BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Boston will be seeing quite a bit of Brattleboro-based traditional singer and musician Keith Murphy this month, and in three different contexts.
On June 1, he’ll be accompanying American-Scottish fiddler Hanneke Cassel and her cellist husband Mike Block in Club Passim, and two days later will be backing Sligo-style fiddler Brian Conway at the Burren Backroom series [see BIR Calendar in this issue for details on these shows]. And on June 13, Murphy will be in the spotlight when he returns to the Backroom for a concert formally marking the release of his third solo album, “Land of Fish and Seals,” which reaffirms his love of the folk song tradition even while pushing beyond it.
The last several years have been something of a revelation for Murphy, a familiar figure in the Boston/New England folk music scene whose rhythmically savvy and engaging guitar style has been a part of the annual “St. Patrick’s Celtic Sojourn” show and performances by fiddle ensemble Childsplay, among his many other collaborations (including Irish performers like fiddler Liz Carroll and vocalist Karan Casey).
A major change for Murphy came in 2011 with the retirement of Nightingale – the pioneering trio he founded with his fiddle-playing wife, Becky Tracy, and accordionist/pianist Jeremiah McLane – after almost two decades. As fulfilling as his time with Nightingale was, Murphy has found a new life as a solo performer even while continuing his work with other musicians. He has revamped his guitar-playing, exploring finger-picking style and alternate tunings, and most of all, rediscovered his appreciation for singing, and for songs.
“When I was with Nightingale, I was so deeply into the world of ensemble playing that I thought solo work was a crazy idea,” explains Murphy, a native of Newfoundland, whose Irish, Scottish, English, and French musical influences are reflected in Murphy’s repertoire. “Everything revolved around multiple instruments, and although we did songs as well as sets of tunes, I tended to see the songs as a vehicle for the ensemble. But in these past few years, I’ve been able to focus more intently on songs, to dig deeply into what I like about them and bring that out.”
At his June 13 Passim concert, Murphy will be joined by Tracy and guitarist-vocalist Yann Falquett, both of whom appear on “Land of Fish and Seals.” Other guests on the album are Cassel and Block, Rani Arbo on harmony vocals, banjo player Mark Roberts, and Pascal Gemme (foot percussion, harmony vocals), who along with Falquett constitute two-thirds of the Quebecois trio Genticorum.
Murphy’s solo albums are a showcase for his unaffected, resonant singing – in English and French – which has long been as widely admired as his ability on guitar, mandolin and keyboards, and his talent as an arranger. While his second CD, “Suffer No Loss” (2014), was literally a solo effort, “Land of Fish and Seals” is, as he puts it, “a swing of the pendulum” back towards his first release, “Bound for Canaan” (2009).
“A central concept of ‘Bound for Canaan’ was having a band sound; it was at least as important as the song choices,” says Murphy of that album, on which he was joined by Tracy, Roberts (on flute and whistle as well as banjo), Arbo and guitarist Mark Simos. “The second album was completely the opposite, where it was guitar and voice only, and the focus was completely on the songs. So for this one, I wanted a bit of a fuller sound, but with minimal musical dressing, and keep the emphasis on the songs and texts.”
On “Land of Fish and Seals,” Murphy extends his usual repertoire from the Canadian/British Isles/Irish folk tradition, with songs by two eminent singer-songwriters: Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and Richard Thompson’s love-doomed-from-the-start reminiscence “Beeswing.” A further departure from form is represented in two other songs, both settings of poetry: the title track, written in the 19th century by Margaret Peace, a Scottish immigrant to Newfoundland and adapted by Murphy; and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s elegiac “Crossing the Bar,” set to music by Arbo, who also sings on the track.
Of course, it’s not as if Murphy is covering Beyoncé or John Legend here. “Girl from the North Country” is essentially Dylan’s channeling of the venerable traditional song “Scarborough Fair,” while “Land of Fish and Seals” and “Crossing the Bar” each in their own way suggest the relationship between literary and folk traditions. “Beeswing” is more of an outlier, with phrases like “They called it the Summer of Love” and “The hawks against the doves” clearly delineating its contemporary setting. Yet there’s something timeless and universal in how Thompson evokes the bittersweet futility of desiring what you know you can’t have (“She said as long as there’s no price on love I’ll stay/and you wouldn’t want me any other way”).
“I tend to work in an evolutionary way when it comes to choosing songs,” says Murphy. “It’s usually a slow process, where I try songs and leave them alone for a while and then, perhaps, come back to them. I liken it to being an instrument maker going out to look for wood – you try to find something that will resonate.
“So there wasn’t exactly a plan at the outset for which songs I was going to record; it’s how everything unfolded. But I think those four songs are pivotal in how the album evolved. They speak to this period of personal expansion I’ve been in, where I’m open to songs that are several degrees outside the traditional domain. That was the case with ‘Land of Fish and Seals’: The language is a little formal for what we think of as a ‘folk song,’ yet I really liked the way Peace describes the Newfoundland character.”
While Murphy has often found songs and tunes by combing through books and other publications, inspiration by ear is at least as important to him as by eye. The way “Girl from the North Country” came together, he says, illustrates the different variables that can go into making a song one’s own. The version he’d been most familiar with was the one recorded by Johnny Cash, not the Dylan original. Yet he had first been moved to learn the song many years ago when he heard it performed by Tony Barrand, an English-born traditional singer now living in Brattleboro.
“It’s not often I experience a song so emotionally as when I listened to Tony sing it,” he says. “That can be a double-edged sword: On the one hand, when you hear a great version of a song you’re keen to learn it, but on the other you think, ‘What can I possibly add to it?’ So I kind of set it aside for a long time, and then came back to it, and the song ended up being one of the last I pulled together – I found a tuning I liked, experimented with a particular picking pattern, and altered the rhythm. So, melodically and harmonically, it’s more connected to the Dylan and Cash versions, but I associate it most of all with Tony.”
Another important component of “Land of Fish and Seals” is its three French-Canadian songs, which Murphy says represent his reconnection to a music tradition he’s long cherished. “I’ve always loved the rhythmical and lyrical quality of the songs. It’s not as if I’ve neglected the French-Canadian aspect of my repertoire, but I really liked being able to devote as much of the album to it as I did.”
The remaining three tracks on the album are not to be overlooked. “Thistle and Rose” – a bit of benign Irish-derived boosterism – and “Go From My Window,” a night-visiting song, are from Newfoundland; “Jackie Munro,” from Barrand and his longtime collaborator John Roberts, is in the woman-disguised-as-soldier narrative line – and even contains a gay marriage debate, albeit in an absurdist vein (“Classic English ballad,” quips Murphy).
Murphy describes the approach to arrangements on “Land of Fish and Seals” as “an organic one,” in which he sought middle ground between the different atmospheres of the two previous albums. Three of the tracks – “Girl from the North Country,” “Beeswing” and “Jackie Munro” – are Murphy on his own (he double-tracked a mandola on “Jackie Munro”). Tracy appears on four songs, and on three of them she plays octave fiddle, which Murphy notes enables her to simulate viola and cello accompaniment and add greater depth to the sound.
“In two cases, most of the arrangements were already set: I’ve played ‘Crossing the Bar’ in my performances with Hanneke and Mike, and I’d worked out “Isabeau S’y Promene” with Pacal and Yann when we did Revels together a couple of years back.
“Though I liked being able to add some textures here and there, I didn’t want to overdo things too much. For me, the main concern was how to best support the lyrics and the stories they tell. ‘It’s all about the songs’ is one of those banal, obvious platitudes, but I’ve come to grasp this in a way I didn’t before.”
For tickets and other details on Keith Murphy’s June 13 concert at Club Passim, go to passim.org. More information on Murphy and his music is available at blackislemusic.com.