Kristina Murray Interview

The Independent Country and Americana music scene in Nashville continues to flourish, having generated a wealth of talented and outstanding artists over the past few years. Names such as J.P. Harris, Erin Rae, Nikki Lane, Lillie Mae, Kelsey Waldon, Andrew Combs, Lera Lynn, Pat Reedy and Joshua Hedley immediately spring to mind, to name check a few. All these acts have released stand out albums in recent years, some with little or no financial support from the music industry. Kristina Murray is yet another such like artist. Highly regarded within the Nashville traditional music community ("The best country vocalist out there at the moment" - according to J.P. Harris) she has released one of Lonesome Highway’s Albums of The Year titled Southern Ambrosia. Not surprising, given the quality of her 2013 debut album Unravelin’ and her live shows. It was a pleasure to catch up with the engaging and straight-talking Murray who discussed the album and the realities of an independent artist surviving in an increasingly unforgiving industry.

Tell me about your decision to relocate in Nashville in 2014, your expectations and initial impressions when arriving there?

I relocated to Nashville for several reasons. I was born and raised in the South, and after six years in Colorado, it was just time to come home and be closer to family. I was tired of the snow and cold. Additionally, Colorado is an isolated music community, and it’s difficult to gain higher-level career traction without the music industry business connections plentiful in a city like Nashville; touring out of such a big state in the middle of the country is more difficult than on the east coast/south, and I started to crave more musical variety than what Colorado offered for me. Moving to Nashville, I expected to be humbled by the world-class musicianship (and I was, and still am!), and I expected to find a community of likeminded country music enthusiasts and other singer-songwriters; took a little while longer than my patience typically allows, but I did find it and am so grateful to my community here in Nash.  

Many artists speak of being ‘lifted up by greatness’ by moving to Nashville given it’s musical traditions and community. Was this the case for you?

Absolutely; it’s simultaneously humbling and inspiring to live in the city that basically created what we know as country music. So much incredible (and not just country) music has been made in this city; because of that history, combined with my peers and heroes living and working in this region, I certainly feel continuously motivated to be a better musician, singer, writer, guitarist, collaborator and band leader, sometimes to my own detriment and exhaustion. Though I won’t always admit it, it is astonishing to me how much musical progress I’ve made in the last four and half years. 

There appears to be a particularly supportive community among the musical immigrants that move to Nashville rather than a competitive environment. Has this been your experience? 

Yes and no; there are certainly genuinely supportive pockets of the community and again, I am fortunate to have strong friendships with working musicians who help and support each other, but—and especially being a woman—there is a sense of competition that is inherently in the business. If labels, organizations, festivals, special events, radio shows, venues, journalists and media outlets made more of a concerted effort to include more than just one or two woman-artists, I think that feeling of competition would dissipate some. 

With property prices soaring in East Nashville over recent years it must be increasingly difficult affordability wise for artists to survive there. Is this a genuine concern among your musical community?

Certainly it’s a concern. I’ve personally never even been able to afford to live in East Nashville and have always lived in significantly less wealthy parts of town. (I know for myself, in addition to pursuing my music career goals, I have to work two jobs to support my artist career and also my basic needs and bills.) All this time working regular jobs siphons time away from writing, playing, practicing, booking. This often happens though; artists come in and create a rad community, then branders and “tastemakers” want to be a part of that community, or worse to commercially exploit it, in whatever capacity they can and thus push out the artists. It’s an old story. 

The American Legion has become, in recent years, a breeding ground for younger artists rekindling the classic country flames. Nashville artists like J.P. Harris, Joshua Hedley, Kelsey Waldon, Pat Reedy and from farther afield Kayla Ray and Zephaniah OHora are also producing quality ‘real’ country music. From the front line are you detecting a growing appreciation from punters and even more so from the industry itself?

People that appreciate great music have always been around, so I wouldn’t say it’s a new growing appreciation so much as it seems it’s currently trendy and hip to support traditional leaning country and maybe folks are just jumping on the bandwagon? Or, perhaps listeners are just hungry for something with substance, I don’t know, I’m not an expert! I do know that JP, Pat, Kelsey, Zeph and myself…we all create and study and listen to and sing this music because we love this music and will continue to make it long after “the trend” is gone. I don’t really have a good grasp on—or, to be frank—care about what “the industry” appreciates. If somebody wants to pay me money for my song, if a label wants to pick me up… great…I desperately need it! But, like Welch wrote and sang, “gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.” 

There is no roadmap anymore for artists like yourself to follow which inevitably leads to a sustainable career in the music industry. The talent is as strong as ever but the opportunities for exposure seem increasingly difficult. How frustrating is it to deal with this on a practical level?

How much time do you have? The music business is arbitrary, impractical, without rhyme or reason, and what works for some artist and bands, doesn’t work for others. Seems to me that unless an artist has a financier, whether that’s independent or family wealth, or via a label, it’s rather impossible to get to the “next level.” Hard work and talent only go so far; I know, I’ve been working for over ten years, and know a ridiculous amount of artists and bands working much longer and harder than I have that are still not at a sustainable career level. You’re right in that there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to talent, but without the financial component…well…I guess I just have to accept that I’ll be a fringe artist. I’ve just recently started to be OK with it.

You’ve spoken about your love of The Allman Brothers growing up in Georgia and your exposure to Bluegrass when living in Colorado. When did traditional country make its initial impression on you?

As a little girl, I heard Patsy Cline and some Loretta, and my momma had a couple Emmylou, Jessi Colter and Joni Mitchell albums; as a middle and high schooler, I was into 90’s country too, like Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Trisha. But the real, hard stuff, I didn’t get into that until college. I worked at a summer camp in the north Georgia mountains on my summers off from school and we listened to Hank and Junior, Waylon, and bluegrass…a lot of that stuff. And oh boy, when I found Buck and Don, and George Jones, it was all downhill from there; I was obsessed. 

The album cover of your excellent album Southern Ambrosia has a striking resemblance to Emmylou’s Luxury Liner, with the only disparity being that your image is slightly less revealing. Coincidence or intended?

Ha! I think it was a faraway subconsciousness? I studied so much Emmylou in my early years of playing music, my early and mid-twenties, and I absolutely love ‘Luxury Liner’ (my second fave Emmylou record, after ‘Quarter Moon’). However, I didn’t even think about that connection when I first saw the original polaroid (which is slightly less dark than the cover), until I showed a friend the finished ‘Southern Ambrosia’ cover and she said that same thing about the resemblance to ‘Luxury Liner.’

The album most certainly establishes you as an accomplished songwriter notwithstanding your well recognised vocal ability. Over what period were the songs created?

Man, thanks! Kind words indeed! ‘The Ballad of Angel and Donnie’ and ‘Lovers and Liars’ are the oldest tunes; I wrote those in 2014. ‘Jokes On Me’ and ‘Slow Kill’ were written in 2017, so a span of four years. I generally throw out about 98% of what I write, because it’s not good enough; I’m definitely not a prolific songwriter, and used to worry A LOT about that. More so recently, however, I’m embracing that if the few I write a year are really good, then I’m ok with my non-prolific-ness.  It’s all very subjective however, and that fucks with me.

How difficult was it opening up your heart and writing material from a very personal and autobiographical backstory? 

It’s pretty much the only way I know how to write. When I try to write from other perspectives or stories that are not my own, it’s difficult for me and the result almost always feels cheesy and stupid, and I’m afraid that everyone knows I’m making it up and “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” I adhere to the writer’s adage: write what you know. 

You’ve managed to approach downbeat subject matter with an upbeat sound on tracks like Slow Killand The Ballad Of Angel & Donnie, in some ways drowning the sorrowful theme. More often than not, other’s songs dealing with topics such as booze and pills dependency tend to be less pacey to say the least. Was this premeditated? 

So awesome that you caught that! ‘Angel and Donnie’ just spilled out that way; the muse was working ferociously the night I wrote that one, and I like that the intense and frantic sonic element of the tune reflects the story of those nefarious characters and their crippling, murderous loyalty and addictions. ‘Slow Kill’ was different. I wrote that song at a mid-tempo, and I still love to perform it live that way so that the words are heard more clearly. However the way it turned out on the record, man, it’s my favorite cut on the album! The lyrics of that tune are so hopeless and desperate, it needed an upbeat musical component to be listenable. It’s a bit of my bluegrass training shining through: songs that sound happy and upbeat but, under the surface, are actually pretty dark topics. 

The contradictions in respect of being a Southerner are aired on the opening track Made In America and continue throughout the album. Conflicting pride and shame, a suggested difficult growing up also get an airing.  Did the writing for the album act as an opportunity to purge these opposites? 

Southern identity is a tricky thing: the tension and juxtaposition of pride and shame, of paying homage to positive traditions of being southern (food, politeness, accents), while trying to redefine tired stereotypes of the south, and acknowledge our violent, oppressive past. There’s a desire in me to loudly recognize that the effects of cultural, economic, racial, religious and political history in this region creates what we are today, for better, but, more often than not it seems, for worse. I’m just trying to put these stories and perspectives and opinions on the table and say ‘hey. look. listen.’ I don’t ever really think of my work in songwriting as “writing for an album;” these are just truth-telling songs and luckily, this collection of songs that became Southern Ambrosia had that common thread. 

The final track Joke’s On Me is exceptionally personal and raw. A pivotal and defiant statement to close the album before moving on?

The sequencing fell so naturally for this record, and I personally either love a giant, banging album closer or a soft, introspective self-reflection. Seems to me that great albums are a recorded imprint of an artist’s life at that point in time. Once Joke's was written in spring of 2017, I knew it was the closer for the album because that was a dominant feeling in my life for a good year after my breakup with my long term partner. The song is very personal and true to me, and exactly how I felt about that breakup. The track on the record is the demo and we chose that purposefully so you could feel the raw pain of it all.  

You’ve put the hard graft in, written the songs, recorded the album and released it.  As an independent artist what measures do you now take to get the album to as wide an audience as possible? 

I ran a PR campaign for three months prior to the record release, and a two month radio campaign once it was released, but unfortunately that’s all my “budget” could afford. I’ll just keep pushing the record independently as a one woman DIY machine and play the long game, I guess. I’d love some help via representation from a label, booking agent or manager, but that has yet to come for me. Five years after my first record came out, people are still finding and listening to that one, so onward and upward!

Do you intend touring the album with a band in The States further afield than Tennessee or concentrate on venues closer to home?

I’d love to tour all over the US/Canada, and I am determined to do it! However—and this isn’t new news—unless you’re a well-established act, have a booking agent (I don’t) or have some mailbox money coming in, touring is extremely expensive. I’d prefer to take a four piece band (five piece being ideal) but I think, strictly for financial reasons, I’ll have to do solo touring for a while, to establish stronger fan bases. 

Do you see Europe as an option touring wise?

Would love to tour Europe! I toured Sweden and Norway this summer and absolutely loved it. So, yes, I’d LOVE to get over there. Again, however, see “the touring is extremely expensive” comment above. 

It often appears to me that quite a number of artists, both male and female, are recording a country album early career and then changing direction towards a more indie sound in their follow up album. Do you see yourself changing direction or have you even had the chance to consider a future project so soon after releasing Southern Ambrosia? 

For me, I know I’m going to continue to write and record art I think is good, meaningful, true, and worth releasing…however it comes out! I think artists should make their art, in whatever sound or shape that takes form.  

Interview by Declan Culliton