‘I think some people sit down and they intend to write a song. I just sit down when the song tells me to write a song‘ – Dave Donnelly spoke with John Murry ahead of his short Irish tour this weekend.
Mississippi-born John Murry endured what could only be described as a fractured upbringing. Related to As I Lay Dying author William Faulkner through adoption, Murry’s family were steeped in Southern old money and all of the conservatism that entails. Aged 15, having experimented on a couple of occasions with alcohol, his parents checked him into rehab in an effort to scare him straight. It was successful only insofar as it alienated him from his family – years later, following painful back surgery, he’d find himself addicted to prescription morphine, which naturally led him to heroin.
His debut album, The Graceless Age, is a deep and affecting account of Murry’s battle with addiction and the path of destruction it weaved in his life. Writing the album wasn’t something Murry chose to do – it was something he felt he was compelled to do in order to understand the gravity of an affliction that threatened to take away his wife, his child and ultimately his life. He says: “I think that was probably a very literal way of attempting to exorcise a lot of things, and in some ways it did and in some ways things can never be exorcised. It’s a bit of a continued attempt at catharsis, playing the songs.”
Murry recorded the album by himself along with producer Tim Mooney – a departure for an artist who had hitherto preferred to collaborate – and had few, if any, expectations when he sent it to a friend in England for feedback. The friend was suitably enthused, releasing a limited run, and soon Dublin label Rubyworks got wind and produced a further run. From there, The Graceless Age took on an aura all of its own and Murry has built up a substantial fanbase across Britain and Ireland.
This weekend sees Murry return to Ireland for a trio of intimate shows in Kilkenny, Belfast and Dublin, and he spoke to Dave Donnelly in advance of the tour.
Were you expecting the Graceless Age to connect so well with people so quickly? I wasn’t expecting it to be released at all. All of it is completely unexpected – everything has been a bit like a surreal dream. I sent it to a friend in England who initially pressed some copies and released it, and then Rubyworks took it from him. I just sent him a copy and asked if it was good – I didn’t even know if it was worth trying to release. I just felt the record was something that I had to do, something I had to make for myself.
Did you feel you needed to make it as your own album rather than a collaboration? I don’t think somebody else could really write with me about my own problems. I did make it collaboratively – I tend to work that way always – just not lyrically. When recording stuff, I’m creating a version of a song I’m putting out to the world, and maybe something responds to it or something doesn’t, but when you’re doing that it’s generally always a good idea to have someone else there saying ‘you’re being honest’ or you’re not. For me, Tim Mooney was that guy. In that way we worked together. It was definitely a record that I couldn’t write with another person.
It didn’t seem like a huge adjustment then… I didn’t want to do much of anything. It very literally was something I did to remain sane. Some writers create a place where all of the things that were too difficult to deal with or tolerate internally could exist externally. I think that was probably a very literal way of attempting to exorcise a lot of things, and in some ways it did and in some ways things can never be exorcised. It’s a bit of a continued attempt at catharsis, playing the songs.
A lot of the album deals explicitly with your own battle with substance abuse – is that something that came naturally for you? You mean was it hard to become a heroin addict? It’s really easy to become a heroin addict! You mean writing the songs?
Writing the songs, yeah. When I write songs they just kind of happen. I think some people sit down and they intend to write a song. I just sit down when the song tells me to write a song, if that makes sense. I don’t sit down with the intent of writing songs very often. I tend to wait for, in a new-agey way, for the moment of inspiration to hit – I call it a ‘moment of desperation’. A moment when I have to write a song, or there’s a lyric or a line that gets stuck in my head that I feel I have to finish.
I’ve never really written songs in a way that has much to do with craft at all – it happens. I can be in an environment that allows it to happen and it’ll happen – and I can put myself in environments like that and it’ll happen, like studios and things like that – but I don’t actively try to think about things like chord progressions or whatever. I just wonder after a while I’m writing, does it sound like it’s supposed to sound?
Which is a really weird place to be because that can become really confusing. Especially with a song like Little Coloured Balloons, after a while I say: Jesus Christ, this thing is nine and a half minutes long. How long can I make people listen to the same song – how long can I listen to the same thing? Is it ok? Does it work? I’m never really able to answer those questions for myself. That song is really long and it doesn’t really have a bridge or a chorus. It just kind of has an outro that’s really long. I think it’s right and people seem to connect to it emotionally.
I think that’s a lot of what’s lost in music in general – the need to create. The industry has become so vicious that musicians become afraid and they retreat to a place of honing their craft instead of relying on the thing they will never understand, and the thing I’ll never understand, and that’s where do these songs come from? I’ll never know where certain lines come from or how they come out of my mouth or out of my pen, but they did. They make sense later. There’s art and there’s craft and I’d rather be on the art side and not the scrap-booking side.
You’d be more motivated by a mood or something you see that evokes a visceral reaction? It tends to be a little more ephemeral than that – it’s vaguer than that. It’s just a mood or a feeling like you say. I’ll be walking around and a certain line or a piece of a line or a couplet will pop into my head and it just feels like it’s necessary to write that down and make something of that. That’s what generally sparks it. Something it’s other music, I’ll listen to something and I’ll mishear it and I’ll think ‘the way I misheard it, I like that better than the way it really is.’ I’ll take something I misheard lyrically and I’ll make it into something else.
It happens in really weird ways and it’s really disturbing to be honest. I know it would be smart to embrace the craft side of it and learn to play the guitar better, but it would be dishonest. I don’t know how I write or why I feel so hell-bent on writing as a way to exorcise. Whatever it is that causes that feeling goes beyond anything that any guitar teacher or songwriter can teach me. There’s plenty of other musicians to listen to who do it well, and those are the people who inspire me to compete with myself, to out-do whatever I’ve done before.
I read a quote from you recently where you feel your music comes across so dark is because there’s a lot of anger in there, but it also feels like there’s a weariness too. I think that’s generally how I feel about the world. My wife and I were talking the other day and she said something that alludes to this. She said ‘you really wear yourself out.’ She was basically saying to me that I really wear myself out by holding on to all my indignant anger. She’s right but I don’t know how to let go of it and I wouldn’t choose to. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being angry at the way things are and the world that we live in. I think that the world that we all live in is not the world we signed up for – it’s certainly not what I expected when I was a child.
Most people when they reach adulthood find a way to let go of that, and I think songs are a way for me to do that. I’m too old to hold on to the kind of angst that I do, and I realise that things are far too ambiguous for things to be a hard right or wrong. It is tiring. I think that the only choice we really have in life to continue going on is to accept things as they are. Not to accept things as they are and do nothing, but accept that things are the way they are and not try to delude ourselves into believing that they’re something they’re not. I feel like in some way, I’m grateful for the ability to hold on to all the anger, I’m just trying to figure out a way to let go of all the fear. That’s what causes the weariness. Do you think your worldview steered you then towards the music you make – folky, introspective, earthy music? I think it comes across as that but to me it doesn’t sound like that. Where I grew up, what folk or country or the blues were was just a different thing. At the same time, it’s not. There’s probably more elements of shoegazer kind of stuff and hip hop that aren’t really that noticeable. It ultimately comes across that way because that’s what’s been instilled in me since I was really little – I’ve been in the church choir since I could talk – that basic tradition of songs and it’s continued that way through my life.
I think there’s probably 100 different ways to do the songs, and we just figure out this is the way we’re doing it. I think this is what my music is supposed to sound like – I don’t know why it’s supposed to sound like that, but it feels honest, if that makes sense. Never rule out drum machines and stuff, because I’m totally an equal opportunity user of anything that sounds right. It’s the context that creates the need. I live in Oakland (California) and here’s there far more interesting punk rock/dubstep stuff, which is this weird mix of punk and hip hop that these white kids are doing, then there’s this really weird experimental space rock/hip hop stuff and I listen to a good bit of that. I listen to Jimmy Rogers too. I guess I’m just a musically schizophrenic person.
Where do you see things going from here? I hope to make money. I hope the video we’re putting together for the Kilkenny and Dublin shows, I hope that everyone shows up in their pyjamas so that everything looks good. We’re going to burn flags and other stuff and it’s going to be outrageous, so that’ll be fun. I guess I hope that the next tour goes over well and I can keep working on the next record. There’s a new EP I’m working that will come out around Record Store Day. I’ve been writing a song with Chuck Prophet for the EP and we’ll probably do more of that. I’m looking forward to some sort of stability in creating stuff that will allow me to feel like this is a real thing I can keep doing and it will make sense for my family. I’m really excited and playing the Irish shows. I love playing in Kilkenny and Dublin – people are always more excited than I am, and then I get excited.
I think it’s amazing that all these people have gotten together and almost guerrilla-like create this video – things like that are beautiful. I hope we can honour what people have given me over the next year. I hope I can continue to emotionally convey the songs as they are and hold on to the things that made me write those songs. I had no expectations about this last record so I have no expectations about the rest either. I’m just along for the ride. Being forced to wear pyjamas to make a video while you’re playing and burning flags – I think that’s illegal! Especially the kind of flags we’re burning, but nobody’s really telling me if it’s illegal. It was my idea but it was just kind of a joke. I’m happy to get arrested for burning certain flags – I just dislike flags in general.
John Murry live in Ireland 2014
Friday 21st February The Set Theatre Kilkenny Saturday 22nd February The Empire Music Hall Belfast Sunday 23rd February The Pepper Canister Church Dublin