Nick Murphy might need to work on his unboxing technique. Sitting at the kitchen table in his Canal Street apartment in downtown Manhattan, the expatriate Melbourne electronic musician juggles a video call with NME and sorting his mail, going through a pile of packages with the kind of utilitarian brevity that doesn’t make for a good YouTube video.
“It’s a USB extender – it’s for the studio,” says Murphy, producing a nondescript cord, a knit cap pushed back on his head above his rust-coloured beard. His tone is quizzical, as if he’s trying to remember just what he might have purchased online. Murphy finds the seam in the next package and tears downwards.
“This is a Volca Beats, which is a drum machine I used to own,” he pronounces, a glint of appreciation in his eyes as he hefts a compact box. “I had this kid sell a bunch of my gear in 2019 and he sold all my fun stuff and left me with the shit stuff. It totally was not cool.”
That was the same year Murphy released the album ‘Run Fast Sleep Naked’ – his first full-length record that didn’t bear the name Chet Faker, which he’d publicly retired in September 2016, burnt out after slogging through the international touring circuit for three years straight. He’d release another album as Nick Murphy just a year later: 2020’s ‘Music For Silence’, a collection of improvised instrumentals.
It was a time of spiritual shape-shifting, a period of relative quietude after an eventful few years. He’d shot to fame in 2011 off a cover of Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’, flipped the script on electronic pop with the 2012 EP ‘Thinking In Textures’, and then charged towards the billion-stream mark with his 2014 debut album ‘Built On Glass’.
And now, the 33-year-old has returned to Chet Faker and today released the evocative ‘Hotel Surrender’, a record of emotional discovery and supple grooves.
“For me, the big thing was that I could kill Chet Faker. Once that happened, I didn’t care what I was called”
If this sounds like an about-face in a concerning identity crisis, don’t worry, because Murphy has already weighed it up himself – and he’s not bothered in the slightest. Gregarious and enquiring, he talks about Nick Murphy and Chet Faker as two sides to an overflowing musical self. It’s a switch that he can make work for him, now that he’s taken control of his public persona.
“For me, the big thing was that I could kill Chet Faker. Once that happened, I didn’t care what I was called,” says Murphy. “The name had become the master of me and I wasn’t in control of it. I didn’t have the right team around me and I was trapped in this thing. If I’m afraid of something I have to remove it. And when people didn’t understand that change it was good, because it meant I was doing it for me.
“I knew I needed to do music that worked for me, and was a tool, so it’s been cool coming back to the Chet project because I can see a lot more clearly and separate some of my personal needs from music as a whole,” he adds. “I can enjoy the split – it’s like a cell breaking in two to go in separate directions.”
Murphy believes that ‘Hotel Surrender’ couldn’t have happened without ‘Run Fast Sleep Naked’. The earlier album was an exorcism, all roiling energy and dissonant electronic rock. Murphy started the record with a voice memo in a Japanese forest, spent two weeks with iconic producer Rick Rubin at his Malibu studio, and finished wrangling the songs in New York. It charged ahead, whereas ‘Hotel Surrender’ was formed in stillness.
“I was in a good place, but it doesn’t mean that my life was in a good place. It’s a weird difference, but that’s kind of what the record is about”
In early 2020 Murphy got his own dedicated studio space in Soho, something he hadn’t had since his formative Chet Faker years in Melbourne. When COVID struck he was living alone in a tiny Chinatown apartment, so he would spend all day in the studio and then come home to sleep. Soon the streets were empty except for bootleg luxury good hawkers, whom he was on nodding terms with. When the ambulance sirens were strongest Murphy stayed in for two weeks, but otherwise the studio was his second home.
“My studio became a sanctuary for me. That’s what the record is essentially about. Hotel Surrender is the nickname I gave that space – it’s a place within yourself, of being present. You have to check in to this hotel by surrendering whatever was going on,” says Murphy. “I wouldn’t bring anything into the room that didn’t need to be brought in. You don’t have to not be angry, or sad, and the more I did that the sooner it would pass and open up this space of being fundamentally OK.”
Murphy talks about these months with appreciation, not zeal – “I don’t want to harp on like a fucking guru,” he declares at one point – but at the same time is aware that something fundamentally shifted inside him, allowing ‘Hotel Surrender’ to take shape. He didn’t need intensity or angst to force a song into being, instead, he would jam on the piano with his mind open. Some of those random figures became the funky groove of ‘Get High’, a paean to pleasure that reaches up into the falsetto stratosphere.
“I was in a good place, but it doesn’t mean that my life was in a good place. It’s a weird difference, but that’s kind of what the record is about,” says Murphy. “Through this music, the idea of accepting things allowed me to be OK. It all galvanised how the idea of you – as in anyone – can have a space where you feel not just OK but good, without being on a mission. Things can feel bad, but you can be good. That’s what I was tapping into.”
In May 2020, Murphy suffered a shocking loss when his father died from a heart attack at the age of 61; he was unable to return home for the funeral. The tragedy ultimately changed the way Murphy viewed the music he’d made. A Chet Faker album had taken shape, the songs connected and committed: ‘Whatever Tomorrow’ was his existential manifesto, while ‘Feel Good’ proved a gliding invocation of desire. And, crucially, Murphy was once more filtering Black music through his own sensibilities, something he hadn’t done since early in his career when he lit up the blog scene and beyond with his ‘No Diggity’ cover.
“When I moved to the States I realised that I didn’t understand very well the depth of the relationship between African-Americans and the rest of the country, and what the music meant in that context. I realised that I was playing with things where I didn’t understand the history,” says Murphy.
“It wasn’t conscious, but I put away those influence for a while to explore other areas. This is the record where I could come back to soul and blues and funk and understand it in a larger picture. It was truly inspiring and I am a humble fan.”
Murphy’s life and art are full of such big-picture calculations, which he seems to make with laidback ease. When New York’s streets got “sketchy” and he was walking to and from the studio at odd hours with a half-finished album on his laptop, Murphy had to decide what his music was truly worth.
“I think if I got jumped I would have been like, ‘No, you can’t have it!’” he says. “If someone comes at me I’ll come back at them, but I really don’t want to get killed, so I bought wheels.”
A bicycle is less stressful than a posthumous release, NME says. “True,” says Murphy, laughing aloud at this life-or-death scenario. “But the album certainly would have done well on the charts.”
Chet Faker’s ‘Hotel Surrender’ is out now