is short, and appreciating and valuing what we have. It was written during the quarantine, when losing the world as we know it for a period of time made me think about how there are many good things in our lives. I was ready to put other instruments on the track but I thought first I’ll arrange the strings like there’s going to be nothing else on it, so that it floats in the air, grounded by the vocal. It was a challenge to make the string quartet accompaniment coherent enough that you feel the time, yet not have the parts be too rhythmically binding. I liked the way it came out, so I left off the other instruments.
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