Photo Courtesy of Surnames
By Lily Doolin, WERS Blog Editor
Although live mixes here at 88.9 are indefinitely canceled due to the outbreak of COVID-19, we're not stopping Wicked Local Wednesday (WLW), our weekly program dedicated to bringing you music and interviews with artists in the Boston/New England area. Tune in at 9 pm every Wednesday night to hear two songs each by two local artists!
To learn more about the artists you hear on WLW, check here weekly on our WERS Music Blog for interviews with them! In this interview, Surnames, aka Gloucester native Liam Anastasia-Murphy, spoke to WERS Blog Editor Lily Doolin about the creation of his first solo project, his blending of indie-folk and rock on his EP These Days, and what he's doing to keep the music going during these uncertain times.
I was reading a little about this project of yours online, and you talked about how the album was inspired by soundscapes of the New England coast. What inspires you about New England that made you want to write an album, in part, inspired by it?
Liam Anastasia-Murphy: This is where I grew up: I grew up in Gloucester, then I went to school down in Virginia. I was down there playing in Richmond, and then I moved back up here to the Boston area, back to Gloucester for a bit, and then I moved to Cambridge. I'm back in Gloucester right now, though, so I can be out in the woods (laughs), it's really nice because I can go for walks. When I moved back, something that I already loved about growing up here and on the North Shore was the access to all sorts of different landscapes and soundscapes. I wanted to take a really rich, sonic area - especially on the coast of New England, where around here and going up to the coast of Maine, you get right to the ocean.
I'm just very fascinated and tuned into sounds that you hear in nature. That was pretty much it - being up here again after eight years of being somewhere else, and soaking in the different landscapes and soundscapes. I really draw a lot of inspiration from just listening and being outside. I think part of the reason that it happened too was it corresponded with me getting more into Ableton. What I did with a bunch of the tracks was I recorded a few recordings and then dropped them into an instrument called Simpler in Ableton, which mini-maps any sound you put into it. I cut up those different sounds and played with them on that, so it was a really fun, creative exercise that ended up enhancing the songs in recording that we did.
I was also reading about how you were doing indie-folk for a bit, and kind of switched to more indie-rock with this project. What was it like to transition between the two? Although, listening to the album, you have that storytelling quality in your music that's intrinsic to folk, so how did you blend the two in some cases?
LA: I think you hit the nail on the head. I think my songwriting and melodies are definitely rooted in my folk upbringing, if you wanna call it that (laughs). From that, I've kind of layered and built a bit of a different sonic scape around that than I had in the past, which is exciting to do, it was a new thing. This is my first venture into a solo project world. It was fun to be able to experiment a bit more. I think all musicians have sounds in their head that they hear, or different lines and inspiration. When you have more of an empty canvas - a solo project especially lends itself to that - you can get a bit more creative and weird (laughs). It was really fun to do that.
To hear you talk about this first solo endeavor of yours is super exciting! How did you come to name this project? What's the meaning behind "Surnames?" I ask some people this question and they say, "It just sounded cool!" (Laughs) But did you have any inspiration or reasoning behind the choice?
LA: (Laughs) It's kind of lame though! I don't know if I should keep the mystique (laughs). Sometimes I hear words and I like them a lot. That's often a part of writing lyrics or writing poetry, and I write a lot of both. Sometimes you just like words, and I've always just liked that word. I also have two last names, so it is kind of literal (laughs). That was essentially it: I've always kind of liked it. I was just mulling over who I am.
What was the writing process like for "These Days?" What was something you learned, whether about yourself or your songwriting process?
LA: It was definitely a lot different. My band in Virginia was called Griff's Room Band. We co-wrote mostly everything; Sometimes we would come to the table and one of us would have an idea, but mostly it was co-writing. Half the songs, the lyrics were co-written, and all the arrangements were a collaborative process, which was really fun. But with this one, I would say with a couple of songs, I've had the core of them for a couple of years, and I really fleshed them out, and I would say four of them were more or less brand new. Two of them coalesced with poems I was writing, so it was much more lyrics first, and then I had musical ideas that spun around them, which was definitely a little different.
This was during a time that I was just thinking about who we are and what we care about. It's been a bit of a… tumultuous few years here in the US (laughs). I was kind of channeling the tumult lyrically and emotionally. It was really fun, it was very cathartic in a lot of ways. It really felt good to get these ideas out. That's one of the powers of songwriting - when you can get emotions onto something else, you have less ownership over them, and they don't have as much control over you. You can observe them a little bit more, from a stepped-back perspective. A little bit of distance is always nice. It was really fun writing them, and it was very different doing it, more or less, by myself. I had my friends come in and do the music with me and help with some of the arrangements, but pretty much all of the lyrics and melodies were of my own. It was a really enjoyable process for-sure.
Speaking of tumultuous times (laughs), what are you doing to handle current events?
LA: I've mostly been taking the time to write and reflect. I've also just been taking the time to get connected with my surroundings again. It's a shame and it's so sad that all of these shows have been getting canceled, and there's a lot of talk about what these next few months are going to be like going forward. But, I think it's also a nice time when things slow down, especially for the first two weeks where people don't have as much urgency and aren't worried yet about, "How am I going to get my next paycheck," and all of these different things, which is really scary and I think everyone will be in the same boat at some point.
I think it's always nice, though, to breathe a little bit, because we're always in front of a screen. When I'm mixing, it's in front of a screen. Even when you're playing and practicing, oftentimes you're in front of a screen, so it's kind of nice to close it. When everything slows down, it's good to just be with yourself and give yourself some space. I've definitely been working on old mixes, and we did an in-studio live performance with the full band a few weeks ago, so getting a few of the songs mixed from that, so we're keeping busy.