Grace & Danger: John Murry's Remarkable Journey

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” I just happened to make one of the ones that got lucky. That’s the only difference, you know.”

By Brian Wise.

“How many records have you heard probably created by people you know that are amazing records that you know that no one will hear. You know what I mean?” says John Murry on the line from California. I have congratulated him on having his majestic and raw debut album, The Graceless Age, named by Uncut magazine as one of the Top 50 greatest singer-songwriter albums of all time.

“Well, I just happened to make one of the ones that got lucky. That’s the only difference, you know,” he adds.

Even sneaking in to the list at No.48 Murry is in great company on a list that includes Tim Hardin (at #1), Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Nick drake, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon and, of course, Bob Dylan. (A week after we talk, The Graceless Age is named by Mojo magazine as the No.2 album of 2013).

It is a remarkable achievement for the once troubled singer-songwriter – born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi not far from Elvis Presley’s old house – a second cousin of the great William Faulkner. Put into rehab by his adoptive parents at the age of 15 for occasionally smoking pot and getting drunk, Murry later moved to California, battled addiction and nearly lost his wife and child before cleaning up and devoting himself to recording some of his songs.

The story of Murry’s battles can be heard on the epic ten-minute plus song ‘Little Coloured Balloons’ which dominates The Graceless Age – and also, apparently, his live shows. “I took an ambulance ride – they said I should’ve died, right there on 16th and Mission,” he sings. (One of the people who helped him through the hard times was musician Chuck Prophet).

Murry actually first appeared on record in collaboration with cult Memphis folk singer Bob Frank on the album of murder ballad duets World Without End in 2006 but it was to be another six years before he entered a studio in San Francisco with Tim Mooney of American Music Club (who tragically passed away in 2012).

Over a year since the release of the now much acclaimed album, Murry is heading for Australia in January for the Sydney Festival and a few others dates. Usually accompanied by his band, this will be a solo tour and it is the reason we are chatting.

When the call comes through, Murry is in his truck ‘kind of like parked over by my house.’ He says that he has been trying to get things done but that his wife has decided it was ‘a good time to get a puppy.’

“It’s not, it wasn’t a good time to get a puppy,” he says. “I haven’t really slept in two days. I have to say this puppy is absolutely adorable and I got to name him and all these things but she’s gotten real persistent. She’s just a complete prima donna and will sleep in the truck when the truck is running, so I’m just sitting here parked running the truck so the dog will sleep and not eat all my computer cords and things, or attack the cat.”

Murry seems relaxed and content to sit and talk and our conversation winds its way across a range of subjects. After more than half an hour, aware that there might be other people wanting to talk to him, I have to wind up the conversation which threatens to get as epic as one of Murry’s songs.

ATN: Congratulations on the recognition from Uncut magazine recently.
John Murry: It’s incredibly humbling. I hold them in esteem and when I was making this record I didn’t consider things like the way a listener would approach listening to the record or what their opinion of it would be at all. It’s all been a bit harrowing but kind of amazing in other ways.

All of these things are utterly unexpected, like totally because the intent was never there to even … I don’t know, maybe the intent was never really there to release a record. I kind of got forced into this in a way – not really forced into but walked. Kind of my hand was held as the record was released. I was really unsure of whether or not it was worth pressing and worth continuing to even think about and whether or not it was time to get a job.

This kind of response to a record that I still feel uncertain at times about…… there’s a lot of things right now that I’m uncertain about……I can become highly critical of myself and that record but I can acknowledge that it’s touched people in ways that go beyond reason. I think that means more than any dollar, whatever pay. They don’t pay us. I swear to God they don’t pay.

This whole ‘you’re a career musician’……You know what that really means? You’re a mug. You’re more broke now. I could totally go get a job and make way more money but I feel some kind of weird obligation because there is I guess a thing that may exist and it feels like it’s a bit beyond me.

I feel like it’d be maybe arrogant to not acknowledge the way that this has been affecting and the ways it hasn’t been affecting even though I don’t understand them – if that makes sense.

Well, it must be an affirmation of what you’re doing at least, when you have your doubt.
I don’t know. The things that are affirmation are the things that people say directly. Like, when you earlier said it, it was your affirmation. Do you know what I mean? Because you’re talking to me.

This idea of there being anything like global affirmation or global validation, it’s bullshit. I mean that in a sense that I don’t think that any reasonable person could look at something as subjective as music, especially people like us. Right?

I just happened to make one of the ones that got lucky. That’s the only difference, you know. I’ll refuse to accept any affirmation that involves any group for the same reason that Kierkegaard said the group is the law. The group is the goddamn law.The record’s about me and my family, my life, and that’s what allows it to be about other people, because it’s real. I don’t think I have any real choice but to refuse to let some sense of validation pour over. Do you know what I mean? It’s the uncertainty that ensures that I’m alive.

Let me move on and talk about your background.
I’m sorry if that confused things. But I do agree with you. It has been great and it that’s been all is real and it’s a real way that you and I understand because that’s why I’m coming to Australia. That’s totally fucking exciting, so you can put that part in there too.

I’m getting to come to Australia in January and what the fuck, that’s awesome! No, really, I mean no shit. I get to play with John Grant. That dude’s like my hero, one of them. You know what I mean? Like that’s just cool, man. Really, I feel like a 15-year-old that just got told these things. You’re right. It’s amazing.

Well, I imagine that when you were fifteen years old in Mississippi you would never have imagined this at all.
I totally had these ideas when I first started playing guitar but it was about being Tom Petty’s rhythm guitar player when the Heartbreakers broke up. That was this recurring dream I had. Really! Seriously. It was a recurring dream I had. He comes to me and he goes, “I’m starting a new band. It’s Tom Petty and the Democrats.” Like, what the fuck! That’s just weird. That’s like hard core Mississippi because Democrats get shot easily and progressive means like mail bombs. Really, it’s that kind of right wing. I can remember having that dream repetitiously.To think that I would look out in the crowd and grown men crying because they hear something that I created. That’s far beyond anything that maybe I would understand but it means more to me than I could ever express.

They could be crying because they’re drunk, too. There’s always that possibility.
Well, they’re totally drunk. Absolutely. I hope that’s true. Let’s pretend that’s true. Yes, they’re drunks. I know for a fact they’re drunk. They’re English. (Laughs).

Sorry. That’s definitely a part of it, certainly. There’s some people that maybe treat it like a celebration of misery and other people who see it as a catharsis. People use it in all kinds of strange and interesting ways because they’re allowed that.

I think you’ll find you’ll get the same reaction from audiences here because your album is really personal and people can really relate to it. In some ways, I suppose a lot of people feel as though the songs are written about them. I think a lot of songwriters get that thing that ‘you’ve written a song about me’. They feel as though it’s about their lives.
Yeah. In talking to you guys, journalists, in looking at the way that Sydney Festival is set up and seeing the power dynamics that exist in these European festivals and things I see the ways that people attempt to sort of seduce artists in different places in the world – in lieu of actually having a conversation. They attempt to analyse them in lieu of asking them questions. They analyse something to see if they can figure something out or someone out. I don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense because hell if I know what half of it means anyway! I just write it. I can’t even make sense of it until months later, usually.I think it’s true but I also think there’s something about you guys that makes it seem like this is just going to be a lot of fun because it’s been fun talking to all of y’all.

I’m glad.

There’s just a difference. It’s like the last person I was talking to, we were talking about the fact that there’s a real acceptance, an accepting spirit in Australia that exists in the South and maybe it comes from the same place. We were totally England’s throwaways. Mississippians are, Georgians are. You know what I mean? So are Australians. We’ve created these really tight knit and collective cultures that matter to us.Those are the only places where emotionality like that, I think that you’re into that record, can really be embraced by an individual because the individual doesn’t have to have been a heroin addict. You know what I’m saying? It’s not about heroin. I’m totally excited to play that, man, for that reason.

I’ve spent in a lot of time in Mississippi.
Have you really?

I’ve been there a lot.
Y’all love Elvis, a lot of you guys. You really love Elvis. My friend Johnno from San Francisco, he’s from Australia, and when I was down there cleaning up for the several months that I lived down there, he came and visited and he loved it down there. It was odd. Everyone loved him and he was just totally at home. It was really natural and I had a great time with him around. That’s not always true with people, with outsiders. To most people. He wasn’t treated that way at all because he was open and whatever as anyone else was. Have you been to Tupelo ever? Been out there?

Indeed. I have been to Elvis’ house in Tupelo.
Oh, yeah, okay. Have you been there since they did the church and everything?

I have.
That’s kind of cool, huh?

It is cool. It did take me about an hour to find it. I did get lost but it was worth persevering.
It’s worth it when you realise that his father went to prison for that – owing a debt on that house – that’s really how sad it all was. I grew up a couple of houses down from Mr. George Booth who owned Tupelo Hardware and sold him his first guitar. Everyone has these kind of amazing Elvis stories in Tupelo.

Then he lived in Memphis for those years and that’s where the stories just started to get dark and everything starts to change. But the stories about Elvis when he was a kid, even the stories of Elvis when he was older, he was a good guy. He gave away everything. He was a weird guy and he was kind of crazy…..but at the same time.

You say you had a dream about Tom Petty. I had a dream once that Colonel Tom Parker died instead of Elvis.
What was it like? What was it like?

He became this massively successful figure in his sixties and seventies again.
See, now I can see that happening! If Colonel Parker hadn’t been around with that controlling shit and Elvis had dealt with his Mama issues, things could’ve been really interesting because Elvis wasn’t as simple as he appeared to be, not in the least.

There’s a great story about the Louvin Brothers opening for him and he said to them afterwards, I can’t remember if it was Ira or Charlie. He said something about how great it was – their the show right before he went on. They said, ‘Then why do you play….…’ I’ll just say it. ‘Why do you play that nigger music. Why do you do that?’ He said, ‘I thought that all children were children in God.’ And then he said, ‘But I’m fairly certain that’s what you’re playing too.’ And he’s damn right!

Elvis, he was a far more complicated character than it’s kind of understood. I love that. Yeah, I love also Elvis week when all these Japanese tourist buses come to Tupelo and then everyone would leave and we would be left with nothing but weirdoes.

Well, apart from the influence of Tupelo you’ve got a connection with William Faulkner. The whole place is just steeped in history, isn’t it?
Yeah, it really is. I think even the way Faulkner wrote, the way he used Lafayette County as the backdrop that created Yoknapatawpha. If you look at older maps, Mississippi really looked more like Yoknapatawpha than it did Lafayette County at the time of his writing. Now that they’re finding out that as a kid he was reading slave diaries and things like that, it’s just really, really interesting.

There’s no fact or fiction in a place like Mississippi. In a very real way there isn’t. How is it that they are eight honored Robert Johnson gravesites? Everybody knows goddam well that he’s buried in a potter’s field because he was murdered and he doesn’t have a headstone. Well, it’s only possible in a place that still believes in something that’ll carry you away from that place.

What carried you away from it? What led you to leave?
My wife. She’s amazing really. Well, no, the first thing that carried me away was my parents, forcibly took me to drug rehab when I was 15. Memphis was the big city and I was scared of that place. I was sent there but it was an incredibly long fundamentalist Christian program. I’d smoked pot a handful of times, maybe. I drank a handful of times, maybe. I think the real problem was that I played the guitar a lot and I was supposed to go to Harvard or something. It was aggravating, and I’m stubborn. But you send me to Memphis. That’s really not a good place to get out of rehab. There’s lots of music in Memphis so it just furthered the whole thing.

Then I met my wife there. She got a job out here. I was in a band called Lucero and they’ve done well since. For a couple of years I didn’t play. I finished a degree and all of this.

Then things just started to kind of fall apart. This record was the result of all of that. It’s also kind of thing that in some weird way allowed me to tell you in an hour and a half or whatever, that I’m going pick my daughter up. That’s what I made it for.

So California is quite a contrast, isn’t it?
It’s a contrast. It’s contrasting in an incredibly monochromatic way. The differences are black and white. They’re not simple and they’re not easy and it’s hard to mix up what a lot of people here call reality or see as their reality.

I don’t know what I would call myself but I’m about as liberal as they come. I just can’t tolerate other people hurting. I don’t know. I’m a liberal guy and maybe a reasonable person too but at the end of it I’d rather see somebody sad than be reasonable. That’s what this place is. That’s not what Berkeley is. Berkeley is a bunch of people running around going, ‘Look how clean my carbon footprint is,’ or some shit, your carbon footprint. It has nothing to do with actually caring or loving and it has everything to do with looking good.

Yeah, and it’s become out here its own fashion in a sense. Well, I mean, I smoke a lot of cigarettes and the looks you get, if you smoke. In Berkley, they’re horrified but you can totally walk down the street and smoke weed!

There’s a sort of sensibleness that is senseless and utterly absurd, just completely absurd. California to me …….it’s become a gigantic Disneyland that’s broke. All the rides are broken. That’s what California is. It’s like a really long, really big amusement park and all the rides are broken but you can still get on them. So there’s fun to be had, you just have to poke at people a little.

That’s a good analogy. (Laughs).
That’s kind of maybe why I don’t feel at home anywhere. I like to not feel at home maybe – to some degree. I don’t know. Does a place to define me? I don’t want a place to define me. There’s a way that being from a place like Mississippi…….. I know that being from a place like Australia is defining because you can’t take it out of yourself.
Johnno, he is very Australian and he will fight and argue to the death about Nutella not being disgusting. Things like that. They’re great arguments because all he’s saying is, ‘I love the place that I left and don’t go back to ever.’ There’s a real beauty to that – to being that torn.

I suppose it’s a bit like being a Catholic. Once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. Once you’re an Australian or you’re from the South, you’re always from there.
Well, that’s what I got really out it. I got head-butted in the face by this guy in Glasgow for having a crucifix when I was going to this BBC thing and when he found out I was American he apologised and I was like, ‘It’s kind of late, man. Like I’m pulling lip off of my tooth.’ Like I really wanted to fight the guy but like his cousins were with him. I was like ‘this is horrible.’ He really thought there was kind of nothing wrong with it. Then I looked at him and I was like, ‘Man, I might be Catholic or whatever’……..They were in lines to go to a soccer game (it was like Rangers and Celtics).

I said, ‘Man, I’m might be Catholic but I am as confused about God as any atheist’ – probably more so, I’m just less scared than they are. Atheism is nothing more than another fundamentalism that says, ‘I know for sure there is no God.’ That’s as stupid as saying, ‘I know there is one.’

All those things become such absurdities. Maybe in places like Australia, places that are young or that are relatively young, like Mississippi, culture grows and grows out of itself – it almost instinctively does – and so it grows into us, I think. I still feel very much a part of that place. Sadly, California it doesn’t feel like home.

You’re recording a new album. I should ask you about some music!

Yeah, go ahead.

Your new album you’re financing through Kickstarter, aren’t you? Have you started recording the new album yet?

A lot of the issues that we’ve been working through have been things that are incredibly boring: what sample rate and bitrate things ought to be done at so they could be done between different studio environments and environments that aren’t studio environments.

We started doing some things and I’ve got a lot of stuff written. I’ve got more than a record written. So, I’m really excited about it. I kind of think that I can beat whatever it is that is so grand about that last record. In fact, I want to turn on that record. I was totally strung out when I made that record. I kind of want to go, ‘Well, this is what I can do when I’m not.’ I don’t really have any interest in where another record winds up on the list. I just want to beat it, that record, myself. I think I might, maybe – either that or it’s going to be really fucking bad. (Laughs). I don’t think it will be, not completely – I don’t think it entirely will. I’m not that confused.

Where are you recording it?
Well, that’s the thing. It’s something that I want to be able to get organic and really sort of sonically large expansive sounds in the natural environment, like churches and old auditoriums that were built in the 40s – things like that. In order to do it, there has to be this kind of mobile rig here and in Ireland. Then there has to be a way to work between file formats.

Now that we have that figured out…….I’m recording it at about like 10 or 15 different places. It’s not really going to be a studio record per se. The last record wasn’t a studio record either, though. It was but it wasn’t. I mean, that studio was broken. Its limitations are what forced us to make those sounds. I’m kind of building limitations again.

I suppose one description of the sound on the last record, I always think of the word majestic or even wide screen, just kind of a wide screen kind of feeling to it.
It’s something cinematic. Yeah. That’s what I want to do but more so – in a more direct way. I think there’s a way that on my last record I wasn’t considering an audience, I was considering an outcome.

It’s not that I’m writing for an audience in the least. I don’t know how to do that. I wish I did. I wish I could make people happy. I wish they liked me but there’s no way to do that. There’s no dignity in doing anything like that? The art isn’t for other people until it’s for you and then it becomes theirs. It’s in the ability to create the transference. So I want to do is create those sounds but allow them to have sort of a lushness. I want the aims to be more obvious and direct both lyrically and sonically.

I want the majestic element. I really like that word, too. I want those elements to be that way on the front, to sound that way as they’re recorded. I want to employ strings and group backing vocals, choir vocals, things like that, and do things with percussion and things like pedal steel and organ that are done in old churches and things that really do have a reverb that can’t be recreated by a plate, no matter how old it is. I want it to be real.

‘Thorntree In The Garden’: The only cover on The Graceless Age. Bobby Whitlock’s song, recorded by Derek & The Dominos for the Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs album.

The Graceless Age is available now through Universal Music.

John Murry Tour Dates:

Thursday January 16 – Sydney Festival, Sydney Town Hall

Friday January 17 – Sydney Festival, Lennox Theatre

Saturday January 18 – Meeniyan Hall, Victoria

Tuesday January 21 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne

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Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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