by Craig Howieson
Beauty in the wilderness: Paul Murphy on the contentment found in the passing of time, and a unique Scottish kinship
‘The plan was always to come back, and I’ve done that now.’
POSTDATA’s Paul Murphy moved from Montreal to Halifax a year and a half ago. A town just 200 miles from where he grew up in Yarmouth, it is an area of undisputed beauty though not exempt from its share of challenging conditions. In fact, as we begin our call, he has just stepped in the door from shovelling snow following a huge storm. ‘It was pretty nuts!’ he laughs.
The extremes of his surroundings may go some way to explaining the content of his lyric pad. His words, both with his band Wintersleep and as POSTDATA, have always carried a wildness within them. It is something that is particularly evident on his epic new record, Twin Flames; an album where wolves wait outside your door, nights are moonless, clouds drip and floods break. It’s a place of tumult where on the title track Murphy sings of ‘waiting out the storm.’ Such imagery lends his music a sense of enormity, as drama unfolds against cinematic landscapes. Murphy explains how he believes ‘it’s mostly an east coast thing. I grew up in a really rural town with a lot of access to nature, so I think that maybe it comes from that. You are accessing memory and a lot of my childhood memories are outside, so it factors in a lot to lyrics I think.’
However, his love of the wilderness is not always a result of first-hand experience. ‘I like to think of myself as an outdoors type of person, but I don’t go out as much as I probably should.’ Many of his formative literary influences utilised the same method of finding apt metaphors in the natural world to express their innermost turmoil and longing. ‘I’m just a really big fan of the romantic era of literature,’ Murphy says excitedly. ‘Writers like Shelley and Keats, and of course Robbie Burns.’
From Wintersleep’s inception in 2001 through to today, Murphy’s music has always been tinged with an elemental darkness. Manifesting itself in the minor chord brooding of many of his tracks, as well as meandering into their lyrics, much of it can also be attributed to his startling voice. Worn and distinctive, it pierces through his music like the streak of a silver knife’s edge. His impressive range – treading close to, but never falling into a baritone – allows him to plumb a depth of emotions, and renew himself throughout the record.
Twin Flames does not escape the encroaching night as made abundantly clear by the record’s stunning closing track, Tomb. ‘It’s a song about loss and grief – and going through that process,’ explains Murphy. But chatting to him on the phone, he seems miles away from the themes of some of his songs. He comes across as being at ease; candid, optimistic and looking for the fun that life brings.
In fact, it would be disingenuous to describe Twin Flames as a sombre record. The calypso clatter of Nobody Knows, and infectious propulsive energy of Behind You show the depths of Murphy’s musical diversity, and prove that sometimes a positive backdrop can serve as a fitting ring in which to wrestle difficult subjects. Even when discussing Tomb, which he himself describes as a ‘dark song’ he is quick to add that despite it being about loss, it is as much about ‘trying to find something that you can take away from it that is positive.’
There is a school of thought in psychology that all change, regardless of its nature, brings both losses and gains. It is a useful tool in dealing with some of life’s harshest realities while maintaining perspective when things are going well. It is something Murphy appears attuned to, and his search for silver linings extends to his outlook on life in general.
There are two tracks on Twin Flames during which he strips humans back to their bare components: Nobody Knows (‘We’re all just skin and bone and breath’) and Inside Out (‘We are who we are / Shoulders and tongues and toes and teeth and tears’). It acts as a reflection of our impermanence, and an attempt to put the human race in the context of the wider natural world. Murphy agrees that he is ‘definitely making that connection.’
‘You are just like a spec in terms of the universe or the world – the past or the future. Your existence is something that is so small. I think I have always sort of felt that way, but the older you get, the more you feel that. I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing. You’re still a part of all these things, so it’s a case of finding a place within it all.’
Contentment is not easy to come by and is something many strive for but cannot grasp. For Murphy, his sense of it appears to stem from the peace he gains from songwriting and playing music in general. ‘I’ve always felt that, first and foremost, writing songs is a way of processing your feelings or your emotions or making sense of things around you, and then you turn it into something that’s creative. But I think I would still be playing the guitar without writing a song or without even having that in mind. I find it a really meditative thing, and it’s just a great activity in and of itself. That’s sort of the main purpose I think for me.’
Despite often being seen as a sideline for his work with Wintersleep, or some sort of solo endeavour, POSTDATA has from the outset been a fully-fledged collaborative project, featuring members of Wintersleep, Blonde Redhead and, perhaps most notably in terms of their overarching influence, Frightened Rabbit. Grant Hutchison and Andy Monaghan from the band contributed to POSTDATA’s previous record, Let’s Be Wilderness, and Monaghan returns again to feature on a track this time around. ‘That song that Andy’s on was just missing something really atmospheric, but cool and it’s definitely something I couldn’t do’ says Murphy. ‘He’s an amazing musician, but he’s also amazing at production, and I feel that during this time frame, it felt extra important to get people involved that I am friends with.’
‘I don’t think I ever want it to be just me working away, and then putting something out,’ Murphy continues. ‘I find that music is a communal experience and this record has been great because it was a way to work together at a time when no one can hang out or do anything.’
Incorporating the work of those he loves and respects also gives an additional significance to his work. ‘It adds such depth for me to have something from someone I really respect musically and I am a friend with as well. It makes the song so much more special for me.’
As we return to talk more about Frightened Rabbit, Murphy is keen to discuss the influence of Scott Hutchison – who tragically passed away in 2018 – and the group on him in general. ‘Touring with Frightened Rabbit was a really big moment for us. It was one of those things that happened at the right time in life. Just seeing Scott as a performer was really inspiring. I am still really inspired by the way that he writes, and I think there has always been a connection to be made between the way I think about lyrics and the way that Scott wrote lyrics.’
His connection and affinity with Scott and Frightened Rabbit extend to his experiences with Scotland in general. ‘It’s a weird multiverse,’ he laughs. ‘I don’t know what it is, but the people I met in Scotland definitely could have been from Yarmouth; just a very like-minded people.’
We end our call with Murphy as positive and effusive as we began. In summing up his latest offering he says, ‘lyrically it does feel like it has more of a positive feeling than even the last record.’ It is a positivity and musical confidence that has grown in him over time, as he concludes plainly, ‘the older I get, the more comfortable I get in terms of being in my own skin.’
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