It may be a dreary Friday morning in New York City, but in the lobby of the Soho Grand Hotel, Nick Murphy is vibrant with energy. For one, the other night he performed a unique, stripped-down private show in a cavernous room at the ornate Big Apple auction house Sotheby’s. Flanked by his own photography adorning the walls, it served as a preview for his upcoming studio album, Run Fast Sleep Naked (out April 26).
Not only is he buzzing about what he calls “the most inspiring work collaboration I’ve ever had in my entire life” with regards to a new project he’s eager to talk about, he’s also riding high on the new single “Sanity,” which boasts a Salvador Dali-esque video. “A lot of songs are singular, but ‘Sanity’ is the opposite,” the Australia native says of the groovy track while sipping a mocktail concocted with beets and celery. “It’s been through a lot of different iterations, but was first conceived in Japan.” Murphy, who meditates at least once a day, was in the Buddhist community of Koyasan, considered one of the holiest places in the world, and was deeply inspired by his serene surroundings. “I came up with the piano line there, and then we took it to Shangri-La.”
Yes, Murphy is referring to that Shangri-La, the famed Malibu, Calif. studio belonging to the legendary producer Rick Rubin. The Def Jam Records founder and hip-hop godfather reached out to Murphy on a whim, the result of which was a brief but fruitful collaboration that blossomed into a mentorship that ultimately laid the foundation for the new album.
For Murphy, the experience with Rubin was an outlier considering he had previously been averse to the song-factory mentality of random creative collaboration. “For me, writing is like revealing a part of my soul. Do I want to get into a writing session with 20 strangers? No. I know a lot of people don’t think like me because a lot of artists do that, but I think I’d write a better song with an aunt or uncle who’s tone deaf then a stranger. For me it’s an exchange of energies.” It’s for that reason why he’s just fine with passing up requests from some heavy hitters. “I’ve had lots of offers to work with bigger artists, but it’s always through the managerial chain. That’s normal, but you never really know is this person is actually interested in meeting me or if it’s a manager thing,” he says, noting Frank Ocean’s camp once reached out. “I love his music and he’s amazing, but I need to meet someone before I’m going to give them music. It’s just not how I work.”
Regardless of his trepidation, with Rubin’s stature looming over him Murphy couldn’t help but be intrigued. “First we chatted through email for a while and he was actually the first person who suggested I put out music under my birth name.” He’s alluding to Chet Faker, his former moniker based on the 1950s jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, which Murphy released his breakout 2012 EP Thinking in Textures and 2014 debut album Built on Glass under. “It just kind of happened and I certainly didn’t want to carry this ironic pseudonym around me for the rest of my life. I don’t really get turned on by irony.” Regardless of accepting that his former name will follow him around in some form for the rest of his of career, he acknowledged changing it was a risk. “People thought I’d ruin my career,” he muses of his Sept. 2016 announcement, which was spurred by Rubin’s initial suggestion. “In a way, the name change was me saying that if I lose everything, that’s okay with me because I’m still being honest. All people are averse to change. The deepest irony is that what they love about your work is that it was new, but at the same time they want you to keep giving them something that isn’t new. It’s like hanging onto a breakup.”
Thus, with his Chet Faker days in the rearview and following an extended period of him and Rubin emailing each other back and forth, Murphy eventually ventured to Shangri-La for two weeks of collaboration which he readily admits took some adjusting to. “Collaborating with other people was what threw me off a bit,” says Murphy who had previously never even worked in an actual studio. (He started out producing in his parent’s Melbourne, Australia garage and later set up shop wherever he was living.) “I never before had to explain what I was musically feeling or thinking to someone else. It was abstract since there are languages and shorthand you develop with people, and that takes time and experience. They’d look at me like, ‘What do you want?’ I’d say things like, ‘I want it to be more splashy’ and then it’d sound like the opposite (of what I was thinking).” Adding to the pressure was that fact that both Neil Young and DRAM were working at Shangri-La simultaneously. “They keep all the doors open there. It’s a really positive, open and flowing vibe, but I just wasn’t used to sharing my process. Every time I hit the spacebar it was like, ‘Neil Young can hear my music right now, is this good enough?’ I kind of personally shut down and didn’t open up until the end of my time there.”
Despite eventually forming a bond with DRAM (the two even wound up recording a track that was later cut from Run Fast Sleep Naked, which contains no features), it wasn’t until Murphy departed Malibu and took his creative process to New York that he hit the ground running with the direction of the album. “I took the whole big team at Shangri-La and whittled it down.” That included the producer Dave Harrington of Darkside, along with the engineer Phil Weinrobe. “Words can’t even express what it’s like with these two human beings,” he says. “Half the time we wouldn’t even finish our sentences because we knew exactly what was going on. I could not have made this record without them.” The experience was so fruitful for Murphy that the three are currently at work concocting an entirely new project separate from his solo career. It’s a new facet of his musical journey he’s never spoken publicly about before. “The three of us were such a thing that it branched off into its own project,” he says referring to a band that will be called Nick Murphy and the Program, the result of which should be new music by the end of the year. “It’s been more fruitful than working on my own stuff, and so far I definitely have more music from that project than I do my own stuff.”
As Murphy prepares to venture out into the Soho rain to continue to work with Weinrobe on songs for the new project at their nearby studio, he can’t help but reflect on his incongruous career, one full of risks and side steps that ultimately fulfilled him both personally and creatively. “When someone’s being themselves, we think they’re crazy,” he says. “If you ever just really dance, you look crazy. There’s no awareness or thought of presentation. I got to a point that things were going well, but it was important to me and to show my fans that I care more about the creation of the art than the success of any project.”