The Things Left Unsaid: An Interview With Martha Skye Murphy

As she prepares for the final instalment in a triptych of audacious singles, the polymathic Martha Skye Murphy speaks to Patrick Clarke about deep connections, the hubris of Jeff Bezos, and the value of keeping things uncomfortable

Photos by Ceidra Moon Murphy

There is a great deal going on in Martha Skye Murphy’s music. Though her catalogue is slender so far – three small EPs and a scattering of singles – it is particularly rich, a dense body of work that takes in swooning melodramatic ballads, distorted monologues inspired by the abandoned women of Ovid’s Heroides, and grand sweeps of lush baroque gloom. Her guest vocal on Squid’s debut album A Bright Green Field, a careening caterwaul above the frenzied crescendo of lead single ‘Narrator’, is the highlight of that entire LP. What she leaves out, however, is of equal importance. In her songs there are great heavy silences laced among all those rushes of emotion and noise, expanses to be filled with the endless possibilities of a listener’s imagination.

This applies to the gaps between one song and another, as well as the moments of quiet within them. Speaking over a patchy phoneline from Umbria in central Italy, where a beautiful landscape is spoiled only by the screeches of pigs from the local abattoir, Murphy refers to her last two singles ‘Found Out’ and ‘Stuck’ as a triptych along with next month’s ‘Concrete’. It’s a word she uses with great specificity, she says, “because it naturally refers to art, to three panels of a painting.” A Cambridge history of art graduate, she explains succinctly: “with triptychs, we’ve got used to seeing them presented without their other parts.” They are songs with enough structure and depth to stand on their own. As a trio, however, they invite their listeners to form connections from enigmatic narrative fragments.

The fact that ‘Found Out’, ‘Stuck’ and ‘Concrete’ come as a three reflects Murphy’s desire to make those connections more complicated than just causes and effects. “We think in problem-solution, trial-error. I wanted to create a series of listening where it’s you who has to connect them,” she says. “They could be three questions you don’t know the answer to, or questions for you to pick an answer for, it’s you who gets to connect them.” The limitless potential of the unknown, “things where the meaning is inferred by what you want it to be,” has always been of interest, she continues. The power we invest in a sole archaeological relic around which an entire history must be inferred, or a lost painting of which only scraps of written accounts now describe. “With my lyrics I try to purposely obscure things, to create some sense of reading a diary where every other page has been ripped out.”

By providing just the right amount of information and leaving just the right amount absent, Murphy is able to tap into the power of the human imagination – the inexpressible universes that form in a person’s head when they listen to a piece of music, their life experiences fusing with those newly evoked by the song. “I think the main objective is to be able to create a collective experience. If I can do something that means my audience connect to that part that’s uncomfortable within them, or nostalgic, or futuristic. That’s when I’m really satisfied.” Making that kind of connection requires enough of Murphy’s personal experience to make a direct impact, enough universal humanity to allow any listener to internalise it, and enough drama to make it all engaging. “I’m interested in the illusion of intimacy,” she says. “How you can convey something harrowingly honest and in the same line say something completely false, or something that’s happened to something else. There’s this interesting territory as an artist where people assume things are true, but they’re also being taken into essentially a fictional space where ‘you’ becomes ‘I’.”

When Murphy sings live, and those connections between performer and audience are made more physical, it is an intense experience. It is like the act of singing a song means it departs her possession entirely, to be imbued with new meaning by its listener. “I wonder if everyone feels like this, but there is something quite magical about songwriting,” she says. “When you’re performing it feels poltergeist-like. When I come off stage, I feel completely different, like ‘who or what was that that allowed me to escape into this completely other realm that otherwise, if I’m not in that space, is ephemeral?’” All the while, she herself is left vulnerable on stage. “I feel like my aim is to be incredibly raw in order to allow someone else to be in a state of receptivity.”

It is interesting that each of Murphy’s songs feels so different from the last, however. The steely eeriness to her voice on the gothic centrepiece and title track of last year’s Heal EP, for example, is completely different to the eggshell fragility of ‘Self Tape’, released a few months later. This is not intentional, she says. “I don’t consciously change my voice, or think ‘OK, I’m going to write and sing in the voice of a child. It just happens.” Even the three parts of her current triptych deploy totally different tones – on ‘Found Out’ she is woozy and unsettling, ‘Stuck’ is serene and bittersweet, and ‘Concrete’ is both soft and defiant – yet they all spring from the same source. “I do play up to characters and feel like each song is this play,” she says, but that needn’t be a contradiction. “They’re also an opportunity for me to exorcise different voices in my head. The act of songwriting really helps me make sense of what I’ve been absorbed in or consumed by, or what it is I’ve been thinking about, or what’s affected me, or something that’s come to me from somebody else. It’s like being honest with yourself, your authentic self. It can be a negative self but it’s a good part to tap into.”

What is intentional when it comes to her material’s constant transformations, is Murphy’s desire to keep switching things up. “Not to drop one of my managers in it,” she says, “but they said to me the other day that labels like to know what’s coming next. They’ve completely misunderstood the entire project, then! I don’t want there to be a sense of knowledge, ‘an album’s going to come out and it’s going to sound like this.’ Then it’s not challenging. I don’t want people to expect X or Y, I want to be able to do something that every time has something uncomfortable about it, where you don’t know where it’s going to go.” She has written an ‘electronic opera’, (a term she applied “retrospectively once I understood that was what I was doing… I was actually just trying to question and challenge my usual process of singing acoustically with a piano”), toured the UK with a one-woman show called The Two Body Problem as part of a theatre company she co-founded called I Swear I Saw This, delivered an ambient score for Ivan Krzeszowiec’s film The Late Departure, and forms part of the improvisational collective Ex Mothers Union, for instance. “I just think I always had to connect to different art forms in order to make sense of things,” she posits.

In her lyrics, too, Murphy is forward-thinking. ‘Stuck’, for example, was inspired by the nebulousness of existence online, “our simultaneous loss of identity and constant surveillance,” as she puts it. Clicking through an online magazine, she read about euthanasia coasters – a hypothetical rollercoaster designed to kill its passengers – and then about the dangers of research into genetically engineering children, and then about XKeyScore, a secret computer system used by the United States National Security Agency which whistle-blower Edward Snowden has claimed enables almost unlimited surveillance of anyone anywhere in the world. Like finding meaning from three panels of a triptych, her reading developed into a wider theme. “It just really harrowed me that we’re in this technological era where anything is possible and yet we’re becoming binary dots online that can be watched. They could digest your entire identity through your search history. Someone’s doing that right now. But how can you truly understand someone if you haven’t been in their presence? There’s this disconnection from aura, things you can’t communicate online.”

Here, Murphy performs yet another balancing act. Though she attacks the strangeness and newness of modernity, she bases it on the kind of universal human truths established in the classics (her passion for which was fostered by a highly influential schoolteacher). “I think what connects me with those classic writers is that they’re very honest, but also deceptive. It’s like reading a secret.” Her first EP was based on Ovid’s Heroides, poems written from the perspective of abandoned and neglected mythological women and addressed to their heroic lovers, but “it wasn’t necessarily a ‘rendition’ of Ovid,” she says. “I was just thinking about how it still felt relevant to have these discarded women, and where they fit now. I’m entranced by things that happened thousands of years ago but feel like they were put online yesterday.” The subject of tech elites takes us to the topic of Jeff Bezos’ rumoured investment into a Silicon Valley startup seeking the secret to eternal life, and then to Jeffrey Epstein’s hopes, as reported by The New York Times, ‘to seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating women at his vast New Mexico ranch’, and she exclaims: “What is it with these huge billionaire arseholes needing to be alive forever? They’re so fixated on preserving their colony. It’s so archaic, they’re operating in the same way a Caesar would. Maybe that’s just humans.”

It is, in the end, human nature that lies at the heart of Martha Skye Murphy’s music. Her songs are multifarious and full of complex pushes and pulls, at once deeply personal and universally relatable, boldly forward-thinking but expressing ancient and unchanging realities, with silence and space providing room for the infinite potential products of a listener’s imagination. “I want to share things,” she says. “I want to translate an experience of something and make something of it, with the reassurance that someone else is going to imbue that with new meaning. I hate when people want me to define what my songs are ‘about’.”

‘Concrete’, the third part of Martha Skye Murphy’s triptych, is released on December 1 via Practise Music

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