Alexi Murdoch: The Sound of Away We Go

Away We Go, Sam Mendes' forthcoming film for Focus Features, presents a new star in the form of singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch, who provides the movie's memorable soundtrack.

During the filming of Away We Go, Sam Mendes began thinking about the music that would be the sound and the soul of the film. When he first heard Time Without Consequence, the debut album from Scottish singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch, he knew he had found what he was looking for.

Murdoch has a spare, stripped down sound and sings gently evocative folk songs in the tradition of fellow Brits such as Nick Drake and John Martyn. His music is rooted in the present but has a timeless quality to it, and if you think it sounds like the young troubadour has wanderlust, then you’re right. He was born in London, raised in Scotland and studied at Duke University and admits, “I’ve never really felt that I’ve had a place that was quite home.” He has also very much has chosen to take the road less traveled in terms of his career: He has so far shunned a major record deal, instead choosing to self-release his work, but has found considerable success regardless. When Murdoch put out his debut recording, Four Songs EP (2002), word of mouth spread quickly and it ended up becoming the highest selling release ever on the CD Baby website. And, in 2006, Time Without Consequence, reached #25 in Billboard’s Heatseeker chart.

The soft-voiced singer-songwriter, however, is set to for even greater heights now that his music forms the backbone of the soundtrack for Away We Go. One of Murdoch’s best-known songs, All My Days, features on the film’s trailer and has already created a buzz, while the film’s soundtrack recalls movies from a more innocent time featuring folky soundtracks by a single artist or band, such as The Graduate (with its contributions from Simon and Garfunkel) and Harold and Maude, featuring the music of Cat Stevens.

FilmInFocus caught up with Murdoch recently during his U.S. tour to discuss his musical background, why filmmakers love his music so much and his future movie plans.

What was your childhood like from a musical perspective?

It was pretty normal really. I started playing piano early on like a lot of kids. There was always music, but I wouldn’t say my family was particularly musical. I remember classical music a lot as a child—Beethoven banging away in the background—but not anything exceptionally out of the ordinary. I picked up pretty much every instrument on my way to the guitar: piano, violin, trumpet, I even tried the bagpipes for a while. [laughs] I sang pretty early on in a choir and I think that’s where I got my ear for harmony, but it certainly wasn’t something I knew was my destiny or anything until much later on.

What were your formative listening experiences?

I always think first hearing Pink Floyd was probably the biggest musical awakening in terms of what a band could sound like. I wasn’t one of those kids that was crazy about music: I didn’t have posters on the wall or followed some band religiously, I wasn’t obsessive about anything. I wasn’t one of those kids that collected records, I just seemed to absorb everything.

And when did you start writing songs?

Like most troubled teenagers, probably when I was 16, 17, but it was obviously complete rubbish at the time. I didn’t think of it as anything serious, it was more teenage therapy. It certainly wasn’t for anybody else, and it wasn’t until I got out here to L.A. a few years ago that I fell into it as what I was going to do in life.

You were talking about Pink Floyd’s sound, but yours is very different, very stripped down. Were you influenced by people like Nick Drake and John Martyn?

No, those were late discoveries for me. I’m actually really pretty ignorant when it comes to musicology in general. I get very embarrassed talking to other musicians because I seem to know relatively very little. [laughs] I was turned on to John Martyn before Nick Drake. Somebody heard me playing at a little gig out here and came up to me and said, “You must be a huge John Martyn fan.” They were gobsmacked that I didn’t know who he was and they came to the next gig with a mixtape of John Martyn songs. I was floored because I felt like I’d discovered my father or something. [laughs] It was really odd to realize that, without having consciously contrived it, I was so clearly part of a tradition that I hadn’t even known existed. I listened to the tape that guy gave me when I was in Paris for three or four months. I had this little Walkman and I just walked around the streets of Paris for three months listening to it non-stop.

You were born in London, raised in Scotland and educated in the US. What effect did those different environments have on you as an artist?

I think it’s probably impossible to really define because I don’t think that I’ve been affected so much by the music that I’ve been surrounded by as much as the landscapes. I’m sure that Scotland has been a huge influence on me because I’ve spent a lot of time in the outdoors and out in the open spaces, so I definitely think that’s informed the music a lot. But that itinerant wandering around has also [been an influence] as well, because I’ve never really felt that I’ve had a place that was quite home, and it feels like I’ve always been on the move. This is conjecturing and I don’t like to analyze it too much, but I think it maybe has driven me a little bit towards trying to find a more common language maybe, so not seeking to be part of a single tradition as much as trying to break down some of the barriers between those individual traditions.

You chose to self-release your music initially, to huge success. What were the experiences that led to that decision?

It was a pretty intuitive decision, really. I’ll take credit for it now but, to be honest, it seemed that the industry and I were just not ever really going to get along. The few brushes I had were just… I’d use the word “repugnant,” but that might be too strong. In hindsight, it’s very obvious that we’re in a different business. [laughs] I always felt that it wasn’t really a difficult decision to make, I just followed the creative path. I know that sounds a bit high-minded, but I mean it in a very realistic, down-to-earth way. I knew that nobody was going to let me go into a studio with a bunch of tapes and a bunch of musicians and no producer and make my first record the way that I wanted to, so no matter how much they sat and told me over lunch that they believed in me, it was never going to go down that way. Maybe being in Los Angeles at the time gave me that slight edge in the sense that I’d seen other people go down that path. It just wasn’t for me, really.

From the release of Four Songs onwards,your music has been used numerous times in films and on TV. What quality do you think you have as a musician that makes you appeal to filmmakers?

That really is a good question and it’s obviously one that’s been talked about and people have weighed on. I was talking with Sarah [Flack], the editor on Away We Go, and she was saying to me that she felt the space in the music just lends itself so well and that when they first put the music up it just seemed like it was just part of the picture. Honestly, I don’t think about it that much, but I think it seems to be a general theme that there’s a lot of space and therefore it leaves room for the imagination a little bit, it doesn’t beat you over the head. I write in quite a visual way. I don’t sit at the typewriter and try to rhyme. I don’t write lyrics down or sit and work at them, I kind of tend to have lyrics come to me as almost visual fragments, so maybe that’s got something to do with it.

How did you first get involved with Away We Go?

I just got an email saying, “Hey, Sam [Mendes] is a fan of your music and would like to talk to you about his new project.” [laughs] I had no idea at the time what the project was. I assumed that he wanted to use a few songs, so I met him in New York as I was going through. I didn’t see any of the film, but I met him and Sarah and they told me a little bit about it. I had a long chat with Sam, and he was obviously great and we got along. He explained what he was looking for and told me that the music seemed to be an integral part of the film to him at this point, and he would love it if I would watch the film and see what I thought. A couple of months later, I came to L.A. and saw a screening and it really worked so well. I was pretty floored, because I had no idea how much of the music was going to be used. [laughs] It took me by surprise when suddenly I realized it was almost the whole soundtrack, but it seemed to work really, really well right off the bat.

Do you know at what stage he’d thought of your music as the sound of the film?

I think he’d decided relatively early that he’d wanted to go with songs as opposed to score. Somebody, maybe John Krasinski, turned him on to my music and said, “Hey, you should listen to this.” He said he’d heard a song on the radio before but he’d never heard the record, and then when he heard the record it kind of clicked for him.

And I believe you’ve also contributed some new songs to the soundtrack.

Yes, I was out on the road at that point and playing some of these newer songs, and Sam came to a gig in New York and was very excited about some of them. I was in the process of recording those, so two or three have ended up in the film as well, which is really nice.

What are your tastes as a moviegoer? Do you see a lot of films?

I am quite into film, actually. I live in the middle of nowhere on the west coast of Scotland, so we don’t have a movie theater and I never get to go to the movies now. But when I was in L.A., I did a little bit more. I guess I have relatively eclectic taste in film. I wouldn’t say that it’s totally obscure but it’s maybe not quite too mainstream. I’m into older cinema and quite a bit of foreign stuff: Bergman, Tarkovsky, nothing that’s unheard  of. But I think cinema is amazing and it’s something that I’m quite interested in exploring at some point when I have a little bit more time. I’m not quite sure in what capacity.

Does it tie in with that visual sense you were talking about with your lyrics?

Maybe. I didn’t get into music until quite late and I thought at first that I would write. Prose or poetry, I didn’t really know what. I still think of myself primarily as a writer. I’ve always been really interested in film, either from a writing point of view but I’m interested even from a cinematographic point of view. While I’ve beem working on this new music, I’ve had quite a few ideas about how to create images to go along with that and I’ve talked with some video and film people about that. I’m always running around with a Super 8 camera. I don’t know if I’ll do anything on a commercial level, but I just think that film is an incredible medium. It’s unparalleled in its ability to transport, and I feel the same way about music. They are both these media that are just so extremely visceral and immediate and so powerful, and if I could find a way to combine both that would be very satisfying creatively.