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.
"This 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.
Trish & Darin was a good example of that Texas-style sound. At first the group was merely an opportunity to get out and play. "Darin and I started out with no more goals in mind than just getting out and playing, which we did do," she says. "Then we started writing songs and wanted to have something for our fans to buy, so we made a few CDs, but we really kept it local."
At this point Neath became involved in Murphy's life and career. A longtime music fan and dedicated Deadhead, he worked as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor before becoming an original investor in the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Working later for Susan Criner's Gulf Coast Artists talent-booking agency, he was asked to check out Trish & Darin at one of their regular Ginger Man shows, which had begun to attract a burgeoning audience.
"He went back to the office the next day and said, 'I don't really know about their music, but I'm gonna marry that girl.' Isn't that insane?" says Murphy with a laugh. Neath started booking the duo, and Trish & Darin became one of Houston's most popular local acts. But in time, "[Trish & Darin] kind of went as far as we could go with it creatively," Murphy says. "It gave us both an opportunity to dabble in music in a way that we hadn't before. Growing up, it had always been just soaking up music. Then when we started writing, it was seeing how those influences came out and were being interpreted."
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Parting ways with Darin, Murphy began writing the songs that became Crooked Mile. In time, Neath progressed from being her de facto manager to taking on the job officially. The couple also decided to relocate to Austin. "I felt like I had gone as far as I could go businesswise in Houston," Murphy says. "And although I was reluctant to move, I felt like if I based out of Austin, several things would be much easier." One advantage of being in Austin was the resources: more studios, producers, engineers and musicians. "I knew I was going to make a record eventually," says Murphy, "so being in Austin really made that more doable."
With Rubies on the Lawn, Murphy has been garnering even more enthusiastic reviews than she earned with Crooked Mile. With its intelligent lyrics and catchy melodies, the new album sounds like it's perfectly positioned for credible pop-rock success. In order to spread the word on Rubies, and build Murphy's profile, Neath has been pushing for more and more promotion from the tiny Doolittle label, including trying to convince the execs to put up billboards promoting the album in such key markets as Austin, Houston and Dallas.
It's clear Murphy and Neath understand the delicate relationship between art and commerce. They know that no matter how talented you are or how much money you have behind you, success ultimately comes down to another factor: How hard are you willing to work at it?
"Sometimes people can unlock the door, but you've got to open it and get your foot in yourself," Murphy says. "It's important to keep going. Eventually your number is going to come up. I've seen it happen for a lot of people, and that gives me hope. You have to have the perseverance -- although I hate that word, it makes me sound like Garth Brooks or something. But you have to keep doing what you do as best you can."