Majella Murphy: ‘I was told that people like me usually end up in a lock-up ward’
A new song by musician Majella Murphy is based on her emergence from alcoholism into a brighter future
There’s a lyrical quality to Majella Murphy. It is there in her new single, Too Small to Follow, a song that tells the story of her stepping from the shadows of alcoholism back into the light. But it’s also in her voice when she speaks.
Even on a wet morning in the bar of the Dublin hotel where this interview takes place, she can evoke the glow of a riverbank on a glorious summer evening. Majella is reflecting on childhood days fly-fishing with her father, Bob, who died a year ago.
“He was the most beautiful man I have ever known and he loved every hair on my head,” she says, smiling. “The sky would be red, you’d know it was going to be a good day tomorrow, and the river was like silver, dancing, icicles, lit by the moon. And I’d be fishing, stuck in trees, and I’d hear the grass rustling on the riverbanks and my father would say, “Are you all right, Majell? And I knew, and I felt, as a child, of nine, 10, that I was special and loved.”
Her memory is made more meaningful by the fact that those days on that riverbank in Kilkenny, where she grew up, were a much-needed respite from shadows that blighted her life. She was sexually abused between the ages of eight and 13.
“I don’t want to get into the details of the abuse; its effects are more important to talk about,” she says. “He was a neighbour and he stalked me for 20 years after the abuse, which was worse, psychologically, than the abuse.
“I made a promise to God, that if anyone ever stood up to him I would back them. I didn’t have the courage. So, a man did [stand up to him], and the next day I made a statement to the guards. It took five years for him to plead guilty. His name is Mick Butler.”
Majella was 32 when she started that case. She had told her parents six years earlier about the abuse, but not before then, because of “a kind of misplaced shame”, which at times sent her into deeper despair. Abusers, she points out, “bank on that shame and the silence”. The tyranny of that silence is what she wanted to retaliate against by naming Butler, which she did some years later on The Late Late Show.
‘Abusers are like leeches’
“I read a victim statement in court and told them about the effect it had on my family, me, my friends, and what was really upsetting was that he was in the court and he laughed at me,” she says.
“But I said ‘I forgive Mick Butler’, and I looked at him and could see the relief washing over his face, as if he’d gotten away with this. But then I said, ‘I forgive him, because I had to forgive him, because it has been in my mind and driving me insane. He’s like the rust at the bottom of a bucket, useless to everyone and everything.’ Abusers are like leeches – they love the shadows – so let’s shine a big light on them.”
Butler served only five months of his 12-year sentence. Majella remains angry at this, and at the “ridiculous” financial outcome of a subsequent civil case. She was awarded €830,000 but “got not one penny. He doesn’t have €830,000.”
Majella stresses that she is not a victim or a survivor. She “hates those labels” and refuses “to be defined by” her sexual abuse. She defines herself fundamentally as an artist, and for her, creativity is the opposite of silence and shame.
“I was always very creative. I started writing poetry at the age of seven or eight, and I was good at art and one of Ireland’s top three calligraphers at 14. But the first song that made me want to create music was Jimmy MacCarthy’s Adam at the Window. I loved it. Yet it wasn’t until I was 17 I started to play guitar. I couldn’t believe that just six strings and four fingers could give you such a good feeling. Then, at 19, I finally wrote my first song, a version of the Jesus and Mary story.”
Majella is, by her own description, “child-like and childish”, but is at her most girlish and gleeful when talking about her music heroes.
“I just love Barbra Streisand: what a voice! Honey, you have to love Barbra! Songs like A Piece of the Sky or Papa Can You Hear Me, from [the film] Yentl. And I love that ’60s song Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?, which I’m covering. And I love Dylan, Christy Moore, Dolly Parton.”
Even speaking about music seems therapeutic to her. “It is, and singing, writing and playing music live really helps me transcend everything in life.”
She got her musical break by impressing Robert Matthews, who worked with MCD at the time. He became her manager and funded her 2007 debut album, Brave New World. It was the first album to be released globally on Sony Ericsson phones, and was nominated for a Meteor Award. She played Electric Picnic and on The Raw Sessions and The Late Late Show.
However, she now says she was deeply dissatisfied with her debut album, which did not have the kind of sound she had hoped for. “I did the album in Nashville, but I didn’t like at all the way it was produced . . . It felt really cool to be in Nashville but, even though the album did very well, and was polished and mastered to the nth degree, I felt [that style of production] killed a lot of the songs. I wanted a live [concert] feel for the last album, and am getting it on the album I’m recording right now.”
She and Matthews parted company in 2011, and she emphasises the importance for her of getting “the financial backing and a distribution deal” she needs for the next album.
Whatever path Majella’s career takes from here she readily acknowledges that she is a “recovering alcoholic.” She started drinking at 14 and continued to battle booze even after her big musical break in 2007.
She recently turned 40. She has attended Alcoholics Anonymous and jokes that she has been “part of more support groups than most people have hot dinners”, adding, more seriously, “but at least I’m not in a lock-up ward”.
A medical professional once warned her that “people like her” usually ended up in just such a place. “I asked ‘Is there a chance for someone like me?’ and was told no, that people with conditions like mine usually end up in a lock-up ward by 30. As in, so-called abuse victims, alcoholics, people with eating disorders and drug addicts.
“I’m not a drug addict but I used to smoke weed, yet can’t now because I have an addictive personality. Bulimia nearly killed me when I was 27. I lost part of my stomach wall. I was binge-eating, then throwing up. Bulimia was the worst, really. Because people can see a drunk, and say, ‘she’s drunk, we’ll help her’, but they don’t see someone who is bulimic or anorexic. And I’d be binge-drinking, then I’d go binge-eating. I got that under control, though it is still something I have to watch.”
Alcoholism, Majella admits, “screwed up” a lot of her relationships. “There is a selfishness attached to alcoholism and a sense of self-centredness, and we don’t always see the pain we cause to others near us, people who love us dearly.”
Six months ago, Majella did put two members of her family through such pain, an experience that led to her giving up alcohol. She lives alone, and she started drinking one day at 5am, finished at midnight, and made her way through a bottle and a half of vodka, eight beers, and a bottle of wine.
“So my sister phoned that day, I was bawling crying and I said ‘I can’t stop’. She said, ‘we’re coming for you tomorrow’, and I knew it was going to be the last day. I’ve never been suicidal, thankfully, but I would have killed myself. Not deliberately, but I would have had a heart attack or a stroke.
“But the next day, [my sister] Mary, who is so very good to me, and her husband, Paul, came and they took me off and minded me for three days, and I haven’t drunk since.”
Such revelations add authenticity to the theme of Majella’s new single, Too Small to Follow. She recites part of its lyric for me. “The rain is pouring down here and I can’t be the clown here today/ The sun won’t come out because the spring is just too far away/ But I can feel life calling me/ Stand right there and catch me in case I fall/ If not I’ll be too small to follow/ And won’t make it here at all.” Set to a glorious pop tune, and sung by her richly resonant voice, the song is truly uplifting.
Majella has another musical project next year, one that doesn’t seem to have made its full impact on her as she speaks about it. Having converted from Catholicism to Buddhism three years ago, Majella now lives as part of a Buddhist community in Cork and has been chosen by Tibetan Buddhist leader Tai Situ Rinpoche (“who has 30 million followers”) to put music to his words. She will be the first westerner, indeed the first person, to do this.
“He said he had never heard a voice like mine, so this is a great honour, I know, but it probably hasn’t hit me yet. But the truth is that what I do will be available in Taiwan, and all over India, where I will be going for the launch. So it is huge.”
It’s a long way from fly-fishing in a Kilkenny river with her father, and Buddhists might say that this time the “river” is truly cosmic. “That’s what it is like, now you mention it,” Majella responds, beaming. “And actually when I stop and think of that, I’d have to say it’s a bit of a miracle.”
Too Small to Follow is available on iTunes