Dancing with the chaos

Soul-searching with Nick Murphy

Nick Murphy (photo by Willy Lukaitis)
Willy Lukaitis

If we are what we read, then Nick Murphy is a soul on a journey — a shaman in training. 

Like most voracious readers, the Australian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (formerly known as Chet Faker, but we’ll get to that later) likes to juggle several books at once. Anna Karenina was a surprisingly quick read, he says, and he’s almost finished. But it’s slower going with some other works he’s got on rotation. 

Like Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. Henri saw creativity as a collective, timeless undertaking, with each artist building upon that which came before them and, likewise, leaving their mark. (“…as stones for step[ping] on or stones to avoid,” Henri wrote.)

Murphy’s also reading Dylan Thomas’ Death and Entrances, a beloved poetic study of London’s trauma in the aftermath of World War II that at points finds Thomas anxiously wondering how his art can help.

But it was Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology and the role of the artist in society that sent Murphy down a path of self-reflection over the past few years and helped him flesh out what would become his first full-length collection of music in five years, Run Fast Sleep Naked.  

“Once you read Joseph Campbell, you never really look at the world the same way again,” Murphy says.

Run Fast Sleep Naked is a product of Murphy’s globe-trotting, with bits and pieces recorded on the fly wherever Murphy happened to be, whether that was in a hotel in Tokyo or in his grandmother’s living room in Melbourne. It’s a soothing record full of texture and warmth, lush with orchestral flourishes but never overwrought. It’s the next step in a subtle sound evolution for Murphy: softer than the electro-rock of his 2017 EP Missing Link, and less R&B driven than his 2014 record Built on Glass, while still feeling and sounding like a natural product of Murphy’s mind. Murphy dives deep into his psyche for the lyrical content but never loses sight of universal truths. 

He opens the album with a “manifesto” on “Hear it Now”:

I’m not made of stone/I was put here with a bleeding heart / To help somebody else’s start

“That’s literally what I do and who I am,” Murphy says. “I could put that on my forehead. That’s why I’m alive. That’s just how it is.”

The song is as close to a political statement as Murphy is likely to make:

I seen a generation come/Putting flowers in my ears/They made us fight amongst ourselves/It’s OK to hate your fear

“It depends on your definition of political,” Murphy says. “I think politics is kind of a keyhole of a much, much bigger picture, which is just your attitude towards individuals and other human beings.”

He shifts back to philosophy. 

“In an essay concerning spirituality in art, Kandinsky wrote that the artist is the spiritual guide of the masters. And Joseph Campbell said that artists are the new mythmakers, or the shamans. Kurt Vonnegut had this whole theory about the role of the artist in society, the canary in the coal mine, which is to say artists are far more sensitive, they let you know bad times are coming. So I don’t think that it’s about so much about needing to have political stances [in art] as it is just saying how you’re feeling at any point. Artists are the open wound of society, the extended finger, the antenna.”

Murphy grapples with this role because, frankly, being sensitive is hard. It’s not his job he struggles with — music is natural — but with how the world wants him to produce that music. Society wants art, but Murphy, like countless artists before him, wonders if people understand the emotional work it takes to make the art. 

“The artist’s role is to go into the unknown and bring something back,” he says. “But what does someone going into the unknown look like? They look crazy.” 

He tackles this disconnect — the need for art and the distaste for what it takes to create it — in the song “Sanity.” He presents it both lyrically and visually in a fever-dream of a video directed by London-based, Swedish-born co-directors BabyBaby. 

A couple of years ago, Murphy decided to drop his stage name — Chet Faker, an homage to his love for jazz trumpeter Chet Baker — and release music under his birth name. He’s certainly not the first to have made such a move mid-career (Cat Stevens, Puff Daddy, Snoop Dogg), but it elicited the usual questions: What prompted the change? Was this “new” Murphy the real Murphy? 

Murphy shrugs it all off. It was just time. And Kurt Vonnegut, he points out, once went by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. for the exact same reason Murphy took up a stage name: someone else was doing the same job with the same name. 

But Murphy would be lying if he didn’t admit to feeling self-conscious through some of the process. 

“I changed my name and I started working on new things and pushing in new directions and I experienced a lot of resistance,” he says. “The resistance was new because from the beginning everyone kind of loved what I was doing. So there was a lot of friction for me, to experience people not wanting you to explore the unknown, even though it’s my job.” 

Nick Murphy Cover art for ‘Run Fast Sleep Naked’

While it’s tough to carve out time for other artistic-self-care-intellectual endeavors while he’s committed to his journey with music, Murphy manages to find time for — and solace in — photography. The cover art for Run Fast Sleep Naked is a self portrait Murphy took in the Northern Sahara in Marrakesh, Moracco. Just a man running shoeless… in a suit… in the desert. 

“Photography for me is one of the few art forms where you can be faithful, introspective, but still connect directly with the world,” Murphy says. “Because music, at least for me, can often take me away from the external — and I love that. But I have a love-hate relationship with the external world. I think my gut instincts are to move towards sort of shutting that stuff out. But the older I get the more I realize that’s really not an option and you need to dance with the chaos.”  

ON THE BILL: Nick Murphy (fka Chet Faker) — with Beacon. 8 p.m. Friday, June 21, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave, Denver. Tickets are $31-$33, axs.com