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Arts & Culture

Trish Murphy Looks Back, And Keeps Flying High With Skyrocket

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Courtesy photo
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Trish Murphy, on stage with Skyrocket.

Trish Murphy was one of the hardest-working (and hardest rocking) women among a new crop of Texas singer-songwriters to emerge in the 1990s, including Sara Hickman, Terri Hendrix, Kelly Willis and Mary Cutrufello. Murphy first began performing publicly with her brother Darin in her native Houston before striking out on her own after moving to Austin in 1996. A self-produced cassette (that I still have) led to gigs around central Texas, including the TPR-produced Cibolo Creek Country Club appearance you can hear at the bottom of this page, and an appearance onstage at Lilith Fair. Murphy’s independent release Crooked Mile was released in 1998. One live album and two more studio releases followed. But since the 2005 album Girls Get In Free, there hasn’t been any new solo material from Murphy.

What Murphy has been focusing on is honing her performance skills with Skyrocket, a seven-piece Austin-based cover band to top all cover bands. Skyrocket’s detailed recreations of the music of the 1970s and ‘80s (arranged by her brother Darin) helped her see the stage as more than just a place to play music. “We’ve all kind of seen it as theater,” she explains.

You can catch Skyrocket onstage often in Austin or Houston, and at Sam’s Burger Joint this Saturday night. Catch up with Trish Murphy in the interview below, where she talks about her career in the 1990s (including her Sunday Night Session gig for TPR, linked at the bottom of this page), Skyrocket, learning piano, and a possible return to solo songwriting and performance.

Nathan Cone: Putting yourself back in that time period of 1997-98, what are your memories of playing gigs then?

Trish Murphy: That was probably the hardest time period of time… When you’re performing in a concentrated way behind a record, it’s really hard yet gratifying work. And so that period of time I was still relatively new to Austin. I had moved here in 1996. So I was really out playing a lot with any musicians who were available. I had sort of a core group of guys, but sometimes they would flow in and out, so there were always different guys in the band, and lots of rehearsing. We were kind of on our game in a good way. Cibolo Creek [Country Club] in particular was sort of a rite of passage. If you got invited to play there, it was a pretty big deal! I remember that Sara Hickman used to play there on a regular basis, and I followed her career before I started my solo career, and anything Sara did, I wanted to do! So that was a real big kick to finally hit that mark and get invited to play at Cibolo Creek.

Well Sara is a good person to look up to in that regard, I agree! When you played this set, you had just recorded and released Crooked Mile. What was the experience of recording that album like and releasing that record?

It was really significant for me for two reasons. One, working with Dave McNair, the producer, we were very fortunate to get on his schedule because he was working with Kelly Willis at the time. They were recording What I Deserve, and so I think the day after they wrapped that record, or maybe two days later, we started our campout at The Hit Shack to make Crooked Mile. There was still some of Kelly’s mystique hanging in the air. And I worked with a lot of musicians that had also worked on her record like Mike Hardwick and John Dee Graham. Just a lot of good vibes going on.

When the record came out, again I was new to Austin, and didn’t really know anyone, so I figured that we would send samples of the record to radio and they might simply pass it up. I had no idea how much competition was out there, how much material they had to plow through at radio stations, so we set up dates and continued to play gigs because we were working so hard. And then one night we were on our way to The Hole In The Wall for a gig, we had KGSR on the radio, and one of the songs came on. And I thought I was going to lose my mind! It was beyond my wildest expectations, and so I think that’s an interesting thing about that time period. There was not all of the discoverability that there is now, where there’s ways to find artists online, and then that goes viral, and things happen quickly. Things happened really slowly then. And the only way you could really get your head above water was to be everywhere all the time. That is why it was so meaningful to hear something on the radio when you thoroughly expected it was going to take a lot longer to get yourself established.

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Credit Todd Wolfson
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Trish Murphy in the late 1990s.

That must have been a very exhausting time, too.

It was, but it has a sort of ‘best of times’ appeal to it, too. When you’re working that hard, I think that it highlights the things that are good. And it makes us feel even better when they happen against a wave of really difficult work. So it was rewarding beyond description. It really was.

Well I enjoyed the further albums that came out. Captured is a great live record, and Girls Get in Free… I even remember [early in your career] when you put a self-titled cassette out that had an early version of The Trouble With Trouble on it, and Running out of Tomorrows, and how those songs would show up on your later records. I love your songwriting, and I’m leading up to the fact that since 2005, you haven’t recorded any solo music. Do you still write songs? Are you still interested in doing solo material?

I think I would be. I’ve got a handful of songs that are sort of in the can. Some have been demoed, some haven’t. I’m thinking more these days about circling back to it. It was an interesting sort of shift to the Skyrocket project because as I continued to make records and tour, I was realizing that it wasn’t a pace that I could keep up forever. And something else fun comes along, I wasn’t looking for it, [but] it turned out to be this really fun thing that opened a whole new door of creativity, even though we were playing classic music. So as a creative exercise and as a way of becoming a more accomplished singer, I just sort of drove down that road. So the songwriting, yes I did continue to collaborate. I did a lot of co-writing after Girls Get In Free came out. I did sessions with Dwight Baker who is a producer now here in Austin. He used to be in my band back in the Crooked Mile days. We co-wrote some songs... I co-wrote with David Rice. I did a bunch of back-and-forth to Nashville as well, meeting with publishers, trying to keep the songwriting going. Eventually it became kind of ‘which thing has the most momemtum?’ That’s where Skyrocket really kind of swept everything away. So I guess the long answer is yes—I can definitely see myself opening up a new songwriting chapter. I also started taking piano lessons about six months ago.

Oh, good!

Yeah, that was kind of on my bucket list. It was my first instrument. And then guitar was cheaper and more available [laughs]. So when I was 11, that was what I ended up learning to play. Finally now I have a piano in the house, and I’m learning the basics. I’m finding that it’s really opening doors creatively and musically, and as soon as I know my way around the keyboard, it is not going to be long before I get tired of playing other people’s stuff and see what’s in the piano that’s mine. I’m so driven to learn the landscape because I want to get to the business of making music.

Let’s talk about Skyrocket now. Musically, you said that it’s kind of stretched you as well in terms of performance and singing. Is that fair?

I think so. We’ve all kind of seen it as theater, in a way. As we started to do it, it started out as something to do musically. But a lot of the guys in the band had theater or comedy backgrounds, and they had these other gifts and skills, and those kind of started to naturally find their way into the performance. And now we kind of push each other, and challenge each other. We’d be at a show, and maybe it was a private party and people weren’t that engaged, and somebody on stage would do something outrageous that would be the party-starter thing. It was a real discovery, because none of us expected that we were going to end up treating [Skyrocket] as theater, when it really started out as music--and clearly music that we take very seriously--because we take such pains to make the music as authentic and as true to the master recordings as we can.

Everyone has to be part of the performance every moment if it's going to be compelling.

All of this has helped us become better technical singers, because [for example] if you’re going to sing a Heart song, you need to really see what it takes to breathe through an entire phrase and hit those notes. So there was some technicality to it, and then we also started learning—hey, when you’re up on stage, you have to make people want to look at you. So when there’s seven of us on stage, we realized that whoever’s singing at any given time has to take ownership of the song, and has to deliver it. And the rest of us have got to be part of it. We can’t just stand there looking at our instruments or looking around waiting for it to be our turn. Everyone has to be part of the performance every moment if it’s going to be compelling. So we took it so far beyond a cover band partly because everybody had a high bar just from performing your own music, and needing to have charisma on stage. So we took those things very seriously as part of the Skyrocket thing to make it worth coming out to see, making it absolutely what you would do in an original band, but apply the same level of commitment to this and see what happens with it.

When you talk about the technical aspects of recreating these recordings, does your brother, Darin, do the arrangement of it?

Oh you know he does! It has the mark of Darin all over it. It’s really his forte.

This past week I discovered his Beatle demos, and those are astonishing.

I agree! Those are things that he was doing two decades ago just for fun, and also I think to learn his way around the equipment. He really was at the time a very self-taught guy, and he now has lots of studio chops. Those recordings are part of what led him down that road.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, it’s been a treat to catch up with you.

I’m so thrilled, this is such a cool deal. When I first heard about it, that you guys are doing this [Ed. Note: pulling out old material from the TPRchives], I just got really excited. I wish you all the best, and I hope that it’s really well received. You have such a good listening audience. I think it’ll be a real winner!

Trish Murphy performs with her brother Darin and the other five members of Skyrocket this Saturday night at Sam's Burger Joint. She'll play a more intimate set at Monkeynest Coffee in Austin on Monday, July 27. Below, listen back to some of Trish Murphy's 1997 set at Cibolo Creek Country Club for Texas Public Radio's Sunday Night Session program.

Watch a highlight reel of Skyrocket performing in the video clip below:

https://vimeo.com/81530877">SKYROCKET! from https://vimeo.com/marcbrown">Marc Brown Pictures on Vimeo.