Judging by the reaction he elicits between songs, Tom Murray is nothing less than local royalty. A songwriter with a back catalogue brimming with infectious melodies, he’s channelled canonical guitar-pop influences into his own work for the benefit of untrained ears. In our interview before he took to the stage at The Bayou Soul in Camden, it’s clear that Tom’s enthusiasm for music is what has attracted people to his shows. I asked him about his influences, the latest material he describes as his ‘best ever’ and who out of Sesame Street he would like to punch the most.
You recently told us that your latest material is the best you’ve ever written. Why do you think that is?
My head was fucked at the time I wrote them, so maybe that helped! I think you get stronger as a writer as you grow. I lost the inhibitions I had when I was younger. It helps that I know my way around the studio now and I work well with Tony White (Tom’s producer). ‘December Girl’, that was the start of it really. It came into my head at a set of traffic lights in Willesden Green about a year ago. I know my audience and I know what they want, and it got an immediate good response when I played it for the first time.
I’m often struck by how musicians and writers disown their early work, claiming it’s a product of their state of mind at the time. Damon Albarn has uncharitably described Blur’s debut Leisure as ‘awful.’ Do you think your first songs stand up against your most recent ones?
You’ve all got to start somewhere. There’s a song called ‘Rise’ which makes me feel sick because the lyrics are so clichéd. People took it to their hearts but I can’t play it live anymore, I don’t like it. On its YouTube page it got a very positive response from a right god botherer, which freaked me out! But there’s stuff I wrote years’ ago that still sounds great and gets a good response. Certain songs I’ve disowned have never seen the light of day.
Have your influences shifted over the years?
My core influences have stayed the same, but they’ve evolved more widely. The playlist I made today must’ve made the neighbours think there were five different people living in the house because it was so varied. It all started when my mum bought me a VHS of Oasis at Maine Road, which changed everything. The crowd went mental and I wanted to do that, whether it’s one guy in his bedroom or a group in a pub. Oasis lead me to The Stone Roses who opened the door to Paul Weller, Motown and Reggae. The Roses have always been an influence, ‘Mersey Paradise’ in particular is a song that’s got so much.
Who are you drawing inspiration from at the moment?
East of Acre Lane, a novel by a guy called Alex Wheatle, inspired ‘Island Song’. The depth of the characters really intrigued me. I think Alex was involved in the Brixton Riots of 1981, and he’s a novelist before he’s a musician. Curtis Mayfield’s all over ‘Ain’t No Love’, a song I wrote three years’ ago when two of my mates broke up. I wrote it from the girl’s perspective but only recorded it recently after some persuading. Johnny Marr as well, he’s a brilliant guitarist. I saw him support The Who at Hyde Park and he was phenomenal. Can’t remember much of The Who’s set mind.
Do other art forms influence you?
Alex changed the way I look at all that. Life experiences and other people’s songs mainly inspire me. I’ve read all of Irvine Welsh’s stuff but it’s too dark to put into song.
We live in a politically tumultuous era. Do you think it’s the duty of artists to address big political issues of the day?
(pauses) Personally no, because music is a form of escape. All the shit you face on a daily basis, made ever present through social media, is not what I want to remind people of when they see me. I’ve written political stuff but kept it private, and I think it’d be dishonest if I wrote political songs. There’s plenty to say but it wouldn’t feel right if I put those words into songs. The songs I love are about escapism.
Have your lyrical subjects changed as you’ve grown as a songwriter?
I’ve always written about bollocks. Melodies are more important to me. For example ‘Tracy’ is based on a song a mate of mine wrote called ‘Patsy’s Song’, which is about his first love. I liked his idea and thought I’ll write one like that too. I’m not pretentious enough to think songs have substance. People will find their own meaning.
Live, do you feel comfortable performing? Do you get nervous before you go on stage?
My live shows are stronger now that I’m more confident. I was a painfully shy teen until a guitar was placed in my hands and told I had to get up in front of people. I’m not going to tell stories between songs though: when I do what I do, the crowd responds well. From March to July last year I smashed those gigs. They were so good that I thought I’d end there and go out on a high. 229 in Great Portland Street was brilliant. Me and Danna (Solomon, collaborated with Tom on a number of his most recent tracks) played The Good Ship in Kilburn last June and we just bounced off each other so well. She restored my self-belief, which I’d lost at the time.
How do you go about composing set lists?
The dynamic has to be right. When I wrote ‘December Girl’ I knew it would go straight into the set and I now end on it. People would beat me up if I left it out! Some songs I’ve always stuck with; ‘Tinder Box’ sounds like I want to start a row. I usually play a mellow penultimate track. I take the crowd on a journey and I give them what they want. I’m not a puritan to withhold the big ones. Gigs are all about the people who’ve travelled from far and wide and paid money to see me.
Do you think guitar music is in the doldrums?
Good guitar music is, although I’m out of touch with what’s popular. I record in Dalston, which has taught me that you need money to get into music nowadays. I don’t think a working-class gang like Oasis or The Roses would make it now. Are guitars cool anymore? I love them but I’m not sure. There’s been a lot of shite – how Coldplay have gotten so big is beyond me. Everyone’s really safe, no one’s got an opinion.
If you appeared on Desert Island Discs, what book and luxury would you take?
(Immediately) Alex Wheatle’s East of Acre Lane would be the book… As for the luxury, it’s got to be a guitar hasn’t it?!
Finally, if you had to punch one member of Sesame Street who would it be?
Kermit, because why not? He’d fight back so it’s all good.