It takes a selflessness and a courage to bare your soul as an artist. And for musician John Murry, his songs cut straight to into the heart of man steeped in emotion, with the psychological undercurrent of soul in distress. Born from the pain of loneliness and a desire for expression, Murry’s solo debut The Graceless Age is a raw and emotional collection of autobiographical stories. Sonically exercising his demons, his voice croons through a record that amalgamates the bleak and the beautiful, the desolate and the serene, and the questions of existence that plague us all.
After first emerging on the scene with 2006’s death-country album Word Without End alongside Bob Frank, Murry’s solo effort is as candid as it is poetic. Co-produced with the late Tim Mooney, The Graceless Age takes us through the harrowing experience of drug addiction and the isolation that comes from losing that which you love in the process. With an arresting sense of honesty and human insight, Murry is man that you should certainly get to know.
So with his SXSW set coming up this Friday, I took some time to speak with Murry about his obsession with death, how this album came to be, working with his hero, Tim Mooney.
So can you talk a little bit about The Graceless Age and why it took so long for you to complete it?
My wife and I separated in January of 2007 and in February I started working on the first stuff that we recorded for the record. And in the late spring of that year I started to use heroin and around the same time I became seriously addicted to it to the point that I was using it all day everyday. It’s almost like I had to use the drug to have the courage to do it, and I think a lot of my fear in creating the record with my name on it and doing songs alone in that way was fear of judgment. The truth is, my wife and I separated and I love her intensely and always have and I became obsessed with mortality and death and so obsessed with the creation of where would I end, that I lost perspective and forgot that before I’m a musician I’m a daddy and a husband. And because I became so afraid of death and creating that record, I wanted to exercise the fear and I started using narcotics.
That record was made to just deal—literally in real time while I was also using—to kill the pain of being alone and being away from the one person in my life who has accepted me for who I am. I think my inability to feel any sort of vanity about what I do and what I’ve created is what allows it to be honest and at least human and real and have a soul. And at times I can hear that soul sonically in the record too as well as lyrically and understand that there’s something worthwhile about what I do. The Graceless Age took so goddamn long to do and to come up with, I just felt like everything had to be right and if I was going to create a record that it needed to underscore how Tim Mooney and I worked together in the studio and how we collaborated. And then also what it was that I, for years, have heard for years as possibilities for something I could do in rock and roll that didn’t sound like anything else. I don’t see the point in not taking all the great shit that I’ve heard and making something that sounds like nothing in particular and I think that’s what rock and roll is about.
And so why was this the album you chose to make, what did this mean for you?
This is not an album I chose to make, this is the only album I knew how to make. It’s the only thing I could have honestly created because of the things I chose to do as a human being at the time—but that’s the truth. Anyone who calls them self an artist and is doing the same at any given time is a fraud.
From what sources do you draw your inspiration? As someone immersed in the world of literature, is that mainly where it originates? What other mediums are you drawn to?
Yeah, I mean literature effects me intensely. I read a lot. I remember one time giving an interview with Bob Frank and he started talking about books that he thought about when he thought about Where Would That End and I realized that we had, at the same age, the same obsession with a lot of the same writers. I don’t know what kind of reader I’ve grown into being but I’ve I’m reading this trilogy called Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr, it has this Graham Greene quality to it. I’m deeply obsessed with Greene’s work and his philosophy. After Tim’s death I was reading a lot of Schopenhauer and yeah, I see philosophy as art a lot.
I hate that I am unable to create visual art but I can see it. I love William Eggelston’s photographs—turning the object into the human and turning the human into the object, but doing it with a beauty that traps the person looking. If you found a band that was capable of doing the same thing it would be like Radiohead, like at their best, or Modest Mouse when he was at his best. These records that have a viciousness and a bitterness to them that capture an audience with their ability to have a feel and a sincerity that is both an attack and an embrace. I think that I can see that in Eggleston, in Goya, in a lot of the modern art that my wife has turned me onto. I really rebelled against modern art as a concept then I really thought about it, like I’m an untrained musician, who the fuck am I to decide whether or not Marcel Duchamp signing a urinal is art or not? The anger, the idiocy that that draws out of me sort of proves that its absurdly artistic because anything that makes anyone that emotional, even if its anger because you think its not art, that makes it kind of art out of fault. My daughter is also an incredible inspiration.
Everyone’s perception of them self is different than what others see and especially wiht something as sensitive and emotional as music, how would you descirbe your sound?
I think there’s still an element of me both trying to please and to hide in The Graceless Age. I really didn’t expect any of this attention and I don’t know that I wanted it. I can tolerate being called an asshole, I can’t tolerate being compared to other musicians. I’m just trying to tell the truth. I play emotion and I try to play the truth and I try to sing emotion and I try to sing the truth and I try to find in whatever I create answers. I kind of feel like some kind of archeologist or something, digging around in the unconscious, seeing what pops out and trying to create the sounds that go with it and making a singularity.
How have your personal struggles with addiction changed you as an musician? Do you look back on your career and see something that speaks to something different in this album?
I think all day long about what the hell is going on with the world and what went wrong with my life and what’s going wrong with everyone’s life and why are things the way they are and why they could be different. I don’t know why, I get pissed off that I’m so obsessed with thinking about that bullshit and dark crap. I want to take all of those cracks in society and in the individual broken heart and just shine a light on it and show there’s a darkness and a light and that there’s a balance and it’s all about moderation—especially moderation. Substances don’t help me create and they don’t disallow me from creating. Heroin certainly allowed me enough freedom to just do what I wanted to do on some level but I figured out how to do that without heroin. I don’t create for an audience, I create for myself, that’s how you do it. I’m not trying to out do anybody or myself.
As the distant cousin of William Faulkner, you have a unqiue southern family lineage, do you think that affects you as an artist?
Yeah, William Faulkner. I think our family sees me a lot like him and I think in Mississippi, a lot of the folks I grew up with, a lot of the folks see me in some kind of weird little way like him. He wasn’t recognized, he was still called shit like up until his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Philosophically, what Faulkner says in that is like in totality what I think and I just understand; I understand Faulkner’s relationship with the south. I don’t know that the relation would really matter but I do wonder if there isn’t some kind of weird family thing, even though I’m adopted. I told my grandmother, whose in her 90s now, that the only thing I regret about being adopted was that I really wish I had his blood in me. And she said, honey if anybody in this family is related to William Faulkner it’s you. Mississippi as a place isn’t that terribly accepting of artists; the oppression in Mississippi is what’s led Mississippians to create great art, one of the horrible truths of it. And Faulkner, I see him creating for the same reason.
You have a sound that’s rooted in an American landscape and American psyche but a huge part of your fan base is overseas. Do you think that sense of being foreign to something attracts you to it that much more?
I don’t know, I think it’s interesting that the more antiquated elements are the ones that tend to be noticed most readily in Europe. I think that here the most readily recognized stuff or not readily but the most readily noticed part is what separates the records from other records and I think that’s actually a really good thing. I dig that in the US its like called an Americana record less because it’s not a damn Americana record, it’s a rock and roll record you know? Like I almost sort of found that shit to be insulting. I think there are a lot of references to British space rock and hip hop and a lot of like 70s psych rock stuff. I intentionally set limitations for myself in writing and things for myself to force myself to work and really lyrically and sonically getting across the emotion of that thing that’s in existence. And when the song becomes more than the lyrics and sonics, it’s a song.
Can you tell me about the song "Little Colored Balloons"?
I wrote it one night at the studio, I couldn’t sleep and I just stayed there and wrote that on the piano. In Memphis I wanted to change a couple lines and it’s kind of funny, I don’t know that I really made it any better. One line I added that I do like is, “Every word under review, the jury is guilty to who,” it’s kind of like an insurance policy, you know, when it comes to critics. I even see a greater meaning to that. That song is just…that really happened. I overdosed and I was dead for several minutes andwhen I woke up, the pain was the most painful sickening feeling I ever felt—btu that didn’t stop me from using. That’s what’s horrifying. I wonder about that a lot too. They really did say I should have died. I wonder why I didn’t and I wonder what the fuck I was thinking because I had been clean for a few days and shooting that amount of dope when you haven’t used In 3 or 4 days, anybody would overdose. But I don’t know, I wasn’t consciously thinking, life was just painful in a way that I can’t explain. I mean, it was just dark. And sometimes creating music is the only thing that allows there to be any light.
There’s a balance between the bleak and hopeful that resonate throughout your music, does that reflect what you found in yourself?
Yeah, I’ll make this a really succinct answer for you, this is absolutely how I feel and what I think: Pete Seeger once said, “I have no hope but I could be wrong." Well, I have no hope and I pray that I’m wrong. That’s what I’m trying to get across in the record but it’s really true. You look around this world and it’s a wonder how the hell we all are still here, everyone is out to get you. It all went to hell in a damn hand basket and I’m just looking around trying to make the apocalypse look a little bit more kodachrome. I’m trying to give the death rattle a dance beat. That’s it.
Can you tell me about working with Tim Mooney and your relationship with him?
I learned what art is from Tim and the only way to create is being honest about what you are and what you create. And in Tim and Chuck Prophet, I had like the two best mentors. Tim was my best friend, I’ll forever be grateful for what he gave me. He produced for me in a time when I was losing my mind and I was lost my family and I’d become someone I didn’t recognize. He saw an ability in me that most of the time I don’t see in myself and the encouragement he gave me and what he demanded from me. Tim Mooney and Chuck Prophet, you get those two mentors and that’s all you need. When Tim died, my wife looked at me and said, you’ve lost your hero. I did lose my hero. My heroes dead, I’m going to walk the rest of my life off in his shoes though.
John Murry will be playing the Daily Havoc Day Party on 3/15 at Hole in the Wall at SXSW.
Photo by Amoreena Berg