Singer-songwriter Alyn Mearns describes his musical evolution as “a kid going from classical violin to wanting to play ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on the guitar,” to “trying to make a complete solo sound, where I can use my guitar symphonically.”
There was also a stop-off in the rock band Airspace. It was in that outfit that Mearns realized he didn’t like lugging equipment and, “with a band, you’re bound by arrangements.” So he began to develop his sound as a solo artist. The resulting project, Yes the Raven, debuts at White Horse Black Mountain on Friday, March 7.
The Airspace lineup also included Jimmy Brown, who went on to form Charlotte-based Matrimony. Brown, like Mearns, is a Northern Ireland expatriate. At age 16, Mearns came to the U.S. with his family — his father, a missionary, was first based in Houston and later moved the family to Boone. The Appalachian Mountains, after the culture shock of Texas, felt like a homecoming. The sense of connection wasn’t unfounded: Until the Triassic period, the Appalachians were part of the Caledonide range of northwestern Europe, which includes Ireland’s Mourne Mountains. In Boone, Mearns also met his first guitar teacher and competed for (and won) the A.J. Fletcher Scholarship, an annual award to a music student.
Though classically trained, Mearns says he tired of the academic world and came to the realization that pop music was a more powerful art form. And, though he uses words like “diaphanous” and “urban dreamscape” when describing his current sound, Mearns also says that in this incarnation of his musical career, “I can use my guitar skills for good, rather than evil.”
He’s at least half-joking.
But Yes the Raven seems at home in the space between concrete ideas. For example, the project is neither specifically American nor Irish. And Yes the Raven’s new album, Love Is Covered in Dust, is at turns fanciful and mournful. It nods to atmospheric acts like Radiohead as well as ’70s-era Irish folk bands like Planxty. Spare, haunted vocals drift over ambient noise: a roll of thunder on “Breathe,” a percussive shudder on “Rattlesnake Blues.” But the 11-song collection is mostly about the relationship between guitar and voice and the array of sounds and emotions both can make.
“I designed it to be a strangely complete miniaturism,” Mearns says. It’s a distillation, perhaps, of his own story. But if there’s a common thread throughout the album, it’s what the musician calls “the Irish blues, a certain kind of melancholy.”
“When you move somewhere so dramatically different, it accentuates your difference,” Mearns says. In his case, it made him long for things that people back in Belfast would be oblivious to. It made him “more Irish.” In North Carolina, he met fellow Irishman, poet and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Rice. Together, they formed The Belfast Boys and perform not-strictly-traditional Irish music.
Growing up as a Protestant in a country divided by religious tension, Mearns says he felt estranged from the traditional music associated with the Republic of Ireland and its Catholic majority. But living in North Carolina gave him distance, and Rice extended a challenge: Craft a rendition of the tearjerker “Danny Boy.”
“I was like, ‘No, because it’s a cliché bar song,’” says Mearns. But then he came up with a version based on a U2-type melody. It sounds like a small thing — reframing a classic ballad — but for Rice and Mearns it’s about transcending a painful past.
“There’s a more important thing at stake than just the aesthetic of the art,” says Mearns. “We’re going as ambassadors of peace and goodwill.” That’s the serious side of using his guitar for good.
The “Danny Boy” rewrite and The Belfast Boys also informed Yes the Raven. “In a sense, it’s an extension of what I do with my solo stuff,” says Mearns. “There’s a certain sound that I like that seems to belong to something, like the Paris World Fair in 1900.”
The very name of the project is evocative. Perhaps not of turn-of-the-last-century Paris, but certainly of something spooky, literary and shrouded in mystery. And there’s a chance that, even with repeated listening, Love Is Covered in Dust will not fully divulge its secrets. Then again, Mearns himself is continually discovering the range of his guitar. He’s still navigating his own journey.
who: Yes the Raven
where: White Horse Black Mountain, whitehorseblackmountain.com
when: Friday, March 7, at 8 p.m.
$12 advance/$15 at the door