Martha Skye Murphy photographed by Ceidra Moon Murphy
Left-field artist on working with Nick Cave, and pursuing solo ambitions...

There have been a lot of downsides to being a journalist in times of COVID. Interviewing people online isn’t ideal but it’s better than it was a few years ago. One of the unexpected upsides of interviewing someone via Zoom is that we get more of a snapshot into their lives than a face-to-face interview could ever give us.

When I spoke to Martha Skye Murphy she was sitting on a simple wooden chair in a room by a lit window. The wall was white and adorned with small photos in frames, pieces of art, pictures from magazines and a mirror directly behind her. It reminded me of pictures I saw once of Leonard Cohen when he was writing in Hydra in the 1960s. Of course, Murphy wasn’t on a Grecian Island - somewhere in London, to be exact - but the image of an artist locked away tirelessly working is lodged in my mind and I can’t shake it.

“Music never was just in the background for me; it was something that was just very alive in me, and I always felt the most connection and power from it and as I was growing up”.

When Martha speaks it is with a voice that, like her music, is measured. She pauses after my questions. Thinks before answering. Sometimes a wry smile creeps across her face. I can’t work out if this is because of my question or her answer. I hope its somewhere between the two. However, like her music, Murphy is direct and to the point. She is chatty, and I feel we are having a nice time, but there are things that she wants to say. Things that she needs to say. And she does.

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When I asked Martha what she is currently reading and listening to she name-checks a book by the pioneering marine biologist Rachel Carson who foresaw the entire climate movement, music by USSR Ministry Choir, Jessica Moss, and underground avant-garde genius Robert Ashley. There is a trait, in avant-garde/experimental circles, that when someone asks what you are listening to you simply name someone obscure for the sake of it, or to show you are more underground than your peers. Yet she doesn’t do this. These are the things she just happens to be listening to. There are no pretensions attached to them. She mentions Carson, Moss, and Ashley as easily as she would Madonna, Beyonce, or Prince.

Asked when she starts writing songs Martha says: “I was always writing and I was always singing, always singing. Always insisting on any opportunity to get on the tablef at other people's parties to perform. Which is maybe sort of positive endorsement from family, which is hopefully a good thing, but also may be irritating for others.” She laughs at this. It isn’t a nervous laugh, or one that is embarrassed at her memory, but a proper laugh. She sees the comedy of her younger self just brazenly standing up on a table and belting out a Cat Power song.

Then she continues: “The other day I was I was with an old family friend, and she said, ‘I remember meeting you. You'd left a poem on the table’. Every child is always creating something, and always thinking. That’s maybe the reason that we pine after that child-like self, because you're uninhibited, and you are creative, and you are thinking creatively because everything's new.”

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Her break came when she sang the opening song on Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score to John Hillcoat’s film The Proposition. After standing on a table and singing ‘Free’ by Cat Power Hillcoat said they were looking for a singer for the opening song to the film. “So that happened instantly, I went in and recorded that in one take,” she says, “And afterwards, I remember thinking, God, I hope I sang that the best I could”. After this Murphy ended singing on Cave’s 2013 album ‘Push The Sky Away’.

“I stayed in touch with Nick, so that was when I was nine, sending him songs that I'd recorded. And, and then we were just emailing all the time. He mentioned that he was recording a new album. And it just so happened that we were staying 10 minutes away from where they were recording in St. Remy in France. He said, to come over and listen to the album. And we listen to the album, and then he said, ‘You want to sing on this?’ I ended up sort of singing on the whole album. And actually, they'd planned the whole thing. They had been wondering how they were going to get me to France, and it was pure serendipity that I was there at the same time. So yeah, it was quite an organic thing.”

Fast forward five years and Martha Skye Murphy releases her debut EP ‘Heroides’ on Slow Dance. It was 20-minutes of delicate piano runs, glorious melodies, introspective lyrics, and the kind of vocals that remind you of Alison Goldfrapp, Patti Smith, and Tori Amos, while sounding totally unique. ‘Heroides’ was followed up by the ‘Black Eye’ single, the score to film The Late Departure, and the ‘Heal’ and ‘Yours Truly’ EPs. Around this time Murphy went to Margate because a band called Squid wanted to work with her on their debut album. After hearing the songs, they selected ‘Narrator’ as the most suitable. After fruitful rehearsals, and a live performance at The Windmill in Brixton, ‘Narrator’ was recorded alongside the band’s debut album by Dan Carey at his Speedy Wunderground studio. The results speak for themselves.

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Her latest single ‘Found Out’ is disturbing slice of alt-pop. The beauty of it, and the majority of Murphy’s work, is its meaning isn’t defined. After listening to it, one day I’ll think it’s about infidelity. Another time I feel it’s about redemption, and on another I’m leaning towards fear. The meaning ultimately doesn’t matter. “I would never limit the meaning of a song for anyone by telling them: Yeah, it is. Or: No, it's not,” Martha says, that smile returning.

When asked what is on the horizon Martha Skye Murphy hints that more singles and an album are on the agenda, but before that “I've got an opera coming out soon! Again, that was just completely about me experimenting with deconstructing the two elements that I have in most of my songs. Which are piano keys, and my voice.” As with her current listening, the opera is thrown out there with the same delivery as a new single produced by Carey. There is no pretence or showing off here. I asked what she is working on, and she casually says an opera. This is why Murphy is a fascinating musician. She doesn’t do what you expect, even when you expect her to be working on something outside the confines of contemporary music.

Throughout the interview Murphy sits with the kind of posture that I’d die for. She never slouches once. Directly behind her is an oval mirror in a gilded frame. It isn’t ostentatious or demure. It’s functional. At the top of the frame are a series of little spikes. When she talks, Martha Skye Murphy moves her head. There are times when her headlines up perfectly with the spikes, so it looks like she’s wearing a tiara. As she speaks about wanting to make people violently feel something when listening to her music, she looks like a duchess of the avant-garde. Time will tell whether this comes true or not, but at this precise moment, as I sit enthralled with her plans for the future, I can see it happening.

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Words: Nick Roseblade
Photo Credit: Ceidra Moon Murphy

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