Joshua Murphy is an ex-pat Australian musician, now living in Berlin and his debut solo EP, Lowlands was released in December of 2022, on the aufnahme + wiedergabe label. Lowlands is a slice of Australiana story telling in the bleak and often unforgiving outback, where loneliness, distance, scorching heat and dead cold can easily affect the human psyche. It follows in the gritty southern gothic vein of Nick Cave, where good and evil court in the dust and sweat of yesteryear’s memories, which are long in small country towns. Murphy echoes a tradition of musicians where there is nothing that quite sounds like the Aussie post-punk scene from Cave, or the laconic late Roland S Howard, or the hauntingly beautiful songs of the late David McComb of The Triffids. We spoke to Murphy about the EP, what lead to the writing and was involved in the recording. I will just say that as an Australian, this land leaves an indelible mark under your skin.
You are a member of Crime And The City Solution but you have taken the time to write and record your debut solo material, in the form of “Lowlands”. What prompted you on this solo journey?
I started working on “Lowlands” alongside Producer Martin J. Fiedler in 2019. It was a sort of re-introduction to creation for me after a 5-year break. It was later that I met Simon and was asked to join Crime & The City Solution. Martin had started working with the band on their new record, and I was asked to add some guitars. Which later turned into playing some shows with the band and then joining, but joining Crime came as a result of making “Lowlands”, not the other way around.
Being the sole composer and decision maker, have you found it easier or harder?
There is something very freeing in having full creative control. I knew what kind of record I wanted to create, so having the autonomy to make decisions just meant that I could arrive where I already knew I wanted to go. It is important to say that I wasn’t alone in the process though, I had a great ally in Martin J. Fiedler, who produced, recorded and mixed “Lowlands”. Martin sat with me at the piano, in his home and listened to the sketches of songs as I was writing them, and always gently pointed me in the right direction when it was needed. He helped immensely to sculpt and realise this record. Though I wouldn’t have been able to make “Lowlands” in a band formation, its songs are singular, and deeply personal. I wouldn’t have been able to go there if the focus was one of creative exchange, this wasn’t about that.
“Lowlands” is a gritty a dark release, with many comparing it to the works of Nick Cave, where you can almost feel the dust on your tongue and it does have a lost in the open spaces of the Australian landscape quality. What compelled you to write “Lowlands”?
I’m happy if it makes you feel that. I wanted to write a record that forced, or helped, (depending on how you look at it), me to reflect and confront a lot of the things in myself. I wanted it to sound like my home of Australia, specifically the rural areas where I grew up, with that vastness that can make you feel both connected to something, and completely at its mercy. I was compelled to write a record that felt like me, both lyrically and musically.
Joshua, you make reference to ghosts or tormented spirits, which evokes images of violent and lawless times…. where did you draw the inspiration for the imagery?
“Littered with Ghosts” is about lies and the idea that living within your own fabricated reality gives birth to ghosts, manifestations of lies told, physical companions serving as constant reminders. Specifically relating to the lies we tell ourselves, which is possibly one of the most violent things we can do. To lie to ourselves, distorts everything we are, and everyone around us. The inspiration is drawn from my life, from mistakes made, and from wanting to free myself from the companions I gathered along the way.
There is something of the story teller in Joshua Murphy, so is this something you enjoy in music?
I’m a huge Country, early Blues and Folk music fan. I see these three genres as very similar, just presented by a different people, at a different time. They all speak of truth, they tell tales, there is an imagery and story to their songs, they are generally set over very simple chord progressions, and centred around a singular truth. Love, loss, regret, joy. That’s always been what songs are about for me, the centre, the tale, the music and melody are just there to relay that centre, that story, that truth told.
Do you have a favourite track off “Lowlands” and if so why?
That would be “The Fault Was Lain There Too”. I remember having the idea for the song, and the story that I wanted to tell, but I don’t remember working on it. Generally my songs go through 3 or 4 versions, a sketch, a draft, taking form slowly over time. “The Fault Was Lain There Too” was written in one sitting, recorded into my phone, put aside, and forgotten about. My friend Jesper Munk found it in my phone one night when we were showing each other song ideas. I had this song I was showing him, he kind of shrugged and started searching through my phone for other sketches, finding “The Fault Was Lain There Too”. I very clearly remember us sitting there, listening to it, and laughing about the fact that what we both believed to be my best work so far had been put aside and forgotten. I’m very thankful for that night.
As a multi-instrumentalist, what instruments were used to create “Lowlands”, especially some of the more jarring sounds that give a harsher effect?
I decided on a list of instruments before starting to record “Lowlands”, the idea being that limitations would help retain the narrative of the songs, and also create a narrative in the production of the record itself. Between Martin, Jonathan Dreyfus, and myself, we played all the instruments on “Lowlands”. The voice, piano, guitar, synthesiser, double bass, cello, voila and violin. Anything you hear on the record is made using these instruments, including the percussive sounds. Some of those harsher effects are synthesiser, or the sound of the instruments themselves being hit in a percussive manner.
There is a seductive beauty about dark places whether that is man-made, natural or in the minds and hearts of men. What draws you to the darkness?
I don’t really have a definitive answer to that. Musically I know that I like the sensuality of darker music, the chords and progressions used. I like the violence of the attack, and tension in the instruments played. The danger of the rhythms, the fact that everything sits on the back foot rhythmically, and when done correctly, I find it all to be, as you say, seductive. Although lyrically I’ve always been drawn to hopeful stories. The coupling of dark delivery and hope is something I find to be very human. That sentiment that even though we might be at the bottom, we are looking up. I believe people are hopeful, even if a little dark at times. “Lowlands” is a hopeful record.
For myself, Australian post-punk music has a certain sound or aesthetic you can hear that sets it apart. Do you think this is the case?
I do. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last years. My friend and Producer Martin always comments on the Australian touch, or sound. The chords we use, the way we approach songs. He describes it as uniquely Australian. Beautiful, yet violent, equally sad and hopeful. I’ve come to agree with him, I think it comes from the country itself. Australia is a very unforgiving place, both in the climate, and the people. It can be very harsh and desolate, isolating and lonely, it’s people can be quite rough and violent. On the other hand, It’s also visually stunning, it’s full of impossible landscapes, beautiful and endless. I think it’s the combination of this violent, rough isolation, and the most beautiful, peaceful and endless landscapes I’ve seen, that must take root in us somehow, and ultimately shape the way we play, and this Australian sound.
The German label, aufnahme + wiedergabe is heavily associated with the German post-punk, industrial and dark arts scenes. How did you end up signing and are you still pinching yourself being on their label?
Philipp Strobel (the head of the label) is my best friend. We’ve known each other for 10 years, and have spent a very large portion of that time together. While I was making “Lowlands”, we would sit together, speak about the record and listen to the demo’s, rough mixes and final mixes. The idea was never actually to release on a+w, I actively told him many times through the process, this is not for the label, I just need your opinion on something. It got to the point that he had to sit me down as the record was being finished and say to me. I know you don’t want to release on a+w, but I want to release the record. We both laughed a lot that day.
You have said that the beauty of music is the most important thing on this EP and that it can change for the live shows. Can you explain that a little more?
I think you may have misunderstood me here. What I actually said was that I think that the songs are the most important thing on the record. Everything begins and ends with the songs. Making everything else, whilst it should be beautiful, ultimately interchangeable. What I mean is that, the lines, the instruments, they should be beautiful, and they play a huge role in the delivery of the song in that specific recorded form, but the song exists with or without those elements. These elements can, and should be changed for live shows. I’ve done shows where the songs have been played on an electric guitar with a sampler and loop pedal, I’ve done shows alone with an acoustic guitar. I have played them many times alone on piano, at different tempos, in different keys. I love the music we created for the record, I’m proud of it, and I think it’s very beautiful, I enjoy listening to it very much. I don’t plan to be tied to it though, not in the same way I am tied to the songs. A song is a living thing that can change as we change, it would not serve the song to present it, night after night as some sort of
rehearsed theatre piece. A song is not that.
The EP is written from an Australian perspective but do you think in a way, living in Berlin inspired that Australian Identity?
That’s a really good question. I think it has. There are some things about yourself that you don’t see until you look at them from afar. This was certainly the case for me in relation to music and living overseas. That distance in living on the other side of the world for the last decade has shown me that I am fundamentally, whilst I don’t see myself as singularly Australian, I am, in fact an Australian Musician. The parts that come out of me musically, are, at their core, Australian. I’ve also realised that I like that part of myself. I am drawn to an Australian musical Identity.
You have made your life in Germany currently, but do you miss Australia and do you ever think of coming back?
I’ve lived in Germany since March 2013, I have loved my time there, but I don’t think I will stay there forever. I don’t know exactly where I will go next, but I don’t plan to go back to Australia. I loved living in Australia, but I’m not a nostalgic person, I don’t miss it, and I probably won’t miss Germany once I leave. I try to be very involved in what I’m doing, and where I am while it’s happening. Once it’s over I try not to reside there anymore.
What music/bands inspired you when you were younger and have your tastes changed since then?
Growing up I was a guitar player, I was obsessed with notes and that form of expression, it was all Jimi Hendrix, John Frusciante, Eddie Hazel, Omar Rodriquez Lopez. Then I started to move more towards early blues, which is guitar and song, or tale based, people like Howling Wolf, Elmore James, Lighting Hopkins. Around this time I also started to realise what a great lyricist Jimi Hendrix was, I read an article that Jimi always used to carry a book of Bob Dylan lyrics around with him, that took me down the road of Country and Folk music, and that’s when I first got obsessed with stories, what they could do to you, a song with a good story is like a book, it can be devastating, or comforting, and it’s full of imagery and worlds. People like Gillian Welch, Leonard Cohen, Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey. Finally it all came back around to people like Rowland S. Howard, who uses the guitar in the way that I love, but also tell stories and write songs, I don’t think too many people do that. That’s what I want to try and achieve, music and songs that are both parts beautiful.
Can we be expecting an album at some point?
For sure, I’m working on the next release already, I’m half way through writing the songs, I’ll keep writing for another half a year and then start recording. I’m planning to have it finished this year in order to release in 2024. That’s the plan, but I don’t want to rush things, it will take as long as it takes.
Soooo, this is the fun bit. You are asked to contribute a cover song for a compilation and you can have guest musicians on it. What song are you going to cover and which musicians are you going to include, remembering that we don’t mind a bit of necromancy here when it comes to music and are willing to dig up a few souls?
Dead Radio, featuring Rowland S. Howard!
Thank you Joshua for being a good sport and talking to us today.