Martha Skye Murphy: theatrical avant-folk from a lifelong original

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite act. Get to know Martha Skye Murphy, who collaborated with Nick Cave as a teenager and is now striking out as a thrillingly intense solo artist

For as long as she can remember, Martha Skye Murphy has been an artist.

“From a really young age, I never saw a distinction between art, culture, craft or creativity,” she says from her home in south London. “It was incorporated in the way that my perspective on the world was formed – because it was what I was surrounded by.”

Murphy comes from a creative family. Her dad a photographer – as well as a former musician and actor – and her “insatiably creative” mum a designer, she was encouraged to express herself artistically throughout her childhood. Listening to the music she makes as an adult, you can sort of tell: her inquisitive songs, inflected as much by the theatricality of Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom as a very contemporary darkness, don’t feel hemmed in by self-consciousness or a lack of possibility. New single ‘Stuck’ is a perfect example: a spindly, winding thing full of beautiful snatches of melody and cyclical chord progressions that never quite resolve themselves, it’s the work of an artist in total control of a craft that she’s spent a lifetime honing.

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“Sometimes I wonder if I would have been creative if I didn’t have creative parents,” she says. “Maybe it would have been more rebellious to become a neuroscientist. But it does seem to be in my DNA. We were just always listening to music, and I think there was no sort of infantilization of your listening habits. My favourite album as a seven-year-old was ‘Uh Huh Her’ by PJ Harvey – although my dad used to skip the song ‘Who The Fuck’ when I was that age.”

It didn’t take long for Murphy, who has always been interested in theatre as well as music, to find herself in more formal artistic environments. Aged nine, she sang on the soundtrack for John Hillcoat’s 2005 film The Proposition, as part of a score composed and arranged by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. From there, she kept in touch with Cave, and reunited with him to contribute further vocals to his 2013 album with the Bad Seeds, ‘Push The Sky Away’. NME asks her about that experience now, understanding that it probably comes up in interviews more often than she’d like.

“Well, I’ve realised through answering this question a lot” – she laughs awkwardly, before segueing like a pro – “that I really respect Nick Cave’s approach to the pulsating adrenaline of those songs. [For ‘Push The Sky Away’] I happened to be in France and was in one of these email conversations with him. And he said that we were basically around the corner from each other, completely serendipitously, so he said, ‘Do you want to come and listen to the record?’ So I went over and listened to the album, and then just after listening through he went, ‘Do you want to sing on this?’ So I sang on one… and then sang on half of the album, and then I noticed on this blackboard that my name was written next to all the songs I just sang on.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, actually, we’d been planning this for a while – Warren had suggested you but we didn’t want to intimidate you by telling you that’s what we were going to do.’ It was exactly the same ethos as when I was a child – if you labour something too much, you lose a certain naivety.”

Martha Skye Murphy 2
Credit: Ceidra Moon Murphy

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Fast forward to now, and that quality of raw emotion and spontaneity remains audible in Murphy’s work, albeit tethered to the confidence and depth of a more mature songwriter. And she’s still a keen collaborator – the day we speak, she’s preparing to support Squid at their huge headline show at London’s Printworks. Murphy sang guest vocals on ‘Narrator’, the lead single from their debut album ‘Bright Green Field’, earlier this year, a spiralling track that captures a certain organised chaos in its combination of motorik rhythms and Murphy’s siren-like wail.

“I’m worried that I’m gonna lose my voice ahead of ahead of the show, because ‘Narrator’ has made me do that before – so I’ve been doing some strange gargling rituals,” she says. Her connection with Squid is completely organic: they were fans of hers and approached her in person at a festival to ask if she’d like to collaborate. This sense of happy coincidence and free-flowing creativity is a recurring motif in Murphy’s story, and it’s not just a matter of her occasionally linking up with the right people – it’s a part of her solo practice too. She describes a certain fluidity between the different disciplines in which she works.

“I feel like I am a vessel, and the creative means that I’m using is just how I’m choosing to express that thought,” she says. “I like to toy with that sense of the songs being theatrical, and being like plays. They’re not necessarily narratives, but I like to create a difficulty in the ability to understand the boundary between fiction and fact, and I write from an insanely introspective place. I like to use pronouns, like ‘I’, interchangeably with ‘you’. I’m just open to any medium that comes my way.” It feels like the opportunities for new media for Murphy aren’t slowing down any time soon.

Martha Skye Murphy’s new single ‘Stuck’ is out now via Practise Music

 

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