The truth about blood harmonies
Candy and Cindy Murphy, of The Murphys, explain how keeping it in the family gives them a musical edge
Much has been written lately about the idea of “blood harmonies”, that something extra that comes from siblings or families performing together.
Here in the UK music critics normally point to outstanding bands like The Staves. But on the Irish music circuit for many years Kerry’s own outstanding band The Murphys have been demonstrating the harmonic power that is more than the sum of its parts. Last year they won an Irish world Award for just that. Candy and Cindy are two of the family quartet, three sisters, their dad, who perform with a full backing band.
They called in to us here on the North Circular Road the other day to discuss their new album. Lead vocalist Cindy explained they although they hail from Killorglin in County Kerry she was actually born and Christened in Kilburn before her parents moved back, when she was just two.
Their father, Pat, is a button accordion player who also plays keyboards and the group just sort of organically formed within the family. As each of them got old enough they joined in with him when he was playing music.
There’s quite a history of Irish family groups playing music in Ireland – from the to the Fureys, The Johnsons, Clannad and many others. Do they see themselves in that tradition?
“Well it is part of our culture, the family thing and, of course, we listened to all those groups and they all leave a lovely mark on you along the way.
“My dad started playing on his own and we all joined him one by one – and we never even asked him. We just, one by one, joined him and we all play instruments. We were very young when we started, even before we left school, we were very young and so have been going now for a long time.
“Katie was the youngest person ever to play the famous Galtymore and she was very young and very small, she is still very small but she was very young when she played there.
“Big Tom and ourselves were the final act to play there but it was a proud moment to think that a bunch of us closed the Galtymore. It is sorely missed and it is a shame that those ballrooms, especially the Galtymore, have gone.”
When sing harmonies they somehow seem to be so much tighter and have something special?
“It’s a big factor with us and very important to us. As sisters we instinctively know.
“We could never say we were taught to sing harmonies together, we were never taught, we never learned, we just did.
“We’d sit by the fire at home and Cindy is the main singer and she would start and we would have a guitar and it would go from there.
“Candy would just say I’ll fit in here and go above you or whatever the song needs and our motto was to make the voices sit together so that it becomes one sound and with all the voices if you work them right it becomes one, like one voice
“That’s what we try to do on stage and in the studio. If we are on stage we don’t even have to look at each other we instinctively know. We are sisters and maybe it is in our genes.”
Their music has elements of country but also has a broader evocative of at the peak of their success and even Foster and Allen but how do they choose to describe their music?
Candy: “Our musical motto with the Murphys is: everything we release, we write. It is something we are very proud of as it is our legacy we want to pass it down so our grandchildren and their children will know our story and who we are.
“It is the biggest joy to write music together. Me (Candy) and Katie write everything for Cindy and you are back to the sister thing, as we know how her voice works and what she wants to say as a person.
“She will tell us what she wants to say and it is important to us that we are story tellers of our generation, so as I was saying our grandkids and their grandkids, they will have a vision of what we thought of life now. There is a great saying ‘ to know who you are you’ve got to know where you came from’ and so our music is for them and if that is of some help along the way down our line they get a piece of who they are.
“For us it is important that we are story tellers and the root of our music is Country but depending what the song is it can come out with a folk manner or a middle of the road manner but you have to be true to the words and the melody and that’s important.”
‘Nelena’ stands out and has the feel of middle of the road hits of the past:
Cindy: “That song has become very important for us and that song surprised us because it is a little more left of centre than our other material but we wanted to write this story and the name Nelena comes from the names of our two grandmothers put together and people are really moved by it.”
Cindy went on to describe how she recorded it and what it meant to her
“I went into the studio and I did that song in two takes and I took it to my heart and I said we have got to release it and see what people think of it as it was not the norm and not everyday country and Irish but the song is a story.
“Like you may have somebody who has passed away but the person left behind always feels they are there watching over them. You hear people say they are watching over me or keeping an eye on me and I said this to the girls and they wrote the song and Nelena like our grandmothers had her dreams and her mum but she was always watching over her so that’s the root of it.
Candy described her memories of the recording session:
“It was my favourite moment of the whole album recording and I was in the booth with Cindy when she was singing it and when she goes into record, her eyes are closed. She is gone completely into the emotion of the song. I put my hand on her arm and I got teary as there was this feeling all around us and it was the energy of the studio and the emotive aspect of the song.
“If you are in the studio and you cant drum up the emotion and touch those feelings inside yourself how are you going to touch anybody else who is going to listen to that record, it’s not going to happen. The root of our music is country and folk and we will write the stories and we will always be true to the melody and the words.
“Sometimes people try to figure out what we are and what bracket we are in but we don’t have a bracket we just try to tell stories and write music and whatever way it comes out it comes out and it maybe country or maybe folk mixed up. That’s what we heard growing up but it is very important that it is unique to us and that we create our own sound”.
Candy, who is the main writer and co-producer described the process of recording an album:
“The album was a big learning curve for us as we brought in the songs for the producer, who is a very talented guy, and he remarked how every song was completely different. We started at ground zero and then we built it. Production is very important to us.
“The song and the music is first but then there is the production to get the best out of the song.
“Cindy has so many ideas about the song and we leave it to her to weave what she wants into the music that is written for her, then we take it in to the studio and then we are fully, fully encompassed into production.
“We co-produced the whole album, we literally sat through every breath.
“Buying a CD makes the music tangible and people still like that and to have the book with all the information and now even the vinyl is coming back because people want something to hold and touch.
“We hear music on the radio all the time and watch it on video but to go through the process of buying it, so it is tangible, and opening it up and reading about how it was recorded – people do still like all that.
“All along what we have been doing from when we played in smaller capacity venues and when we were kids we were back and forth between London and Kerry, like in the song ‘The Streets of Promise’.
“That song is our story and we learned our craft from singing in the clubs and pubs and at weddings and that’s where you learn to listen to people. They say ‘speaking is silver, and listening is golden’. We are very proud to say that when we go up on stage, the four of us and a full band behind us, we have worked our craft right from the bottom from two in a pub.
“Since Streets of Promise came out and was a hit and was the most played song on Country Radio in Ireland and it went to No 1 on the country charts twice and it was No 1 on i-tunes, we did some concerts in Ireland and we got standing ovations in every one of them and that was a big shock to us.
“When we came off the stage to see people standing up and singing our words that was amazing. So definitively 2018 will see a tour in the UK. “We will go in and we will have to do this next album fairly quick but we have learned such a lot from the last album and then we want to tour.
“The support that we have got from fans and the radio in Ireland has blown us away.
“Our idea was to go out and be genuine story tellers and we have been very conscious to ensure that what we wrote was us, and very much spoke for us, and that our collective sound was our own and that’s a hard thing to achieve.
“We want to get to the point where anybody who hears our music on the radio will know after two seconds that it is The Murphys.
“Our dad plays the button accordion but when he plays the piano he plays trad like he would play on the accordion and some of that, those little twirleys, that can come in is part of it, and what we love now is getting back in our music to where we started.
“For the next album you will hear that and Katie will be there with her mandolin and other instruments to help us create our own unique sound.”
“Country, and folk, and bluegrass are all enjoying a resurgence, because people want to get away from those ‘reality’ TV talent shows to the heart where they can feel the emotion of the songs.
“We now get so many people coming up to us after our concerts to say how much our songs mean to them. Songs about emigration, like The Empty Room, that is so important for us to be able to reach people. It is overwhelming when people say that song tells my story.”
Cindy continued: “I don’t like to sing anything that does not have heart. I don’t sing for attention or to have people look at me but I sing to connect with people and to make people feel in the audience, feel they are not alone.”