John Murry’s debut solo record The Graceless Age is an album full of dark corners and emotional breakthroughs. For the Califorian-based Mississippi native, the record came about during some of the darkest moments of his life – drug addiction and suicidal thoughts permeating through the production of some of the featured songs on the album. An intensely gorgeous album, Murry will be bringing The Graceless Age to Australian crowds for the Sydney Festival and some Victorian headline shows in January – Murry opens up to me about the making of the record, his fears revolving around it and how performing the material is set to change when he hits our shores.
The dates you’ll be playing are amongst some of the bigger festival gatherings in the early part of our New Year – there’ll be some pretty decent crowds turning out to see you, I would imagine.
Yeah, I think that the ways that some people have talked about it or different shows they’re going to…it’s like, to read a thing or have someone excitedly saying that they are coming to see…I mean, imagine that being you, you know?
It’s sort of horrifying and interesting…there is this real ‘calm’ to the way that whole Australian thing is set up. The way that you guys present festivals and people and it doesn’t seem to be…I don’t know, when I looked at the Sydney Festival website the other day, there is no hierarchy, you know? There is no power structure. It’s like…the thing that is given credit is the festival itself. It is a collection of people playing music, but it’s not weighted with Bjork playing, or something. I love that – that’s a real festival.
Definitely. When you’re on a program like the one that you’re on, you’re performing in a capacity where your material can be presented and introduced to so many different types of festival attendees, too.
I think that is always true, yeah. I think it just seems that Australians are open to considering new music and it’s different…I think that the American mindset is as closed off as it gets. I started to think about the ways that the South and Australia have come and there is a really basic way, there’s a commonality there. Parts of Australia were – this isn’t an insult, like, it’s used as an insult – convict colonies, yeah?
That’s right, yeah.
So was Georgia and so was Mississippi at one time and because of that, the oppression created these beautiful things, and still does, maybe. Real struggle allows for real beauty. I went on the website and saw that there is this tribute toBig Star’s Third and I realised that was being done and I was like, “Holy shit!”. People are paying to go…like, I would like to see that, you know? That’s one of the most dramatically affecting records that I know, for me and for a lot of people. For that record to be a thing that is presented, that people are paying to go see? I think that says a lot about…
You couldn’t do that here, you know? You couldn’t do it.
I think that is a drawcard for a lot of people. When I’ve spoken to some international artists who have been scheduled for this type of festival performance, one thing that generally comes up is the fact that Australia doesn’t seem to be afraid in presenting a more encompassing or accepting program…
No, I think it’s scary for you guys to use that word, but I think it’s right word, because it is saying in a way that there are cultures and there are places that aren’t as accepting, and they aren’t as interested in experiencing with you. They’re more interested in ‘examining’ you. It’s hard to say, you know, that is a more accepting vibe to it, but I think there is. There are certainly places that I’ve played that are far more stand-offish and I’m certain, because I’ve been head-butted in the face…
Oh my god…
Well, no, that’s the ‘Glaswegian Kiss’, right?
A guy head-butted me in the face just because I had a crucifix on, you know? I’m not even sure what Catholic I am, you know? [Laughs] They apologised when I told them I’d lost my tooth and they realised I was an American. They were in line to go to a soccer game. That’s not really an accepting environment…I don’t expect to get head-butted in the face! I can’t believe that there is this presentation of Big Star’s third record that the French put out ten years before Americans had even sense enough to release, you know? I think that Americans don’t know what they have and it’s not in me, but it is in everything. Americans still don’t know what they had in Big Star, you know? It’s just really interesting. I’ll let you ask questions now…!
No, please! I love getting these insights…
I’m really weird that way. I just talk endlessly. You can interrupt, just interrupt.
I was rather enjoying that train of conversation! I will ask you at least something about the album before I let you go, otherwise I’m not really doing my job well!
Well sure! But I do think that you’re right in using the word ‘accepting’ though, I think it really is true. Just seeing the way that it’s all structured and Gaynor’s [Crawford] done an amazing job as a promoter, in a way that no European promoter is. There’s just this real collaborative and collective drive to make something work and they are people working together in a way that you don’t see people being able to work together anymore, because of their own egos. That says a lot about what’s been put together down there for the festival season, so it should be fun. That, and it won’t be cold – I’m totally going to learn how to surf. I can kind of surf but not well, I can half surf.
Well that’s perfect that you’re coming through Sydney then! If anything, the city is famous for its beaches.
Not just that, but when I signed the contract with Spunk, I said that if I ever came down, that Aaron Curnow would have to give me surfing lessons. He’s totally going to give me surfing lessons.
I expect to see updates on your skills then!
He’s really good, he taught Will Oldham how to surf and that dude sees very little sunlight and looks like a Confederate soldier who’s been starved for two years, you know what I mean? He’s very tall, so if he can learn how to surf…Aaron showed me a picture of Will Oldham’s standing up and I’m like, “If Will Oldham can stand up and surf with that beard…then I’m sure that he can teach me how to surf”!
Definitely! Well, before I let you go, I do need to congratulate you on the album; it’s been one that I’ve been playing heavily since I received it, it’s absolutely stunning. I gather that it was quite a personal one for you so, as a debut record, how easy or difficult was it as a whole, to let go at the end?
I think that things that have an emotional value…you never really let go of them. You can tell, I think you can tell when anybody plays certain songs, whether or not they’re just playing a greatest hits show or whether they still have an emotional connection to the thing that they created. There is a way that that record will probably always haunt me, not necessarily in a bad way.
There is a way that I am now able now, to have a relationship with that record that I couldn’t have before. When I was done with that record and we stepped away from it…it was not long after I’d gotten clean, so when I stepped back and looked at it, all I could really see was that it was a record that…it feels maybe a bit like Sister Lovers – there’s a necessity and there’s a weight to it. There’s a back story in Alex Chilton and his girlfriend banging each other’s heads into the mixing board at Ardent [Studios] and Jim Dickinson saying, “I’ve just got three days to mix the record because of what y’all did”. I mean, there were weird…there was a guy in Memphis that said, “Maybe it’s a bit like Sister Lovers, maybe it’ll come out in ten years and maybe you should make another”. I guess I was so, early on, so emotionally tied to that record, that I didn’t know whether or not…I don’t even know if I should have made that record, or if I want to make records at all.
When I made that record, it was like…there are so many things about that record that are essential, you know? I think, including the last song from …Other Assorted Love Songs, you know? I didn’t write that record to talk on the phone, you know? I mean, I like it, what I mean though is that I never expected any of this; I just thought I had to make that record or I would lose my mind. I think that the beauty of it is that, from that kind of self-destruction somehow, it created something that goes beyond that record and it allowed me to have my family back and you know, it’s an amazing thing. Maybe even in ways that I don’t understand or don’t want to understand, because it’s terrifying. It’s horrifying to be compared to Bob Dylan, it is. I mean, really, it is. When people write things that they’ve written, I don’t know how to respond, but it means a lot that people hear it. That you guys hear it.
Dealing with the amount of stuff that you were dealing with at the time, being in a position to writer about these problems and make some incredibly beautiful music would be perhaps a helpful way of working through some of these issues?
I think Tim Mooney, who produced it with me and sadly passed away before it was released, knew that in a way that I didn’t know that. I mean, Tim was 54 when he passed away and I think that he knew that it could keep me alive. I can remember when I turned 28 and we were working on the record and he said, “Yeah, you’ve made it!” and I was like, “What are you talking about?” – I think he was really afraid that I was going to kill myself. The thing he didn’t know was that I was. There were a lot of times that I was and that record…it was so purposeless while it was being created, except that it meant everything, because it was all I had. He allowed that to be okay, you know?
It’s been hugely cathartic, but it’s also been a way of being able to engage the world, you know? I couldn’t project…and this wasn’t the intent, I really don’t know if there is any objective ‘good’, or if there’s any objective ‘bad’ – I find it to be really shocking that so many respectable outlets keep saying that it’s good, it makes me think they’re less respectful outlets! [Laughs] It’s just funny and it’s hard to see yourself in that light, because that’s never been the intent. Because it’s a debut, there is a way that it allows me to learn with this, what it is that I can give now. It allows me to give other people something I didn’t even know that I could give, before. I really think that the back story has become this interesting and beautiful thing all of a sudden.
For sure; I’m really glad to hear those thoughts on it, because listening to it for the first time, I thought that if I was in any sort of dark situation holding some similarity, I don’t know how I would have been able to get through it. The fact that you’re obviously in a place now where you can look back on that time and be like, “Okay, this record served thispurpose” – that’s a great thing to know.
Yeah, it’s true. I think that it serves that…this is the horrible truth: none of us are getting out of this alive. That’s what I learned. I’m already dying, you know? I mean really, I didn’t make that up! None of us are getting out of this alive at all. The things that sound prophetic aren’t prophetic because they’re simply prophetic, they’re just true. We all know they’re true. If we’re not busy being born, we’re being busy dying – that’s true. We are moving towards that time where we don’t exist anymore, but we just live in a moment, you know? We could, if we chose to. Or things like, ‘all the truth in the world adds up to one big lie’? That’s also true. None of us know what’s objectively real, but we’re capable of experiencing emotions and things that are greater than us. Maybe all they instill in us is the idea that there is something worth fighting for and there is something worth going on for. A couple of people who have come up to me who have had heroin addictions and stuff, to know that that record was something that they could listen to, and that they could hear the self-destruction, but they know that it didn’t happen…the strength that can give another person, to know that I accidentally did that…I didn’t intentionally do it, I don’t want to play God. In fact, I’m far more terrified of being known than I am being left alone.
The way that it’s affected people is, I don’t know, it’s too beautiful even for someone who wants to be jaded, to ignore! Even at times, where I’ll want to say that it’s silly to watch grown men cry in audiences and stuff, I know goddamn well that there is nothing silly about it because I cry all the time too. That’s what I really want to do and that’s what I really want to be, is the person who… I don’t think we tell the truth anymore; we don’t tell people the truth about how much it really hurts to live in this fucked world and this world is fucked. It’s falling apart and we know it, we all know it. It’s falling apart in a way that we don’t understand and we don’t know what to do. We can hold on to one another and we’re not. We’re not even reaching out our hands to help people stand up. That’s not what life is about. I do think it’s funny that the Spanish word for ‘pain’ [sorrows] is ‘dolores’, right? The pronunciation is the same for ‘dollars’, you know?
Oh wow, I didn’t think of it that way.
It’s just kind of amusing, you know? One of the things that are great is that, this show we’ve got with John Grant, he’s very heroic to me. I got to stand on the side of the stage at a festival in Ireland and I think, in similar ways that people talk and how we’re talking, a lot of those things are true of him too. I feel that way about him. I just feel absolutely honoured to be able to do that.
He’d be great to play alongside. I know that both yourself and coincidentally John, are two highlights of that festival season for me, after having looked through it all. I’m very interested to see what the music is like, given the live treatment.
Well, given the way that he and I both seem to reinvent and redo it, I’m curious to see what he does too. I’ve seen him twice now and each time is completely different. One time he was playing piano and there was some electronic stuff going on and then another time it was just him and another guy playing guitar and it was very organic. I’m real tired of seeing people play songs the way that they recorded them; the thing that they’ve forgotten, the thing that they’ve all forgotten, is that it’s not the song that you have to get across to people, it’s the emotion.
Definitely. I like seeing artists continuing to develop a live sound in that way and see where songs can go onstage.
Exactly. On this tour, I’m forcing myself to play piano – I’ve never played piano in front of people! When I write, I play piano for myself…so I guess, y’all will be the first folks to see me play piano ever.
Except for like, my daughter and my dog and the cat. [Laughs]
Well I feel privileged to be amongst the first crowds then! Even more exciting.
I’ve got to say that I’ve really enjoyed this interview; I mean, really, thank you. You guys are so gracious. Thank you so much.
Not a problem – any time I have an opportunity to talk with someone who is as open and unafraid of being open as you’ve been, it’s great.
You know, I’m terrified of being open, that’s the interesting thing. I think though, that the thing about being open, is that now I can be. Maybe it’ll allow me and other people too and as I do it, it becomes less frightening. Talking to people like you, it’s not frightening at all. In that sense, you’re totally right. Thanks for not making it frightening.
Well, if our paths do cross in the New Year, I’d be more than happy to pick up where we’re leaving off now.
Well yeah! Please say hello.
I will do. Thank you so much for your time, John – best of luck for everything that you’ve got coming up for the end of the year. I’ll speak with you soon.
Thanks so much and I’ll see y’all soon!
JOHN MURRY TOUR DATES
January 16 – SYDNEY FESTIVAL – Town Hall
w/ John Grant // sydneyfestival.org.au
January 17 – SYDNEY FESTIVAL – Lennox Theatre, Parramatta
January 18 – Meeniyan Town Hall, MEENIYAN
lyrebirdartscouncil.com.au // 1300 762 545
January 21 – Northcote Social Club, MELBOURNE
northcotesocialclub.com // 1300 724 867