Tamara Murphy: ‘Spirograph Studies are trying to build a new collective sound and approach’

We often talk about Melbourne’s vibrant jazz scene – well, here’s the thing: Tamara Murphy is one of the pillars of the scene, a wonderfull bassist and a restless explorer. So, it’s no surprise that one of the finest albums to come out – in any genre – in 2019 bears her name on it – well, not exactly her name, but the one of her band, Spirograph Studies. Kindness, Not Courtesy is a captivating study in nuance, a web of subtle soundscapes, performed to excellence by a stellar quartet. Here’s what the leader has to say about it.

Spirograph Studies (L-R): Fran Swinn (guitar), James McLean (drums), Tamara Murphy (bass), Luke Howard (piano). | Photo: Hans-Jorgen Jahr

What is the Spirograph Studies backstory?

Spirograph Studies is a new project which I’m quite excited about. I just wanted to make music that I want to listen to – it’s very simple, and almost introspective, focused on the small conversations and interactions between the four members of the band, rather than individual solos. And I wanted to reflect this approach in the band name, so Spirograph Studies comes from the idea of building large structures out of small, intricate ones – much like the toy Spirograph.

What does each of the band members bring to the equation?

They each bring so much – it’s hard to separate the players as this music and they way we interact is so collaborative. However, in saying that, James McLean, our drummer, has a lot of control in terms of shaping the dynamic level of the pieces we are playing. Each composition is often written with a specific approach which may be sonically restrictive for him as well.

[Pianist] Luke Howard and [guitarist] Fran Swinn each bring different things to the musical conversation at different times different textures, or representations of space in the music.

If you could invite any musician you want – no restrictions whatsoever – to join the band, who would that be?

With this band, if anyone else was in it, it wouldn’t be the band it is. It takes all of us together to make the band sound like it does and we don’t have fill ins – if someone can’t do the gig, we don’t take the gig.

How does this project reflect your growth as an artist – and as a person?

I’m just trying to be more honest as a performer about what I’m creating. Perhaps it’s a sign of getting older!

What was the first tune that you wrote for this project?

The first tune I wrote is called ‘Time to be Still’ – it’s on our first album, Kindness, Not Courtesy.

It barely has any melody and is very simple.

If Kindness, not Courtesy was a film soundtrack, what kind of film would that be?

I feel like it would be a film set somewhere where there is lots of space. It could be in middle America, outback Australia, or set on an open plain in Europe somewhere. There would need to be lots of sky, I think.

How is this project different to your other ones – particularly to Murphy’s Law?

Spirograph Studies is different to Murphy’s Law in many ways – firstly there are no front line players. This group is much more equalised in the way we approach the improvisational aspect of the performance, and without horn players, it is easier to readdress the hierarchy of rhythm section players, who may traditionally function in a predominantly subservient role within an ensemble.

This music is much more textural, and sonically we get into many different areas, and I feel like we are finding new conceptual approaches depending on the composition – each composition seems to ask something different of us as performers in this way. With Murphy’s Law, I felt like we usually just played the way we played.

In your media releases, Spirograph Studies is described as an ‘art music’band – or even one with ‘post rock’ influences. How would you describe your music?

We all grew up listening to many different styles of music, and it could be argued that genre is a temporary concept: there are so many crossover bands, and groups which many different influences, building new band sounds all the time, which happily defy categorisation. I think we fit into this group of bands for sure.

There are certainly rock elements in the music we play, but these exist along with other concepts embedded into each composition, and the individual voices of all the people in the band, who are continually shaping the music on the fly. In this way, we could be called post-rock or post-jazz, as, while we have taken a lot from these differing sonic worlds, we are trying to build a new collective sound and approach, which may or may not include other elements from pop, cinematica, or noise music.

What does jazz mean to you?

I think of jazz as bastard music – a culmination of many different influences reflecting the time and space in which it is created. This is why Australian jazz sounds different to American jazz, and American jazz from the ’50s sounds different to American jazz created today. It is malleable and allows for musicians to go deep within their sound to build something new. Although this last quality is one which could apply to any type of music, I think.

What inspires you?

Lots of things: experiences, other people’s music, painting, photographs, stories, politics. It comes from everywhere. It’s not like I’m constantly in a state of inspiration though! I would just argue that it can come from many different directions.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

I’ve been travelling a lot this year, so maybe I’d choose Book of Travellers by Gabriel Kahane – it’s an album, not a song, sorry!

It’s had a lot of airplay for me this year, and sums things up pretty well. And it’s a beautiful album.