Lennon Murphy doesn’t really want you to know how young she is. As leader of The Lennon Murphy Band, the dusky-voiced singer purposely packs her sprawling, piano-based pop songs with brooding emotions and mature themes. Dark, serious, and complex in both arrangements and subject matter, her songs don’t sound as if they could come from a shy, 15-year-old honor student at Hendersonville High School. And that’s just how she prefers it.
”When I’m onstage, the audience doesn’t usually know my age,“ she says. ”When someone hears me on tape, they don’t know how old I am. I try and keep that as quiet as I can, partly because of my lyrics. I don’t want people to say, åShe’s so great because she’s only 15.’ I want them to think, åHey, she’s great.’ “
Nonetheless, Murphy has become accustomed to shocking peopleboth for her talent and for her songs. It started late last summer, when she got an invitation to perform regularly at Hendersonville’s Low Places Cafe, after the owner heard one of her rehearsals. Performing on piano and accompanied by a guitarist and a background vocalist, she drew the attention of an early-evening, adult crowd. When her weekly performances ended, the club owner got so many requests for her that he reinstated her into a Thursday-night slot.
With her mom Kathy Murphy aggressively sending tapes and photos to Nashville-area nightclubs, the young singer and her band started moving uptown. She scored high in a local band showdown held over several weeks at 3rd & Lindsley. The winners, the Suburban Love Junkies from Birmingham, have since become friends and collaborators; she has traveled to Birmingham to open for the band, and they’ve come to Nashville to perform with her.
After an Exit/In performance, Murphy began a series of shows at Wolfy’s that quickly added to her reputation. It wasn’t long before the music-industry lawyers, managers, record company executives, and music producers all came knocking; among them was rock producer Peter Collins, who has worked with Queensryche, Rush, Indigo Girls, and Nanci Griffith. After a private performance for Collins at the home of entertainment attorney Jim Zumwalt, the producer praised her by calling her a female Elton John.
As a testament to her fast-rising stature, Murphy will open for Jars of Clay and Self at the Ryman Auditorium as part of the opening-night concert for the Nashville Entertainment Association’s Extravaganza ’98, the massive four-day music festival that presents up-and-coming talent from Nashville and other areas. Although unsigned, The Lennon Murphy Band will also perform Thursday, Feb. 19, at 12th & Porter as part of a Paladin Records showcase.
”People keep talking to me about record contracts and making all these big plans and promises,“ she says. ”I mean, sure, someday I would probably want to do that if I can. But right now what I really want the most is to get out and play. I really just want to play live as much as I can.“
Murphy is, as she often points out, inherently shy; during a long interview in the apartment she shares with her mother and her younger sister Mariella, she fidgets and blushes while struggling to express herself. But express herself she does, stripping away niceties to get at what she wants to say. Her songs are the same way: Unsentimental and candid, yet filled with rich metaphors and poetic turns of phrase, they delve boldly into powerful, unusual territory. Because of her age and her chosen instrument, and because she writes frankly about adult subjects, Murphy is likely to be compared to the young rock phenom Fiona Apple. But her music has as much in common with that of Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos, two other females who play piano and write epic songs full of rich textures and personal subject matter.
While Murphy cites McLachlan as one of her favorite artists”seeing her at Lilith Fair last year was one of the best experiences I’ve had“she also admires Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Ani DiFranco. As for influences, though, she says she doesn’t really have many; growing up, her mother wouldn’t let her listen to music much, and a radio or record player wasn’t allowed in the house. Her style developed largely because she got fed up with piano teachersshe has gone through 12 of themand started searching out her own chord structures. Soon, she began creating her own songs at home, usually at night, while her mother worked.
”I’m really kind of antisocial,“ she says. ”I don’t like to go out. I hate going out with people because I don’t know how to act. I’m just shy that way.“ Rather than pursue extracurricular activities, Murphy instead loses herself in cable movies and in her songwriting. As for lyrics, she says she takes real-life instances and exaggerates them for dramatic effect; she’s written several songs deep in the night, she says, when she slips out the back door of the apartment and stands in the stars by herself.
Because of her songs, the singer says she wants to avoid getting labeled a teen pop performer. ”With LeAnn Rimes and Hanson, people think they’re great partly because they’re so young,“ she says. ”And their music sounds like they’re young. But I’m not trying to write like I’m 15, and I don’t really care if people think I should be writing stuff like this or not.“
That said, Murphy acknowledges that the emphasis on her age is inevitable, at least for a few more years. She also realizes that the mature themes of her songs will disturb some listeners. She’s seen it happen: At one of her performances, without her knowing it, someone in the audience went around informing listeners that the woman onstage was only 15.
”When I sang this one lineåI’ve been down on my knees, I’ve been up on the bed, I’ve been feeling you all over me’I saw them gasp,“ she says, laughing. ”I mean, I could see their mouths drop. They all turned to each other and looked all shocked. I just wanted to stop and look at them and say, åWhat?!’ I just wrote it to get back at somebody. I wanted to piss somebody off on purpose.“
Her mother has suggested she try writing something more lighthearted and upbeat. ”She always wants me to write a happy song,“ she says, laughing again. ”It’s like I tell her, it’s not that I’m always depressed. It’s just that a sad song or angry song sounds better to me. A happy song doesn’t say anything. Not to put Hanson down, but åMmmbop’? What the hell does that mean? I just don’t relate to it.“
Murphy’s mother has also suggested she leave certain songs out of shows, at least in some situations. ”When she does that, I tell her that I’ll get back at her by writing something 10 times worse,“ she says with a wicked grin. ”The shock value, sometimes that can be fun. But that’s not why I do it. These are just the best songs I’ve written. I’m not trying to be a freak or anything. I’m just trying to write the best songs I can for my band, and this is what I’ve got so far.“
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