John Murry’s The Graceless Age was the album of a lifetime. When it was released in 2012, it entered the hearts of countless listeners and gathered accolades from critics worldwide. An extraordinary work of breathtaking scope and ambition, it came from nowhere and seemed to have set up John Murry as a major artist. The album was listed by Uncut as one of the 10 best records of 2012.[ Mojo also included it in their 10 best albums of 2013, as well as The Guardian in their Top 50 of 2013 and American Songwriter in their Top 5 of 2013. But then things went quiet.
The Graceless Age was a harrowing document of addiction and redemption that appeared to have a happy ending. John’s marriage was rekindled, his story became folk history and all was set fair for a successful career. Then Tim Mooney died. As producer of this unique sounding record, Tim had played a crucial role, both as co-creator, mentor, and close friend of the artist. His death stunned the San Francisco music community and it shocked John Murry.
“Tim’s death left a hole in me. In the months and years that have followed, everyone that connected me to Tim seems to have fallen away. I don’t blame them anymore than I blame myself, for the most part. I just don’t understand why. What’s more to difficult to understand, however, is why he’s gone. Why he left us behind. I have made some peace with his disappearance, albeit it a tenuous one. I had to make some sort of peace with it all. I had to learn how to carry on or give in to the vacancy and pull towards some oblivion I thought I had left behind when heroin and I parted ways.”
It wasn’t long before Murry’s life was falling apart again, this time not as a result of drugs but more a combination of unfortunate circumstances. A series of fall-outs with record companies, managers and agents led to an impasse of poverty, confusion, misunderstanding and resentment that forced the momentum to a halt.
“Perhaps I am difficult. Perhaps they are. Regardless, I know who I am and I know who they are. My job is simple: to create art. I am fairly certain that theirs is to encourage and further that in order to ensure we all eat. It’s hard to believe you are biting the hand that feeds you when you are the one doing the cooking, too. Regardless, I don’t regret any of it. The hiring or the firing. The fighting for dignity over money. How it appears to the external world is no longer up to me. It’s not that world that concerns me anymore.”
As personal difficulties increased, so did the creative flow, with songs tumbling out. But a crippling lack of finance meant that any recordings, with a varied selection of musicians in the UK, the US and Australia, remained incomplete and unreleased. A messy Kickstarter venture collapsed amid recriminations and bad feeling. It seemed as if Murry was back to square one.
In circumstances that remain unclear, Murry’s marriage collapsed again and he had to leave the USA, winding up in the musician colony of Kilkenny, Ireland. He could so easily have relapsed into drugs and depression, but in Kilkenny he found himself in the supportive environment he so badly needed.
Murry is an extraordinary person, hard to describe. His faraway eyes might falsely make you think he was still on drugs, while his ever changing range of eccentric hairstyles could make you cross the street to avoid what appears to be a hobo, shuffling along in ragged jeans, holed at the knee. Record Collector magazine described him as “a deranged baddie from a cheap black and white movie”. But seldom have appearances been more deceptive. John Murry has a fierce and razor-sharp intellect, knowledgeable in the fields of literature, history and philosophy; all of it self-taught. His formal education was limited and his relationship with his parents was fractious, but in person, he will engage you in reasoned conversation, delivered in the semi-comprehensible Mississippi drawl which characterises his stream-of-consciousness stage patter, but after a while begins to make sense.
But what does he sound like? The traditional approach of comparing an artist to others from the past simply doesn’t work with Murry. He genuinely sounds like no one but himself. His voice avoids all rock and roll inflections and can vary from gentle croon to an intimidating bark, especially in live performance. And live is how to experience him, because his no-holds-barred approach means that anything can happen and no two performances will ever be the same. In fact, seldom will two bands be the same, as turnover of musicians has been rapid, as a result of Murry’s often volatile behaviour in the past. At the End Of The Road Festival in 2013, a good third of the audience was in tears and David Byrne made his way backstage to praise the intensity of the performance. The wild eyes, the jerking limbs, the raging electric guitar interludes, all make for a unique and almost frightening live experience.
Kilkenny has been good for John and John has been good for Kilkenny. In those parts, they warm to fine poets and songwriters, and John has been taken to the hearts of a whole range of musicians, artists, filmmakers and philosophers. He’s almost become a mascot for the town, appearing onstage with Duende Dogs, John Blek And The Rats, Majolian and a whole range of other local acts, and being described as an art installation as he sits silently reading in Rollercoaster Records for hours on end.
“I wonder often, especially now, whether I came to Ireland with the hope of slipping more quickly into death. I was tired. I was broken up. I was cracking up. Several years ago, when playing for the third time in Kilkenny, I was interviewed on camera. I say in it something to the effect of knowing that I could live here, wanting to live here, and feeling it to be a truly magical place. In it, I look away from the camera to hide the madness of knowing that what I was saying – despite having only spent short periods of time in Kilkenny – was true.”
In a happy outcome, Murry has been granted Irish residency, his divorce has been completed amicably and he now lives in a steady relationship and in a strong and supportive community. He’s also drug-free (apart from the occasional Murphys).
In late 2015, Murry was contacted out of the blue by Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. They had met while working together on the Mark Linkous tribute album Sparkle On and Timmins had developed an affection for Murry’s music and curiosity as to what had become of him. The proposal was a straightforward one: Murry was to come over to Toronto and record his next album with Timmins producing and members of the Cowboy Junkies as the backing band (along with the Pogues’ Cait O’Riordan on bass on backing vocals).
John Murry did just that and flew to Canada in February of this year to record. The album that is now firmly set to follow is one recorded without pretense, excessive layering, or fear. Fourteen songs were recorded in the span of eight days in Michael Timmins’ Toronto studio with Timmins producing and engineering, brother Peter Timmins playing drums and percussion, Josh Finlayson playing bass, Cait O’Riordan singing backing vocals, and – at the insistence of Michael Timmins – John Murry playing all the other instruments heard, including guitars, keyboards, organs, pianos, synths, and remaining instruments. The mixing of these songs began two months after his return to Kilkenny, Ireland, and the results are – even upon early listening – astonishing. The lyricism, melodic sensibility, and playfulness, all mixed with Murry’s honest reflection and commitment to his art, cut through in a manner previously unheard on previous recordings. The album, titled “A Short History of Decay”, is to be slated for release early next year.
In addition to creating “A Short History of Decay”, John Murry has become the subject of a documentary currently being filmed in Ireland and The United States. The documentary traces Murry’s familial ties to Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner, the strange and murky circumstances surrounding his adoption (brought to light on an episode of NPR’s “The Here and Now” in a two-segment interview with Robin Young), as well as his struggles with addiction and his subsequent overdose. The documentary is being created by a team of industry stalwarts and filmmakers, including Producers Paul Duane and Jim Lancaster, Director Sarah Share of “If I Should Fall From Grace: Shane MacGowan” fame, and Director of Photography Colm Hogan, amongst others. The documentary will allow glimpses into Murry’s life not previously allowed by the artist.
Visual artist Stephen Morton and John Murry have embarked on creating a series of comic books to be collected in graphic novel form together using television programs, stories from Murry’s life, and objects in Murry’s possession, along with elements of Luke Rhinehart’s “The Dice Man”, Gypsy playing card fortune telling, and LSD lore. The first issue will be available this fall.
John Murry recently announced the upcoming September release of a (very) limited 10” vinyl EP release entitled “Perfume & Decay”, as well as announcing his intent to solidify his place in history as “the world’s last honest songwriter” in a music video for “Under A Darker Moon” (an infectiously catchy – particularly for Murry – song to be included on “A Short History of Decay”) which he has been training – albeit poorly, but with dedication – as a pole dancer for.