Name: Olivia Murphy
Occupation: Saxophonist, composer, educator
Current Release: Olivia Murphy's upcoming live EP Somewhere, Not So Far Away is out October 28th 2022. Pre-save it here.
Recommendations: Miho Hazama - Dancer in Nowhere (album); A film I saw recently which I was really moved by: Everything Everywhere All At Once
If you enjoyed this interview with Olivia Murphy and would like to know more about her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I originally started playing piano and clarinet in primary school and then picked up the saxophone at around 14. I only started getting more familiar with jazz at around 15.
One of the first jazz albums I remember getting from HMV was Somethin’ Else (Cannonball Adderley) and Straight No Chaser (Thelonious Monk) and I remember both massively inspired me. As an alto player, Cannonball’s playing blew my mind and Monk, to this day, is one of my all time favourite composers.
Music from very early on was always a big part of my identity and I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else - maybe very early on I wanted to be an author as I wrote lots of short stories at around age 7/8 - but in a funny way I think enjoying writing stories then has directly translated into how I have become a composer today.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
The music that stays with me the most always makes a strong emotional connection - it’s one of those gut feelings that I can’t really explain. It doesn’t need to be a sad piece either - sometimes its empowering, extremely happy or even disgust!
This is what shapes my creativity - I think I’d rather an audience member passionately hate my music rather than feel unmoved or find it forgettable, because then at least they felt something.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
Very difficult at times but really empowering as well. I like to think everyone already has a personal voice somewhere in them, it is just an endless journey of craft and development.
I think it’s exciting and freeing when you realise that there is no end goal - instead our life is just constant exploration.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I compose in a very honest style and am just constantly trying to develop my voice. I’m a young woman in jazz - particularly working in large ensemble jazz. It’s not my only nor most important element about me by any means but it has definitely moulded my identity in some ways as well.
[Read our interview with Katie Thiroux about Helping Female Jazz Players Stand up for Themselves]
As a listener, I like musicians who write personal music and will always be more interested in creative, exciting new music than people trying to replicate things that have already been done.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Emotion, honesty, and strength.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I think I will always prioritise innovation and originality. While I of course am continuously learning from and greatly respect “the tradition” - one of my biggest influences is Duke Ellington - I am not interested in spending my life trying to be a replica of him or anyone else; no one else is able to write Ellington’s music in a more personal way than him. What I can do is explore and develop my own voice and create an individual place for my own music in the timeline of jazz composition.
I’m not looking for perfection either - music is too subjective for that - just to be happy with the music I write and for others to hopefully enjoy listening.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
I tend to always write at the piano and my ideas usually come through improvisation. I also sing through ideas in my head while playing the piano - I’m really not a great singer at all but I like finding lines through my own voice - something about it feels very natural.
Something that often helps is having an idea about what the piece is going to be about before I start improvising, usually a memory or a person; it helps me visualise and get a slightly more emotional response to the music.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
It really does vary everyday so I can’t really say- I also teach 3/4 days a week at the moment. There will be periods where I’m not writing much at all - over August I had just a very long, very needed rest. On the other hand there are months where I I have a big creative project coming up and it really does consume me and any spare second, if I’m not already composing at the piano or creating parts on Sibelius, I’m thinking about what needs to be done.
That is something, regardless of my schedule, that I do everyday; I think about long term goals, things that I would like to do creatively over the next month, three months, year etc, and what I need to compose or apply to / who I need to email try and achieve it.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Last year I wrote a jazz orchestra piece called “Farrow” - a dedication to an old clarinet teacher, Mr Farrow, who is sadly not with us anymore. He was an incredible teacher and never allowed me to doubt myself.
The clarinet is used a lot in the piece and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is referenced a little bit as it’s something we played a lot in lessons. Towards the end it moves towards a more groovy bass line with a lot of drive as I wanted the piece to sound like perseverance and strength - things I learnt a lot of in our lessons. The combination of Mozart and groovy bass sounds really strange I know, but I’m really proud of the piece and I hope to record it soon.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
Listening to a great gig live with other people is incomparable to listening to music alone. I tend to write alone and I like the isolation of that, but the music itself would not happen without other people.
When it comes to the performance it’s definitely collaborative, even more so when improvisation is involved. My jazz orchestra is such a pleasure to direct because the 21 amazing musicians make the notes on the page sing in ways I wouldn’t be able to imagine and their solos are like hearing another persons’ personality merged into my music.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
I just try and make art that can add some sort of light, even if momentarily.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
I think art is inherently very personal - for the creator and for the listener in different ways.
There have been a few occasions where writing music has helped me with understanding my own emotions about such things, and lots more occasions where listening to music has helped as well.
It’s what the best art does - makes you feel something.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
I don’t deny the connection but I personally think of music in a primarily artsy and emotional way - as a composer, if the music touches a listener / moves them in any way that’s what is important to me!
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
All I know is that I’d take the feeling of writing and performing my own music over a cup of coffee any day (although I do love coffee).
I guess my music and the process of composing it, feels very much like an extension of myself and as for the more mundane everyday tasks - not so much.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
I don’t have an explanation - I’m sure lots of people have a scientific response but I am just happy to be listening and creating and enjoying the luxury that I am able to do so.