"I Feel Finally, Fully Myself": An Interview with Alexi Murdoch
After turning down major labels, soundtracking acclaimed indie-films, and letting his new album simply sit around for a few months, Alexi Murdoch finally comes around to an important revelation: that he's never been more at ease with himself than he is right now.
It seems anomalous that an independent, acoustic musician could emerge from nowhere only to find success with song placement in such pop culture staples as The O.C., The Vampire Diaries, and One Tree Hill, not to mention a Honda commercial. Yet, Alexi Murdoch has done just that while retaining his street cred. Perhaps most famous for his song "Orange Sky"'s appearance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and forming most of the soundtrack to the hit indie film Away We Go, Murdoch has retained a grounded individuality that informs the warm acoustics that comprise his music.
Murdoch's early fame came from his Four Songs EP, sold through independent online merchant CDBaby. He turned down a major record label contract for his first full-length, Time Without Consequence, in order to maintain control over his music and his career. "I really don't want people involved in the creative process while I'm recording, who really don't have anything to do with music, whose interest, by necessity, is just pure economics," Murdoch told CNN's Simon Umlauf in 2003.
Now Murdoch's second album, Towards the Sun, has found completion and an official release (after an early version was sold at Murdoch's concerts). Comprised of only seven songs, Towards the Sun maintains the stylings that won him over to critics to fans alike. The songs are easy folk meanderings, guitars whispered beneath Murdoch's vulnerable, Scottish-accented vocals. The record is so natural and comforting that one might think it was a laborious affair for Murdoch. Yet, the creation of Towards the Sun was quite organic. "I don't sit and write the way a lot of people think of writing or crafting songs. They tend to be a bit more spontaneous. If there's any concept, it's the concept of silence; it's really about an economy of music. I would hope that there's nothing really extra involved. I've managed to get quite concise with what I'm trying to say. It also got recorded in a night, and I think that came through," Murdoch says.
Murdoch is quick to add that this album was, in some ways, an accident borne of his urge to commit his newly penned songs to tape: "I didn't really approach this as recording a record. I had these songs that felt like they belonged together, and I just really wanted to record them. I had a couple of down days and I went to this really old studio in Vancouver while I was there for a couple of days and we spent the first day calibrating the tape machine and then recording these songs the second day. I didn't really know why; I just knew I wanted to document them while they were new and fresh in my mind."
The unearthing of these songs, however, turned out to be the biggest hold-up in distributing Towards the Sun. According to Murdoch, the songs "just sort of sat on tape for about six months or so. I found myself in a basement studio in Brooklyn, and I thought, 'let's see what's on here,' and I was really surprised to discover that the songs felt like a good document. I was really happy with them. It wasn't a process of deciding what songs I wanted to make a record with. It was just a discovery of a great document and it feels true to me in some way.
"I feel finally, fully myself," Murdoch says of the new album, though he holds a special place for Time Without Consequence. Though he says he only ever listens to it if is happens to come up on his girlfriend's iPod, he cites recording the album as an "excruciating" learning experience that gifted him with much insight about the writing and recording processes, "the physics of capturing sound, and learning what works and what wasn't."
Though Murdoch doesn't feel that Time Without Consequence has the authenticity of Towards the Sun, he remains happy with the way his good judgment -- or kismet -- preserved the integrity of his debut: On the first record I hear the beginnings of things. Having said that, it's weird, I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. She said, 'What happened to that song you were going to put on the first record?'' I'm just really lucky that there was a process of selection that happened naturally then that came up with songs I'm still happy with."
It seems like a lot of thing do indeed come naturally to Murdoch, who has no real musical training, save for some childhood and adolescent dabbling with various instruments, much of which has fallen by the wayside:
"When I was very young I did a few piano lessons and I actually think in school I may have studied violin for about three or four months. I picked up the trumpet, tried the bagpipes. I was trying to find an instrument, I guess, but never very seriously. I think I learned how to read [music] in piano lessons when I was very young, but I forgot quickly, to my perpetual shame now that I'm playing more with horn players and classical players who are used to playing with people who are more conversant in that language. And I just suck."
Despite his self-effacement, Murdoch seems to have a silver tongue in the language of music, though he doesn't really remember when he took up the guitar: " I don't know when it was. When I actually got serious about it, I don't know. I'd say I really only started doing this seriously in 2000 or 2001 and I knuckled down and started working on it instead of just doing it for myself." His lack of musical training is no impediment to his clear knowledge of sonic architecture. On choosing a song order for the new record, he cites "the technical side of key changes and tempo changes." However, he hastens to add, "I don't really think about that so much as I listen and feel it out."
While his albums are indeed sparse, deeply-felt affairs, Murdoch has been playing with a band for this tour. As of this interview, Murdoch was meeting with a backing band just hours before their first show together, the product of dates newly added to his tour schedule: "There was a band for the first bit that was supposed to be the only bit, and I guess because it went really well they added a whole set of dates a week later, and the band flew back to where they were from, Brooklyn, mainly. In a way it's kind of nice because I get to play with different people. I'm going to meet the drummer I'm playing with a few hours before we play and we'll run through stuff. I'm lucky enough that I usually get to play with really amazing players, so it's not going to be terrible. I know it's going to be nice."
Despite living in the land that produced such folksy (and anti-folksy) legends as Belle & Sebastian and Arab Strap, Murdoch hasn't found much exposure in Scotland yet. "Weirdly enough, I haven't done much touring or playing [there]. This is the first time that a record will actually be properly released over there. I really got started over here [in the United States]. I never got a chance to get over there. I'm independent too, so it's not like I've got a big label that does international releases or anything. It's kind of nice because when I'm over there I'm away from everything. Not that I see that changing anytime soon because I live in a quiet place. It's been pretty quiet up until now. We'll see what happens with this next batch of music."
Given the way American audiences have taken to Murdoch's music, it will be no big surprise if Scotland gives him anything less than a warm, welcome-home reception.