“As an artist, most people are not thinking about me so I can do whatever I want and it’ll be just fine.”
For many, adapting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic has involved a change in career, living space, daily routine, or something else significant. For some, it’s meant a shift in their creative outlet, perhaps a change in style and approach.
Somerville’s Michael Murray has experienced such an adjustment. Before everything shut down, he was performing rootsy rock tunes in local bars—you may know him from more than a few memorable nights sipping pints at PJ Ryan’s or Sally O’Brien’s. But these days, he’s been embracing electronic-based pop.
We spoke about this shift, as well as being influenced by hip-hop but not becoming a rapper, a series of singles he’s putting out, spoken word, and how he envisions performing live one of these days.
Before the pandemic hit, what was life like for you as a musician? Were you one of those guys who would play covers for three hours at a bar with an acoustic guitar or was it something more substantial?
With playing pubs, I kind of found a rotation where I would play out every couple of months. I was playing in a band which was pretty much the main outlet and when I was younger I did start out in the scene in Cambridge at TT The Bear’s and places like that. That was an awesome time, but I found with a typical 45-minute set or whatever, it would do a lot on the nerves.
In the pubs, you could play for three hours and you could also get paid better. Money has never been a big deal in music for me anyways, I never viewed it as a profit motive, but I could get a band together with good musicians and at least tell them how much they’d be paid. I usually would strike a deal with the pub to know what to expect beforehand, where in the rock clubs it’s based on the turnout for that night.
I found the main thing with the pubs was that you could play for a long time and get into a groove. You’d play your first set, take a rest, and then play your second set to finish off the night. We’d do a cover here and there, but we’d usually play songs that I write. Because of a small place like Toad, Bull McCabe’s, or any of those places, they tend to lead you to make a certain type of music. They lend themselves to a rootsy kind of sound and there’s great artists out there experimenting and making great music in that zone. It’s great, I like to do that too, but it’s not conducive to other types of music.
When playing live was no longer an option, I still felt motivated to keep writing and to keep doing stuff. I also felt liberated from writing in that style of music that would work well in a pub scene.
What inspired you to go towards the electronic indie pop route while in lockdown? Was it out of convenience because of the equipment you have at your disposal? Or have you always been a fan of this kind of music?
I’ve always certainly listened to a wide range of music, a lot of it has an electronic-based production. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, I always have and I don’t make hip-hop because when I’ve tried to experiment with it I didn’t feel like myself. I do like a lot of the production elements of it, which I do get some inspiration from along with artists who use electronic tones for their sound. After some writing and experimenting, nothing ever really clicked until I wrote “Do You Ever Feel Like” that came out in September. I had this idea in my head after I set up a new home recording studio with an audio workstation called Reaper and I wasn’t really hearing a guitar in my mind so I didn’t pick it up.
I instead sat down in front of the computer with a mini keyboard and I started to map out what I was hearing in my head. That’s when during the learning process that I knew I could make this happen. I feel like I had maybe tried in the past and I hadn’t been able to achieve it, this time around I have been able to successfully get these sounds from my head to come out through the speakers. Once I made a song that I was really happy with it just flowed from there, and now I have an album’s worth of songs written. I’ve also been getting new ideas along the way too, so I’ve been going off on tangents and exploring each idea while keeping it in a range where it sounds cohesive.
It’s been a common thread in how the music is produced and I’m singing in a more talky, lower voice to focus on some different elements.
You’re releasing a new song on a nearly monthly basis since September. Have you been doing it this way so you won’t have a high concentration of material to put out at once, where it would make it easier for people to listen bit by bit? Or have you been doing it to keep your creativity flowing in a certain direction?
First, all of the above, but I’ve had the experience of making albums. The way that making an album usually goes for me is that I would start it, maybe get discouraged at some point with something, put it aside, and then literally years can pass. It’s not what I do all day, I have a job and I have a family so I can’t just focus on music 24/7. I decided this time around to share each song as I go along and one of the liberating things about it is how few people are listening.
I have been able to gauge my audience recently by doing this, but when it comes to the planet very few people are paying attention to what I’m doing. So I figured that I might as well share whatever I got as I go along and then I can go back to all of the tracks after they’re all out and re-release them as an album. I’ve been thinking about it as you’re at a party and you’re self-conscious so you think that everyone else thinks you’re being awkward, but in reality no one is paying attention to you. As an artist, most people are not thinking about me so I can do whatever I want and it’ll be just fine.
You also followed up your latest single on Feb. 11 with the spoken word piece “Ellipse,” which has a very stream-of-consciousness style to it. Did any particular poet or author influence this or did you do it simply to continue experimenting?
After I finished “Maybe So…,” I had an idea that came to me that was literally connected to the song at first, and when I left it halfway through I realized that it was too much of a downturn in pace. It carries on a similar sound that the single has, especially during the end. I made a loop out of the crowd sound to make a beat and I originally had more of a rap flow going on it, but then I really listened carefully to how it sounded. I then adjusted the way I was delivering it to something that I felt more comfortable with.
Like I said before, very few people are listening, so I could do whatever I want, but I also want to feel good about what I make. Basically, when you’re borrowing from different cultures, it better feel good, so I’ll adjust it until it’s something that sounds right to me. As far as inspiration, Leonard Cohen has definitely been on my mind sometimes with some of the stuff. That’s who I usually think of and I also think of the producers for Outkast, Organized Noize. I’m a huge fan of them and when I think of what can happen with a beat or music under my vocals, I often think about what they do.
I don’t think I’m catching Leonard Cohen or Outkast as far as what I’m doing, but they’re a couple of artists that influence me.
Whenever live music happens in a normal setting again, can you picture yourself bringing this new style you’ve adopted to an actual stage? Or do you feel more comfortable with having it be an at home project?
I actually have been thinking of this and I do have a pretty specific idea of how I’d like to perform this live. It’s different from anything I’ve seen or done before, so I don’t know how to explain it. I’d like to bring in more of that speaking kind of voice and I’d like to interact with the audience more and get into the music with them while being in conversation, in a sense.
Unfortunately, there are things that we absolutely can’t do because of the pandemic, but hopefully when it ends I can come down to a bar, sit next to a person, and sing to them the bridge to “Do You Ever Feel Like.” That’s what I kind of have in mind.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.