The cancellations of events and shutdowns of bars and restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected everybody — and that includes local musicians who have seen their regular gigs canceled and, in some cases, their lifelines profoundly compromised. As a result, we are checking in with one musician a week to see how they’re doing, what they’re listening to and if they are up to creating new music while they quarantine with the rest of the world.
This week, we caught up with the members of Frederick folk quartet Murphy’s Shambles, who recently released a brand new EP, “Copper Lily.” Among the things we discussed were why ragtime piano might be the best thing to listen to these days, appreciating the “real stuff” in both life and music, and also, why we won’t actually know who’s truly staying engaged with music during these uncertain times until these uncertain times are over. To listen to the band’s new EP, you can visit them on Bandcamp at murphysshambles.bandcamp.com, or you can check out their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MurphysShambles.
1. What have you been listening to while self-quarantining and what about it makes you want to listen to it these days?
Ben Vivari: The older stuff — Smithsonian Folkways, Appalachian songs, the Carter Family. They had all this music that was learned and developed through generations, and then they essentially were isolated — not quarantined, but still — and they came out with a catalog that built on those traditions and took it forward. It’s inspiration for us.
Theresa de Souza: I’ve been listening to Trampled By Turtles — I love that fiddle work!
Anna West: Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano. He is a genius who is under-appreciated in our time, but his music can transform your mood in seconds.
Mike Kirby: I’ve always been a fan of old things, including music. Stories and lore fascinate me, especially when translated via music. I’ve always been a fan of Norman Blake — he could really tell a story with music. I’m also a big fan of Shane McGowan and the Dubliners. On a daily basis, I could listen to Modest Mouse or Pavement in the morning, Leon Redbone in the afternoon and Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller in the evening.
2. Have you come across any livestreams/Internet-based performances over the last few weeks that have stuck out as a result of COVID cancellations?
Ben: I’m always interested in what’s going on with Third Man Records and their Public Access Livestreams have been really great so far. I really dug the Teddy and the Rough Riders one. There’s only so much “single person sitting in front of a laptop” I can take, and they managed to pull off a full band concert while social distancing — and also showing off some killer musicianship.
Mike: I’ve been fascinated at the amount of musicians who have been live streaming during quarantine. There’s some real talent! I follow a couple folk pages on Facebook, and the quality and talent is inspiring to me.
3. Are you using this time to write new material? If so, how’s that process going?
Ben: Absolutely. It’s a little more isolated than usual. We really value working together and developing songs together. This next batch will probably be a little more developed individually up front, but it’s just as fun to deconstruct and reconstruct as it is to build from scratch. Our new EP, ‘Copper Lily,’ was brought in fully formed in terms of lyrics and structure, but it went through a ton of iterations before we landed on the Fiddlesticks, stompers and shakers. We’ll probably have a few more like that.
Theresa: I’ve been rethinking my visits to Ireland and developing a song that I heard the chorus to in one of my dreams. But I am so longing for the real-time music collaboration. That is what I am missing the most.
Mike: I’m always writing. Sometimes, I really get ahead myself which can be a problem, although bouncing ideas off of my bandmates is one thing I miss the most at this point.
4. What’s the most positive takeaway you’ve been able to experience from all the self-quarantining and the music industry being on pause for the time being?
Theresa: Appreciating the ‘real’ stuff, though I (we) think we already did. It’s great to bear witness to others appreciating some of the same things I (we) do. And I’m not talking toilet paper. I mean hearing the birds sing, the thrill of warm sunshine and fresh air on my face, the kids (grandkids) developing their own musical, artistic and literary talents. That’s the ‘real’ stuff. That’s what they will keep forever. Just good, old-fashioned fun!
Anna: Quarantine life lends itself to introspection. With a lot of the busy-ness stripped away, many of us are forced into a situation where we must assess our lives in a bare bones way, without the distractions that we compulsively turn to to escape the feelings that make us uncomfortable. That lends itself to good songwriting. That — combined with the looming uncertainty and tragedy of a pandemic that is taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s threatening the lives of people we love — can all be fuel for writing songs that can be a catharsis, not only for the writer, but hopefully for the listener.
Mike: I’ve seen a real renaissance in how music can be performed and marketed. That’s always a plus for musicians.
5. If there’s one song that you think could help everybody get through these uncertain times, what would it be and why?
Theresa: Train, ‘Calling All Angels!’ Do I really need to elaborate?
Ben: ‘When I Get to Heaven,’ by John Prine. Maybe a little obvious, but the sentiment is so spot on. He went down swinging — this was the last song on his last album — and this one hits a part of your heart that needs to be hit these days.
Mike: We perform a song called ‘Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down.’ It’s an old song that was performed by various artists during the Great Depression. I’d say that’s pretty appropriate for the many folks out of work and down on their luck currently.
BONUS QUESTION: What artists, local or not, do you think have done a great job staying engaged musically online and what about what they’re doing sets them apart?
Ben: I think we’re going to find out who is doing a great job staying engaged musically — not online necessarily, but engaged musically in general — during the coronavirus once it’s over. Once everyone is able to get out there and show off all the things they’ve been tinkering with in their laboratories in isolation. I can’t wait for that. I hope we see some real unique, original stuff.
Theresa: An ‘artist’ I’ve been enjoying on YouTube is Alexandra Gater. She does apartment makeovers and is under lockdown in Toronto. I’ve enjoyed watching her manage to do makeovers within her own limited space. I find it creative and inspiring; using what you’ve got and making something unique and fun — just like us and our music!
Mike: I agree with Ben on this one. I’m anxious to hear what comes out of the ashes of our self-induced exile. People have had time to reflect on human nature both good and bad during these times which makes for some real thought provoking material.