Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Stefan Murphy has turned to making art over the past year.
By Peter McDermott
In an interview a few years ago, Stefan Murphy said that the musician’s life on the road is a lonely one.
Over the past 14 months, he could be said to have had the opposite problem. “It has just as bad an adverse effect when you’re under people’s feet all the time,” said the Dublin-born singer-songwriter, who will perform at the Craic Fest’s Taste of Ireland event in Rockaway on Friday evening.
Not that this crisis period hasn’t had its lonely aspects, too. “It’s the longest time in my life I haven’t seen my mam and dad,” he said.
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Five years ago the Mighty Stef, the band he fronted, broke up. “Everyone started to have families, they settled down,” he recalled. That meant Ireland in most cases, but in Murphy’s it was Atlanta.
And being on the road so much, he hadn’t had much time to develop networks in Georgia beyond his immediate family. “It did feel isolating,” he said of the pandemic, although, of course, he knows that everyone back home has been in strict lockdown and so he wouldn’t likely have seen anyone if there.
Murphy said he’s gotten through this time like everyone else and, perhaps overall he’s been “luckier than most,” in that nobody in his family or friend groups has died or been ill.
It’s been a productive period creatively during which he’s written enough for more than two albums, though he’ll pick the 12 best for one later in the year. And if his bread and butter — touring, particularly in Europe — has been taken away, a new avenue has opened up for him as a visual artist.
“In order to make up for lost earnings in music,” Murphy said, “I started painting and found that a lot of the people who were supportive of my music and supporting some of the online concerts were really interested in the artwork too.
“It’s given me something else to do at least,” he said. “I’m out the door with that at the moment, which is a good complaint.” (He displays the work on instagram: @stefanmurphymusic.)
The future musician never studied art, although it was taught at his secondary school. Like many Irish schools, Drimnagh Castle CBS had an entrance exam in Irish, English and Mathematics, after which the 12- and 13-year-old students were put into five streams based on academic ability. The top three were offered languages and the bottom two art.
“It robbed people of the right to do languages and the right to do art,” he said.
Murphy spent his early life on Kevin Street, in the south inner city of Dublin, his mother’s home neighborhood.
“We moved out to Crumlin,” he said. “Which is almost the suburbs, I suppose. It seemed like a million miles away when I was a kid, but you can walk from Kevin Street to Crumlin in 15 minutes.”
His parents live in nearby Kimmage, while his two siblings are also at home in Ireland.
“I’m pretty much 100 percent a Dubliner,” he said.
Murphy did college courses in subjects such as journalism and marketing, without taking a full degree. He got a rounded education in the process, he said, and learned how to make friends.
“But I always knew that the music was the only thing I was interested in,” he said, “It’s what got me out of bed in the morning.”
The former Mighty Stef frontman described himself as mostly a folksinger. He said, “I can play a fairly honest acoustic version of almost any song I’ve ever written.
“My ultimate is Bob Dylan,” he said, adding that it took him years to move on to other greats like Leonard Cohen and Neil Young.
He also mentioned the influence of his parents’ favorites, which was “subliminal” before becoming more direct later on — “all the Irish balladeers,” Christy Moore, Planxty, Van Morrison, Luke Kelly and all of the Dubliners.
“They’re very proud of me,” he said of his parents. “I think they wish in their heart and soul that I didn’t struggle as much in terms of making a living and what have you, but they really do celebrate what I do, for sure.”
Murphy hopes to make a transatlantic trip before too long to see them and other family members and to resume a recording project he’d begun with a producer there before lockdown.
He’d also like to reconnect with Europe where he’s carved out a niche over the years. Individual former bandmates are sometimes “on hand” to accompany him, but as a solo artist now he does all of the organizing and the management side of things himself.
The singer-songwriter is due to play in one of Dublin’s best-known music venues, Whelan’s, in November, but as it’s been put off a few times already, he added, “I’m not going to bank on it, just yet.”
The Craic Fest, however, is very much on, and he’s focused on that for now. “I’m delighted that things are beginning to cautiously, slowly open up.” he said of the U.S.
Murphy has been performing in New York for the past 16 years but the event in two days’ time will be his first there as a solo artist. “I love the place so much,” he said. “I’ve always had a fascination for it, ever since I was a kid.”
He did a few gigs recently for a friend who owns a bar over the border in North Carolina, but sung only covers.
“This is a proper gig,” Murphy said, at which he’ll be playing his own material. “It feels a proper restart.”
Friday’s event is free, but must attendees must RSVP at thecraicfest.com.