Scott Mulvahill Reimagines The Narrative Of Singer-Songwriter
It’s the Sunday night of the return of Game of Thrones, and the weather is on and off rain, but inside Rockwood Music Hall in New York City’s East Village an enthusiastic crowd is hanging on Scott Mulvahill’s every note. That’s the affect the Nashville-based Mulvahill has been having on listeners both through his youtube videos—incuding his NPR Tiny Desk Concert—and on this his first national tour, in support of his dazzling, dozen-track debut, Himalayas. Sure, a singer-songwriter who accompanies himself on acoustic bass is novel. But the credit for said devotion goes to his evocative, from-the-heart songs, reach-for-it vocals, and crafty, fill-in-the-band bass lines (Nashville guitarist/vocalist Zach Torres is providing additional support on this run).
Like all great artists, Mulvahill makes what he does look easy and natural. In truth, there’s a litany of endlessly-practiced, precision moves to coordinate the plucks, string and body slaps, counterlines, and vocals that go into songs like the poignant “Fighting for the Wrong Side” and “The Lord Is Coming,” the playful “Top of the Stairs,” the uplighting “Begin Againers” [see complete transcription on page xx], and the sweeping, bowed title track. Add to that the conflict and confusion of loving intricate instrumental music and singer-songwriters equally in his developing years, and having to parlay that into his own artistic vision in the current, crazy musical climate, and indeed, there’s more to Mulvahill than meets the eye and ear.
Born on July 7, 1988 in Friendswood, Texas, Mulvahill recalls he and his brother dancing with his parents in the family living room to oldies on the radio as a favorite early musical memory. When the boys hit their teens, they were asked if they wanted to play guitar. Remembering a friend who had a bass at summer camp, a 14-year-old Mulvahill replied, “How about a bass?” His folks got him an Ibanez Soundgear and he “devoured it,” buying method books and writing tabs for songs he learned. Seeing his interest, his parents sent him to nearby Houston guitar/bass teacher Charlie Lair. He recalls, “Charlie was great, he pushed all of his students to take it to the limit. We would play together and have competitions, and he’d rotate us in the church band. Charlie took me through rock and metal to jazz, where he’d have me learn Miles Davis’ trumpet solos from Kind of Blue [Columbia, 1959] on bass. He introduced me to my to two main influences, Jaco and Victor Wooten.” Lair also encouraged Mulvahill to learn upright bass, which he began at 15, adding the influences of Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, Stanley Clarke, John Patitucci, and Brian Bromberg.
The other key part of Mulvahill’s musical development occurred on a warm summer day. “It was my turn to get on the riding mover and mow the lawn, and I’d found my folks’ copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland [Warner Bros., 1986]. I put it on my Sony Walkman and I freaked out and almost crashed! The lyrics were so impactful, not to mention Bakithi Kumalo’s genius bass lines.” Mulvahill had discovered his second love, and it had nothing to do with the bass: singer-songwriters, like Simon, James Taylor, and Bob Dylan. He joined the choir in his senior year of high school, to get his singing together, and he started writing songs on guitar. “Artists like Civil Wars, the White Stripes, and Glenn Hansard, who scored the Broadway show Once, were big, so that’s the style of songs I wrote.”
With college upon him, Mulvahill considered the top music schools and realized he had the prestigious University of North Texas in his home state. He successfully auditioned on bass, stayed four years, and along the way he met Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, who got him a church gig with keyboard legend Bernard Wright. The stint no only worked wonders for his groove, it enabled him to save money for his next stop, after graduation.
What led you to move to Nashville?
After college, I was contemplating Nashville, New York, or L.A. I visited a friend of a friend in Nashville and stayed with him for a week, and it felt right in my gut. I knew the town had great songwriters on top of great musicians, so that tilted the scales a bit. I moved there soon after, in 2010, and I lucked into a great living situation through a drummer from North Texas; I eventually bought the house and I still live in it. At first I did local jams and gigs, just trying to meet as many people as possilbe, and that led to tours with Chris August and Ben Rector. The fact that I played upright, which fewer bassists there did, also helped. I introduced myself to [Nashville upright studio ace] Byron House and sent him a video I made of me playing Charlie Daniel’s “Billy the Kid” on guitar, electric bass, and arco upright, and we became friends. I’d go over to his place to jam with him and his son, Truman, a drummer. One day I went over and he said, “I don’t know if youre interested, but would you like to play with Ricky Skaggs?” He had sent Ricky my video and that got me an audition. I knew nothing about bluegrass, but I got a list of tunes to learn, was hired, and spent five years in Ricky’s band, which really developed my voice on upright.
What are the main challenges of bluegrass bass?
Where to begin?! The first is the time feel; the music is very on top of the beat, in general. From there it’s subtleties that are never spoken about, like the chorus is at one tempo, and then for the mandolin solo it will jump ten clicks! Fortunately, Ricky—a world-class player and historic part of the genre with 15 Grammys—lays it down so hard you don’t have a choice but to go with him. Second, there are no count-offs on songs, instead they have what they call kicks [an instrumental lick from the song]. So you have to know the banjo kick on beat three of the fourth bar of the phrase in order to know when to come in. And you better know the tempo because you’ll be lucky to catch a foot tap. Usually bluegrass players count in cut time, but if you were going by quarter-notes, a lot of the songs are in the 350bpm range. Fortunately, it’s mostly a two feel on bass. Lastly, there’s very rarely a drummer in bluegrass, so the time falls on you. You’re standing just behind the front line, all in a row, but you better not fall behind the tempo. Ricky was very gracious through my first year of blunders, until I felt I had a good grasp on the gig.
Eventually, you got a feature with Ricky.
What happened was we were on tour with Bruce Hornsby as our guest artist, and he did a version of Jimmy Martin’s traditional bluegrass tune, “20/20 Vision,” that he had recorded with Charlie Haden on Charlie’s album Rambling Boy [Decca, 2008]. Bruce would feature my playing in a long intro and audiences liked it because it was a nice departure from the all the fast tunes. After the tour, one of our featured musicians left the band, which meant a slot had opened, and I got the nerve to ask Ricky if we could do the tune with me as the featured singer. I don’t think he even knew I sang but he said yes. That was a pivotal point for me because it showed me that the concept of bass and voice worked, it made me step up as a vocalist around other great singers, and it gave me the confidence to be a frontman. So I felt had to include a version of it on my record.
Bruce Hornsby also played a role in your songwriting.
That’s right. I had been writing songs and Ricky got hired to play an Americana music cruise, again with Bruce as our guest. I asked him if I could pick his brain about songwriting and he had me come to his cabin. I’ll never forget, I got there and he was practicing Schoenberg on his keyboard. So I played him some of my songs and he said, “Your voice sounds good, your playing is good, and the songs are fine. There’s just nothing interesting about them.” It was difficult in the moment, but it was exactly what I wanted to hear, his honest assessment. He was very encouraging, explaining, “You’re very talented, you have all of these skills, but you’re just emulating stuff. Don’t settle, find the real you—what only you can offer.” Not long after, I wrote “Fighting for the Wrong Side,” my first song for the album, and I sent it to Bruce, and he was so excited, replying, “You fucking did it, man!”
What led you to make the album and what was your was concept?
It was the desire and need to do my own thing, which is why I left Ricky’s band after five years. What can I do with this instrument? What can I offer to the world that no one else can? Every artist has to ask themselves that. My answer was combining my bass playing, singing, and songwriting, while embracing all of my musical influences. I purposely kept the concept simple—mainly my bass and vocals, with some background vocals and a few contributions by other musicians—so I would have room to evolve. Also, the chord progressions I use are fairly basic, but I try to sneak in little harmony nuggets such as passing chords, melodic lines in counterpoint to my vocal, and non-root tones.
You said “Fighting for the Wrong Side” was the first song you wrote for the album, and it indeed establishes your music and lyric approach.
I wrote the main riff on a cello I have at the house to mess around on. Later I adapted it for bass and I fleshed out the song and lyric. To me, the acoustic bass is a very impressionistic instrument; you’re never really in tune, and unlike the piano, you’re giving the impression of something rather than laying it all out. Here, I’m hinting at the chord progession, but most of the time it’s single notes. You can guess at the harmony but it’s not actually there. There’s a power in that approach. When I played the song for Bruce he said liked the sprase style of the song—the writing of the bass part, the melody, and the lyric, and how they don’t give you the whole picture at any point. That suits me on the lyric side, too, as I’m more of a discreet meaning type writer. I’d get comments about the song, interpreting it in different ways, some accusing me of being anti-military. But the song is actually about a relationship. I like having that sense of mystery about the lyric, and leaving space for the listener to interpret it. I’ve found what I connect with in my songs is rarely what someone else connects with. So I just try to make it as truthful and compelling as I can.
“The Lord Is Coming” has had a far reach.
What happened was, I wrote the song with two friends, Alanna Boudreau and Gabi Wilson, at a songwriting retreat in Vermont in 2016. We each released versions on our albums. In the meantime, Gabi, who is known as H.E.R., won two Grammy’s last year, including Best R&B Album. Gabi’s version is on her latest EP, I Used to Know Her: Part 2, and I’m playing bass on the track. I also play on Alanna’s version. So the song has opened a lot of doors for me. Lauren Daigle, who has emerged from the Christian music scene to become a mainstream star, heard me play the tune at a Nashville event and invited me to perform it on tour with her last year.
“Indefensible” has a confessional quality to it.
Yeah, it’s one of the most raw lyrics I’ve written. It’s about the mistakes we make and almost make, and how if you spend so much time at the edge is there much difference between the two? In the last verse the protagonist doesn’t do the deed not because of moral character but because he was a coward. I wrote a fair amount of the song and then realized it was about me! So I guess the song is a confessional. I kept the track to just bass and vocals so there was nothing to hide behind, and you could feel the pain in the lyrics. A friend of mine pointed out that the whole album has a theme of facing fear. That mirrors my life, which has been all about breaking out on my own as a solo artist. I guess I’m heeding my own message. This was also the only track where I recorded the bass and vocal separately. I prefer to record them live together. It results in a less perfect performance but it makes an emotional difference. You can her some of the bleed and a bit of phasing at times, but it sounds more three-dimensional.
Which brings up singing and playing; any tips?
It’s difficult, no doubt, but I encourage it because it’s fun. The only way I could do it at first was to slow everything to a crawl, even figuring out which words land on which notes. I had “Fighting for the Wrong Side” mapped and gridded in 16th-notes, measure by measure. Learning both parts separately is always a good method. Think rhythmically—the rhythm of your words and the rhythm of the bass line; try speaking the words to the bass line before singing them. And before you start, visualize what you want the end result to sound like.
A key part of your sound is hitting the bass percussively.
That came about from looking for new textures to add in my solo performances. I had worked up a cover of “Wake Me Up” [by the late Avicii, 2013] and it needed percussion for a sense of movement, so I tried hitting the body of the bass. The challenge is I have to orchestrate which hand I’m going to use, how and where I’m going to hit it, and how to get back to the strings for the bass line. I’ve developed different moves and I try to be dynamic. I’ll hit the body of the bass with my fist for a kick drum or Cajón sound, the shoulder or the fingerboard for a snare sound, the sides for a knocking sound, and for dynamics, I’ll use two fingers for a lighter touch.
The upright lends itself well to interpreting Ladysmith Black Mambazo vocal melodies on your cover of Paul Simon’s “Homeless.”
I moved the key up from F# to A, to sit better on the bass. That was recorded in Vermont in a less sophisticated setting, with two mikes, and I love the sound I got. I also have twelve people doing background vocals. I do a show where I cover the entire Graceland album.
You break out the bow for “Himalayas.”
I’ve got a long way to go with my bowing, but I’ve gotten better at it from having a fiddle in the house. One of the challenges is you can get hamstrung if you’re bowing in the wrong direction, so you have to pick spots where you play double down or upstrokes to make a passage work. I wrote that song in the mountains of Colorado while on tour with Ricky, and the music flowed from the lyrics. My original intent was to arrange it for a band because of the epic scope of the lyrics, but then I realized it should be a solo piece. I used a bow to give it an ascending feel, and I discovered I could play octaves using harmonics with the bow. There are three overdubbed, bowed parts in the intro, the bridge, and the ending. Between the bowed passages and the percussive hits on the body, I was discovering new techniques to make it all work. It’s everything I can do on the bass, so I play it last in my sets.
How do you see your art evolving?
Well, as I mentioned, I purposely kept the canvas fairly blank on this record so I would have room to grow and develop my vision. I have a lot of ideas going forward about how to keep the core of my sound while dressing it up in various ways, through different textures. I’d like to try adding some MIDI controllers to my upright. I feel like I’ve just begun exploring on my musical journey.
Himalayas [West Sterling Music, 2018]; H.E.R., I Used to Know Her: Part 2 [RCA, 2018]
Basses: 1950 Kay acoustic bass with a French-style bow, “It was once a 5-string, but Nashville luthier Randy Hunt restored it with a new 4-string neck that attaches with a bolt, so I can travel with it in two cases.” 1973 Fender Precision with old, unknown flatwounds
Strings: Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Orchestral medium set
Live: Shure SM98A and Fishman Full Circle Upright Bass Pickup into Avalon U5 DI, through venue monitors; Mesa-Boogie M-Pulse 600 Subway and Powerhouse 2×12 cabinet for electric bass
Recording Himalayas: “On my Kay bass, we used Sony C-800G and AEA R84 mikes up close, an AEA R88 Stereo Ribbon Mic further away for room sound, my Fishman DI, and a Blue Bottle mic for my vocals.”