John Murry: gracefully grumpy

He may be a bit of a grump but singer-songwriter John Murry’s “scarily honest” album ‘The Graceless Age’ is a bit of a triumph. ‘Songwriting? To me it just happens and that’s all there is to it,” he says.


He initially speaks with the slur and tone of a sulky, intellectually under-developed teenager, but it’s soon clear that Mississippi native and current Californian resident John Murry is having a laugh. Either that or he has just woken up. Whatever it is, Murry quickly bounds back from potential narcolepsy with a series of quotes that are sure to end up in 10 months time as some of the year’s best.

But where has this man come from, and why is he being taken so seriously so quickly? The tale Murry tells is equal parts wildly entertaining, deeply philosophical and scarily honest – and that’s just on his most recent solo album, Graceless Age , which, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, is more about his quest for love and redemption than his (now victorious) battle with drugs . But that issue is for another conversation – Murry makes it pleasantly clear that the drug “issues” have cropped up so many times in interviews that he’s all talked out about them. Instead, he’s in reflective recall mode, amiably brushing aside a question or two to talk about how he started making music.

“I think probably from the time I could speak, I’d sing in church. Then I started a band when I was in my early teens; in fact, as soon as I learned how to play three chords I reckoned I should be in a band, and so I got people to join these bands even though they didn’t really know how to play any instruments. We were terrible, but that didn’t matter.” He drifts off-point, drawn, perhaps, to darker memories. “There was a period of time when my daughter was born where I didn’t play music, but that changed.”

Such an early entry into music, Murry remarks, was an antidote to his lack of ability “to communicate with other people in other ways. I can remember singing in the church choir and thinking that it felt amazing, that there was something transcendent about it. It’s almost like a drug, in a way – the feeling you get when you’re in a band, releasing records. You get a real sense that there’s something bigger out there in the ether – or something more important than just human beings.”

What was it like for him as a young teenager playing in bands – was it, as most people presume it might be, a blend of adventure and risk? Murry laughs off such a description – it may be a bit too rooted in Huckleberry Finn-like larks for him.

“Oh, man, there wasn’t much to it, to be truthful. What I do remember is that there didn’t seem to be many other bands around like the ones I was in. Essentially, I was in a series of punk groups, but they didn’t really work out. It became a goal to keep them going, especially in one band because the drummer drank a lot of booze – an amazing amount, I recall. Actually, a phenomenal amount! I still haven’t met any one who could drink that much and still keep the beat. It ended up almost as a competition to see how many venues we could get banned from.”

Back then, he says, it was both conflict and challenge to lock horns with the type of music that was all too prevalent in his hometown of Tupelo.

“I felt that the majority of stuff people were doing was really bad, but I knew that what we were doing wasn’t great, either. I barely knew how to play an instrument let alone how to write songs. I was a really angry late teenager/early 20s guy, so maybe my emotions were reactions to how bad things were around me.”

Punk bands dispensed with, Murry started to write songs on his own. He would occasionally play in Memphis, but found it difficult to find a genuine audience. “The gigs are peppered with people that you know or live very near you. I quit playing there, and then we moved to Oaklands, California.”

It was around this time (from 2004 onwards) that Murry’s years of drug problems began. He’s past that now, of course, but he knows his self-confessed unsociability has also been something of a hindrance.

“I sorta think that I hate everyone until I meet them,” says Murry, “and then after talking to them I discover I like them. I’m one of those roving misanthropes who just realise, eventually, that most people aren’t as bad as I think they might be. But, yes, I keep to myself to the point of making myself a bit of an oddity, or giving people the idea that I’m a bit strange.

“I mean, some people at my daughter’s school have figured out that I’m a musician, and they initially looked at me in a way that indicated I had hurt them emotionally by not telling them what I did for a living. But I don’t tell anyone what I do – I like a normal life, and music is something I do in order to feel normal. You’re right, I guess I’m not a very sociable person, but I have close friends, and that’s enough for me.”

Murry also has the gift of songwriting – Graceless Age is one of those rare records that eloquently expresses what it means to have been given a second chance in most areas of adult life. Curiously, he views the album’s perfectly appointed songs in a different light to the reviewers that have fulsomely praised its song craft.

“Songwriting? To me, it just happens, and that’s all there is to it. Some people write with other people so as to hide their own limitations – I have no interest in that. The thing they should do is to try to overcome whatever it is that they think they can’t do. The way I write songs is that they come when they come, sooner or later. There seems to be no real rhyme or reason about how, if or when they arrive. I’ve tried to teach myself not to think about that too much anymore.

“There’s a bunch of stuff I hear, and all I hear is craft. I find a lot of that to be despicable. When you try to emotionally be something using a songwriter’s version of scrapbooking, then in my mind you’re a liar. It’s like the first time I heard people such as Tom Waits, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the like – I can remember thinking that what I was hearing from them was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Overly crafted songwriting, on the other hand, is about everything you’ve heard before.”

Murry is on a roll, but he needs to be somewhere else real soon, so he concludes his initially drowsy discourse with what should be included in any future text, discussion or book about the art of song writing.

“The only question that should be asked is this: what does the song require? The question that should never be asked is what does the overly emotional person who wrote the song require.”

John Murryperforms at Kilkenny’s Set Theatre, Friday February 21st, Belfast’s Empire Music Hall, Saturday
February 22nd, Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church, Sunday February 23rd. His latest album,
Graceless Age , is out now through Rubyworks/
Evangeline Records

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