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."
Murray is from a small town outside Cincinnati populated by farmers. When he was getting started in music over ten years ago, it was not unusual to drive up to an hour to attend an open mike. He traditionally rejected the "country" aspect of the area but has grown to respect it more. "My grandpa was a farmer and he would go out and do all that himself," says Murray. "I compare it to what I'm doing: He started a farm from nothing, I'm starting a music career from nothing.
The spirit of Sincerely, Iris is more John Muir than John Denver. Muir is a true historical figure (1838–1914) with few if any equals. He is America's foremost naturalist who walked thousands of miles throughout the U.S. — most through terrain untainted by humankind — and wrote with great detail his experiences with nature. As a preservationist and writer, he was the steward of the National Parks and founded the Sierra Club. Like Muir, Murray comes across as a person able to take life in stride and make some interesting observations along the way. He began taking his music more seriously during his time in Colorado, which may have had "something to do with the mountains," he says. Murray describes the vivid color and detail he saw while in the Pacific Northwest with acute observation and awareness of nature. He also penned songs late at night while sitting on the dock of a pond, deep in the Ohio woods where his Dad lives.
Most of Murray’s observations are delivered on his rustic jumbo Seagull guitar, but other tools in his shed include a Fender Strat and a vintage Silvertone guitar that his mom discovered while cleaning a house. It's too fragile for live shows, but Murray values the vintage flavor. Staying true to his rustic roots, Murray writes at home, after everyone’s asleep, in a large closet where he’s nailed old blankets to the walls and ceiling. He finds chords and begins mumbling into the mike of a Zoom 8track recorder. "Sometimes I'll actually go back and decipher the mumbling and that will be the beginning lyrics of the song," says Murray, who edits the tracks in Cakewalk. "That's probably why I still use the 8-track because it will fit in the closet." With an eye to the imagery and variety in his songs, this blanketed laboratory could be compared to the space created by early photographers who covered their camera and themselves with a heavy cloth while preparing the negative for their next picture. Their actions were mysterious, yet the results were undeniable.
One of Murray’s trump cards in songwriting and arranging is variety. He says, "I try to change it up, I try not to repeat myself at all really." His catalog varies from riff-based rock tunes to folk-blues vamps. Early on, he was influenced by a lot of bands, such as Tool or Smashing Pumpkins, which was mirrored in his songs. Now, he is listening to more singer-songwriters, such as Rufus Wainwright, and this comes through in his latest effort.
For this recent CD, Murray handled his own production and arrangement with the exception of vocals and piano. For these he chose Handwritten Recording, a Chicago studio that was offering recording time for a benefit CD for breast cancer. The experience went well and Murray decided to complete vocal and piano tracking there.
When approaching arrangements, Murray says, "Sometimes I hear it in my head but usually it's not like that, it's not genius stuff...it's just trying and failing and deleting it and trying it again and eventually something will stick or click." For his tracking, he always begins with guitar, then adds additional instrumentation and vocal.
Murray has support people that he trusts to help him on his musical journey, such as Colorado-based musician Judith Avers. "I always go to her when I am doubting myself or doubting my music," Murray says, "She has been a big influence. Murray's cousin Jay Patton provided certain effect pedals manufactured through his Ohio-based business PEEB Sound Effect. Patton also played guitar and bass on a few of the album's tracks, and was the person who initially taught Murray to play guitar. He also values the support of his parents and girlfriend.
Work on Sincerely, Iris’s fifth album is a testament to Murray’s tenacity. "The first couple years I was feeling awful [playing live], it was pretty scary. I just kept doing it for some reason. I have no idea why I put myself through that, it was the most nerve-wracking thing ever. Eventually...I guess I could see that at the end of the road it would be easier. Now it's a lot easier." Nonetheless, he's taking extra steps on this album to make it a cohesive success. "I really want to fine tune the lyrics this time, make sure they are telling good stories. I'm definitely trying to not really road test them, but 'gig-test' them a little bit to see if people react to them. If there's a song people are snoring through, I'll take it back and woodshed it."
While many folk acts are looking back at their roots, Sincerely, Iris is looking forward. The music is smooth yet rumbles with energy, like an engine under the hood of a car on a good road trip. At live shows the music is vital and the energy coming off the guitar and through the air is palpable — it stands out as folk music that clearly exists in the "now." And now is the time to check him out, so have a listen and a look-see, fan him on Facebook, and if you like what you hear, get thine self to his show on February 18 and buy the CD.
More Details on February 18 Show at Goose Island Wrigleyville