Song Writing

Paul Murphy of Wintersleep

by Trevor Morelli

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Wintersleep formed in Halifax, Nova Scotia when frontman Paul Murphy and his childhood friend, guitarist Tim D'eon, teamed up with drummer Loel Campbell in 2001. They added bass player Mike Bigelow and keyboard player Jon Samuel to the mix for their third album, Welcome to the Night Sky, which earned them a Juno Award for New Group of the Year. Murphy has a way with lyrics; their breakthrough single from that album is "Weighty Ghost," where he sings:

You can't kill something that's already dead
So leave my soul alone


For their 2016 album The Great Detachment, Wintersleep parted ways with their longtime label EMI, moving to the indie Dine Alone. They remain a Canadian phenomenon, but could easily win over the Wilco crowd in America if they get the exposure. We spoke with Murphy about coming to America, moving to Dine Alone, and what to listen for on The Great Detachment.
Trevor Morelli (Songfacts): You guys had a pretty busy summer. You played all sorts of festivals like BC's Pemberton and the Interstellar Rodeo in Winnipeg. Did it feel like the summer just flew by for you?

Paul Murphy: Yeah, definitely. It was probably our busiest summer ever. Definitely in the last five or six years. It was great.

Songfacts: And did it feel like you had good shows, connecting with fans with the new material and everything?

Paul: Yeah, the new material feels like it's our strongest in terms of the live presentation. It might be because it's the new record so we're pretty excited about it, but it seems like the audience are gravitating towards those songs.

Songfacts: The Great Detachment has been out since March now. What songs are you finding people are connecting the most with?

Paul: "Amerika," definitely. A song called "Metropolis" seems to be a favorite. The song "Santa Fe" seems to be a cool one that people like. "Shadowless" has a really cool live moment nearing the end of the song that feels really unique and not like anything else that we've done before. I think those would be my four choices.

Songfacts: "Amerika" is getting a ton of radio play, especially now with everything that's going on in the US. Do you feel like the sentiment of that song has changed at all, now that the election is over?

Paul: It feels like it has gotten a bit darker or something. I think it has. Yeah, it definitely feels like a relevant song for the times right now. It is about trying to live through struggle so that's kind of apparent. It feels like it's unsure times at the moment.

Songfacts: You've got another single, "Spirit," that's out there, it's making good headway on radio. Can you talk a bit about what that song's about?

Paul: It's hard to narrow down to just one thing, but I guess it's about trying to connect and not get caught up in routine too much. That's kind of a loose idea for the song: just trying to connect. Trying to be connected and not detached.

Songfacts: The title of the record, The Great Detachment, comes from that song. With this record, you guys went through a lot of change. What's the biggest difference you've noticed now being on Dine Alone Records versus under EMI or one of the major banners.

Paul: I don't want to throw EMI under a bus, but you get a little bit more attention. It feels like a lot more attention, because in EMI we were pretty small fish. They all really supported our band, but at Dine Alone it feels like they really honed in and made it a priority from the top down.

Songfacts: Dine Alone has a good reputation for indie credibility.

Paul: Yeah, and they go through those channels, as well. Maybe that's the biggest affirmative, because we're not just a band that appeals to a mass being. We have the potential to have radio songs and that sort of thing but I think a lot of our fan base is not necessarily mainstream, so they have different channels to go through to get it heard in a lot of different mediums and a lot of different scenes.

Songfacts: Speaking of mediums, you've got this album on vinyl and it's available on cassette tape. What do you make of the resurgence of these older technologies?

Paul: There's an element to it where I like the idea of having a cassette tape because it just recalls a time, for myself, growing up when you would listen to full records, front to back, and the A-side and the B-side. It recalls to mind going for long walks outside my house in Nova Scotia and really digging into whatever album I bought. I would listen to it hundreds of times, or if it was in a car it would just be in there for a month.

It was definitely a time when music wasn't such an easy thing to stream from one band to another band. It feels like nowadays it's more like a mixtape sort of thing in the way that we listen to music.

Songfacts: So, what's one album that you feel like you could listen to all the way through, over and over?Paul: A record called Love Tara by Eric's Trip. That's one of those records for me. We've got lots of them. Yes, that's a record that I could listen to anytime. I guess I'm getting Canadian here, but the Gordon Downie record Coke Machine Glow is another one. That's something I could listen to forever and never get sick of. Most of Radiohead's records and White Birch. There are still lots of bands making incredible albums.

Songfacts: Do those records influence you? Could you see your band going in more of a left-field Radiohead direction or are you pretty happy being an alternative rock band?

Paul: I don't know. I guess in the sense that I like to think that we have a lot of focus on our albums and it's not just about trying to make a single or something that gets put on the radio. It's nice to have something that can translate in that way, but for us it's always been more about making a full-on album that you can listen to from front to back. So hopefully we share that quality with some of the bands that we love so much.

Songfacts: Listening to The Great Detachment I would say it has a good mix of mid-tempo and rockier songs. One of the more fast tempo songs on the album is "Freak Out." I'm wondering how your idea for that song came about.

Paul: Well, that was a Loel song actually and I think he was making a kind of a solo record, so he wanted me to help him sing it and then I just ended up singing it and then we just put it on the Wintersleep record.

Songfacts: What are some of your favorite songs and lyrics on "The Great Detachment"?

Paul: "Metropolis" is the song that I was really happy that we finally got sorted out and it feels like a centerpiece, lyrically. And the song "Spirit" that you talked about, you were mentioning as well. "Amerika" too.

Songfacts: I thought maybe when you talked a little bit about "Lifting Cure" and that has a catchy little keyboard riff or keyboard hook.

Paul: Yeah, totally. That was a fun one. That was another song that came out of this really cool riff but we didn't do anything with it for such a long time. It was just kind of a riff, and then I came up with that melody three years after he wrote the riff. And then it came together once I had the verse melody. The lyrics came pretty quickly and then we recorded it. So, that was a fun one and actually that one is also pretty thematically important for the record too.

Songfacts: How is The Great Detachment different thematically from your last record, Hello Hum?

Paul: I feel like Hello Hum is – how do I even say it – it's kind of like a record you can listen to by yourself, walking around. It sort of has this kind of, not lonely quality to it but something that you can listen to by yourself. And I think The Great Detachment reaches out a bit more. It has a warmth to it just because it was done all live and stuff, but even just the major notes and a lot of songs that are revolving more around major chord progressions, so it has this warm quality to it that's kind of neat.

Songfacts: It seems like it has more anthemic choruses, like in the singles and songs like "Who Are You" and things like that.

Paul: Yeah, I think Hello Hum is more like a loner record. There's just something very intimate about it in a way, and this one has intimate moments, but it reaches out a bit more.

Songfacts: So, just talking about some of your older songs for a minute, songs like "Weighty Ghost," do they still have meaning to you or do you feel you play those out of habit or is it still fun for you to do those ones?

Paul: Definitely. Every song that we have ever recorded and put on a record has a lot of meaning for me, but I know what you mean. You can play a song so many times live and go through the element of going through the motions, but you have to have that connection. I try to get into the same headspace that I got into when I wrote the songs, so they're still definitely relevant. But then there's changes because you're doing it in front of an audience, so there's an element of celebration. So it's different - it's not just about the meaning of the song.

Songfacts: I guess the audience's reaction to that one or to "Oblivion" would be a big boost.

Paul: Yeah, it definitely takes on a different meaning, but the original meaning of it is still part of it for me and carries into every time we play it live.

Songfacts: Paul McCartney picked you to open for him. I'm wondering how that came about and what that experience was like?

Paul: I think a friend of ours had some kind of connection with his management, so we submitted our record to be considered for when he was playing in Halifax. He got us to do it and of course it was amazing. But, yeah, we just sent it to him and he liked it and we're from Halifax. I think he does it all the time supporting the local bands that are there, which is kind of awesome. Worked out for us!

Songfacts: You guys live in Montreal now, though, correct?

Paul: Yes.

Songfacts: Is it different being in Montreal? Because I guess there's probably a little bit more of a music scene there with people like Sam Roberts and The Dears and some of these bands that have made it. Is the vibe a little different?

Paul: Yeah, it's definitely different but in the end you become a lot older - I have a kid. In terms of a scene, it would be the same no matter where we are, the same sort of focus as we've always had. It's great in the sense that it's a great central place to be based out of for a touring band.

Songfacts: For sure, it must be a little bit easier to hit Toronto and New York.

Paul: It really is. Just everywhere, like even if you think about Europe or going to the States or going to Toronto. Generally, it's a more central location. We don't have that 14 hours to start every tour.

Songfacts: Yeah, that must be a bit of a downer sometimes. Do we start way East or way West? Speaking of Toronto, you got to throw out the first pitch at a Jays game this summer. How did that happen?

Paul: That's a Dine Alone thing. They have all these weird little connections like that. But they've been doing some things with the Blue Jays and we got lucky. We're all big fans. I just wanted to make sure I hit the glove. I played baseball until I was 14 but I hadn't played baseball since.

Songfacts: Right on. Are you planning on hitting the US next year?

Paul: Yeah, we are. We're going through a few things – we might have something lined up pretty soon for that but not a hundred percent. I can't really a hundred percent confirm it yet. We're definitely trying for some things.

Songfacts: What's the reaction there? I know you guys get tons of radio play up here, which is really good, I think maybe the CanCon rules help a bit. But, what's it like down there?

Paul: It goes city by city. Pockets will have people coming out but it's not everywhere, so you've got to pick the tours wisely because last time we played Minneapolis there was about four people there. But some other places like Chicago, we've had some really good shows.

Songfacts: Have you done South by Southwest and big festivals like that?

Paul: Yeah, we've done that.

Songfacts: What was that experience like? That's kind of the mecca of music festivals.

Paul: It's a bit of a clusterfuck. It's kind of crazy. Yeah, it's fun. You've got to kind of get in there and get out as soon as possible.

Songfacts: It's just a lot to take in and a lot of shows, all at once?

Paul: A lot to take in and you can't really take in all that much. And then as a band you just want to play as much as possible in as short a time as possible because it's all so super expensive. At that time, hotels are really hard to get in. But it's a great city and it's a great thing to do.

Songfacts: So, now, being on Dine Alone, are you able to keep recording when you want to and you have the freedom to control your career the way you want?

Paul: Yeah, definitely. They're pretty chill in that respect. I mean, EMI was also really great in that sense that we never really felt pressured to make certain songs and whatever. We'll see how it goes. We'll probably start thinking about it in February and go through a few ideas and see what we have after that.

January 18, 2017. Get more at wintersleep.com.
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