According to the production credits, “26 Minutes” was created almost entirely on violin.
Apart from guitar and bass parts, every other sound featured in the piece — the band Divine Circles’ contribution to a recently released split cassette with Villages — was created by Meghan Mulhearn, using only the small stringed instrument known best for its orchestral prominence and bluegrass deployments. The guitar is easy to place — blasting through with sporadic slashes of distortion — as is the bass, which drops in here and there, marking time with sludgy patience. But the other sounds hardly resemble a violin. Thumping beats and plucks are doused in reverb, echoing through like spectral shimmers. Bowed and distorted passages bolster the guitar as the piece progresses.
As a violinist, Mulhearn strives to create such unexpected sounds. Divine Circles — the solo vehicle that will release its first LP in June — is all about pushing the instrument in new directions; finding new ways to amplify and distort it, utilizing specially prepared versions as a conduit for creating effect-enriched vocal tracks. Mulhearn isn’t the only violinist in Asheville, but she’s the only one creating sounds like these.
“My influences are not strictly violin players, so I was kind of thinking about how I could really open up the instrument as being a solo instrument but also make interesting sounds,” she says, explaining her intentions for Divine Circles. “It’s got this open body. It’s really resonant. I figured I could do a lot with that. I do a lot with making beats on the body of the instrument and singing into it through different effects. It can kinda be a one-man band sort of instrument. Divine Circles is about that exploration.”
Placing the violin in unusual contexts is nothing new for Mulhearn. In Descolada, her vicious bowing was the slash to the guitar’s thrash, creating a uniquely forceful hardcore attack. That outfit formed shortly after her move from Boone to Asheville in 2002. Her time in Descolada introduced her to U.S. Christmas, an uncommonly refined metal band that lends psychedelic grandeur to dense Southern sludge. After sharing a few bills with the Marion, N.C.-based outfit, Mulhearn was asked to add violin to a some acoustic songs on 2010’s Run Thick in the Night. She ended up recording parts for the entire album.
“The music kind of lends itself to being experimental,” Mulhearn says. “That’s something that really appeals to me, and it also has influences that are more folk-y, mixed with the heavy, which is something that I’ve always explored. As people, [the musicians] are just very open and experimental. Nobody’s necessarily going to tell you, ‘It needs to be like this, and it needs to be like that.’ It feels very collaborative, and that appeals to me. It’s hard for me to stay in a box and play the same thing.”
Her contributions to Run Thick were so liked by U.S. Christmas that she became an official member following its release. Her contributions shine on 2011’s The Valley Path, a single-song follow-up that progresses steadily across 40 minutes. Her gauzy melodies fill in the gaps left by Nate Hall’s lumbering riffs, creating a thunderous wall of sound that’s also quite beautiful.
Mulhearn’s other projects speak to her adaptability. The Judas Horse — a trio that also features her fiance, David James Lynch — creates stately rock from stark combinations of guitar, bass and violin. Mulhearn is key to the band’s subdued but insistent propulsion, her percussive picking and energetic bowing preserving and extending momentum. Meghanz, her cheekily named duo with Meghan West, merges mutated violin with dense fuzz to create mind-numbing drone.
“I really have to have something to look forward to, so if nothing’s going on, I’m gonna make it happen,” Mulhearn explains. “I’m really interested in a lot of different things, and I think that comes across. It doesn’t have to be one specific genre like metal or folk or experimental. It’s all the same kind of continuum to me. It all feels the same. If the music is true to itself, then I’m interested in playing it.”
But Mulhearn is more than just an instrumental talent. Her work on Divine Circles’ upcoming full-length finds her focusing on songwriting. On “Midwest,” she sings purposefully over pounding drums and driving plucks. “I am standing on a prairie highway/ With my East Coast prejudice,” she offers, smartly packaging regional judgment into one crisp couplet.
“Songwriting is hard for me,” she says. “It’s a really ponderous process, and instrumentals come a lot easier. I tried to put everything together.”
Hear Mulhearn in one of her many bands:
May 26, Static Age Records. With Coliseum.
June 1, Apothecary. With Nate Hall and Derek Poteat.
June 16, Static Age Records. Benefit for Sean Dail’s dental bills.
Divine Circles (solo project):
Aug. 15, Apothecary. With Duane Pitre, Ross Gentry and Christopher Ballard.