Murphey’s Midnight Rounders (MMR) is an Acoustic/Country group with their feet firmly planted in Folk music. Their original material runs the gamut of human emotion while their vocal harmonies have an impact that is fresh and inspiring. All four members of the group (Brad Murphey, Teresa Frank, Bonnie Hann-Powers and Josh “Hochef” Lueth) take turns singing lead and backup vocals. Joan Forest Mage of Pantheon interviewed this group of multi-talented, spiritually powerful performers. MMR performs Monday July 8, 2013 at Life Force Arts Center, Chicago.
Pantheon: How long have each of you been playing music, and how long has MMR been together as a band? Have any of you had other careers in the arts or other fields, in addition to music? Have these other careers influenced your music? What drives you to express your creativity through music in particular?
Brad: I won’t tell you how long I’ve been singing in front of people, but, suffice it to say that my doing so pre-dates color TV. MMR has been together for about 5 years, although this current inception has been together for about 3. I grew up in the theater and have always been around it. My father and my god parents owned the largest complete theatrical supply house in the US. So, I was an actor and makeup artist, as well. But I don’t think that these things influenced my music as much as just needing to express my feelings through song. My father was a singer and I learned a lot from just watching him. But it was my mother who taught me the magic and joy of music.
Bonnie: Music has always been a necessary thing for my well being. As a kid I was often scolded by the teachers for humming in class, which I never knew that I was doing. The way that I judge if I feel safe in a living situation is by whether I spontaneously sing, or not. In that same way, music is the gateway to expressing my spirituality. I find it easiest to say prayers, express intentions, and celebrate, through song or music.
I have been with the band since about March 2010. As a kid I was involved in choir from 3rd-9th grade, and again in 12th grade, as well as doing some choir in college for fun. I took violin for a year, and piano for 2, unfortunately with the short attention span of many kids, I dropped them. As an adult I have recently begun to pick up violin again, and the form at least has stuck with me.
In high school I got involved in an entirely student-run theater company, (Unhinged Theater Company) that was started in Southwest High School in 1980, with a continuous, monetarily and artistically successful run through that whole time. Some of the plays we did were written or translated by the student directors, which led to a really unique experience. The company continues to do well, as I understand. Our faculty advisor had a personal philosophy that was extremely hands-off. His thought was that if we had an issue, we would learn much more by fixing it ourselves. He was right.
For two years I was involved with learning, and then running the technical aspects of the black box theater company; from light plot design/running, set/stage design and building, set painting, sound, costume, running lines, everything except acting and directing. I was not always very good at all of these things. I recall one time our advisor told me, “That was the worst light plot I’ve ever seen in all my many years in the theater. Fix it.” I was crushed at the time, but boy did I learn how to do it right by the next show.
In my senior year of high school I auditioned for and played a chorus part in Hair, a fabulous experience. The 50+ songs that we learned, plus choreography and lines gave me a taste of what the overall theater/performing arts experience can be.
In my senior year of high school I decided, having completed all but a few core-class credits, to focus the rest of my time on the arts. I took dance, theater, visual arts, choir, anything with a creative bend to it that I could fit in my schedule, as well as involving myself in 3 theater companies during after school hours. I took the year in visual arts to study impermanent art, art that is created to someday be erased or eroded, with the idea that it is more beautiful in its impermanency. My final gallery pieces were done on the spot, with body paint, on the gallery goers. They became my art pieces.
In the last 6 months of high school we did cooperative projects between the artistic classes, including plays in American Sign Language, for the newly-formed magnet school for deaf kids within our high school; and multi-media pieces done in reflection of Kara Walker, a visual artist featured in 2007 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Her pieces were social commentary on American slave culture. We performed our pieces within her gallery space.
The transformative experiences that I had in high school led me pursue an Associate of Arts degree in college. Because I went to an inner city high school, I was eligible for a scholarship to Minneapolis Community and Technical College. I decided that I would study what interested me, and took all of the theater classes they had (about 4 times as many electives as I needed) as well as things like Native American History, Ojibwemowin (Ojibwe language), American Sign Language, Native American Medicine Making, a class on the history and current events of American counter cultures, as well as some core classes, when I had to. I went until my scholarship was up, 2.5 years, and learned so many things.
All of the theater/arts experience I gained has really helped me in Murphey’s Midnight Rounders, from designing lighting plots, to coordinating our stage look (costuming), stage plots, set design on a smaller scale, to performing in a solo or small group.
Pantheon: You mentioned sounding like The Mammas and the Pappas, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Asleep at the Wheel. Do you find the spirit of artistic expression of the 1960’s-70’s intriguing? Is this something you explore through your own music?
Brad: What can I say? I was a junior hippy in the ’60’s. Mamas and Papas and CSN had these AMAZING vocal harmonies that just reached out and grabbed me. The writing styles of Nash, Crosby and Stills (separately and together) drew emotions from me and painted pictures in my mind and soul. For a long time, I tried to write rock and roll but everything sounded like Country. That’s when a friend turned me on to Asleep at the Wheel. They had all of that in a more Country vein. But I’m also a BIG fan of Stan Rogers, the Gutheries (Woody and Arlo) and Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Kingston Trio and The Band. You can hear pure emotion in their music, and, for me, that’s important. If you want to touch the soul, you HAVE to go through the emotions.
Bonnie: Coming from a later generation, I look at these artists with a certain reverence. I’m still discovering them in a backwards sort of way. Brad will write a song, and then tell me to listen to this or that artist, and suddenly I will understand the influences, and the reference that we make by playing a song in a certain way.
Protest music was huge then, and definitely has a large influence on what Brad writes. It intrigues me to play music like this in a time when it seems much of the mainstream music is formulaic in nature, and has little or nothing to say on political matters. I have tried my hand at writing music with this in mind, but the ones that are successful tend to go more towards celebration of life, or are more autobiographical.
Pantheon: In listening to your music, I’m fascinated by the breadth of genres, from pieces like “Wild Mountain Thyme” that seem to be quite old songs from Britain, all the way to ragtime and ’50’s music. Why do you explore so many types of folk music? Is that related to your spirituality or spiritual practice?
Brad: There is no such thing as a genre called Pagan Music. Paganism is a subject, not a genre. And different people gravitate toward different genres. So, with that in mind, yes, my music is related to my spirituality and practice. There’s another reason too: I can’t be subjected to a box called “I write in this style.” Some themes (and subjects) just seem to want to be written in a particular genre,
while others call for a different genre altogether.
Bonnie: We like to say, we still don’t know what we want to be when we grow up. In all seriousness, most of the music that we do is written by Brad, with the occasional co-writing or suggestions from the rest of the band. We are working on incorporating songs written by the other members as well as more collaboration between members on the songs we write.
“Wild Mountain Thyme” I claim credit for. My sister, 8 years my senior, started working at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival when she was 15. From that time on, she let me run around with her as a playtron (a patron that likes to play), and I heard all this wonderful period music. “Wild Mountain Thyme” has been a favorite since then, as well as some others, and after being with MMR for a year or so, I asked if we could learn and play that song.
Pantheon: At Life Force Arts Center, we focus on developing spiritual artists and their art. I know that you have a pagan orientation to some of your music. It ranges from sung prayers to the Goddess such as “Maiden Warrior Mother Crone” to hysterically funny commentaries on contemporary pagan culture such as “Wreck of the Modern Pagan”. Can you talk a bit about your pagan beliefs and how they influence your music?
Bonnie: I was fortunate enough to grow up as a second-generation pagan, one of the oldest in my area at the time. Growing up in our evolving pagan culture has really given me a different perspective on everything, than perhaps someone coming to paganism later in life.
To me, the pagan music we play is very much an expression of my life experiences, growing up and as a young adult. While we don’t all have the same practices/traditions within the band, the music does reflect truths from our lives and the community that we love so dearly. Poking fun is another way to express our love and respect for the Pagan Community.
If we can’t stand up to a little joking, then we’re not secure in ourselves. Now that we’re reaching the 3rd and beginnings of 4th generations of pagans in this country, to some we are an established, sustainable culture. I found the work of Dr. Murphy Pizza from Minnesota, to be a fascinating anthropological study of that same subject. As one of the oldest of the second-gen, my group of “roving teens” was interviewed for her research.
Brad: I hold to the belief that we approach the Goddess in mirth and reverence. We also approach the Goddess in Perfect Love and Perfect Trust. As such, if we can laugh at our OWN illogic, we are closer to approaching the Goddess. If we can say, “Yup, that’s my tradition, warts and all…but it IS my tradition,” there’s more opportunity to approach the Goddess at ALL. If we hide behind delusion, we may never truly know the Goddess. If you listen to the lyrics of “Wreck of the Modern Pagan” you’ll find that there’s nothing irreverent about them. We didn’t blast or ridicule any one tradition, because all traditions are sacred.
I am a Third Degree Wiccan and an ordained and licensed minister of the faith. I taught my students the same things that I was taught: To honor all traditions. If I walk into a Circle of another Wiccan tradition (let’s say) I may only know enough not to spit in the Chalice, but at least I know HOW not to spit in the Chalice. I am also Norse by Heritage and family tradition. I know how to honor the
Horn and the Husgodi. But having this background also taught me to be sensitive to other traditions and learn what I could so as to honor them and hold them sacred.
Pantheon: Do you perform differently when you perform for a primarily pagan audience than a general audience? If so, what are the differences, and what influenced your decision to tailor your programs to different audiences rather than perform for only one type of audience?
Teresa: Something that Brad has said leaps to mind; “Spirituality is a subject, not a genre.” So, yes, we do tailor our shows to our audience. Also, time constraints will determine how we build a show. A one hour show will build energy very differently than a 2 hour show.
My Priestess training has stood me in good stead. I have learned to open my heart and my spirit to the gods, while facilitating an experience for others standing in circle. This cycle or exchange of energy is very similar to what I do onstage. It doesn’t matter if our show is at a festival or a bar. There is still that exchange of energy.
Brad: The Pagan audiences we play to understand that there’s more to life than just “Pagan Music.”So we will sing songs about non-expressly pagan themes. It is harder to stand up in a bar and sing a lot of songs about deity, or relationship between High Priestess and High Priest. The audience is not going to get the references for one, and for another, I don’t want to be accused of proselytizing. My beliefs are my own. On the other hand, it’s WONDERFUL to be able to share the music that the Goddess has given me with like-minded people…to be able to pass those songs on and hopefully, inspire others along the Way.
Bonnie: We know our audience, like any good performer. We ask ourselves, will certain material be well received or not? We are a band that plays some pagan music, rather than a pagan band. So we tailor our sets, and at some venues we will play only mainstream music.
At pagan festivals, venues etc we will play the blatant pagan music. At a bar we might play a few that are crossover, like “Waitin’ for John Barleycorn” which talks about Hoodoo and harvest, or “Daylight Comes Again” whose hookline is “…Oh call us to Valhalla, take my open hand, daylight comes again…” and for those that are attuned to the culture, they will hear references like “…Dance around the circle” etc.
Another practical reason to choose some songs over others is how long the gig is. If it’s a short set, we’re going to play our biggest impact material.
Pantheon: The title and theme of LFAC’s current show, which runs from June 14 – September 17, 2013, is From Energy to Iconography: The Art-Spirituality Connection. Joan Forest Mage talks about spiritual art having a range “from energy to iconography”. This means some people define “spiritual” as energy (the non-material and vibrational), while for others “spiritual” means a specific religion, including the dogma, history, legends and symbols that embody and express that belief system. Where is your art on the continuum of being purely about energy (and perhaps the shifting of energy), to embodying a specific iconography? If your art tends more towards one or the other, why?
Brad: This is a hard question to answer simply. There really are a lot of layers to it. But, here goes: For me, my religious beliefs are more spiritual in nature. The iconography (traditional tenets, physical trappings, etc) are EXPRESSIONS of the spiritual. If you take them way, the spiritual remains and we have lost nothing. I pity those who put their trust in the iconography ALONE, such that, if they were taken away, they would lose their faith and sense of belonging. If you take my Athame away, I can still scribe a Circle. If you steal my Chalice, I can still honor the union of the Goddess and the God. But the iconography helps us to EXPRESS and FOCUS that will and intent, and, therefore, is very important to any person of faith.
Bonnie: I think that we tend to use certain icons and cultural references in our music as a bridge. To convey certain feelings, truths, we touch on the culturally relevant examples of those things, to bring the listener along with us.
To me, the music is mostly spiritual in the energetic sense. While I was raised in what the locals like to call “Minnesota Eclectic Wicca”, I don’t necessarily follow all of those practices in my own spirituality. Instead the cultural reference point becomes a way to communicate thought and truth beyond the boundaries of dogma or tradition.
Pantheon: You mention the importance of “focusing your will and intent”. Do you do that when you perform? Can you tell us something specifically about how you “focus your will and intent” and what effect in the music or on the audience you achieve by doing it? For example, is your music for sound healing? If so, what are some of the principles underlying the sound healing?
Brad: I try to focus my will and intent as much as I can when I perform. Teresa and I do workshops in Chakra balancing, Aura cleansing and cutaways. Whether we’re using crystals, music or very long swords, the principles are the same: Connect with the person on a psychic level..above the conscious. Then, you will be able to perceive what is needed. In the case of our concerts, we don’t always have the opportunity to explain to people that, if a song touches your emotions, follow that emotion…it will take you where you need to go. It will open up spiritual pathways for you for both healing and epiphany.
Pantheon: Can you tell us in greater detail how energy and iconography relate to your art form of music? What is the relation, if any, of the iconography (symbols, myths, legends, history) of your spiritual beliefs, and the music you write and perform? For example, does the structure of the music such as the chords used, the chanting, etc. have anything to do with music that is typical of that historically used in your spiritual practice?
Brad: There are many things which trigger inspiration. Some are directly from the deities I honor. Others are from experiences I’ve had. Some…who knows where the come from. But in putting these inspirations in terms of an iconography gives people a point of reference, and therefore, can open them up to (hopefully) a spiritual experience that is sacred to them. I’m not saying that I am some great spiritual leader or ‘awakener.’ What I am saying is that, if I have an inspiration that I share with you, and that sharing brings you closer to your deities or empowers you in some way, then the inspiration is not wasted.
I wrote a song for Teresa, years ago called, “Always and Forever.” It’s sort of a history of a love relationship in three verses and the man dies in the end of the song. I sang it for a group of good friends one night. One friend was in tears by the end of the song. Her wife had crossed over a few years previously and this friend of mine still grieves for her. What I didn’t know was that the phrase “always and forever” was something they’d said to each other daily. This became a very personal and very sacred experience for my friend.
As for the structure of the song, well, no one really knows what music sounded like in 300 BCE. We can make guesses, but since musical form wasn’t codified until much later, it’s only guesses. Still and all, we have forms that go back 50, 200 and even 1000 years that still speak to us. This is why I try not to limit myself in the genres I write in. If a musical form, such as Folk or Bluegrass will get the message of a song across better than, say Metal or Hip-Hop, I’ll use that form. By the way, I am NOT against Metal and Hip-Hop. I just haven’t been inspired to write any, myself.
Pantheon: In terms of energy, what type of energy work, if any, do you do before or during a performance? How do you use music itself as energywork? Do you call on any spirit guides or deities when you perform? Is that done by playing the music, and/or a pre-performance prayer or ritual? If it is done through the music, what is the relation of that spiritual being(s) to the particular song?
Brad: Yes, we do energywork both before a performance and during. Many times, Teresa and I will do pre-performance ritual of blending our energies as priest and priestess. For us, music a form of magic and ritual all by itself. So a performance becomes a magical working or public ritual.
Pantheon: Even when art is strongly iconographic, there is energy within the symbols or the story, and this energy creates transformation. How is the observer affected by the artwork when he/she has a greater or lesser understanding of the iconography of that artwork?
Teresa: Through the artist’s will and intent. If the artist uses will and intent in the piece, the observer will feel a response. Maybe not the expected response, though.
Brad: Just because someone has a lesser CONSCIOUS understanding of the iconography, does NOT mean they won’t connect with it on a spiritual level. This is one place where emotions really come into play: one thing our emotions do for us is open up those spiritual pathways to things we experience, but may not have the English for.
Pantheon: Would you like to give an example of something you have learned about how emotions help open up spiritual pathways?
Many years ago, Teresa and I, along with our High Priest at the time (who has since crossed over) were doing some work with the Goddess, Diana. It was important work and, though I’d never worked with her before, it was something that was very important to Her. This was how I met Diana: I went through labor. As a man, I could only experience back-labor, but the emotions that go all over the place in the third phase of labor…I had that, too. All emotions at once: fear, joy, pain, peace, laughter, sorrow…name them, I experienced them all at the same time. The only thing I didn’t experience was actually giving birth. I know everyone who reads this, who has gone through labor will understand how sacred, how spiritual and how emotional the experience of birth is. I have since coached at births, other than those of my own children. I know first-hand what the new mother is going through and can do a little more to help the process along because of that.
Pantheon: Do you consider all your music to be spiritual, even if certain songs are not particularly pagan? If so, why (in what way) would you say it is spiritual? Does this influence your songwriting as well as performance process, and how you wish to engage with your audience?
Brad: Music is a spiritual expression. It’s emotional, we use it to teach, lead into new realms, do magic with, and connect with people and the world around us. We use it to honor Deity and express opinion.
Bonnie: I do consider all of our music, and most music in general, to be spiritual. I connect with the music in a way that it becomes a part of me. When a person is learning a language, they say that when you dream in that language, you have reached a certain level of fluency. I feel that way about each individual song we play. I dream our music, and draw on that during performances.
Pantheon: With the newest addition to MMR, Josh “Hochef” Lueth, how has his background and songwriting influenced the music you produce and perform?
Brad: Chef is one of those people that can play almost any instrument we give him. If we need a sound to bring out the texture of a song, we can count on Chef to know what we need and get the right sound.
Teresa: Joining a band is like joining a family. Josh is influencing more than the music. He brings a balance and objectivity with him. Brad writes about what is around him. So adding Hochef – who plays bass, guitar, fiddle, banjo and mando – is like giving Brad a whole new toybox.
Pantheon: You are amazing in how many performances you give each year, including many festivals. What’s it like to be a band that tours as much as you do? How did you decide to tour so much? What are your favorite festivals? Are there any festivals you haven’t played that you would like to play?
Brad: I had a boss tell me years ago: “As soon as I find out what I want to do, I’ll be on vacation for the rest of my life.” I love being on the road, meeting new people and sharing our music. I’d do more if I could get the bookings. At this point, we do about 50-60 gigs a year. We’d do 150 if we could. Sure it gets wearing, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Bonnie: Touring is a joy, and hard work. If ever someone told you that being a rock (folk) star is all glamour, they were lying. While in the big picture music scene, we’re still making our way, in the pagan music scene, we’ve made a name for ourselves. Within the last year, we all decided to make the leap of faith and do music full time, without other jobs to back us up. In some ways, deciding to gig so much is to keep our momentum going, and to do our jobs, which we love.
I have not been to a festival that I didn’t love. They all have something different to offer, from the big gatherings, like Pagan Spirit Gathering, to the small 100-200 person family reunion type gatherings held all over the country. We recently played at Florida Pagan Gathering’s Beltane, which was quite fun, and Many Path’s Beltane in Tennessee was a blast, despite the deluge of rain that weekend. Last year and the year before we played Heartland, which I really loved, and would love to go back.
As we’ve been making larger forays into the country, lately the Southeastern US, we keep discovering more communities of wonderful people. I can’t wait to find some more festivals to play at, and meet the people from! If you want us, send up a flare.