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The Dish

Native Houstonian Trish Murphy's new record is something to talk about

Trish Murphy's a living study of the nature versus nurture question. Is she so talented because she's got music in her veins? Or because she grew up surrounded by musicians? Or maybe because she works so damn hard?

Murphy's first solo record, Crooked Mile, introduced her as a roots rocker. Her second record, this summer's Rubies on the Lawn, is more rock and roll with modern élan, rife with pop melodicism, chiming guitars and aggressive rhythms. "I think that the new record is a better-rounded profile of the musical influences that I really wanted to pull in and make my own," says Murphy. "It's kind of interesting, because Crooked Mile was more of a departure for me than this one seems to be, when you take my whole history into perspective.

"ŠThis kind of completes the sentence, the Trish Murphy sentence. It's not a dangling modifier anymore."

Trish grew up the child of hippie-ish parents, her father a struggling musician and songwriter. What she recalls of her upbringing may say something good about the '60s. As a child, she was introduced to her parents' musical friends. You could say they all were friends.

Perhaps that's the key to her appeal: She was an instant peer when she officially entered the music world. Photos on her Web site, www. trishmurphy. com, show Murphy alongside Sheryl Crow and Sara McLachlan. Sure, it all has the air of a giddy teenage gal's photo album. But then again, the implicit message seems to be, this is where I belong.

Ever since she left Trish & Darin, the popular Houston duo act that featured her brother, Murphy has developed a simple goal: hit the big time. Crooked Mile was packaged and produced like a major-label album. Says Charlie Neath, Murphy's husband and manager, "If we were going to have coasters for our coffee table when we were grandparents, I at least wanted them to look and sound good."

Murphy and Neath capitalized on the record's buzz, which was the result of constant touring (not to mention paying for first-class studio players even before the club paychecks could carry that freight). Murphy and Neath's efforts got Trish as far as two European tours and appearances on 1998's Lilith Fair and sparked a two-year dance with major-label A&R reps. But even if Murphy had not eventually signed with the Austin-based, Mercury-distributed Doolittle label just three days before starting the recording of Rubies on the Lawn, Neath says he was "prepared to finance it, because I believed in the songs, and I believed in her growth as an artist."

Has Murphy bought her way into the game? Before you answer, consider this: Most every song, from the '50s to the '70s, on every oldies radio station was backed by payola of some fashion. Yet every song sounds like a hit (even if it stinks). Murphy sees the efforts and expenditures she and Neath made as investments in her career, taking care of her in a manner that major record labels often neglect these days, a combination of grassroots do-it-yourself philosophy and commercial ambition.

"What we were doing was, I guess, what you would call 'artist development,' " says Murphy. "I do [music] because I love it and want to make a living at it. And you've got to have some degree of financial success to keep going."

Okay. Fair enough. But then there's the whole pretty-girl-with-a-guitar thing, which is almost as popular these days as 15-minute Warholian pop idols. Murphy does have the looks and the sexy clothes to make people want to call her "Trish the Dish." One even wonders whether she's cleverly riding a trend or using her natural beauty to achieve her goals. But unlike most hot female pop stars, Murphy doesn't seem like she would kill someone to attain stardom.

In fact, Murphy could do something else, and even did. She earned a B.A. in psychology from the University of Dallas and later worked as a news assistant for The Wall Street Journal. "They offered me a job in Europe, and I turned it down," she says. "I quit my job shortly thereafter and bought a new guitar, and that was that. I never looked back."

Her artist bio depicts that phase as Trish's youthful rebellion against her countercultural upbringing. "For a while I tried to defy them, and tried to become just as conservative as possible," she explains with a laugh. "But it just wasn't me. I tried it. Didn't work."

After picking up a guitar at an early age and experiencing a full musical immersion, Murphy couldn't resist music as a career. When asked to recount one of her first musical memories, Murphy says, "The Beatles were the ones that did that for me. And it was a real visual, trippy thing." She recalls how she and her siblings used to make up stories and dances and enact them to different Beatles songs. "We had a little ritual thing that we did for 'Strawberry Fields,' me and Darin. So it was really interactive music for us." Early favorites also included The Lovin' Spoonful, Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. Later she was fond of Elton John. As a teenager, Trish "went through a bluegrass phase," and retains an abiding fondness for Texas-style roots music.

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