If you're after cheery crowdpleasers, John Murry is not your man. Murry is 41, barely known, and has never come close to denting the charts. Yet he has been compared to the great existential pop poets Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker. And with good reason: he has a rich baritone, writes gorgeous ballads and is half in love with death.
The titles of his first two albums, The Graceless Age and A Short History of Decay, reflect the melancholy at the heart of his work. The title of his third, The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes, is equally bleak. Yet it turns out that Murry has a surprise in store.
The singer-songwriter is related to the Nobel-prize winning American novelist William Faulkner. Like Faulkner, he paddles along his stream of consciousness – sometimes ferociously. You get a sense of what his songs are about but seldom know for sure. Take the new album's opener, Oscar Wilde (Came Here to Make Fun of You). We get the references to terrorist attacks and the images of foreboding, but the meaning is left to us.
Despite having lived in Ireland for the past eight years, Murry still has a strong southern accent. Slurred words bleed into each other. If he is ever stopped by the guards, he says, they assume he is drunk
He shares many of Faulkner’s obsessions: dysfunctional families in the American south, slavery and its consequences, fallen aristocracy, addiction, violence and, of course, death. Faulkner’s most famous novel is The Sound and the Fury, a story of family tragedy told four times from different perspectives with no linear sense of time. Murry often refers to Faulkner’s work, and particularly this book. He says his parents tried to turn him into one of its characters, while he relates closely to another.
Murry was adopted by his parents before he even came into the world. He believes an agreement was struck between his Cherokee schoolgirl biological mother and his parents, who thought they couldn't have children. (As it happened, his adoptive mother gave birth to his brother a year later.) He grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi. His relationship with his parents was troubled, and he was raised by his grandmother, the first cousin of Faulkner but more like a sister to him. His grandparents were related to the Faulkners on both sides. Mississippi is that kind of place, he says.
Despite having lived for the past eight year in Ireland, Murry still has a strong southern American accent. Slurred words bleed into each other. If he is ever stopped by the guards, he says, they assume he is drunk. Murry was fascinated by Faulkner, who died 15 years before he was born.
His grandmother and Faulkner had been inseparable, and his grandfather was a pallbearer at his funeral. When Murry was growing up, his beloved grandmother told him that, despite the lack of blood lineage, he was "obnoxious" and "more like Bill than any of us". Obnoxious was the ultimate compliment, he says – it meant he challenged authority and called out cant. Meanwhile, he is convinced that his parents wanted him to be like Quentin Compson, a character in The Sound and the Fury who went to Harvard University. According to Murry, they gave little thought to the fact that Quentin takes his own life.
The character he really relates to is Quentin’s brother Benjy, labelled an “idiot” in the novel though today he might be diagnosed as autistic, like Murry was at the age of 32. Murry is phenomenally well read: rarely does he make a point without quoting an authority.
At times, he is in control of all the stuff going on in his head; at others, paralysed by it. His stories frequently get kicked into touch by competing thoughts “I have an eidetic memory,” he tells me. “I can remember conversations verbatim. I can hear multiple conversations at once too.” He’s not boasting. Many of these memories torture him. “I don’t want to remember these things,” he says.
Murry says his childhood was violent, but he is thankful for one thing: the shelf-full of books his lawyer father gave him. "I was 10 years old, and he puts books out there for me to read like The Communist Manifesto and The Autobiography of Malcolm X – books he didn't agree with."
Although his parents were set on him going to Harvard, he had other ideas. "I saw a Tom Petty gig when I'd just turned 16, and got a guitar. It was that simple." That same year, his parents discovered he had smoked a few spliffs and drunk a little alcohol. They sent him to a fundamentalist Christian rehabilitation centre in a different state. (He grew up Protestant and converted to Catholicism.)
The centre, which has since closed, used to place the boys with “host families” – the families of other children attending the centre. Not surprisingly, many were dysfunctional. Murry says he spent three weeks in one home where he was repeatedly raped by three older boys. He says they discussed killing Murry in front of him.
“There was this pretence it wasn’t happening, even though I know the boys’ mother could hear the screaming. I fought them every night till I realised fighting wasn’t going to stop them doing what they were doing. They would hold me down and rape me.” Later on, the boys were told to apologise to Murry for what his family was told had been “horseplay”.
It took Murry many years to get to the stage where he could even admit what happened to him, let alone begin to recover from it. “I want people to know if something like that happens to you, that violence is not something you bring upon yourself, just as I didn’t bring it upon myself. I was the victim of it.” He stops. “It was my first sexual experience.” It’s not a sexual experience, I say. “No,” he says quietly. “Gang-rape is not much of a sexual experience.” He pauses: “I’ve dealt with the experience. I think Nietzsche was right when he said that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It’s given me a lot of compassion, for the people who did it as well.”
After 18 months at the centre, he met a girl and walked away – from the centre and from his parents. He did any number of jobs (short-order cook, bouncer, stained-glass frame maker, antiques hustler and caseworker for children with severe emotional difficulties) played in bands, married, and had a daughter, Evie, who is now 17 and hopes to be the next Stevie Nicks.
He adores her and can’t stop telling me stories about her. “When she was seven she insisted on calling me Ike and would only respond to Tina. That’s not comfortable when you’re in a convenience store. Then she’d just shout: ‘What’s love got to do with it, Ike?’ That got uproarious laughter from everyone.”
He might not have had an addiction when he was sent to rehab, but he developed one. In his mid-20s, after he and his wife separated, Murry discovered heroin. He lost the second half of his 20s – and very nearly his life. His best-known song, the wonderful Little Coloured Balloons, is a nine-minute meditation on the time he overdosed and almost died. It’s as full of yearning as it is anguish, capturing both the woozy serenity of fading away and his desperate fight for life.
I think the thing that led to heroin was having to repeat again and again, 'I am powerless over drugs and alcohol, and only Jesus Christ can save me from that'
Ultimately, he puts his addiction down to the time he spent in rehab as a youngster. "I think the thing that led to heroin was having to repeat again and again, 'I am powerless over drugs and alcohol, and only Jesus Christ can save me from that.'" He says he knew so many young people who entered clean, became junkies and went on to kill themselves. Did he think he would? "There was a time I was certain I wouldn't make it. I still feel that way sometimes."
But, fired by music and his studies, he pulled through. He went to university and did a degree in continental philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. He then did a master's degree, with the intention of doing a PhD. By now he'd released the 2006 album of murder ballads, World Without End, with Bob Frank, the singer-songwriter who died in 2019. His professor came to the album's release show and afterwards asked him, bewildered and slightly frustrated, why he was still at school. Murry says that felt as if he finally had permission to dedicate himself to music.
As is his way, Murry did everything in his own good time. Six years later, his first solo album was released, produced by American Music Club's Tim Mooney. The Graceless Age chronicled his struggle with drugs. In No Te Da Ganas de Reir, Senor Malverde?, he sings: "What keeps me alive is going to kill me in the end." Today Murry maintains that, without heroin, he would have killed himself. The album was described in Uncut magazine as a masterpiece and named one of the 10 best albums of 2012, while Michael Hann in the Guardian said he didn't "expect to hear a better album this year".
But Murry's path was never going to be smooth. Soon after its release, his mentor Mooney died suddenly. It was another five years before his follow-up, A Short History of Decay, was released, produced by Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. This album examined the breakup of his marriage, and again received rave reviews. No subject was too bleak for Murry.
In Ireland, he has felt as close as possible to optimistic. His current home is in Co Longford, and he takes his phone outside to show me a gorgeous stretch of fields and mountains
Now he's picking up the pace. We've only had to wait four years for The Stars Are God's Bullet Holes, produced by John Parish, best known for his collaborations with PJ Harvey. As well as an extraordinarily tender cover of Duran Duran's Ordinary World, there are the familiar themes of decay, literature, guns and death. But there is one change: this album – and his fuzzy guitar – really rocks. There are even nods to ZZ Top on the title track. In its own desolate way, this is Murry's feelgood album.
In Ireland, he has felt as close as possible to optimistic. His current home is in Co Longford, and he takes his phone outside to show me a gorgeous stretch of fields and mountains. "Look how beautiful the world is," he says. Sure, he doesn't always feel like this, but when he does nothing can beat it.
Giving up drugs and leaving the United States changed everything for Murry. “Camus said the first thing a person has to do in life is to decide whether or not to take their own life and once they’ve done that they can choose to live. I don’t want to die – I know that now. I slowly realised my perspective on things has changed. I’ve changed.”
All the bad stuff has just made him appreciate what he has now. "Without those things, what would I have to feel grateful for?" Last December, he met his girlfriend, Sarah Leahy, a project co-ordinator for a medical humanitarian organisation in Afghanistan. Sarah, Evie and his music are reasons for hope.
“There’s one thing I really want you to do for me,” he says. “I want you to help me with a marriage proposal.” “In this article?” I ask, my voice squeaking with surprise. He nods. Has he asked her himself? “I basically have, but I can do it properly here. I just want to know if Sarah Leahy will marry me. Her father’s name is Desmond. He used to be a boxer and is still boxing a bit. I just want to say, ‘Can I marry your daughter? I love her and will take care of her.’” His face and tone are unchanged post-proposal, but he seems relieved. Happy almost.
Murry's answers can be tortuous, but they can also be beautifully succinct. I ask him if he thinks music has been his salvation and for once a single word suffices. "Yes!" he says ecstatically. – Guardian
The Stars Are God's Bullet Holes is out on Friday, June 25th, on Submarine Cat Records. To celebrate the release Murry will be performing a gig at Whelans in Dublin, streaming for free at 8pm that night, via his YouTube and Facebook channels
The Rape Crisis Helpline is online and at 1800-778888
John Murry's girlfriend, Sarah Leahy, has accepted his proposal of marriage in the penultimate paragraph of this article. Congratulations to them both