Posts Tagged ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’

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John Murry’s third album is starlit and wondrous, like being wrapped in the softest black velvet. It’s an album of startling imagery and insinuating melodies, of cold moonlight and searing heat. It’s a record that penetrates to the very heart of you, searing with its burning honesty, its unsparing intimacy and its twisted beauty.

Murry’s previous two albums had been responses to specific traumas: the centrepiece of his debut, ‘The Graceless Age’ – the astonishing ‘Little Colored Balloons’ – told of his near death from a heroin overdose; its follow-up, ‘A Short of History of Decay’, was recorded in the wake of Murry’s marriage failing. ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’, coming six years after Murry left the US for Ireland, is the result of a period of stability, though in Murry’s case it’s all relative (“I think a lot of what we call contentment is delusional,” he observes).

The result is a record that shares its predecessors’ lyrical ingenuity, but this time the sadness is shot through with humour, albeit a spectacularly black humour. “Of course I’d die for you,” opens the title track. “You’d watch me, wouldn’t you?” ‘I Refuse To Believe You Could Love Me’ has Murry venturing into the realm of unexplained disappearances – an English aristocrat and an Australian politician: “Lord Lucan, he could not tread water / Prime Minister Holt? He never came up for air.

The humour combines with seriousness, too. The album’s lead single, ‘Oscar Wilde (Came Here to Make Fun of You)’ is allusive and elusive, with Murry singing: “Tell me: what immortal hand or eye / Is gonna give a damn enough to cry / When every day is like huffing lighter fluid / Take me to Reading Gaol with Oscar Wilde / I’ll get used to it. / Lock me up in Clerkenwell prison / I’ll blow a hole right through it.” The playfulness is reflected in the video, directed by the actor Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones/Peaky Blinders/The Wire).

“We had been talking about various ideas for videos for a while,” Gillen says, “And I had this idea of John floating around my house – or did that happen in real life? – anyways I liked the idea of a John puppet floating around upside down and mentioned this to him, His ex had made this puppet with an uncanny likeness and I used whatever technology I had to hand – a phone camera, a stabilising gimbal and a two-euro macro lens to try and make something that looked nice for the puppet part. I mean, it’s not all in focus, but there a bit too much of that these days. I was asked for the puppet back, but I’d already lost it somewhere.”

The seriousness comes from the song’s opening: “I bought fertiliser and brake fluid / Who in the hell am I supposed to trust? / Sympathy ends in gas chambers / Oklahoma City shoulda been enough.” It’s one of the many moments on the record where violence – emotional or physical – rears up, but there’s a point to that: “All of the violence in the songs, it’s not to glorify it. Oklahoma City really should have been enough. These things are going on and on in the United States.”

There’s a reason for the volatility in Murry’s writing. “Violence has been a big part of my life,” he says. “It has been inflicted on me in ways that I was unable to control as a teenager, and as a child. I grew up in a place that was violent. I grew up in Mississippi. I grew up in a way that forced me, in order to survive in a culture like that, to posture. You don’t realise until later that that becomes a part of the way you see the world. The world becomes this intrusive thing and you’re protecting yourself against it. I also realised early on that if you don’t fight you’re just going to have to fight more.”

Key to this was his relationship with his adoptive family (“They didn’t adopt me; they bought me. I had a very abusive childhood”), relatives of the writer William Faulkner, which led to the final verse of ‘Di Kreutser Sonata’: “I will prune this family tree / Cause there’s nothing left but greed / Blood money and property / Love doesn’t mean a thing / When your last name is Murry / And / Should been swindle.”

“I think I’m probably telling the truth there,” Murry says. “The part about swindle, that actually would have been my last name [had he stayed with his birth family]. The second half of that song I just kind of made up while I was in there. Some of the lines I was amazed they came. I know I would censor that now. I would change it. I don’t know that I feel good about that, but I don’t feel bad about i t either. I don’t know that I really like that line, because I don’t know that it’s all that good. It’s a weird way to end the verse. But it’s there and it’s OK. Sometimes it’s OK to let these things rest and to accept you’re imperfect.”

With such lyrical vulnerability, the need for trust when they recorded at Rockfield Studio near Monmouth in Wales early in 2020 was total, and Murry found that bond with producer John Parish (PJ Harvey, Eels, Aldous Harding, This Is the Kit). “Trust matters a great deal,” he says. “All my mad ideas, John would facilitate those fully, and get the value of them.”

John works instinctively and openly in the studio, and his songs are uncomfortably honest and revealing at times,” Parish says. “I think he encourages co-conspirators. He’s quick to identify & enlist whatever skills are in the room at any one time. I hope that I gave him the freedom to pursue outlandish ideas, and the confidence to know that someone was keeping track of them and would know how to fit the puzzle pieces together.

John is a unique character, as you’ll know If you’ve spent five minutes with him. He is interested and distracted by everything, which makes him both a fascinating and frustrating person to work with. On many occasions the hardest part of my job was to identify the moment when all that was to be said about an idea had been said and it was now time to play the damn thing. John can keep a pretty riveting stream of consciousness going for as long as you’ve got.”

Together they brought out what was needed on ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’: the simple pleasures of playing guitar figures, of working with sympathetic people, of playing music that has the same ragged looseness of Murry’s inspirations and fellow Mississipians RL Burnside and Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound, Oblivians). No one would mistake it for a blues or garage punk record, but there’s that same organic sense to its rumbling guitars and contained wildness, nurtured by Parish.

One of the record’s delights is a stark and subdued version of Duran Duran’s ‘Ordinary World’, and it’s not surprising, perhaps, that a song about someone looking for the ordinary world in order to learn to survive might resonate with Murry. Has he found his own ordinary world? “In a sense I have,” he says. By which he means he has accepted his place in life is to make music, and what is important is the making of it, rather than what results might be. “I realise now I can come back from things like trauma and the decisions I have made. Ordinary for me has become just a matter of accepting who I am relative to what I do. I’ve pulled out each and every one of my ribs at night when I sleep. I don’t need God to do it.

“That song was about Simon Le Bon being in a grocery store. I didn’t know that until later. He realised that he was no longer famous in that way. He was shopping and realising, ‘I need to do this stuff on my own and figure out how to do it.’ Everything seemed surreal to him. I think in a similar way, I’ve been through the things I’m going to go through, so at this point I feel like I’ve moved through creating records that are about trauma. I’ve worked through those things.”

So, living in the ordinary world, does John Murry think he will ever be happy? “In everyday life, contentment is a goal. But William Faulkner said happiness is for vegetables. Is it? That would be incredibly bleak, and I don’t think it’s true. But is it not egoistic for us to seek contentment when we live in a world where we know there are children who are being paid to kill other people by American private corporations? I do think that as the world becomes a place that we look out into and see as being disrupted and as disrupting more and more of our lives, that we retreat into this idea of ‘find your bliss’. And I’m not sure how close that is to contentment or happiness. That’s the ordinary world.”

‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’ is not an album for an ordinary world, because it’s not an ordinary album. It’s an album to dive deep into and submerge yourself in, and to emerge from aware that this world is a remarkable place, and that John Murry is a remarkable artist.

‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’ is released June 26 on Submarine Cat Records

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‘Look how beautiful the world is’ … John Murry in County Longford, Ireland.
‘Look how beautiful the world is’ … John Murry in County Longford, Ireland. Photograph: Johnny Savage/The Guardian

If you’re after cheery crowd pleasers, 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.

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 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 a police officer, 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 a time I was certain I wouldn’t make it. I still feel that way sometimes

“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.”

Murry in 2013.

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.

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 masters, 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.

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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.

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 County 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 America 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 coordinator 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.