Making Music with Jim Murphy

We sat down for a chat with Jim Murphy of Blue Fish Diamond to discuss the songwriting process, their new single and tackling lockdown as a musician.

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It seems everyone has something good to say about the new song, how do you feel about that?

We are blown away by the reaction, it has been fantastic. We put a lot of work into making it, recording it, and putting all the frills and spills on it. Before you release a track you always have that nervousness of how people are going to react and respond but it has just been amazing. We have had some great writeups from DeMars, HotPress, RTE, some other blogs. It has started getting some regional radio play, fingers crossed it will get to national level!

When you were writing “Sunshine in my Brain” did you take influence from any other songs?

I think there were some subliminal influences, as there are for any songwriter, for me those would-be artists from the classic/folk-rock space; Neil Young, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty, just to name a few from the 70s/80s era. For this specific song, there wasn’t a musical influence as such, it was more a mood. I wrote this song early in lockdown and it was influenced by someone I know who was really struggling and it just developed from there.

Do you find that lockdown has been a source of inspiration or do you feel it takes away from your artistic drive?

I have been one of those lucky people who could respond positively to lockdown. I wish we didn’t have it, to be clear, and The sooner it stops the better! But I guess I’ve managed to write a lot of new stuff over the summer and through to the winter. I never would have written the material if we hadn’t had lockdown, so there is a silver lining there. So Lockdown has created a space that I didn’t have before to embrace songwriting.

The songs I’ve written cover a lot of different themes, they aren’t all lockdown based and they cover some positive themes too! As independent artists, we do everything ourselves; social media, PR.  When we could gig we would chase them, rehearse, apply for festivals. Every time there was a release we would be pushing it as hard as we could and just overnight, all that overhead was gone and we had all the time to just make the music.

“I think all musicians have their habits and tend to gravitate towards their patterns, the trick is to pull yourself away from that and you might stumble across little gems and think “That works, that’s the right place to put it!”.”

When you are writing, do you generally start with the music or the lyrics?

For me, it generally starts with the music. More often than not it starts with a chord progression, from that a melody might fall out. Some people might start with a melody but for me, it tends to be chords, melody. It’s not sequential, it’s an iterative process but more often than not we start with chords and move to the melody. Depending on where the melody is going, we might go back and change chords. Then based on the mood, we might go back and change the chords and melody.

How much of a role does music theory play in your songwriting process?

I tend to rely on what I’m hearing; does it sound good? The theory is important though. As a Segway, back in 2014, I went to study commercial and modern music at BIMM. Before that, I could play a few chords on the guitar, but I find theory to be fantastic to analyse what I’m doing afterwards, from that it might inform a new direction to take a song in. For me, one thing that can really make a song stand out is the notion of “borrowed chords” where you move outside of the diatonic key and modulate in some sections of the song to spice it up a bit.

My pre-interview study session involved trying to work out the chords of the song to gain an understanding of Jim’s writing process.

I saw that in the Chorus – at the end of the second bar you have an F# major that doesn’t belong in the diatonic structure of the B Minor key that the song is set in.

Well spotted, that is what draws the ear, we also have a G Major to a G Minor in the chorus. I think the trick is to find the right place to use those. To come back to the point about theory, I don’t think “I’m going to use these chords and put them here, here and here”. I just play and put a lot of time into taking the song somewhere different. I think all musicians have their habits and tend to gravitate towards their patterns, the trick is to pull yourself away from that, even if you are tired and you might stumble across little gems and think “That works, that’s the right place to put it!”. For example, that F# might sound dreadful 2 bars beforehand or something, so it’s just about trying to find the right place to put it.

Your instrumentation is pretty different – not the standard 2 guitar, bass, drums and vocal outfit. How do you write music for that? 

This is the first time we have released a track with strings on it, the strings section was arranged by one of my former tutors Cormac Kearn; a very well renowned piano player, he also scores strings and would have taught me in College. I reached out to Cormac for this song and a few other songs on our forthcoming album… I just watched in awe as it was being recorded!

For the conventional instruments, hats off to the band, I give each of them credit for their parts, if we start with drums, our drummer is a guy called Shea Sweeney, he’s got a great ear and such a great groove… You should hear the first version of Sunshine In My Brain; it was me on acoustic guitar, fingerpicking it out and singing. I sent it to the guys and it just built and built. When we took it to the studio the parts were largely there; it was Shea on Drums, Ronan on bass, Laura Ryder on piano, you know that lovely opening piano melody line, Laura came up with that! Axel McDonnell on Guitar, Matilda on backing vocals – what you hear on the track is largely what we went into the studio with.

The producer; Gavin Glass, sprinkled the magic on top, as he does with all our music. We worked with Gavin on everything we have released up until now. He had this concept of a song in 3 Acts, so if you listen back there are almost 3 distinct sections, the section where it is quite sparse before the drums kick in, then that leads into the last section which is when it goes into double time.

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The track was produced by Gavin Glass, pictured above.

The next question is more about production – how much input did you get from the producer on the track? 

So it depends on the song – if I look towards our debut album there are probably a couple of songs where Gavin would have taken the song in a different direction in terms of structure, chord progression, lyrics. Last summer we got into the studio when restrictions were minimal. That’s when we recorded this track and four others, on a couple of those tracks Gavin had quite an influence on what we are releasing. On one track we have brass as well as strings, Gavin really helped us take it in a new direction.

Does Gavin pull in musicians or is it keys and plugins?

The French Horn and Trumpet parts are played by the same guy, based in the UK (The wonder of technology). Gavin reached out to him and he recorded in his Home Studio – Which was great for overdubs. All of the music we have recorded up until now, the rhythm section has been recorded live. When I say live I mean, we play it in the studio over and over again until Gavin is happy with the take. This could be 3-4 takes or it could be 10 takes.

So once you’ve recorded the rhythm section, do you re-record it as individual parts? Or is the rhythm section from the live take what we hear on record?

For drums and bass, we get the tight locked-in sound from the live recording. The keys and rhythm guitar are overdubbed. While doing a live take, Axel might add extra rhythm guitar licks that are really tasty. By and large, drums and bass are kept. In some takes, the drums and bass might be bang on but there might be some fluff on the guitar or something…

I guess it’s nearly impossible to get everything perfect on the live take…

Actually one of the songs on the album is a complete live take! There are no overdubs, we just played it! However, that song is more straightforward chordally with a folky-country vibe to it and a I-IV-V and maybe a little bit of 6th thrown in.

I think people like that though – I think there’s a movement against overproduced music where everything is recorded and tweaked at a micro level, people enjoy the authenticity of a live, or live-ish recording. How do you feel about that?

I love it, differentiating between the more produced songs where the underbelly is live, I think you can feel the energy. In the song I just mentioned where it was all done in one take, I think you can hear that energy – when we did it there was such a great feeling in the room, nervousness too because when you are in there, you know that you gotta be on your game because if one of you mucks it up… Well you know… We also took a video which we will put out when the time comes, you’ll see in the video at the end, everybody just looks at each other and there is just this joy!

This is the first article of a new series we are doing, it’s amazing to talk to musicians about their own original music. Obviously, you are very passionate about what you do, like I said earlier, I love the track and the thought put into making it.

Thank you – I feel very fortunate that lockdown has worked out well, I found a new way of songwriting; before I’d sit down with a block of time and say “I’m going to write a song” and I would get stressed about it. It took me a while to realise that I was getting stressed because I hadn’t prepared anything to write about!

So, last question – when all this is over, where are you looking forward to playing?

Ahh, I can’t wait to get back to gigging, there are so many venues in Dublin; Workman’s, The Grand Social, Whelans – we haven’t played the main stage, so that’s an aspiration! Bloody Mary’s is a venue that just opened up a year before lockdown, we did our last release there and I hope that is open. We have played around the country a bit too… I have a soft spot for Kilkenny as my wife is from there, it would be great to get back! Wherever will have us!

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