“I’m new at interviews,” says Minnie Murphy, as she shuffles through a stack of notes prepared prior to our December talk. “I get a little nervous.”
It’s understandable, really, considering that this naturally contemplative 24 year-old Montage singer/songwriter, who comes across as enormously shy in conversation, is only beginning to get her first taste of media attention. She hasn’t yet grown accustomed to the uncomfortable prodding and probing levied by reporters, or to the questions those reporters ask about the methods and inspiration behind her music. It’s enough to make anyone new to the game feel more than a bit awkward.
But Murphy, who was named one of The 9513’s Critic’s Picks for 2008, would do well to get used to it—and fast. Because, with the recent release of her debut single “Take Me To Texas Tonight,” and with a Montage album on the horizon, her profile is about to rise.
That’s because when Murphy opens her mouth to a sing, all of her nervousness melts away, and this soft-spoken, unassuming young woman transforms from a mild-mannered unknown into a musical powerhouse, her voice pouring out with a confidence that belies her shyness; a rich, emotive instrument that positions her far from the slew of vocally impaired starlets rising and falling in popular favor of late.
Murphy’s soulful delivery is born from the fact that she’s a unique specimen for her generation; in a world where image reigns supreme, and music is often a means to acquiring celebrity as opposed to an end in and of itself, Murphy is truly a vocal artist, one whose music springs forth from a genuine urge to communicate and connect on an emotional level.
“I think about love when I’m singing,” she says. “I’ve only been in love once, but I go to that place, to that feeling when you’d just die for somebody. That’s how music is for me. I feel it so much. I go to a place where I can feel that emotion and release it.”
There is an ache at the core of Murphy’s music, one which draws on influences ranging from piano-driven jazz to soul to traditional country. A smokey sway, for example, underlines “Tennessee Tango” (a track from her upcoming album), while “Take Me To Texas Tonight”—which she co-wrote with her mother at age 17—boasts a yearning steel guitar and a subtle harmony vocal from Vince Gill, who happily brought his talent to the project.
“Vince was so gracious,” Murphy says.
And just how much did the Bellingham, Washington native impress the impeccable icon? So much so that Gill worked for free. “He even let us film the session,” she says.
Murphy is no stranger to working with established artists, though. Her half sister is Jamie O’Neal, the singer/songwriter responsible for the #1 hits “There Is No Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels,” and Murphy, 17 years O’Neal’s younger, even appeared with her sister on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
“We’re close,” Murphy says of O’Neal, who she credits with teaching her much about the inner workings of the business. “We didn’t grow up together. I always cried whenever she would leave. I was in awe of her. She was so glamorous and had this amazing voice.”
In fact, Murphy, whose budding career has endured a bit of turmoil to this point, says that she often recalls one specific piece of advice O’Neal gave her. Signed to Sony prior to the company’s merger with BMG (a move which resulted in the changing of guard that lead to the purging of much of the label’s roster), Murphy, whose multifaceted music draws on influences that render it somewhat outside the mainstream, had to come to terms with the harsh realities of doing business in big-money Nashville. “There are sacrifices and compromises that you have to make when you decide to work with somebody else’s money,” she says. “It’s their investment, and you have to answer to them. It means you don’t get artistic freedom right away. Jaime told me, ‘you dance with the devil or you stay in your seat’.”
Those are words of wisdom Murphy called upon when her relationship with Montage went through a brief rough patch last year.
During the Sony/BMG merger, Allen Butler, who had brought Murphy to the label, was fired. Butler later started Montage, a relatively small indie label with a modest-sized staff, and in 2008 the label was working overtime to break Canadian band The Road Hammers. The launch of Murphy’s career was delayed, and relations soured for a time.
Murphy was even offered a pop deal by another label. “But I realized that all of these country songs I’ve written mean too much to me,” she says. “I don’t limit myself, musically, but I do consider myself a country artist. I love the heartache in country music. I love the lonesome feel of steel guitars.”
Despite disagreements over timing and musical direction, Butler never lost confidence in the singer, and Murphy felt a sense of loyalty to the team at Montage, many of whom she worked with while at Sony. It wasn’t easy, but she’s worked hard to repair her relationships at the label, she says. And she’s had to learn that in the music business, creative liberty is earned through success, not granted based on talent. “I’m just so interested in the art of producing a song and picking instruments and melody lines,” she explains. “And It’s hard to get that kind of control right away.”
So it’s fitting, given all of this, that Murphy’s debut album will be a compromise of sorts between her time at the two labels–half of the album is comprised of recently completed tracks from her Sony sessions, produced by her and her father Jimmy, while half will come from new sessions with producer Ted Hewitt (Rodney Atkins).
She’s still working on the album, but Murphy says that her ideal sound is one that gives the music room to breathe. “I’m fond of a less is more approach to production,” she says. “I like to have all the instruments positioned so that you can hear them in the mix. A little bit of space, as opposed to just a wall of sound.”
It’s a sound that fits her well; one that gives her room to put her exquisite vocal talent front and center without the distracting bells and whistles and gizmos that so many in Nashville wrap around the merely adequate singers being peddled to the format.
Still, the pressure to fit into that mold—of the upbeat, perfectly couture female vixen—is something that Murphy admits feeling pushed, at times, to conform to. It’s tough for a shy girl to thrive in the hyper-social domain of artists like Taylor Swift and Kellie Pickler. “There’s been pressure to be really skinny,” Murphy says. “There’s pressure to be a real talkative, bubbly type of girl. They tell me ‘think Dolly.’ Be larger than life. I guess that’s just a part of the game.”
“I’m kind of a weirdo. And sometimes I feel like people are more interested in a personality, and in somebody that’s really hot and attractive. I can get insecure about that end of things, because I really like to get deep. I like to have fun, too, but I’m the kind of person who will go to the theatre and see a show, as opposed to some drunken outdoor kind of thing. But my music gives me confidence. I know it’s something I can’t screw up with my dorky personality.”
Murphy’s single goes out to major radio stations this week (after gaining traction in Texas throughout December), and whether or not programmers decide to play the track, it’s a fair bet that they’ll be focused more on Murphy’s voice than on whatever dorkiness might shine through in interviews. “Take Me To Texas Tonight” is a rich country ballad with a timeless vibe, one which perfectly frames Murphy as a counterpoint to the sometimes shrieking, sometimes tone-def divas that rule country radio.
It’s also a song that is far removed from the bulk of country radio’s core content—in a format dominated by a combination of songs about the intricacies of daily life in suburbia and redneck pride anthems, it’s hard to imagine there being a lot of room for fantasy, especially when it takes a musical form that lacks the ultra-compressed sound and lyrical gimmickry we’re used to hearing in the mainstream. How do you get a song played on radio when it sounds substantially different than every other song?
That’s what Butler and his team will have to figure out. And in this era of country music, there are no guarantees that Montage will ever find an answer. In fact, the odds are stacked against them.
What we can be absolutely certain of, however, is that a voice as powerful as Murphy’s is one that will find a way to be heard. She may not fit the mold of country’s ideal female, and her music may stand a little bit left of mainstream, but Minnie Murphy is a young woman who sings from her soul. And artists like that, to quote the title of one of her songs, are unstoppable.
This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2017.