Q&A with extremely versatile artist Lauren Murphy, a personality and musician that lights up any venue she graces

"As we have seen in history, Art can make a movement; remember Hollywood’s Red Scare? I believe it’s a modern songwriters job to write on current conditions, in keeping with the oral history tradition. Positive messages are what is needed; songs of coming together, peace, Earth Awareness and love."

Lauren Murphy: American(a) Woman

Lauren Murphy is an extremely versatile talent with a personality that lights up any venue she graces. Born in Baton Rouge, La., she cut her teeth on the festive environs of New Orleans and south Louisiana's diversity. With 17 years of classical music & 18 years of intensive dance training, Murphy quickly stood out to ground breaking musicians & choreographers. Later, she studied at LSU, under NPR host, famed writer, & Exquisite Corpse founder, Andrei' Codrescu, Maya Angelou, and Theatre' giant, Barry Kyle (London Shakespeare Theatre'). Lauren relocated to Northern California in the mid 1990's to further her career in the arts. While she is best known for her background vocals with the San Francisco based band Zero (Steve Kimock, Robert Hunter, Judge Murphy), she was also the band leader/main composer of Lansdale Station (2005-2013), the award winning act she established with her late husband, legendary vocalist, The Judge. In early 2012, she Judge & family moved to from the SF Bay Area to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in order to rest following Judge's liver transplant (2011). Sadly in the summer of 2012 The Judge began a 17 month rejection of his 2nd chance at life via transplant. They say hardship makes for great art, and this is evident in Lauren's recent compositions; notably some of the best of her career. Quite a buzz is circulating on social media and in the press, and she is surely "One to Watch" in 2014.       Photo by Chad Edwards/MCE Photography  

A classically trained musician, Lauren has primarily worked in the rock and roll arena, and is respected as an iconic singer throughout Northern and Central California. Mourning the death of her singing partner, Judge Murphy (9/15/2013), she has turned back toward her love of the warm toned acoustic music she began her career with over 15 years ago. During that time she's worked with some of the industry's best and played many destination venues and festivals. Her music can be heard on main stream and public radio stations around the world. Murphy is currently recording her new CD with Grammy Nominated Producer, Mooka Rennick of Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati, Ca. It will feature an all-star lineup of veteran players she's worked with over the years. Compared to Patty Griffin, EmmyLou Harris, & Grace Slick, with the passion of Janis Joplin, Murphy is completely unique in her vocal stylings. Brassy, sensitive, and powerful, she captivates her audience with finely crafted tales that span the gambit of the human condition. When she isn't touring, Lauren enjoys working on her acreage in the tiny mountain town of Apple Hill California, with her young daughter.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture?

Rock n’ Roll is Freedom, man; to lose oneself wholly in frenzied dance, the ringing of a telecaster, funky bass grooves, driving backbeat of the drums, & power house vocals. On stage or Off, Rock n’ Roll is “No Rules.” …and with all that Freedom, comes…danger… The only way not to lose yourself to the ‘long plastic hallway’ of the music business while engaging in Rock n’ Roll, is to be extremely grounded & keep a few people around you that you can trust. Only then can you grant yourself “Permission to Rock”.

…and what does the blues mean to you?

The Blues is suffering…the Open Wound of the Soul no band-aid can fit, a dull ache no medicine can touch, and an affliction deep in the spirit no doctor nor religion can cure. No one can truly sing the Blues unless they’ve lost deeply; their home, their child, their job, their woman, their man, their dignity, their freedom. Look how and where the Blues were born out of; it’s the soul’s response to the condition of servitude and the continued fallout from Slavery and oppression in the Deep South. I can hear the drums at Congo Square in New Orleans. It’s the Soul trying to be Free thru Sound when the Body and Condition is oppressed. Even modernized blue-eyed soul blue of say Eric Clapton & Johnny Lang, contain the tradition of that undercurrent of suffering and pushing back. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon,… These lives were not pretty, but against the grain. I didn’t fully understand, therefore couldn’t really ((sing)) the blues until after the death of my husband. It’s the Soul Crying out.  

How do you describe Lauren Murphy sound and songbook?

Lauren Murphy has 2 separate and distinct sounds, though similar songbooks for both. There is the SongBird/Singer Songwriter Acoustic approach w/a catalog of originals (and a few well placed covers) in the tradition of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Patty Griffin, & Emmylou Harris. Its story songs of feeling that pull from a mix of Western Country Blues and the Folk Rock approached. My Alter ego is a powerful Rock n’ Roll Front Woman of a 5-piece band that has been likened to the dynamic intensity and prowess of Grace Slick & Janis Joplin. In both venues, the material has been described as “Simply Brilliant” by No Depression Magazine, “Excellent” by New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Radio WWOZ. I enjoy equally sitting down a telling a story thru voice and guitar, as well as going full throttle w/a band. It thinks it’s important to have a good mix of both, for a variety of reasons.

What characterize your music philosophy?

Keep it simple. Write from the heart. Be genuine. Always play up. No matter what venue, respect the music by brining your A-Game. Don’t take it personally. Life is as good as your last gig, so make each one a good as possible. Practice & Personability go a long way.  Check your Ego at the Door. Sing out and Stay Humble. Never Forget, Music is a Contact Sport; Stay Frosty!

Photo by Bob Minkin

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Always,…always… play up!

How has the Southern Roots music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I grew up in Louisiana, a culture steeped in Southern Roots Music, much from the African American Tradition & gospel/work songs. Mix that in with the Cajun French influence, Latin Jazz, German, Irish, & Italian immigrations, and you’ve got Gumbo. Southern Roots Music is also the tradition of “story-telling”, an ancient folk art we can’t lose. I studied English Literature at LSU, & had the luck of taking a class from Poet & Civil Rights Activists, Maya Angelou. She taught me no one can ever oppress the mind, unless one allows it. It was shortly after taking her class, the oppression of the Southern Culture, & moreover an overbearing Father, of what I was “supposed to be”, not “what I am”, was something I had to escape, so I ran to San Francisco. Now that I’m back living in Alabama, I realize the oppression and widespread system of antiquated beliefs is still very prevalent, but I’m older now. A lot of those beliefs are ingrained via the Bible Belt Tradition, so there is a lot of fire and brimstone to pull from.  It’s that constant “push” of the soul on the ceiling of life that makes the stories from down here so vibrant, as well as some of it’s characters. The Roots Culture is alive and well, and it’s all about surviving and rising above. The food & the music go hand in hand. It’s the way we come together, and make the best out of what life dishes out. In the south, if we suffer loss or a natural disaster, you can bet on a big potluck with music; “Southern Hospitality Saves”. I also now realize the only way to help change stagnant viewpoints that feed the continuation of the South’s inherited disenfranchised, is to speak up, be active, help when it’s needed, and set an example for the next generation for Unity Peace & Love.  

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?  

1.) My late husband, Judge Murphy, who was Grateful Dead writer Robert Hunter’s ‘muse’, had a platinum voice, and a real ear for arranging and producing. He believed in my music & me so deeply. This was a great source of confidence and definitely contact building for me as I matured as an artist. Working with such a strong vocalist as himself, who was 22 years my senior, pushed my vocal and writing abilities. Now that he is no longer with us, I feel his mannerisms, musical approach, and even stage presence can be seen through me. I can hear him now…. “Sing like a horn! You’re the horn.” My partnership w/him also exposed me to the talents longtime friendships and collaborations w/Steve Kimock, Pete Sears (Jefferson Airplane), Banana (The Youngblood’s), the late Merl Saunders, Melvin Seals (Jerry Garcia Band), Bobby Vega (Etta James), and so more

2.) Wavy Gravy has also been instrumental in my musical career. He “fed the masses” at Woodstock (though I wasn’t born yet) and for the last few decades, thru his SEVA foundation, has been bringing “the gift of sight” to 3rd world countries. Wavy first plucked me out of the crowd as a complete stranger, to perform at “The Hog Farm Family Picnic” festival in 1996. Since then via Mr. Gravy, I have shared stages w/the likes of Chris Robinson, Nicki Bluhm, the David Nelson Band, ZERO, Bob Weir, the late Bernie Worrell (PFunk) and Hotbuttered Rum. 

3.) All owners of ‘The Sweetwater Music Hall’, starting in 1997’s original founder Jeannie Patterson, to the current owners including Bob Weir. They believed in me from the beginning and still do strongly to this day. I consider ‘The Sweetwater Music Hall’, in Mill Valley, Ca. my ‘other home’. 

"The Blues is suffering….the Open Wound of the Soul no band-aid can fit, a dull ache no medicine can touch, and an affliction deep in the spirit no doctor nor religion can cure. No one can truly sing the Blues unless they’ve lost deeply; their home, their child, their job, their woman, their man, their dignity, their freedom. (Lauren & Judge Murphy / Photo by Bill Towner Rock Photography)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

In the late 90’s it was not uncommon to see Bonnie Raitt, Bob Weir, and Sammy Hagar attending my shows at the Sweetwater. Sometimes they still show up today. It was both intimidating and flattering as a young artist. 

One time, when we were on the road w/my late husband’s band, ZERO, (with whom I sang harmonies for), we were in NYC at the ‘Wetlands’. Judge & I were backstage. Robert Hunter walked into the room w/scribbled lyrics and said, “Bob Dylan & I were upstairs talking. We wrote this song and want you to sing it. It’s called ‘The Ugliest Girl in the World’. Judge took one look at the lyrics, and then looked up at Bob and replied, “I aint’ singing this,” and crumpled it up & tossed it in the trashcan. Hunter stormed out, and Judge left. I dived into the trash to retrieve the handwritten lyrics by 2 icons.

One of my most memorable times in my life was standing on the stage at Carnegie Hall, preparing to sing w/the NY Philharmonic. I was 16, Jon Rutter was set to conduct his “Requiem”. I was studying classical music at the time.  Love to get back to that room and play my own music. That would be an accomplishment. Singing in such an iconic building so young, left an indelible imprint on my soul, and a hunger for beautiful stages with impeccable acoustics and appreciative audiences.

Most recently, I had the privilege of singing “Somebody to Love”, made popular by the Jefferson Airplane, with it’s composer, Darby Slick. He commented that he liked my voice better than Grace’s. We are trying to put together a touring outfit for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love June 2017.

Another of ‘close to my heart’ venues is located here in Alabama; ‘The Frog Pond Sunday Social’, offers house concerts in conjunction w/ the Folk Alliance. This is where I met AMA winner & multi-instrumentalist of the year, Will Kimbrough. Kimbrough was born in Mobile, and tours supporting Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, writes for Jimmy Buffett, and has a super group (WillieSugar Capps), that was formed at the Frog Pond. When they say, “timing is everything”, this was one of those. Right place right time, and Kimbrough liked my songs and is not only a good friend but featured on my latest record.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

Analog. It had a “beefier” soundscape. The music of today is largely thin in bandwidth, even from some of the best artists & engineers, regardless of genre.  The music of the last century also encapsulates in that soundscape, the world from back then…It was slower, and I think more soulful…We’re living in a “drive thru” reality now, and that includes art.  A slower world made for deeper pondering. No Google to use to look up the instant answer. I listen to a lot of Vinyl, from the 1920’s to current. Putting on an old record is a time machine. Digital has made everything too thin. I like to “step into music” and be fully engulfed in it. The Age of Technology has made for an oversaturated sterile environment, where mediocrity is largely lauded as exceptional.

"Bob Minkin....he's ALSO been essential in my career.... been taking my photos since 97', and has surely helped my career. Quite the Celebrity himself these days! (Photo by Bob Minkin)

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Well, I first hope that we haven’t polluted the planet too much for generations to come… Musically, I am concerned about a lot; continued piracy from unregulated Internet sources, over-saturated markets largely with less talent and more choices, Artists being reduced to the Court Jesters of Life.  In the old days Record executives & talent scouts were there to weed out and help develop acts.  No one “develops” acts anymore, unless you’re on a ‘Game Show.’ The current landscape of what is left of the Industry makes it a lot harder to be heard above the masses, no matter how talented. Everyone wants something for free. It’s that drive-thru reality. While the Internet has allowed the artist more freedom to take on the duties of PR, Marketing, and control over booking & merchandise, it has also opened the door to let anyone who has access to a computer try their hand at “professional music”. The time the average artist spends online promoting or handling business is phenomenal, and just one more minute that artist isn’t rehearsing or writing. This “Drive Thru Digital Reality” has polluted & dumbed down the listening audience, though I still believe real talent can rise to the top. I also miss the environment of the music festivals of the past. The world was softer, it seemed. When my late husband was recovering from Cancer surgery, we became more and more aware of bizarre behavior at festivals. There’s a lot of strange new illegal/so-called designer drugs out there,…It’s not just weed anymore. People also seem to want to “get drunk and be somebody” instead of going out to really enjoy the music. Those combinations can be deadly. A few years ago my friend, Lester Chambers of “The Chambers Brothers” was on stage at a Blues Festival. A woman, high on something, jumped on stage a began to beat him. He was hospitalized. When you put your self out there publically, you just don’t know what’s going to happen anymore. I stay very aware and am cautious where & whom I work for.  As the Social Climate in the world changes, so will the environment of the music festival. What I truly hope is that more musicians will sing of Peace and Unity, than violence and division. Music is a universal language… Like a smile or a laugh, and it can change people slowly, from the inside out.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Accountability of Internet related royalties in all forms. Intellectual Property Rights should not be able to be stolen and dolled out without accountability or repercussions. So sick of finding my stuff online thru some sub-standard unauthorized foreign site giving away a my song in a format I did not approve of or sanction.

"Americana is born out of the first settlers to arrive in the 1600’s, I would hesitate to even say some Native American influences in percussive sounds & chants, the subsequent slave trade and influx of Caribbean & African sounds, and later immigrations of Latino, Cuban, Irish, German, Italian, and more." (Photo by Jude Mooney, Sonoma, CA)

Why did you think that the southern roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Its real- down home stuff. Will Kimbrough & I have discussed the oral traditions of southern songwriting, and it’s basically “keep it simple”. Mark Twain had such an impact as a writer because he spoke to “every man”. He was not complex in his delivery. Southern roots music isn’t either, whether coming from the Appalachian Mountain original or African American Blues. From older songs such as “I’ll fly away”, “Swing low Sweet Chariot”, “Come on in my Kitchen”, “Spoonful”,  to more modern compositions  like Steve Earle’s “We are all Immigrants”, the words go directly to the heart of the matter.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says?

It’s very difficult. I recall the late 90’s when Lilith Fair was buzzing. It seemed for a minute, good female writers were getting out there….ones with power and merit, not just scantily clad little girls singing about heartaches they don’t have the years nor experience to own. If you’re pretty, “you’re too pretty to be talented.” If you’re not “pretty enough”, they’ll tell ya that too. Know any boy bands that have to spend 30 minutes doing hair & makeup before a gig? No …they roll out of the van and change a shirt. You’re also usually the only girl hanging w/ the guys. Most of the entities you deal w/ from management to booking to sound engineers & crew, are largely male. If you are remotely physically attractive, this can get strange, as the old Hunter Thompson quote talks of that “long plastic hallway where pimps run free and good men die like dogs…there’s also a negative side.” That’s a rough environment for a woman. It’s made me tougher, but heck I worked for the Louisiana Legislature (you want to talk sexism!)). As far as players go, there are less women who are accomplished players in the arena of music, so collaboration w/quality women pickers is hard to find. When I find a good chic player and we connect, I pursue it. Women are creative by nature, but so much of society’s so-called “rules”, dictate and guilt women into thinking “I can’t do this and be a Mom/Wife too”, so many women give up the minute they have a child or family. It’s a hard balance on the tightrope of creativity in this Circus. I’m working without a net here, but the view is great.

What is the status of women in music?

I still think largely the ‘sex object’ appearance plays into more Popular music, however there were groundbreakers of mature women like Tina Turner (What’s Love Got to Do with it-age 46) , and even more recently Patty Griffin, who’s career didn’t really become mainstream until the mid 2000’s, as she entered her 40’s. This shows me that there is something about a “woman’s” voice & point of view as compared to a girls. I’ve also enjoyed watching Taylor Swift navigate and take her own reigns as she’s matured. While modern country music writers continue to put women in short shorts & wet t-shirts in the front seat of a guys’ truck, there are mature female artist who fight the stereotype. Women are gonna have to keep pushing. We are no way equal to the Rock Gods of men in music, but there are indeed Goddesses who show you can be talented gorgeous smart and own it without apology; Steve Nicks, Grace Potter, Lizzy Hale , Bonnie Rait (who’s so smooth in her owning it), …But the real groundbreakers seem to be from years ago, so ladies, it’s time to step up.

"Accountability of Internet related royalties in all forms. Intellectual Property Rights should not be able to be stolen and dolled out without accountability or repercussions. So sick of finding my stuff online thru some sub-standard unauthorized foreign site giving away a my song in a format I did not approve of or sanction." (Photo by Chad Edwards/MCE Photography)

What is the impact of music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

That’s a pretty big question, but as we have seen in history, Art can make a movement; remember Hollywood’s Red Scare? I believe it’s a modern songwriters job to write on current conditions, in keeping with the oral history tradition. Positive messages are what is needed; songs of coming together, peace, Earth Awareness and love. There are people out there making plenty of music with hateful lyrics. This worries me deeply, as the young and uneducated are very easily swayed into a mob mentality.  

What is the legacy of Americana?

To record our own History as it’s happening for posterity, and to keep singing the songs of those who’s gone before. Americana is born out of the first settlers to arrive in the 1600’s, I would hesitate to even say some Native American influences in percussive sounds & chants, the subsequent slave trade and influx of Caribbean & African sounds, and later immigrations of Latino, Cuban, Irish, German, Italian, and more. That’s a big melting pot of culture, and the Legacy is to keep it alive and moving on down the river of life.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Monterey Pop would be really cool to see Janis and Big Brother Perform as Mama Cass watches from the audience. God, to see Otis Redding, Simon & Garfunkel, the Airplane, Canned Heat… man that would ‘a been cool…

However… If I could go ANYWHERE… I would have had a first class ticket on the Train for “Festival Express”. Can you imagine touring Canada with the Burrito Brothers, Buddy Guy, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis… And having the trip turn into a non-stop Jam? Yeh… THAT’S A ride I’d stay on …

Lauren Murphy - Official website

Photo by Chad Edwards/MCE Photography, Laurel MS.

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