INTERVIEW: Benjamin Adair Murphy
Benjamin Adair Murphy is an American blues-country singer-songwriter based in Mexico City. With a musical background that spans a multitude of genres, Benjamin has developed a unique sound that incorporates the attitude of the early punk scene with his own signature blend of blues and alt-country.
His latest album Let’s Make a King, released last year, is undoubtedly one of his most powerful works. In the wake of the album’s release and with a new EP on the horizon, we have caught up with Benjamin to get to know a little bit more about him and his music.
For our readers that might not have heard of you yet, could you please introduce yourself?
I read an interview once with the comedian Jerry Lewis. Lewis had a massive ego and regularly used to call himself ‘an American icon’. He also used to refer to himself in the third person. In the interview he was asked the question “Who is Jerry Lewis?” and I’ve always thought his answer was really funny. He said, “First of all, Jerry Lewis is a man…”
I’ve always wanted to say that in an interview, so to answer your question… First of all, Benjamin Adair Murphy is a man. He used to live in Brooklyn, and he fronted the rock band The Blue 88’s. These days he lives in Mexico City with his family. He mostly writes blues and country songs. He also doesn’t have the balls to refer to himself in the third person anymore, so that can stop now.
When did you first become interested in playing music?
When I was 12 or 13, I started making music with my friends Erik Highter and Gabriel Sabloff. I’m still great friends with both of them. Erik’s got a company in Nashville called The Speed of Things, and he works with a lot of bands in Music City. He’s got a great ear, and he’s always the first guy I send a track to when it needs an objective listen. Gabe is a film director now in L.A., and he used a song of mine recently in a movie he directed with one of the Baldwin brothers – the religious one.
Anyway, 30 years ago the three of us made some really awful music together. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing music. We just had a blast and made stupid music. I wrote my own songs as soon as I could play a few chords. I never really even thought about it – I just started writing songs. I’ve never been in a band where I played other people’s music. I probably would’ve been a better player if I’d spent some time playing other people’s stuff, but I’ve only ever wanted to play my own songs. In high school I played bass for a Grateful Dead cover band. The deal was I would play the Dead songs if they let me sing one of my original songs and a Velvet Underground cover. I only did one gig with them. The Dead fans in the audience didn’t like the VU song. I don’t think they liked my song either.
How would you describe your music?
It’s mostly a mix of country, acoustic blues, and folk. When I was living in Texas, I came up the term “Ranch Core” to describe my music. That was complete nonsense, but I thought it would be funny to invent a label for my own music. I think it makes about as much sense as esoteric labels like “dream pop” or “shoegaze”. When I played shows in Houston, I told audiences that I played “Ranch Core” music and they probably expected some kind of gringo ranchero music.
My last album had a lot of angry political blues songs on it, and the blues is certainly at the heart of everything I do, but there’s also a lot of folk and country in there.
What inspires you to write songs?
With the political blues songs, it’s always anger – usually I’m boiling over with anger at the Republican Party in the United States. The current Republican governor of Florida is a true Nazi rat bastard named Ron DeSantis. Last week he signed an “anti-riot” bill which actually gives protections to drivers who hit protesters. It’s nothing but an attempt to appeal to violent racists who are against any kind of police reform and the BLM movement. I couldn’t sleep the other night thinking about that. Right now the Democrats are busy trying to get our country back on track. We need to get the population vaccinated. We need to fix the economy. We need to deal with climate change. There is so much real work to do. And meanwhile the Republicans are focused on trying to make it easier for racist twits to hit people with their cars. There’s a song there, but it hasn’t come out yet.
Your album, Let’s Make a King, was released back in July, 2020. What’s the meaning behind the name and how was the recording process?
The song ‘Let’s Make a King’, like most of the songs on the album, is about Trump supporters. I couldn’t believe how some people in the United States were so willing to dispose of the democratic principles of their own country. I was shocked by how quickly a cult of personality grew up around a person with such despicable human qualities. In the U.S., and probably also in Canada, we often think we’re above these political disasters… But we were able to watch in real time how easily an unscrupulous person could consolidate power. It was such a nightmare, and it felt so close to the rise of Hitler or Mussolini. Unfortunately, all those people are still there. They’re just waiting for their next “Great Leader”. And the next version won’t be as abrasive as Trump. He’ll be younger and cooler. He won’t look and speak like such a Nazi. He’ll look like Matteo Salvini in Italy. Salvini has a hipster beard, and he looks like he could be a bartender in Brooklyn. But that little fascist has ‘The crusade of Himmler’ and ‘The Art of the Deal’ on his bookshelf… That’s the next big challenge. We need to watch out for the Nazi’s who look like bartenders.
The recording process… I wish I could say we recorded the album in one room all together in a couple of days. We didn’t. I was in Mexico. Roy Gurel, the producer, was in Israel. Gilber Gilmore, the drummer, was in Brooklyn. Allison Langerak and Peter Hess were also in Brooklyn. Casey Shea was in L.A. We sent files back and forth and Roy put the whole thing together on his laptop in Tel Aviv. It might have been better if we’d all been in one place, but we weren’t, and so we did what we had to do to get it done.
You tackle a lot of hard subjects in your music, such as totalitarianism, racism, gun violence and corporate greed. How important is the ability to take a stand, and be political, for you as an artist?
This is a hard question for me to answer. I did an interview with a Spanish radio station last month, and a few times they said that I was an artist with strong principles because my album addressed a few hot button political topics. It made me feel like kind of a fraud. It’s true that I get angry about economic injustice, murder, racism, and greed, and I do sometimes turn that anger into songs, but I don’t necessary equate that with “taking a stand”. I’m not as politically active as I could be – I haven’t dedicated my life to fighting human trafficking. A lot of my lyrics come out simply because I feel hopeless about my own ability to change anything.
I also think that when you become a parent everything changes – your whole life becomes about keeping your child safe. It’s true that the songs on ‘Let’s Make a King’ are about the subjects you mentioned, but for me personally they are about the fear of a parent losing a child. ‘U.S. Custody‘ is about a father losing his daughter while they are trying to find a better life in a new country. ‘Your Gun‘ is about a father losing his child in a school shooting. ‘100 Pills Per Person‘ is about a father losing his child to a drug overdose. ‘How are we doing on Time‘ is about a father worrying about how climate change will affect his daughter’s life. The whole album was written when I was terrified about the possibility of my daughter growing up in a country guided by the worst of Donald Trump’s autocratic tendencies.
Do you think that musical artists have been too reluctant to call for direct action when it comes to political matters?
I’m not really sure if artists have been reluctant to call for direct action. I think maybe that audiences have been reluctant to listen to them… Some mainstream artists are successful at it. Willie Nelson always says great things, and he was very active against Ted Cruz. Dolly Parton said some great stuff recently about BLM. Springsteen is always on the right side of politics. Bono and Sting never really learned how to promote a good cause without sounding like twits – they mean well, so you can’t really stay angry at them. But it’s a hard thing to do successfully.
And in any case, I don’t think a musical artist has any obligation to focus on anything other than performing or songwriting to the best of his or her ability. A political song that makes people angry is just as important as a silly song that makes people happy. We always need both kinds of songs.
The COVID19 pandemic has been truly damaging to musicians around the world, with closed venues and lack of access to recording studios. How have you been keeping busy?
A few months ago, I signed a licensing deal for some of the ‘King’ songs with a company in Israel. Hopefully, they will be able to place them in some film and TV projects.
And I actually recorded a lot of songs before COVID hit. We just did a successful Kickstarter campaign to finish producing some of those tracks. In 2020 I had originally wanted to release two short EPs: a political blues collection and a collection of country/folk songs. But because of the election the urgency of producing a collection of anti-Trump songs took precedence, and so the folk songs were put aside as ‘Let’s Make a King’ turned into a full album.
But I love the country/folk songs. The EP will be called ‘Old Chords‘, and it will be great. Roy Gurel, my musical co-pilot, just crashed his motorcycle pretty badly in Israel. He’ll be okay, but he might not be able to play for a few weeks. It will get done. My friend Allison Langerak has already put down some great vocals in Brooklyn, and her husband Wyatt Tuzo added some amazing lap steel to the tracks.
So I’ve stayed busy. Some of my lyrics were published in a few poetry magazines recently, and I was in contact with a publisher in Dublin about printing a small collection of my lyrics. I’m not sure if that will work out or not. It’s hard to tell how well the lyrics work without the music.Read some of Benjamin’s poetry here:
Does this mean we can expect a new album from you this year?
Our EP will certainly come out. I have a collection of new songs I’d love to record, but unfortunately, I don’t have the resources to focus on that right now. ‘Let’s Make a King’ had a lot of positive reviews, and the songs are being played regularly on radio stations around the world, but the money just isn’t coming in. Not many people actually purchased the album. They stream it, but Spotify and YouTube are not functional models for independent artists to actually see any revenue. A few thousand streams won’t even buy you a cup of coffee.
We’re always excited to know what people are listening to. What are some of your favourite artists at the moment? All genres welcome!
My wife says I don’t listen to anything that was recorded after 1978. That’s not exactly true, but most of the music I listen to is from my old record collection.
I do listen to a lot of the music my friends are making. Allison Langerak has a new EP, and I’ve been listening to that a lot. The last new vinyl I bought was when Franz Nicolay from the Hold Steady came down to Mexico City. He played an incredible solo show here, and I’ve been listening to his records a lot. Way back in the day Franz was the musical director for one of my plays in NYC, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. Franz used to be in the World Inferno Friendship Society with Peter Hess, who played horns on “Let’s Make a King’. Peter also has some amazing jazz albums with his Peter Hess Quartet. I listen to my friend Milton’s albums a lot – he’s an artist everyone should know about. The last Kat Edmonson album is beautiful. When I’m working at home I usually have to listen to music without lyrics, so I listen to a lot of Jazz and classical music. I love Erik Satie and Thelonious Monk. My friend Erik Higher also makes great instrumental experimental music that I listen to when I work.
I’m kind of lost when it comes to knowing about new mainstream artists. I really like Feist, but her last album was disappointing. A few years ago I saw St. Vincent with David Byrne and her guitar playing really blew me away. She has this choppy metallic guitar style that kind of sounds like an ax chopping something in half. I love when players can make an instrument sound dangerous.
Thank you for taking some time out of your day to have a chat with us! Anything you’d like to say to our readers?
If Purple Rain ever comes on the radio and you’re in a car with a group of people, don’t be the asshole who talks over Prince’s guitar solo. That’s just a time to shut up and listen. You can talk again when a different song comes on. Also never trust the Republican Party. They’re extra dangerous when they look like they’re sleeping.
To purchase Benjamin Adair Murphy’s music, you can visit his Bandcamp here