The Road Underneath the Headlight Sonata
Hannah Frank Talks Personal Music, Songwriting with Todd Murray (a.k.a. Sincerely, Iris)
Story and Interview by Hannah Frank, February 15, 2010
[Editor's Note: Hannah Frank, she of Hannah Frank Trio, is playing with Sincerely, Iris on February 18 at Goose Island Brewery at 9 p.m. sharp. Go to our Live Shows post for info, or click on the flier below.]
Todd Murray, a Chicago singer-songwriter, is not the first to be inspired by Jeff Buckley — but he may well be the first to relate that inspiration to sensitivity and balance. His stage moniker, Sincerely, Iris, came about as a reflection of these views on music. "[Iris] is sort of feminine, I kind of like that aspect. I really like girl singers like Billie Holiday and I like Jeff Buckley and how he had that feminine aspect to his voice. That's what music is to me — the harder stuff and the more sensitive stuff all in one."
Murray’s most recent collection, Headlight Sonata, stands out among the acoustic masses thanks to a full-house hand of solid folk-pop songwriting and a shim of shoulder-shakin’ blues. Like Buckley, Murray studied jazz, and his main instruments are guitar and voice. His approach to arranging and producing his music is much more considered than most folk acts. Murray was schooled in Kentucky and Colorado but he is not a jazz player or a theory guy. He opposed learning music note for note, yet eagerly applied jazz’s "crazy chords and weird progressions” to his songwriting.
"I remember being in class and instead of studying I'd go write a song," says Murray. He also found ways to compose songs while working odd jobs. As a front desk clerk at a hotel in Ohio, he used the quiet late night shift to jot down lyrics. One summer, while serving as a general labor "grunt," he would sneak away to his car to write down some lyrics before getting back to mowing the lawn.
On Headlight Sonata, Sincerely, Iris fills out Murray’s solo live act with layers of guitar lines, bass, and drums. Murray also uses effects pedals and different tracking techniques to obtain an array of guitar sounds. For example, what sounds like mandolin on his track “Boys, Girls and Fools” is actually a quickly-strummed guitar double tracked with the guitar tuned an octave or a third higher.
One of his catchiest tunes is "Cemetery Blues." The imagery, hook, and lyrics come together gracefully. "At the beginning of the song he [the narrator] is kind of sad about death, he's not ready for it,” says Murray. “After complications with money or relationships — all the things of life in general — by the time you get a little older, you're like, 'Bring it on, I'm ready, I've had enough.'"
Murray says tugging on heart strings and connecting with people are the most important things when writing songs or approaching music. "I always want to write lyrics and approach a song from a personal level. It's always personal for me," shares Murray, "as opposed to making sure it has an amazing hook or that it's super-catchy."