Stefan Murphy isn’t one for sitting back and waiting for things to happen. Last year, the Dublin musician surprisingly split up his riff-centric rock band The Mighty Stef to morph into a one-man operation, Count Vaseline. Now based in Atlanta (but presently touring venues and clubs throughout chilly Scandinavia), Murphy is enjoying being creatively independent.
“Since stopping making music as bandleader of The Mighty Stef, I’ve written, recorded and performed everything myself with no creative or musical input from anyone else. That has restricted me in ways, but also freed me. I’m writing songs based around my own simplified drumbeats and bass lines, and I’m allowing myself to write lyrics about any and every philosophy or feeling that inspires me.”
Such an approach has placed his finger firmly on the prolific button, which now gives him total control over what, when and how his music arrives. He regards Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt's triple album, 69 Love Songs, as a key influence.
"I see the endurance side of art as an art form in itself, and I love artists with heavy output – people like Mark E Smith, Ryan Adams, and John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees. I place my faith in my audience. If it's perceived that I'm churning out records at warp speed, and also that not every song on these albums is designed to be a 'hit', then I'm hoping people will realise that Count Vaseline is largely an albums project based very much around the art of making a record and very little about commerce. Not that many people ever got The Mighty Stef, so I'm not expecting any kind of heightened degree of understanding with Count Vaseline."
The duration of new album Cascade is short (a few seconds over 25 minutes) and the song titles are dum-dum bullet points. It reflects what Murphy describes as "an exercise in minimalism. All the song titles had longer names, but I chopped them down on the final day of mixing. They almost feel more like code words than song titles. Everything about this album is brief – if you love it, you'll love it. If you hate it, then it's only taking up 25 minutes of your life."
Despite its brevity, the content is highly charged. While the music steers a course between post-punk and torch soul, the words engage with, says Murphy, "the weird turn that 2016 seemed to take in world affairs". One such song is Bodies, which reflects on "the second-hand suffering we endure by watching and reading about death on the news". The celebrity body count in 2016, says Murphy, was vast, but "it was only a spit in a bucket compared to the genocide in Syria and other parts of the world".
The US presidential election took place in the middle of the album's recording sessions. "The songs Carnival and Cult were directly inspired by this, and were recorded, respectively, on election day and results day. I like the songs, simply because it means my first-impact, core feelings on the subject are frozen in space and time forever."
Murphy says the change is good for his creative mindset and says his solo approach is more experimental and explorative than the band set-up. “There is very little second guessing, and ideas are edited but not painstakingly so. If The Mighty Stef was an honest representation of the music in my head, then Count Vaseline is perhaps more brutally honest. I’m on an acoustic tour in Scandinavia at the moment, performing stripped down versions of material from both, so I’ve discovered that in their most raw form The Mighty Stef is folk/rock and Count Vaseline is more psych/folk.”
Murphy now divides his time between Atlanta, Dublin and wherever it is the road takes him. He says that Atlanta offers him (“so far”) the very thing that Dublin struggled to: an affordable studio space “that is completely mine and that I don’t have to share”. He also says that living in the US has influenced his songwriting. “Atlanta is a great city, rich in art. My concept of home has changed a lot over the years. Dublin is home, Atlanta is home, the road is home. I like all three.”
Cascade is Murphy's second album in less than six months, and we can expect more music before the summer. His plan is to deliver further Count Vaseline albums, and then one that will have a special significance. Music industry veteran Frank Murray, who died in late December, managed The Mighty Stef for several years. He had also worked with the Pogues, Thin Lizzy, Elton John and the Frames.
“Frank and I talked about working together again if I felt like I wanted to revisit my folky/ballads/crooneresque approach to songwriting and producing. We spoke of doing a Richard Hawley-meets-Luke Kelly record, with Lee Hazelwood production style, and ask loads of stellar performers and musicians to contribute. Frank meant the world to me, and I’m thinking that to honour him I might work later this year on a lushly produced folk record and put it out under my given name, Stefan John Murphy.”
And still the wheels turn, without any apparent interruptions. So it's goodbye Count Vaseline, hello Stefan John Murphy? "Oh, no. Count Vaseline album number three will be a covers album. The provisional title is Everything's Shite Since Roy Orbison Died."
Cascade is on release through OCDC Recordings