Lustful longing

“Beauty doesn’t need to be absent of ugliness” – Martha Skye Murphy wants us to embrace rushes of joy and pain
By Arthur Cross | Music | 11 June 2024

We met Martha Skye Murphy in London along a heaving canal path in the sun, the clogged arteries of a swelling city. We walked to find a place of solace from the intensity, beneath the shade of a tree, to discuss her upcoming debut album Um (out 14th June via AD93). Um as a project contains within itself all that is absent and most needed from artists at this moment. A willingness to sit with uncomfortableness and search within oneself, a contentment to be discordant and an ability to use the power of creativity to unravel something unsettling, full of unflinching meaning.

Martha, although academic in her multi-layered self-referential work, doesn’t get lost in pretension or detail. It helps that the emotion within the work is so strongly present that even without digging into the mythology of the project, its meaning is unavoidable, even just as a sensation on first listen. A clear indication of this is the power of her voice which rises, falls, guides, seduces and eviscerates the listener in a myriad of perfectly imperfect curated environments. A project which stands in stark contrast to surface-level, algorithm-lubricating art, Um is set to be one of the great experimental albums of the year. A feral, guttural and transcendent interrogation – we speak to Martha below.

Photography by Ben Murphy


Arthur Cross: So you’ve been sitting on the album for a while?
Martha Skye Murphy: It’s taken a long time to get to this point of release. I wrote some of the songs four or five years ago, others two years ago and a few came into existence while we were recording. The recording process itself was quite fragmentary. I would record in the studio at 4AD and then go to Ethan P. Flynn’s home studio, and at the same time had remote recording going on with people like Roy Montgomery sending me his Chrysler engine from New Zealand while I was sleeping and Claire Rousay sending the recording of god knows what from Texas. In hindsight I think that really imbued something into the record; the warping of time and physicality with the geographic expansion of how many different locations there were. I think you can hear when things are recorded in lots of different locations, beyond the actual acoustics, I think it is felt. It’s got a level of dislocation. When we mixed it last year in January, I was like “Yes! I’ve made a record!” and then spent the rest of the year trying to find a home for it. I’m really glad that I ended up with AD93. It makes a lot of sense. It was mastered in the beginning of this year and then there was the making of the artwork, the videos… I’ve had the title since the beginning of last year… So it’s just a relief to have it out, well, it’s not out even yet.

AC: Its release is only a few weeks away now…
MSM: I feel like I’m coming back to life.

AC: So the album is called Um. This idea of discourse markers, was that a concept before you started recording the album or is it something that came in during the recording process?
MSM: I had the song Call Me Back really early on and that recording felt like a revelation because it was basically improvised. It was a response to my EP Heal, which was all about language and was a progression into confronting my music’s intimacy. I suddenly understood what I was doing with my ballad songwriting in making Call Me Back. When I was putting together the songs I wanted on this album and thinking what the album was about, I kept returning to Call Me Back.

I really struggled with finding the title for the album. I think incredibly carefully about my lyrics and how they change when they are sung, so to summarise the record with a title that will be spoken, almost felt as though it wouldn’t do justice to the sound of the feeling of the word – that’s when I landed on Um. Um felt intuitive, it felt necessary to be grounded in hesitance, duplicity and uncertainty. Um is also a sound made in all languages and I’ve always been interested in the guttural reality of how the voice sits within the body. Growing up I did loads of accents and was quite performative. I really loved being a character and pretending to be other people in a playful way. Um is a reference to the universality of the voice while it also translated the gesture of the songs being emotionally driven and the idea that emotions are not necessarily affable. The album felt like it was about hesitation. So Um was there all along, but it took me a while to realise that that’s where I was coming from and when I finally settled on the title I wouldn’t even say that I necessarily fully understood it.

“Um is also a sound made in all languages and I’ve always been interested in the guttural reality of how the voice sits within the body.”

AC: On First Day, the first track on the album, it sounds like you’re figuring out a melody line for the first time. What was the reason to start the album that way and is there a sense of figuring things out throughout the album?
MSM: I’m still figuring it out. I had the field recording that I’d made in New York walking around, which was really instinctive, I just felt like I had to do it. It was a compulsion. I had that voice memo in my phone and wanted it to be in the record but I didn’t know how to use it, and then I wrote Need. I knew it was important to have a slow initiation to envelop the listener as they enter the album, so First Day is all the instruments forming the first chord of Need. I wanted it to sound kind of like going into your own thoughts… Sort of priming people into being more open and susceptible to listening.

AC: I was thinking about how in the middle of the album Call Me Back is lyrical to an extent, but it’s not lyrical in a traditional sense. It’s this pause halfway through. Is there a reason the track sits in the middle and is there an idea of two movements?
MSM: Definitely, it’s a channel or a corridor. It’s not a passive recording or a palate cleanser. I felt like having it in the middle was quite important in adjusting the state of mind people were in. In the first half of the album everything is quite outward facing, a projection of sound, like it’s through a megaphone, and then Call Me Back is about going back inwards, into yourself maybe…

AC: You’ve mentioned that in the album you’ve got these different voices that come through, but also that it feels crucial for you to be able to express these things as part of dealing with life. You’re interrogating yourself and how you feel, but then you’re also the person who’s feeling the sense of relief to give up this information. I’d be interested to hear a bit more about that.
MSM: Writing songs for me has always been a process of freeing myself from the careful mind and patterns of thought. It’s also been a way of me seeing things that otherwise stay hidden, observing and then trying to understand them. When I write music it’s a catharsis from something. I think identity and the self is such a complicated entity but when I write music, whatever the self is at that time, I feel most in touch with it. It feels like a contradiction, because I feel so in contact with this inner being, essence, soul, spirit, aura, whatever it is, but at the same time it’s not me. So when I write a song and I’m in that zone it’s really comforting – and then you come out of it, and it’s like “OK, I guess I’m back here again.”

AC: Are you aware of it in the moment of recording?
MSM: Yes, but I don’t think you can be in that zone at all times when you’re recording, which is why it’s useful for me to do contrasting things like backing vocals that are more self-aware and performative. So for example in Pick Yourself Up, the transition into the burst of the chorus kind of exists like that, the verse is puerile and close and the chorus is like Liberace. Ethan was amazing at bringing that out of me. He’s incredibly sensitive to other artist’s sensibilities and their vision. There was never a conversation where I said to him, “I want to have all these different voices on the record,” but he recognised it quietly and knew what I was doing without us having to discuss it prior. So he would say things like, “I know you can do this voice so let’s do that opera character for this part of the song.” He helped me realise what I wanted to do in certain areas of the record that way. With Dust Yourself Off, hearing it was a lullaby, he said to me, “I want you to cradle something so that we channel that maternal instinct.” He was incredible at unearthing my multiple personas and recording how they sounded. That’s the sign of a good producer, that he wasn’t telling me my idea, he was seeing one and helping me articulate it. We recorded my song Found Out together first and had an immediate understanding. It’s a language.

Photography by Ben Murphy


AC: You recommended watching The Lives Of Others to get a sense of the album’s themes and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure how much to read into it but I started to put so much of the album into the film..
MSM: I’m interested in what you read into it.

AC: I guess in my head it was like you’re the artists and also the Stasi officer listening to yourself? You’re kind of interrogating yourself throughout the process of the album.
MSM: I think that’s spot on. I’ve loved that film for a really long time.

AC: In the film there are all these different people wandering in and out of this room, and you’re listening to them. Maybe those different people are the different characters within the album.
MSM: Exactly. It’s mostly located in one space. It always feels really weird in that film when they go into another environment to the flat, like a park, or the interrogation office. I think you can sense there’s a safety in the privacy of the home for them and that’s what’s so frightening about it being silently intruded upon.

“If you’re too in control of how you sound it means that you’re eradicating the ability to go somewhere that you weren’t expecting…”

AC: You kind of just want to go back to it.
MSM: You always want to go back if they are anywhere else. Their relationship is so beautiful and painful. That film is just perfect. There was another film that inspired the album cover. Me and my sister, who is an artist (Ceidra Moon Murphy), were talking about the artwork and she was asking me about the record and what I wanted to say with it visually and we spoke about this film The Interpreter, which is about a translator played by Nicole Kidman who overhears something in the UN because she happens to be one of three people that speaks a specific African language in the building. The interpreter overhears the plotting of an assassination and is then interrogated as a result of her knowledge. It’s not an amazing film but it raises a lot of good questions and there’s such great imagery in it. That was what we were referencing with the artwork and the lie detector.

I think a lot of graphics circulating at the moment look the same and I wanted to do something provocative, especially as I was working with my sister who makes incredibly conceptually dense works. I wanted the album artwork to feel heavy, serious, and loaded, not to just be me as a fucking ethereal elf. I’m very conscious of this ‘ethereal’ label that is and has been thrown around women for so long. I know that there are ethereal qualities to the sounds I make, just based on the sense that they’re beautiful, but I find that word ‘ethereal’ has been applied flippantly for too long and it’s lazy. It’s people refusing to engage with work seriously so I wanted to do something that adamantly wasn’t “ethereal” with the visuals. I know that people like Grimes have embraced this term with the ‘ethereal’ spotify playlist and I get that because it’s a way of taking control, but for me, it’s a fundamentally misogynistic term in application to female singer-songwriters. I wanted to reject that. So doing the artwork in quite a severe way was important to me.

AC: You said the word guttural before, which feels more fitting than ‘ethereal’. I think of something more painful because there’s an intensity to the vocals. There is a rawness, they fray and agitate in quite a bodily way.
MSM: I’m really glad it feels that way because I want it to sound quite physical. I’m not a classically trained singer so I don’t have the kudos of being in control of my voice, but I’ve learnt that I don’t want to be in control of it. I think that’s how you reach something guttural. If you’re too in control of how you sound it means that you’re eradicating the ability to go somewhere that you weren’t expecting and for me, that’s the most exciting part. It’s the divination rods pulling you towards something and you don’t really know why. I’m not afraid of having ugly vocals which maybe register as ‘guttural’ sounding. I’ve been in situations in recording studios where someone has said “That’s ugly, we don’t want to use that,” and I’d be like, “I do want to use it actually!” I’m not trying to create a unanimously beautiful sound. I am drawn to beauty hugely and I think my music is hopefully beautiful sounding but I find ugliness beautiful. I think beauty doesn’t need to be absent of ugliness. I’m not sure the word ugliness translates here… guttural does.

“I love having loads of musicians on stage because it feels empowering; it’s fun and theatrical. It’s like having a chorus in an opera.”

AC: How do you find your body and vocals as an instrument concerning this cathartic release of different parts of yourself?
MSM: When I sang Narrator [with Squid] I nearly lost my voice. I realised that pushing myself to that degree was exciting for the recording but I had to learn how to do that performance live in a way that communicated a feral quality and was a cathartic exorcism, but also wasn’t going to risk my whole instrument.

AC: I saw you put on your Instagram a video of your vocal cords.
MSM: I was really freaking out that I had severely damaged my vocal cords because I throw myself at things in quite an extreme way and there was a time we did a live performance of that song on a channel called Live From Another World, where I got so possessed by that character that I sang the song five times at full-pelt, and then after that I was meant to be doing my song Found Out and I’d completely lost my voice. I literally couldn’t speak. I realised that it is a kind of performance art… Not to glorify myself as an ‘Artist’, but when I’m performing live and when I’m recording I am really interested in testing the boundaries of my voice. You have to learn to measure when you’re being too dangerous. It’s comforting at times when I’m in my living room whispering lyrics and I feel like I’ve arrived somewhere safely, but it’s also exhilarating to be in a painful zone, to feel surprised by your own voice – that’s something I’m always striving for. So I freaked out about the loss of my vocal cords. It took a year and a half to get an appointment to have them examined and I was really scared. It was psychological. I kept losing my voice before a show and it’s because I was so afraid of losing it forever, interpret that as you will… The Little Mermaid! I finally went and had them examined and the Laryngologist was like, “You have the healthiest larynx of anyone I’ve seen in months,” and then this freedom of being like, “I have a healthy larynx!” has completely reset me [laughs].

ACL Have you got live shows planned with the release once it’s out?
MSM: We’re going to headline Cafe Oto for the AD93 ten-year birthday and then I’ve got a show in Berlin at the end of August which I’m going to do quite stripped back, playing with the recordings’ arrangements with one other person, so returning to something quite raw. I want to do some shows that experiment with different set-ups in terms of who I’m playing with, so maybe I’ll do a few solo shows just on piano around the UK.

AC: There is a freedom to be able to just go and do your own performance…
MSM: I’ve held back from that for a really long time. I love having loads of musicians on stage because it feels empowering; it’s fun and theatrical. It’s like having a chorus in an opera. But equally, I think I’ve always been interested in toying with what arrangements I do for the songs and I think there’s a sense of armoury having musicians behind you. Also, it’s an emancipation because it means that I can be a performer, in that I don’t feel like I’m exclusively having to deliver the music. I’m delivering the show and the characters. I think I’ve resisted doing solo shows, because I was afraid to be on stage on my own wasn’t enough to translate the whole thing.

AC: Finally, is there a key feeling or something you want people to get from the record?
MSM: I want them to feel that sort of lustful longing. I want them to really feel situated in places. The idea of location, I hope that audibly translates and that it does feel like you’re in lots of different environments. To feel held by something, like a film that you watch and really enjoy even if it’s dark or scary. There’s a sense that when you really love something and you come out of it, the film, book, song is now yours. I think that’s what I want people to feel like, that this record is now theirs.

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