John Murry: Mississippi meltdown
As the singer/songwriter John Murry prepares for Saturday night's gig, he tells Edwin Gilson his remarkable story of pain, addiction, hatred of racism, being a dad and an unforgettable night in Belfast
On the face of it, songwriter John Murry has it pretty good right now. He lives with his wife and daughter in the beautiful Bay Area of San Francisco, California. He saw his 2012 debut album The Graceless Age compared to the work of the folk greats and placed near the top of many end-of-year lists.
He's an intelligent, articulate artist, which becomes quickly apparent when engaging in conversation with him; indeed his speech is littered with references to writers and philosophers.
However he is also evidently haunted by his past, and by human nature, and prone to morbid pontificating.
"It sounds harsh, but people praise self-destruction," he sighs, halfway through our chat. "We all have this drive towards love but also death, as Sigmund Freud indicated. We praise self-destruction because we all have this damaging self-destructive streak in ourselves."
Murry's own self-torture comes from the mental baggage he carries around every day, which he brought movingly to life on The Graceless Age.
The 33 year-old, who like Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, is a former heroin addict. His habit drove away his wife and daughter. He overdosed and almost died. He has reconciled with his family now, but the scars of that terrible time are laid bare in Murry's music.
He comes to The Empire in Belfast on Saturday for a show that promises to reflect all elements of Murry and his work; darkness and anger, but also warmth and hope.
Some of the most affecting art derives from squalor, and indeed much of Murry's debut album is inspired by the barren landscapes and "emotional violence" of the "hate-filled" American South.
The singer clearly has a complex relationship with his native Mississippi. Whilst it evokes bitterness in him, he also acknowledges its artistic and personal worth.
Indeed, Murry admits the South "is where everything I write about came from; everything I care about."
"The South is in a lot of ways mysterious," he adds in his pained drawl. "It's welcoming and hospitable but also really frightening. So much American art came from Mississippi though, or music at least.
"The blues, jazz, country music, rock and roll; it all came from the oppression of black people in the South. They found a way to transcend the pain of existence."
Racial issues in America is a subject close to Murry's heart, and he returns to it throughout our interview. When ruminating on the matter, he refers repeatedly to Southern gothic author William Faulkner, who was a cousin of Murry's mother.
"Faulkner was not liked in Mississippi until he won the Nobel Prize, and he was almost dead by then," says the singer.
"His family looked at him as a complete waste. I think it's because he was crossing a lot of boundaries. For example, a black woman raised him when he was young, and then when she was old and dying, he moved her into his house and took care of her, along with his own mother.
"So essentially he didn't see the difference between the two women; he loved them both. Racially, those lines were not supposed to be crossed."
Some of Faulkner's stories are based on graphic diaries the writer found on slave plantations when he was a young boy. The harshness but trueness of Faulkner's literature is what Murry means when he refers to the "emotional as well as physical violence" of the South, a lot of which stems from the brutality of slavery.
"What's really horrifying in what we call gothic Southern literature is that it's closer to fact than historical factual accounts," states Murry dramatically.
"At the end of Flannery O' Connor's short story A Good Man is Hard to Find, this man just murders this family he's just met. Those are the kinds of stories which symbolise the atmosphere that I grew up with, and it's horrifyingly real."
Murry is the only member of his extended family that doesn't still live in the South, but he concedes that he's "quite defensive about where I'm from, in a knee-jerk way. It's such a misunderstood place. I hate it just as much as I like it, and I could never imagine raising my daughter there."
So the singer and his wife (his daughter was born a little while later) moved out West, a region typically thought of as a kind of Promised Land in America.
"Since the gold rush people have been flocking over here," agrees Murry. Perhaps predictably though, he has grievances with his new home: "the last thing I want to be is Californian."
The Bay Area is, in Murry's view, is more racist than the South.
"If you were going to ask the majority of black people whether California is more racist than Mississippi, they'd say yes," he stresses. "My experience of it is that there is a lot of neo-liberalism going around here and this tends to make Californians chicken out. They think they're beyond prejudice.
"They point the finger at the South and say 'at least we're not like that', but the reality of it is that these prejudices exist across America.
"When Californians say 'this is a bad neighbourhood', they mean the same thing Southerners mean when they say 'this is a black neighbourhood'. They just don't know they're doing it, and that's what makes it more dangerous.
"At least in the South you know who the racists are. They have Confederate flags on the back of their trucks. Not much has really changed in the US since the Civil War; racism comes down to what you look like and how well you can lie."
Being a father seems to be a concept that has suddenly sprung up on Murry.
"It never occurred to me until quite recently, this whole dad thing," he says, laughing softly for the first time. "I'm so glad me and my daughter are really close, like I drop her off at school every day, but I don't know if I ever saw myself as being a dad."
Murry stresses the importance of his "moral choice" in deciding to move to California, declaring it was all for his family. Pondering the South's flaws again, he is adamant that it's no place for any young child to grow up, as he did in Mississippi.
"To just accept the kind of racism and hatred I grew up with is nothing less than sinful," he impassions.
"It's immoral. It's b*******. It's a weakness, and I don't want my daughter to grow up in a place surrounded by that.
"I don't want to her to be forced into that desperate choice between acceptance and rebellion. I didn't want her to be part of the entrenched values of the South, or an outsider there."
It was muscle surgery, and the "warm glow" he received from the painkillers he was given after the treatment, that led to Murry's heroin addiction and subsequent overdose. The singer relished the soothing sensation of the pills so much that he was desperate to replicate it after his prescription had run out. In his own words, he "just couldn't stop".
His heroin habit almost destroyed him, and the experience is unflinchingly related on The Graceless Age's remarkable centrepiece, Little Coloured Balloons.
Does Murry reluctantly relive these awful memories on stage every night when playing the song, or is it a more detached process now?
"It's actually worse now," he replies grimly. "The more distance there is from the time I wrote the songs, and the more I've performed the songs, the less I have to think about physically performing the songs.
"So that means the lyrics and the painful connotations of them are really laid bare. I'm drawn back into that imagery. I'm more aware of it now, and it's more painful."
Murry is somewhat perplexed by the way certain audiences have reacted to Little Coloured Balloons. "That song is so personal and haunting to me that I find it difficult to understand what people find so satisfying about it. Although when I see people crying when hearing it, I sense it's maybe relief they're feeling rather than satisfaction.
"They may have experienced the same things I have."
Equally confusing to Murry is the critical acclaim The Graceless Age received. He flatly states that he made the album purely "out of necessity, because it's just what I do".
"When I made that record I was really strung-out. I had a really bad drug problem. I just feel that ... well, I can do a lot better, you know?
"The praise feels very foreign to me, because I don't understand the, quote unquote, greatness of any of it."
He pauses, and then laughs modestly at the notion of himself as a modern day songwriting icon. "Most of the time I'm just sitting here staring at the floor thinking I need to sleep," he says.
Murry plans to release a new EP soon, possibly on Record Store Day, and insists the success of The Graceless Age doesn't mean there is added pressure on any follow-up work.
"Perhaps I do sometimes feel a responsibility to do things that people want me to do, but I'm certainly not going to yield to that pressure. I have to keep that world at bay. I don't want to rebel against or accept any idea; I just want to create something that's honest and real."
The Mississippian "only wants to rely on himself" when it comes to making music, and has enough confidence in his own ability to do so that he believes he was "born and blessed with this gift".
Of course external factors always play a part in a musician's creative self-esteem, and no more so than a life-affirming gig. Murry remembers such a show in Belfast a few years back.
"The one gig I always think about is one of the first I played over there, in support of the record," he remembers.
"Everything seemed to click, and it was really because of the audience. It was a really small place in Belfast, and I think there were maybe 75 or 80 people there.
"The audience were even singing the backing vocal parts! It was just like the veil between me and the audience was torn.
"There wasn't enough room on the stage for my entire backing band, so I decided to stand on the floor and almost make myself part of the audience.
"It was a magical experience, and those only happen occasionally.
"It's a little like blood-letting, to see whether people around you are going to back away or if they're going to help you. That show was so amazing and transcendent. Everyone in my band points to that night as the one where everything fell into place."
For one of the first times in our interview, Murry is unable to offer an explanation for something.
"The reason I use the word transcendent when I think of that Belfast gig is because I can't really make sense of it myself," he quietly ponders.
"I mean ... the magic is completely beyond me. I didn't provoke it or intend for it to happen."
Although Murry is in a better, safer place in his life now you get the impression that this sensitive soul needs these wondrous experiences to continue to progress and move away from the turbulence of his recent past.
His gig at The Empire on Saturday night provides the next chapter in his remarkable story; a story of pain, confusion and the redemptive powers of rock and roll.
"I'm really looking forward to coming back to Belfast; I'm always chasing those kinds of great shows," says Murry with a smile. "I live for them."
John Murry plays at The Empire in Belfast this Saturday, 7.30pm. For more info go to www.thebelfastempire.com