Alexi Murdoch reflects on poetry, television, and feeling at home on the road

Much like the rest of his condensed tour, Alexi Murdoch's stop at the Cedar Cultural Center was quick to sell out. Murdoch is not only wildly popular, but is also quite the catch if you are fortunate enough to witness him standing live in front of you; simply put, he doesn't tour very often.

You've likely heard Murdoch's music, even if you can't identify it -- his first album, Time Without Consequence, has become one of the most licensed albums of the past decade. His music has been played on countless emotionally dramatic TV shows, movies, and commercials, most famously recognized from his album's placement throughout the soundtrack for the 2009 indie film Away We Go.

London-born, raised in Greece, and currently residing in Scotland, Murdoch earned a degree in English and Philosophy from Duke before starting his career in music. Having been compared to the likes of Nick Drake, Gordon Lightfoot, and Cat Stevens, Murdoch has risen among the ranks in impressive fashion. His lyrics are comprised of compassionate love sonnets, all set to the mildest layers of music. Which is what creates his most cherished motif: simplicity.

I spoke with Alexi the day after his much anticipated sold-out show at New York City's Lincoln Center. Coming through the phone with a thick British/Scottish accent; Alexi came across as one of the most intellectual and philosophical musicians I have ever spoken with.

Gimme Noise: So what's the tally, you've almost sold out your entire tour, or it is sold out?

Murdoch: Yeah, almost that's what they tell me! We're doing more of an intimate thing this time, so it's been pretty amazing. It's a funny thing, because previous tours haven't been organized enough... Well, this time the tickets went on sale more than a week in advance; which isn't my usual thing.  So it's done really well, it's great. We were at the Lincoln Center here in New York City last night, it was pretty amazing.

I heard that was supposed to be a pretty gig there, at the Lincoln Center.

Yeah, it's kind of a strange venue. Maybe a little more grown-up than I'm used to. But it was amazing, I had a string quartet and a horn section; I've never had that sort of assembly before so it was pretty awesome. So that was definitely a great place to kick the tour off. They obviously won't be traveling across the country with me though. I'm not at that place yet where I can swing the whole orchestra. We were talking about trying to maybe do that though, in the Midwest, but we just sort of ran out of time. So it's just going to be and my usual guitar player. Which is actually great, it's nice to do both.

When you were in the process of writing for Towards The Sun, how did you prepare? How did the process unfold?

I don't really think of writing as a craft, or a song. It's more like a natural process. Those songs were written in a pretty short period of time. I spent the winter on my own, in Scotland on the West Coast where I live; in this real dark and quiet (cause it gets really dark there). It was this really amazing time for me, it was post-leaving LA, and it just felt like there was a lot that had been storing up. So it all just came out very, very quickly. The same with the recording process, it really wasn't a laborious recording process at all. I sort of found myself in Vancouver for a couple of days, and sort of went into a studio and literally put the songs down onto a tape machine in one night. Then a few months later I was here in New York, and this director had asked me if I had any new songs, because he was interested in playing them in a film. There was something that was in the quality of these recordings, I was just surprised. It wasn't perfect, but it hadn't been sort of worked to death. It was literally just this straight forward document of the songs put on tape. So I just sort of had fun, and started chipping away at the recordings. Then I got a few horn players, and realized I had a record. It has taught me that I am never going to go back to the way I made the first record, which was like completely pain-staking, crazy, process that they crammed out of me. That's a much healthier way of approaching music, and documenting it -- to relieve yourself of the fact that you're committing these songs to all prosperity. It's almost like; you can't get caught up in that. I guess you just have to get them down as honestly as you can.

That's kind of the way Charles Bukowski conducted his writing as well.

Are you a Bukowski fan!? That's so cool; he's actually my favorite American poet. I was having a conversation the other day and I was really, maybe only speculating -- I don't really know how he's appreciated, in this country... But my sense, in terms of what I've seen, that whole dirty old man, debauched lifestyle, drunken thing, has kind of eclipsed and shadowed what an amazing, beautiful poet Buki was. I just think he's literally breathtaking beauty in some of his stuff.

How do you feel when your music ends up in a TV show? What if it's a TV show you don't particularly like?

To be honest with you, I don't know ANY of the TV shows that the music is in, because I don't watch TV. I'm assuming that the shows are pretty much the same. TV is a weird one, there's no getting around the fact that it's basically just an advertising box, that's what it is. So whether you're in one TV show or another it doesn't really make any difference, it's just the stuff that they put in between commercials to keep you sitting in front of it. It's a complicated relationship that I have with that. On the one-hand I am very aware that the fact, that the TV is helping to propagate, and proliferate sort of an ideology of sort of this overconsumption that we're facing today. But on another hand, from sort of a creative point-of-view for me musically I had to make the choice in allowing my music to be used in licensing situations like that. Or essentially going and borrowing money from some bank that calls themselves a record label, ya know? I like to keep sort of a local control of the music, and at least the music doesn't have to be offered; either they like it and they use it, or they don't. Whereas obviously with record company they can literally sit and tell you they're not going to put it out until they hear the single that they want.

So I don't have a problem with it, and plus I think that people have gotten to the point where they have become so desensitized to the commercial aspect to what they're watching, that in a way it seems that the music can actually somehow can cut through and register in people's minds. Then they don't necessarily continue to associate the music that they discovered with the show that they saw it on. So it's kind of an ideal way to reach people. You don't have to market yourself through radio and all this nonsense, and spend all this silly money promoting yourself. Which I am definitely not into; I'd rather let the music go out and have people find it.
In an ideal world I'd have some multi-millionaire patron who would pay me to make my music, and I would never soil my hands with commerce. But let's face it, maybe that wouldn't be realistic.

I learned that you were born in London, but raised in Greece and Scotland. Where does your heart personally register that you are from?

I don't know, I mean I'm kind of from where I live right now, which is Scotland. I don't really feel that sort of sense of belonging I guess. Which is sometimes feels like I'm missing something. But also is sometimes sort of a benefit. I don't feel kind of tied to one place, I feel comfortable in more places than one. I mean I live in Scotland now, and I love it, I wouldn't think of ever, kind of, giving it up. But, I sort of also couldn't imagine not being able to move if you know what I mean. 

What did you study at Duke University?

English and Philosophy -- kind of a weird trip, that whole college thing. I went right after high school and just ended up coming to the States for the first time and I went hiking in the mountains, and I thought I really should continue my education. And I just picked by geographically, not at all academically; thinking I'd have a real great time in North Carolina. And of course when I got there it was totally flat and there were no mountains at all -- but I had a good time. It in many ways was an awful school, and I probably shouldn't say that. But I enjoyed it, it's beautiful down there. I made friends with some professors, and was pretty interested in the stuff that I was reading.

How did you go from studying English and Philosophy at Duke University to being the musician that you are? 

Kind of a strange series of events; I mean obviously music was a thing for me, but I didn't really know that it was what I was going to do. I just thought that I was actually going to write in some shape or way. I didn't know if it was going to be poetry, or prose, or what -- I didn't know. I always assumed that the written word would probably be my trade in some way or another. And then I ended up following a girl out to Los Angeles, which is the last place I would have imagined myself going. It was weird, because I have a weird relationship with it, a lot of great things happened there. But on so many levels, it's just entirely repugnant to me. I can't really knock it, but I think actually in some ways I think that it actually has a very powerful, spiritual lesson to teach, if you're kind of open to that. I know that sounds totally, kind of, paradoxical in a way. You don't think that LA has that kind of approach. I think because of how isolating it is; unless you just give yourself over to the distraction as if it's on offer. It can really kind of grind you down; there's not much to hide behind there because it's all façade anyway.

That's where I kind of got into music; that's where I started. So I cannot dismiss the place off hand. I am certainly glad I don't live there anymore.

The woman that you went to LA for, did that work out?

That didn't work out! I mean, it worked out, we just didn't stay together. We kind of influenced our lives in the way we were meant to, and kind of went our separate ways. So, yeah, I'm forever grateful for the meeting. But it went, pretty passing, pretty quickly.

ALEXI MURDOCH plays a sold-out show with Haley Bonar tonight, WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 23, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER.

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