Nashville-based standing bassist turned singer-songwriter Scott Mulvahill takes time out of his touring schedule to join us at Lo/Cal Coffee and Market in Santa Monica, CA to discuss his debut album Himalayas, how his experience playing with the famous Ricky Skaggs has shaped him as an musician, and his thoughts on music streaming from an artist and a consumer standpoint.
So to start us off, you’re riding the highs of your debut album Himalayas.
Scott Mulvahill: Yeah!
Congratulations! That’s a huge step!
Scott: Thank you!
For those who still have yet to discover it, would you care to share the kind of themes and instrumental elements that you’ve included in the album?
Scott: Of course! I would say that the album is pretty much a statement of what I can do in terms of the concept of writing and singing while playing upright bass. I play other instruments too, but when I first started putting my songs together, I was doing them on the upright bass. So I had been a bass player first, and then a songwriter, and then a guitar player. I would write songs and kind of copy my heroes from there because most of them play guitar. I was obsessed with The Beatles and Paul Simon, but then also Jack White and Jeff Buckley. I was writing that way early on, but then I kind of had a light bulb moment in the last few years where it was like, ‘Bass is my best instrument, I should try to write on this.’ And so, with putting out an album with this concept as my first release, I tried to leave it pretty sparse. I tried to make it a statement of what can be done with just the bass and the voice. Some songs have other instruments too, but overall it’s intentionally bare bones.
And sometimes you need that kind of aspect that goes straight from the roots and then is built up.
Scott: Right! With this, I was able to do whatever I wanted to make sure that the core sound is established and then dress it up in cool ways if I wanted to. In fact, there’s a lot of different kinds of records I think would be fun to make while still keeping the core of it and having the chance to test other elements.
Yeah! I mean, sometimes the simplistic things are what work best. Like you said, you could play off of anything you want to add on.
Scott: Yeah, but not too much at one time. *laughs*
Of course. *laughs* So which song would you say was your favorite to write and then to record?
Scott: For writing I would probably say “Fighting For The Wrong Side,” because it was one of the earliest songs I wrote on the album as well as the first song that I wrote on the bass. That song in particular was definitely fun and interesting to write because it was also a challenge for me. I personally enjoyed the challenge because when I started writing this tune, I hadn’t tried to play and sing the way I do now. In the music itself, there’s a lot of things happening on the bass that are sort of countering the voice. While they sort of interact, they were not playing the same thing that I was singing. It was sort of like when you’re playing piano and you have a bass line here and then a counterpoint in the melody there. And so, for me with writing that song, it was really difficult because I was like, ‘How can I actually perform this?’ At the beginning I just didn’t have the skill yet to perform it and make it seem like second nature, but over time I learned how to perform it comfortably. My favorite song to record was “Gold Plated Lie.” I got in the studio with my buddies in, gosh, I don’t know, late 2015 to start on the new record. Yeah, the record has been in the works for a couple of years. *laughs* Doing the band songs were really really fun. It’s just a great experience to not only get to record with people, but to play live with people. There’s a community aspect to it. So “Gold Plated Lie” was definitely one of the more fun ones to record. When we initially tracked for this album, we recorded fifteen songs in two days.
Holy moly that’s a lot!
Scott: *laughs* Yeah. I ended up re-recording a few of them and then added some other songs, so there are some that didn’t make it onto this one.
Totally understandable. I mean, it was a lot at once, but you were still able to pick and choose which ones that you thought would work best together. And now you have other songs for the future!
Scott: That’s true! You know, the recordings that I didn’t use are actually still really good. So it’s not like they couldn’t be something eventually. Maybe what I’ll do is if I ever were to do a deluxe version of Himalayas, I might put them on there, especially because it’s a debut. I made other records in the past, but it’s a debut of this concept and for this kind of sound that I’m playing now. It’s a big marker of my whole career in life, so I could see at some point doing a re-imagined version with arrangements of the songs and then some of the b-sides.
Yeah! So if you could choose one song to do a music video for right now at this very moment in time and had an unlimited budget, which song would you choose to do and what would your concept be?
Scott: That’s such a great question. I wish I was more of a visual person because I think way more in terms of music and lyrics as opposed to visual concepts. *laughs* As far as doing a video, I definitely wish I had some great ideas, so what I would do is hire a really great director and let them dream it. I know that’s cheating the question. *laughs* I’d probably choose “Gold Plated Lies,” the same same song that was really fun to record, because it’s more uptempo and kind of a rocker. I think that song could use a good music video.
And directors sometimes are not cheap, so that’s good for the budget to come into play.
Scott: Exactly. I’ll get a good director and editor, and then Jude Law will be starring in it. *laughs*
See, you’ve got some ideas in there! *laughs* So you’ve gotten to tour with the iconic Ricky Skaggs for the past few years. What made you decide to start your own solo journey?
Scott: You know, even when I joined Ricky’s band, I knew that I had to eventually do my own thing. When I got offered that job, it was just perfect timing. It was definitely a huge blessing to get this opportunity to make a living in music and to be able to learn a lot from him, especially in a style that I wasn’t familiar with, which would be bluegrass. It allowed me to grow a lot in the five years that I spent in his band, but there was just this point where the time was ‘right’ to go and do my own thing. I had finished the Himalayas album, and it was sitting there waiting in the wings for awhile. I left at the end of 2017 because at some point I was like, ‘Ok, I either need to do this now, or I will probably never leave.’ Some of the guys in the band would stay for like fifteen years, so there’s definitely guys in the band that had grown up in the band. They started when they were around nineteen, and then left when they were thirty-four or thirty-five. Their whole adulthood was spent there, and that’s amazing and all, but I knew that I wasn’t meant to stay that long. I am definitely grateful for the time I had and there’s no end to the list of good things that that job did for me.
Yeah! It really was a great opportunity that I’m sure opened a lot of doors for you.
Scott: Yeah! And it’s a part of my story now, you know? I love Ricky and I’m so grateful to him. I actually saw him recently when I got to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. I had played it like over 100 times with Ricky, so I had been there many many times. But getting to play that show for the first time with my own music was just a whole other experience. Ricky was actually the host of the night when I was there, so it was just this perfect full circle thing. That’s definitely something I will always look back on and cherish.
And speaking of playing shows, if you could do a world tour and bring three artists to go with you, who would they be and what would the name of your tour be?
Scott: Wow! I would say Paul Simon because he’s my favorite artist. It’s so ridiculous to even say that, but it’s my dream tour so I get to pick whoever I want. *laughs* So definitely Paul. And then I mentioned Jack White earlier, so I think it would be cool to tour with him. That would be a weird concert because my music is nothing like his, but he’s just an animal and he has this raw energy thing that I just find so compelling and great. And then let’s see, number three. Me, Paul Simon, Jack White, and…you know, a band that’s really inspiring to me is Punch Brothers. They’re like bluegrass, but not bluegrass exactly. They’ve taken bluegrass instruments and infuse it with unique songwriting, classical music elements, just all the bells and whistles. When I heard them in concert, the only way describe it is that it’s like hearing music for the first time. It’s cheesy I know, but you’re just in awe and wonder the whole show. *laughs* So yeah, I would say Punch Brothers, Paul Simon, Jack White, and then me. You know what, let’s just say that’s going to happen someday!
I’m sure you’ll be able to find the audience that likes all of them! *laughs*
Scott: Yeah, I’m sure I can convince those three artists to come on tour. That would be something. *laughs*
And what would you name your tour?
Scott: Oh yeah! Let’s see, I think the Punch Brothers, Jack and I would probably just be worshiping Paul Simon the whole time, so it’d be the ‘Paul Simon Fanboy Tour featuring Paul Simon.’ When we go out on stage it’d be like, ‘Here’s fanboy number one: Scott!’ And the it would be Jack and then the Punch Brothers and then Paul. So yeah, come to the Fanboy Tour! We kick off in L.A. 2020! *laughs*
Alright! Let’s get you in contact!
Scott: Yeah! We’ll be playing the Hollywood Bowl!
Of course! As you should. The Hollywood Bowl or The Greek.
Scott: I’ll take either! *laughs*
So I have to ask, why the choice to incorporate the standing bass as a part of your musical identity as opposed to the standard bass?
Scott: What’s funny is I actually started on the electric bass as my first instrument. Part of the way I play the upright is influenced by the electric bass, because a couple of my big musical heroes were bass players like Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke. I got into their music as a bass guitar player, but they’re all electric players too. Eventually I was just playing so much upright bass that it became more of my voice. I felt like I had more of a personality on it, you know? I’m good at electric bass, like, I could play it well, but I think I just had more of a natural style with the upright. It felt like there was more actual music coming out of me on that instrument versus what I can play on the electric bass. It’s just such a rich, big sound that even just one note carries a lot of weight. It has this whole world unto itself with interesting textures between the way the harmonics speak and the way you can slide between notes. There’s just a lot of a lot of character to the instrument and you have more of a full sound in the body’s acoustic chamber where you can hit it and use it as a percussion instrument, which I do on certain songs. But the other great thing is that I can just show up anywhere and play acoustic. At a show I’ll generally have a P.A. or something, but if I was just, you know, in your living room playing a song, I don’t need an amp. It’s a huge pain to carry those around too because they’re big. *laughs*
I know the struggle of setting up live music. *laughs* So what are some of your thoughts on the prominence of social media marketing and music streaming in the modern music industry?
Scott: I think this is probably true of any era of music, but I think it’s easy to think like, ‘Oh, this person is more popular and has more impact than me.’ That’s still very true today. I’m not a huge artist yet, so the one bummer about social media is that it literally puts a number on how popular you are. That’s fine and all, but I also think psychologically it’s really tough. I kind of don’t want to know, and I think it would be a healthier if I didn’t know because it’s easy to get obsessive about building that following. In today’s world, you do what you can to build it so that people are going to hear you. And with social media, that’s just where a lot of people share big parts of their lives. They’re going to find you online because they’re online, but no matter what, you’re always going to have to meet people where they are. That was true thirty years ago and is still true now. Even if you advertise on a billboard, it’s all the same stuff just in a different package. Instead of some big thing for you to pass by on the road, it’s now in your pocket and on your screen. I think the challenges are about the same. You worry about putting out good stuff and hopefully it’ll help you to rise to the top regardless of the ways people get it. Now, I get both sides of the Spotify fuss because you just don’t make as much money when a million people listen your song versus a million people buying your song. Obviously you’re gonna make more if they’re buying it, a lot more. But on the other hand, as a listener and a music consumer, I love Spotify. It’s so great because it makes it convenient and it makes the entry barriers lower to enter in order to find something to check out. Like, if somebody recommends an album, I’m more likely to listen to it on Spotify before I drive out to the store and spend $13 or $20 on it. Even on iTunes I think it’s still like ten bucks per album.
Yeah. You can’t just buy albums all day and you definitely can’t guarantee on getting your money back.
Scott: Right. And that’s why I think people are consuming music more than ever because it’s easier now. If somebody recommended something you might love, you can find it online rather than try to find a record store that has it. As a consumer I really love Spotify, so there’s no point in trying to judge whether it’s good or bad.
It’s like, it’s there and it works. Can it be better? Yes, absolutely. But does it work for a greater mass of people? Yes.
Scoot: Yeah. And I mean, somebody invented it, so they’re deciding how the music world works while also responding to consumers and how to best move forward.
Yeah. And it was already starting to go there with when Napster and Limewire were around.
Scott: Yeah. And I understand why the industry was resistant to that change. In a way, they’ve kind of shot themselves in the foot because now everyone expects it for free. Even on Spotify, they offer a free trial. And again, I love using Spotify! I pay the 10 bucks a month.
Me too, and that’s because I love the offline feature when I’m in the car. Plus the no ads is easily worth it. *laughs*
Scott: Yeah! It really is a great thing.
And do you think that the convenience of streaming and social media has made it easier or harder for artists to break out in the modern era?
Scott: See again, I don’t think it’s that different. Some stuff will go viral on the internet, and you have those stories for sure, but what people don’t realize is that they’re so unbelievably rare. Take Lorde for example, her music was already great, so I think she would’ve made it whether it was because of a viral hit like she had or slow and steady like most people do. I think most artists that are doing it and making it have really busted their asses for a lot of years, but when you see the industry change where everything is moved online, sometimes you don’t know what to think of it. The basic ingredients of success, in my mind at least, are to: focus on the work, try to make great music, and if you’re a live performer, try to perform really well live. That’s how I’m trying to build my fans, by making a connection with people in a live setting and then with the record out there too. I hope that people get something out of it. I would rather see it as like a slow snowball thing rather than an online viral hit. Of course, having it go viral would be great, no one would turn that opportunity down, but I feel like there is more of a personal connection when you’re out there performing four or five songs to a crowd. Whether or not people have heard the music before, hopefully they’ve heard it and that’s why they’re at the show, they’re going to feel something and maybe will want to hear more. They have to encounter it somehow, you know? It’s also about how easy it is to put music out now, like, you can record it at home if you want. It’s a lot simpler than it used to be, but that means it’s more saturated too. It’s hard to stand out, so you just need to plug away in order to stand out. But I think social media makes it all possible for a lot of people that maybe couldn’t have done it in the past.
Yeah. And with the popularity of music streaming, as well as singles based and shorter EP style releases kind of taking over, do you think that there’s still an audience out there that’s looking for that full complete work?
Scott: Oh definitely! It’s funny, I’ve talked to other artists about this and we’ve all agreed in some way or form. The people that fall in love with what you’re doing are always begging for more content and asking when the next thing is coming out. That’s so great because you want them hungry for what you do, but it also shows that you could release an album, and then two weeks later people could be like, ‘When’s your next album coming out?’ The people that care, they want as much as you can give them. And then you have the people that don’t really care, I mean, not like they don’t care, but they’re more of a passive fan who might be more interested in a song or single. I think we try to serve everybody that we can, but most of all, we want to serve those hardcore fans that support us and are really into what we’re doing. Those are the people who will help crowdfund your albums and will come to all your shows. Those are the people that it’s like, ‘Ok you guys are in, so I’m going to give you everything I’ve got because that’s what this exchange is.’ Hopefully the passive fans dig it and get it as well, but when it really comes down to it, artists make music for the people that really want it.
And you can never underestimate the power of true fans.
Scott: Oh no, absolutely not! You want to give them something meaningful, and I do think a song can be unbelievably meaningful. One song is all it takes, and if you have a song that can speak to somebody and impact them then it’s awesome. Having an album is always more of a full statement, so you might have some songs that hit one person a certain way and then another song is going to hit somebody else in another way. It’s almost like, ‘Do you want to make a series or an episode?’ Your whole career is like a series, and your album or your song might be an episode. That’s just one way to think about it.
Yeah! And it’s so cool that you bring up how one song can really have an impact on someone. I feel like that’s how we get into certain artists that define our musical tastes. It’s like, yeah we listen to music when we’re younger, but there’s always that one day when you’re in your teens and you’re hating the world and you’re like, ‘This! This is what speaks to me!’ *both laugh*
Scott: It’s like, you hate your life so you’re sitting in your room and your mom’s like, ‘Why are you crying Scott?’ and you’re like, ‘I’m not! Go away!’ *both laugh* But think about this, if you found that one song from an artist and you’re like, ‘Oh my God! I love this so much!’ and they didn’t have anything else out, it’s hard not to be like, ‘Well, I want more because I dig it.’
That totally happened with me when I was in middle school. I mean, I was listening to music of course, but my ears really opened when I heard “Welcome To My Life” by Simple Plan. And that was off of their second album.
Scott: And then you probably went back to listen to the whole album right?
Of course! And I bought the first album because I was obsessed. *both laugh*
Scott: I think with songwriters too, that’s what we want to provide for our listeners. Generally speaking, we write a lot, and I’ve actually been thinking that I’ve been a little too precious about releasing music. I’m like, ‘Oh, if I release this song now then I can’t release it later when it might matter more.’ I’m not saying that you have to dump it out really fast either, but you know, this record has been out six months now, and I’ve got a plan to get back in the studio this year to record some more. And don’t hold me to this, but I would like to have something new out by the fall. I’ve got some ideas for what’s next, and I’ve got some songs that I would really love to share that I think the people that are enjoying this album would be ready for.
That’s all a part of the journey!
Scott: It really is!
So do you feel that social media’s prominence in our daily lives puts a pressure on artists to constantly have something going on? Like what you were saying about one of your goals is to have something out in the fall, or maybe even like, ‘Hey here’s my breakfast today.’
Scott: You know, sometimes I’ll feel the need of ‘I’ve got to post something because it’s been two or three days and they need to know I’m alive.’ *both laugh* A really good example is this artist I was on tour with named Lauren Daigle. We were doing her album tour in the fall and the spring, and then she decided to take a year off. She had a very successful record called How Can It Be, but after that tour she was kind of feeling a little burned out. But you know, she went away for about a year, came back, and was way more popular than ever. Now she has a big song on pop radio as well as the Christian radio side where she came from. She was able to continue to grow because of that break, and I think that taking a little time off is a good thing to tell yourself. It’s all part of the necessary process to be able to have a functioning career, because if you’re just going and going and going, you might not have enough experiences to write about. You need time in the quiet to kind of figure out what you really want to say, but you also need to be able to trust the future enough to be like, ‘Ok, if I take a break everything I’ve built isn’t just going to go away instantly. I’ve built its foundation, and now I need to slow down to build this house right.’ I’m just full of metaphors today. *laughs*
Metaphors aren’t a bad thing. *laughs* I totally agree with you though. You see it all the time in comebacks and stuff like that.
Scott: Yeah. Although, I think it’s easier for artists that had a massive success the first time. It’s different when you’re trying to build a career because the chances of success coming at the perfect time is just so rare. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a living as an artist, but it’s more like that kind of grand success is something that I don’t plan on but also I don’t count myself out of either. I just want to do the work and make the best thing I can make, and hopefully it’s wildly successful. I want to take the time and trust that taking that necessary time is actually good for me and not going to make me lose what little I have. You can be protective about it or you can understand when things need to take a little more time.
And speaking of time how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Scott: I have no personal life. *laughs* I kind of wish I was joking, but I’m not. I’ve pretty much been on the road like six months straight, so when I’m in town, which is rare, I’ll see some friends and I try to reach out to people. Or I’ll call people from the road to just catch up with them. There’s not much of a balance right now, and I’m aware that that’s something that is fine for now, but isn’t sustainable long term. I’m trying to build something right now, and so that’s taking precedence over having a personal life.
Totally understandable. So if you could give your younger self some advice in regards to all that you’ve done in your musical career what kind of advice would you give him?
Scott: Man! *laughs* I would say, ‘Don’t be afraid. Take all the risks you can take. The worst thing that can happen is you fail.’ I failed a lot, but I’ve also embraced the tiny steps to success that some people would consider a failure. I consider my success to be ‘real,’ because I’m making a living doing what I love. I always think of the times that I’ve been held back or felt like I was unworthy of something, but the more you can let go of that stuff and just dive in, and have a real love and passion for the music itself, then everything will work the way it should be.
And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Scott: I hope they come away from it feeling like they identify with the songs and having permission to be themselves. I hope that some little grain of my experience and the way I portray it in the song is going to ring true for them, whether they take away a big lesson or not. When your experiences are confirmed in a song, that’s a powerful thing that says, ‘Wow. Something that I’m going through or maybe something I didn’t have words for is in this song.’ They know that it’s true because I’ve lived it just like them.
Absolutely! And to end us off, apart from the remainder of your tour, what other big exciting things should we be expecting from you?
Scott: Like I said, I have no personal life, so I’m not getting engaged or moving to Alaska or anything. *laughs* You can definitely expect more music! I’m going to release a bunch of songs that I’ll be in the studio recording. I’ve already blocked off some time to get in the studio and work on them. So yeah, definitely new music. I’ve also recorded some of my shows on video and stuff, so I’ll be putting out a lot of things with those clips to tell a more complete story about what I’m doing. Really just expanding on what I’ve already started to do. So more of the same, but also different at the same time.
About Lo/Cal Coffee and Market:
Santa Monica is one of those rare cities (in Southern California AND on the Westside at least) that I feel both locals and visitors seem to always find something to enjoy about it. Whether it’s the eclectic bar/restaurant scene, it’s shopping options, or even the beach itself, whatever type of experience you are looking for it all there. Lo/Cal Coffee & Market is a fairly new (under ten years in business) addition to the Santa Monica coffee scene, and should be welcomed with open arms by coffee lovers. A quaint little shop located close enough to the beach as well as numerous parks, it’s the perfect place to stop by for a refuel or for an intimate meeting.
While it may not look like much from the outside with one bistro table and minimal exterior indicators, once you step inside you will be welcomed with a modern design style comprised of a giant brick replica of the California flag and a wood/metal furniture combo accented by black and white tiles at the base of the ordering counter and the practical use of product stock as decor (namely take-away coffee bean bags and cold brew growlers). A menu filled with classic coffee drinks that perfectly compliment their food offerings make it easy to be enticed to stay here to enjoy yourself in one of their indoor benches, bar stools, or outdoor patio area. Regardless of how long you stay, your experience will be pleasant and enjoyable enough to want to make Lo/Cal your new local go-to shop.