Alexi Murdoch is doing something right. In his second visit to Chicago, the Scotland troubadour escaped his Nick Drake comparisons (for whatever it's worth, he hums like him more than anything else) and gave a sold out crowd virtually two shows in one set. The onstage simplicity of five dimmed blue stage lights throughout the entire performance complimented the -10 degree temperature outside while he rewarded fans with a perfect reason to brave the elements.
With a 21-date tour supporting his latest release Time Without Consequence, this is Murdoch's second visit to the States, with two television appearances on NBC's Last Call With Carson Daly already under his belt. But the network exposure is the very least of his aspirations right now. His speech soft yet direct, he carries neither weight nor pretense on his shoulders. Like American contemporaries M. Ward and Jeff Tweedy, he's proven that less is always more in terms of getting the message across to the audience, both in his sonic approach and song structure. His songs are rotating melodies that build with each time around. These layers form the backdrop that serves the songs by magnifying their lyrics of blunt humility and hope. He made his songs matter and kept his crowd silent throughout the show, almost like listening to a record through headphones late at night.
Murdoch was accompanied by Larry Schemmel who performed as tune texturist, giving the music a sonic weight with guitars and pedals that flourished and washed in and out of moments, building soundscapes that stood the songs on a narrative ledge. Where they could have easily continued the momentum as a duo, Murdoch summoned opening act Midnight Movies to take the stage with him for the second half and turn up the volume a bit. Chicago fans that saw him last time at Schubas got their wish this time around as the sound of a full ensemble added a certain depth to the mystery. Here is an artist setting himself up to make future visits with a catalogue bound to grow in artistic license and style.
I spoke with Alexi on the phone after the show. We touched on Midwest winters, the relationship between fan and singer, favorite bands at the moment, and our modern urge to document moments when we should be enjoying them.
SR: The music you play, especially in a live setting, can go from subtle to intense at times, yet you tend to hold back vocally to where it almost juxtaposes the song. It's an interesting dynamic. Is this approach chosen, or is this a more natural part of your voice?
AM: I don't go for any type of specific effect. It is an interesting question because I can definitely be quite academic at times and take that scientific, objective approach to what I'm doing. I would say it's more of a natural voice-thing where I'm less conscious of my approach in the steps I take. The process of singing for me has been more of a stripping down of stuff that isn't me. Speaking for myself, you don't really start out singing with your own voice. It takes a while to find your voice, and I feel like I've finally come to a place where it's inside of me.
SR: I felt that while watching you perform. With that in mind, I know there's been some press coming out lately about the Nick Drake comparisons, and frankly that stuff bores and annoys me. We're so quick to pull out comparisons and references instead of experiencing something that's actually happening right in front of us.
AM: Man, I can't tell you how many interviews have gone into that whole thing... yes, it's nice to be compared to someone who sings with his own voice as well, but we've gotten ourselves into a situation where we've allowed commerce to interfere with people's ability to listen to something with fresh ears these days. It's exactly what you said- to be able to decide for yourself sitting right there at a show, you know? Some people seem to go to live shows just to film it on their cameras the whole time, it's like they're not even present when they're there. Its like, "I'm going to film this and put it on my MySpace page!" How 'bout we experience the moment, brief as it is...sort of let it be what it is?
SR: You had a mini solo-set and then a set with the Midnight Movies as your backup band, which I thought was fantastic. Any plans of putting together your own group for the next tour?
AM: I'm definitely working on that now; haven't had time in the past to do that. I brought the Movies with me because I really like them as people, and they have this spontaneous energy where l could have fun with them, as well. I have a pretty ambitious plan for getting a band together, though it's not always easy to find the right people to bring with you- to find those who can really listen, really dig in. I don't want to go out there and blind people with this amazing set right now, where the band plays the entire record note for note or anything like that. This record for me is a point of departure, really. I'm a pretty green musician myself, just starting out here. I really want to explore as a musician, I feel this excitement and insane energy about it. It's all about connecting with people at this point, and in terms of the music, I feel there's a lot that needs to happen and I look forward to picking up people along the way and making that real in the next year. There's so much potential for expanding in different directions.
SR: It's good to hear that patience. I'm looking forward to hearing how the arrangements will change down the road, which brings me to the next question. Being this is your second tour of the US, do the songs still carry the same relevance, and does the meaning morph over time? Or is it perhaps like reading an old journal entry?
AM: It's always a struggle. I don't think the songs have gotten old enough to me yet where they lose their relevance. There may come a time when these songs may lose some of their meaning to me... I think that's the struggle all of us have, whether you're singing a song or painting a picture or anything... just trying to be in the moment as a human being, falling in and out of things. There are songs that I'm more connected to now than I was two years ago; it's just a question of getting into that headspace. To me the songs don't really point to a specific point in my life. At times the songs speak to me, in a way, and I have things to learn from them as well. They're more like subconscious fragments than autobiographical journal entries.
SR: Are you working on new material while you're on the road? And which artists are you really into right now?
AM: I am working on new material, in fact. Though I learned a lot, the process for making this last record was a grueling one. There's a mass of new stuff coming out of me right now, but I don't want to fuck with it and try to record it already. We get too greedy when we try to immediately capture it and record it so it becomes a commodity. I'd rather just go out and play them for a while. There is enough stuff to record another record, and I think the next time I'll probably do it a lot quicker. I've got to go back to that place of being more present in the moment.
It's funny; I've never been a guy who knows a lot about contemporary music. In the last few years I've been sort of discovering a lot of new stuff. Speaking of Chicago, Wilco for me is one of the best American bands out there right now. I recently discovered this band out of Brooklyn called The Nationals that I really like, I love their new record! Radiohead... I just saw The Album Leaf for the first time... it's weird, I'm sort of ten years behind on checking out some of these bands that are out there. I definitely think Conor Oberst is headed towards doing some crazy, cool shit (laughs)! I'm really into Cat Power as well, and I just saw M. Ward play the Sundance Film Fest. I thought it was beautiful, it was so good. It's really encouraging for me to see people who are making real music and getting heard for it. That's really badass. I don't want to sound too cliche and call it a movement, but there is something going on. I don't know how good a time it is for everything else, but it's a good time for music right now.
by Shawn Rios