April 30, 2015
He may not have intended it that way, but the title for New England folk musician Keith Murphy’s fine recent solo album seems a little autobiographical.
“Suffer No Loss” is a refrain from one of the album’s songs, a dialogue between a couple on the pros and cons of relocating from Vermont to the Wisconsin wilderness. And while his circumstances may not have been as dramatic or compelling as those faced by the couple in question, Murphy can relate to the challenge of letting go of the familiar.
A native of Newfoundland and resident of Brattleboro, Murphy is familiar to Boston-area audiences through the annual “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” show in Sanders Theater – for which he is music director as well as a performer – a member of the Childsplay ensemble, and frequent accompanist for local Scottish fiddler Hanneke Cassel. He has also collaborated with prominent Irish performers like fiddler Liz Carroll and vocalist Karan Casey, among others.
But for nearly two decades, Murphy was best known for his work with Nightingale, the groundbreaking trio he founded with his fiddle-playing wife, Becky Tracy, and accordionist/pianist Jeremiah McLane. Nightingale’s intricate arrangements, driving rhythmic groove, and excellent musicianship helped them build a following beyond the New England contra dance circuit, and Murphy’s percussive guitar style – which has inspired and influenced numerous other guitarists – along with his skill on mandolin, piano, and foot percussion, was an important feature of the band’s sound. Further broadening their appeal as a performance ensemble was Murphy’s extensive song repertoire from Newfoundland and New England and his cogent, expressive vocals in English and French.
After 17 years and four albums, however, in 2011 Nightingale decided to ring down the curtain. No acrimony, no tantrums or objects thrown, just a mutual agreement that the band had come about as far as it could. This was not a decision made lightly, says Murphy, but it has brought substantially more gain than loss.
“I certainly had some anxiety as to how I’d feel, but I’m very happy with how it’s turned out,” he says. “We had done what we needed to do. Everyone knows bands that go on forever, and there is certainly validity to that, especially when you’ve worked hard to create something. Some people want to hear a band’s sound, whether old or new; some bands can recreate themselves.
“I realized, though, that I didn’t need to be in a band for another 20 years. It’s a matter of diminishing returns. You form a band, and it’s all new and exciting for a while, and the reward you get back is great. But over time you have to work hard to keep moving things forward. Ending Nightingale before it stopped being rewarding just seemed the best thing for all of us.”
And one of the more immediate dividends of the decision turned out to be “Suffer No Loss,” a collection of traditional songs from Newfoundland and New England. Although Murphy’s 2005 release “Bound for Canaan” was technically a solo album, he was joined by Tracy and other friends on various tracks. “Suffer No Loss” is all and only Murphy, just voice and guitar (and on one track, his percussive feet) and it is marvelous, right from the get-go with “Great Big Sea,” which he fashions with intertwined, complex rhythms. He rescues another Newfoundland classic, “Lukey’s Boat,” from its current pub-anthem status and gives it the feel of cruising on a leisurely flowing tide.
“The Golden Willow Tree” (known elsewhere as “The Golden Vanity”), its tense narrative spiked with themes of sacrifice and betrayal, is set to an entrancing melody that Murphy’s guitar focuses on with an almost mesmerizing intensity. By contrast, “Lass Among the Heather” – also ubiquitous in British Isles and American traditions – is about as upbeat and amiable as they come, and as Murphy explains, somewhat of an outlier in tales of courtship: “The mother seems happy with the arrangement and nobody dies,” he writes in the liner notes. “You’d be surprised how rare that storyline occurs in traditional songs.”
Less familiar may be “The Boatman’s Cure,” a contemporary song by George Ward of upstate New York that brings to life the lives of 18th-century boatmen with convincing folk humor and not a little wisdom. Then there’s “The Wisconsin Emigrant” – the aforementioned song with the “suffer no loss” refrain – and its tender yet compelling point-counterpoint, where the husband, beat down by the hard times, wants to strike out to the Midwest, where he’ll get settled and send for the rest of the family; the wife lovingly, yet very directly, refutes his arguments.
“That song has an historical resonance for me, in that you had entire villages and towns in Vermont that simply moved west – there were quite a few ‘Vermontvilles.’ And here is the immigrant’s experience of weighing risks, looking at realities, and feeling torn about leaving. It’s just incredible to me in terms of the level of realism and honesty in the exchange between husband and wife.”
Capping off the album is “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s,” which Murphy describes as “the ‘Danny Boy’ of Newfoundland – it’s often a vehicle for someone with a big voice, but the song has an intimate quality I’ve always liked.
“A lot of these are songs I’ve known for a while, but for one reason or another hadn’t recorded or played them much – sometimes I’d been too embarrassed, I guess. It wasn’t a big effort to come to them on my own terms.”
Born in the harbor city of St. John’s (“My life didn’t involve being out on the ocean,” he says, “but most anyone who lived there couldn’t help feeling a strong connection to it”) to a Newfoundland father and Scottish mother, Murphy recalls growing up amidst a thriving folk music scene rooted firmly in the area’s dance traditions: “We were lucky in that folk music is a big part of the mainstream culture in Newfoundland, so there’s a big awareness of the tradition.”
Though he got his first guitar before he turned 10, Murphy focused more attention in school on studying classical music and developing his music theory than playing folk and traditional music (school was also where he learned to speak French). For a long time he was convinced his career path would be in academics, and he wound up going to graduate school in Toronto to study political science. But then “I hit the wall, and just felt I needed a break from all the arcane material I was dealing with every day.”
So Murphy picked up his guitar and began finding other musicians around town to play with, including fiddler/composer Oliver Schroer, whose musical interests spanned well beyond Canadian traditions to include jazz, Balkan, Scandinavian, and Asian music. This idea of a diverse musical mindset would stay with Murphy as he began to expand his activities into New England, first with Scottish-oriented events and then into the contra dance scene, where band repertoires would typically include material from Irish, Scottish, French Canadian, and American traditions. Among the many venues Murphy traveled to was the Pinewoods music and dance camp in Plymouth, where he met Tracy.
Reflecting on his musical journey, Murphy sees the Irish traditions as having a particularly major role in his development. “I feel like Irish set dances had a big effect on me. The phrasing of that step work, the connection with the music, those percussive patterns – it all really shaped my guitar and piano playing. When I accompany a tune, I’m often thinking of the cadences in the dancing figures.”
The 1970s Irish music revival, and the advent of bands like Planxty and The Bothy Band, also was a significant influence, Murphy says, especially for Nightingale. “Those groups added so much layering to their arrangements, yet without really taking away from the melody; they definitely were a model for what we ended up doing – as they were for many other people.”
And Murphy had his own, earlier education from which to draw: “I was lucky to have a strong theoretical basis, and an understanding of chords and four-part arrangements. So, as I began to work with Nightingale, and then Childsplay and ‘St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,’ which all had a lot of that ‘layered’ sound, having that background was really helpful.”
Yet when it came to “Suffer No Loss,” Murphy threw out a lot of his usual modus operandi. “I’d put a lot of energy into the texture of arrangements, and never really thought about doing a completely solo album, and I wanted to try something different: focusing on songs in their own right, with minimal, sparse accompaniment.”
The big change centered on his guitar-playing. Murphy tried different tunings other than his typical DADGAD, worked on fingerstyle technique and made his strum less percussive. And while the accompaniment is spare on “Suffer No Loss,” it runs along a fascinating spectrum: the syncopated picking on “Great Big Sea,” very much in the Nic Jones mode; the warm, full-bodied backing to “Lukey’s Boat” and “Boatman’s Cure”; the bouncy lift to “Lass Among the Heather,” recalling the 1960s folk/blues style; and the meditative arpeggios on “Quand J’étais Fille À L’ Âge De Quinze Ans,” which now and then brings to mind the moody, sometimes ethereal pieces of Nick Drake.
With “Suffer No Loss” now done, Murphy is now able to turn his attention to another recording project, this one with Tracy: “We’ve developed a repertoire over the years for just the two of us, so it seemed like a good idea to put it on an album. I’d say our work is about 90 percent done – we’ll probably invite in some guests.”
Is there a target date for the release of this CD? “Two years ago,” quips Murphy, clearly not suffering for loss of time.