Department of Hope

Trish Murphy

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

The good news is that you can still jump onto this bandwagon while it's in its formative stages. There is no bad news. Trish Murphy has only been in Austin for about six months, but she's been in Texas most of her life, and she's been around music, oh, since about birth.

"I kind of got a good lead as a kid because my dad was a musician down in Houston, and in the Sixties he had this little pop band," says Murphy. "So when I was about 5, he'd write songs and make us [Trish, brother Darin, and sister Gina] sing them with him. I remember he wrote this song about `Put all your dreams in a white envelope and send them up to the Department of Hope' and it had this chorus about how they would take care of all your dreams. So he had all the three-part harmonies lined out, and he told us what to sing. And it became kind of a thing. We were the singing kids."

Although Murphy grew up in Houston, her family moved around a bit with stopovers in such thriving Metropoli as Baytown; Florence, South Carolina; and Amarillo. Yet it wasn't the kids' frequent switching schools that made moving a test, but rather finding a scene -- creative minds with instruments -- in some of those places for the family to stay involved in making music. (For those about to move to Dimebox, the Murphy family secret is to use community theater as a gateway into artsy cliques).

So yes, it is location, location, location. Murphy's music has a feel that is exclusively southern, predominantly Texan, and decidedly small-town; listening to Murphy you can hear the singer-songwriter in both style and content, yet her voice also has tremendous range. She can transition from sweet and angelic to haggard and beaten with purpose -- as opposed to singers who perform vocal gymnastics just to show that they can do it. For a parallel of the effective variety, think Nanci Griffith on "It's A Hard Life." She begins with the dulcet, "I am a back-seat driver from America," but by the time she gets to "Lord I can't drive on the left side of the road," she's got this impassioned rasp in her voice.

The big difference, stylistically anyway, between Murphy and the Griffiths or even the John Prines and Guy Clarks of the world is that her songs have a definitively pop component to them. You're not likely to hear an Americana artist say they used to love Elton John (which Murphy does), but unless you make a conscious effort to avoid it, the things you grow up listening to are going to end up in what you write. So, the mainstream part of her sound results from Murphy's listening to mainstream artists as well as singer-songwriters when she was learning how to play.

"When I was like 11, I think, one day I just went in and asked my dad if he'd teach me how to play," she says. "So from age 11 to like age 14, I just played guitar constantly. Come home from school. Play guitar. Sit around at night. Practice. Listen to Eagles records. Practice. Listen to Heart records, anything I could listen to. John Prine and Bob Dylan records -- my dad gave me those when I was first learning to play... but it's almost like I've got too much of that pop thing in my blood to just do singer-songwriter type stuff."

After college in Dallas, Murphy turned down a production job with the Wall Street Journal in Paris, and decided to turn her sights on a career in music, eventually deciding to move out to Los Angeles. Fun and productive? No, this is L.A. Murphy was surprised to see the metal scene still thriving, and after a little less than a year she returned to Houston, putting together Trish & Darin, a pop duo with her brother. The pair essentially created their own circuit by going into places that didn't have live music and asking if they could play. After a while, she surmised that she'd "gone as far up the ladder in Houston" as she could, and moved to Austin with a new batch of songs.

The songs, many of which appear on her debut Crooked Mile (due in April), are only about a year old, surprising when you consider that the 33-year-old Murphy has essentially been a musician since age 11, but only recently started writing her own material; she did co-write many of the originals that Trish & Darin used to perform, but her brother carried the load of the work.

"I knew it was going to be hard," says Murphy. "And I think that's why it took me all that time of sort of weird preparation to find a voice and an authenticity... I really wasn't sure what was going to come out. I knew that I wanted to do it, yeah, but it was almost like I couldn't not do it [any longer]. I was sort of driven at that point. So I just wrote and wrote and wrote, and wrote some more.

"Unfortunately, songwriting is a very lonely and singular process," she continues. "But that's where the authenticity factor comes in. If it's something that's directly transcribed from my own experience, then the raw feeling is there. It's there. The only arbitrary part is how you want to word it. And the way I do that is to condense it and make it as potent and as sweet smelling as you can. I've put things into words that I've never really had to put into words before, but it's the one area of the entire creative and performance process where I don't rely on someone else's input."

As long as Murphy continues to produce and progress, then she shouldn't have to rely on the Department of Hope to take care of her dreams.n

Trish Murphy's SXSW showcase is Friday, March 14, 9pm at the Ruta Maya Coffee House.

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