Way back in 1971 Kris Kristofferson wrote a song, The Pilgrim; Chapter 33 , the lyrics of which could be applied to a man who was to come to folk’s attention some 35 years after the song was written.
He’s a poet and he’s a picker/He’s a pilgrim and a preacher/ and a problem when he’s stoned/He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction/Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
If nothing else John Murry is a poet and a picker and he’s documented his drug habit in some harrowing songs. As for the rest; well he has confessed to making up some absurd tales for his pal Chuck Prophet’s newsletter and at times he does seem to be a bit of a lost soul casting around for some stability. The latest chapter in his life sees him living for the time being in County Kilkenny, Ireland and setting out this week on a tour of UK dates accompanied by Grum Gallagher, guitarist with Kilkenny rock band, Duende Dogs. John was kind enough to take some time out to speak to Blabber’n’Smoke about his latest adventures.
I believe that you’re living in Ireland for the time being. How did that come about?
Well, Willie Meighan (promoter and record shop mogul in Kilkenny) set up six or seven dates here for me back in March and back home well, I’m getting divorced. I guess things just became so contentious I felt the best thing to do was just to stay away for a while. I don’t know if I intended to stay here but communications were going wrong, getting mixed up. There were recordings I had made in Australia and Oakland and here and even if I could have salvaged them and put them together I don’t think it would have made any difference because the feelings about them were just too claustrophobic and I didn’t think that anyone cared about getting them finished.
So, in terms of your recordings does that mean that you’ve scrapped them and are having to start over again?
Yes but I’m OK with that. Well, no I’m not. I’m not OK with how difficult it is to have to do that and I’m pretty frustrated with how the whole thing has played out. It’s all a bit confusing for me. The way support from labels and management was supposed to be, I thought I could finish the record but when I met with the people it became clear that there had been kind of, bad blood happening. I mean if I could do anything else I swear to Christ I would, anything other than make up songs and play them. I had no idea it would become as difficult as it’s become.
You’ve been living in Kilkenny then since March. How have you been finding that?
It’s an amazing place, I mean it’s smaller than Tupelo Mississippi where I grew up and there’s so much going on all the time. People have been so supportive and it’s amazing that even with the way the Irish economy, the whole European economy, being the way it is that they put on things and people go to shows. They really do support the arts here, it’s really phenomenal. From 2007 when Bob Frank and myself first came here, there’s something about the place that does feel like home. It wasn’t a bad place to land up in.
You’ve been playing quite a few shows in Ireland, how has that been?
It’s been good, I’ve met Grum Gallagher whose been playing with me and who’s going to be doing the tour with me. It’s given me time to find people around here that I really like playing with and who do it for the same reasons I do, especially Grum. So it’s a bit like getting to start over again and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s given me a chance to go through the songs and hear for myself which ones actually stand up on their own as songs as opposed to what I was doing, getting locked into creating something and then continuing to work on it without thinking about what it would sound like if I was just playing it on my own or with just one other musician. That’s really what I wanted to do, effectively write things I could play alone or with one person and that would be enough. So that’s weeded out some songs. It actually feels a bit like when I was younger when I used to play a residency at the Hi-Tone in Memphis.
You see, things like record labels, well, I don’t think they really matter. You have to think to yourself, what am I actually getting from this relationship and what are they getting? I think there’s a kind of desperation in the industry right now to define itself and when that kind of desperation kicks in it shapes what people are willing to do, there’s a lot of games that actually get in the way of getting anything done. I think I’m blessed to have made the record with Tim (The Graceless Age), it’s let me play dates in the UK and eleswhere in the world, OK it may not be with an agency but I can still do it. Ultimately it’s not agents and managers I need, it’s the people they hate that I need. Every middle man that comes between an audience and the music is effectively nothing more than a distributer and the way that people listen to music these days has changed things. So there’s a desperation in the industry to maintain a place that they’re not able to control anymore.
I mean if you’re born cursed to make music then you’re going to do it and if people are damned enough to have to go to shows then they’re going to go. It’s always been that way. Booking agencies and record labels be damned.
That’s a terrible curse, being damned to listen to good music.
Yes, it’s a horrifying curse, especially if it rains and you’re outdoors in Scotland. Why do they have outdoor things in Scotland? I mean Ireland’s that way too but they just throw up a lot of tents, and the Norwegians, they just pass out in the mud and then they come to and they realise there’s more music and they go for it again until they pass out again.
Talking about new songs, you released a video of one called The Wrong Man, just you and your guitar. Is that the direction you’re heading in?
Yeah, that’s one I wrote that stands up as a song that can be played with very little accoutrements, it works in that way. The others I’ll be playing on this tour are all in that vein. I mean people keep saying shit about Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska but I don’t know if I necessarily hear it that way, I can hear the anger and frustration in it and maybe that’s what people are comparing but I think it’s just a soul song in half time.
To me Springsteen is more blue collar, workmanlike
Well right now I’m kind of trapped in influences from way back, from when I moved to Memphis and had access to all that Stax stuff, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham; I fell in love with that stuff. And that’s what I’m trying to do and it seems to come naturally to me and that’s what disturbs me. I mean that song came so quickly and easily that I thought, oh, this can’t be good because I didn’t have to try very hard.
Maybe that’s what we call talent
Well, we’re all talented I guess in some ways but it’s the only one I’ve got that’s stuck in my craw since I was a little kid. It’s the thing I can’t get away from because I love it too much and if that’s the case then that’s what I’m going to do. A lot of what I did before was experimentation, playing around with a lot of ideas to then create a song or to layer things into a song. I’m really curious about sonics but I’m equally curious about songs and about pushing myself as a person who writes them. I don’t like that word songwriter though. Did you know that’s the number one claimed occupation on tax returns in the United States?
No I didn’t, maybe songwriters are the only folk who pay their taxes over there! Anyway, you’ll have Grum Gallagher with you on the tour.
Yes, I’m coming over with Grum, he’s playing guitar and keys and he’s just brilliant. When we first met we became friends really quickly but I had no idea that we would sort of, get each other the way we did. We played a handful of shows together at Carroll’s Bar in Thomastown, a great place, John Martyn used to play there a bunch. They revamped the place and we opened it up and it was a great honour for me that they let me do that. Anyway, when we played the shows it just kind of felt like I had found a Warren Ellis, someone completely on the same wavelength. There’s very little we need to talk about, it’s something that we both hear and get and don’t really have the language to discuss it. It’s really been a blessing as it’s the kind of thing I’ve lacked in my life and musically for a long time, someone who isn’t outside the music being created but an integral part of it, in the middle of the battle.
We’re touring at the end of September and then we’re back in November and there are still dates being added. I’m going to be seeing places in Scotland I’ve never seen before as I’ve only played Glasgow and Edinburgh in the past so I’m really excited to be able to see the islands and things like that. We’re going to, how do you say it, Stornoway?
Make sure you take your winter woollies, it’ll be cold
Yeah, I really need to get a good jacket, I didn’t think this through. I did intend to go back to the US but then it just occurred to me that the safest thing to do was to stay here. I don’t know if I was right or I was wrong but I’m here for better or worse. I need something rainproof.
You can catch John and Grum at the dates below and apparently there will be a limited edition live album of John’s show at the 2013 SXSC Festival available at the shows. The disc will also be available for a limited time via The Swiss Cottage Sessions, contact them via Facebook for details John has also been working on a new EP in Ireland.
25th – St Mary’s Church, Guildford
26th – Private show, Winchester
27th – Upstart Crow Festival, – London
28th – The Prince Albert, Brighton
3rd – The Fox and Newt, Leeds
4th – The Cluny, Newcastle
5th – Admiral Bar, Glasgow
7th -The Ceilidh Palace Ullapool
Thanks to Garrett Kehoe for his assistance in setting up the interview