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Choosing life

John Murry told David Hennessy about the new film about his life, traumas that include sexual assault and a near fatal heroin overdose and working with Enda Mulloy of The BibleCode Sundays.

American singer songwriter John Murry was on the cusp of greatness after the release of his highly acclaimed debut album The Graceless Age when his world fell apart.

Addicted to heroin and crippled by grief and the break up of his marriage, he washed up on the shores of Ireland a broken man.

Now, in a new documentary set to premiere at Galway Film Fleadh- The Graceless Age- The Ballad of John Murry retraces his steps back to Tupelo, Mississippi to face his demons which include a difficult childhood, traumatic assault and resulting years of opioid addiction.

In spite of all he has experienced he says, “Life is incredible.”

Looking ahead to the premiere John told The Irish World: “I’m just thrilled about it.

“We had talked about it being launched other places and I think this is ideal.

“It’s just special.

“I’m just really honoured.

“Really honoured.”

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The documentary charts John’s journey from near death to redemption and a new zest for life and art.

He has been compared to the great existential pop poets Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker.

Part of the reason for this could be how much of his material has been fixated on death.

But John has been closer to death than most. He very nearly died from a heroin overdose.

John’s trauma really began in his teenage years.

When his parents discovered he had smoked a few spliffs and drunk a little alcohol, they sent him to a fundamentalist Christian rehabilitation centre in a different state.

The centre used to place the boys with “host families” – the families of other children attending the centre.

Many of these families were dysfunctional. Murry says he spent three weeks in one home where he was repeatedly raped by three older boys. He says they also discussed killing Murry in front of him.

It took Murry many years to get to the stage where he could even admit what happened to him, let alone begin to recover from it.

Was it difficult to talk about his own life and its traumas? “Not anymore, it was.

“It was really difficult. It was incredibly difficult.

“A lot of this is stuff that I wanted to avoid, I would have preferred to run away from a lot of these things.

“This film forced me to come to terms with it and with a group of people who genuinely care, we created something together.

“I think when I did that record I realised, ‘This is who I am, this is what I do. I don’t really have a choice’, you know?

“It’s just really rejuvenated this passion for music and for art in me.

“I feel grateful.”

Have you watched it? And is it hard to watch? “I have seen it, and it’s hard to watch. I watched it once.

“I thought, ‘I’m okay with this’.

“I’ve given over the privacy, let these people into my life and they’ve done something that doesn’t entirely infuriate me.

“That’s impressive.

“I would (find it hard).

“Other people tell me that it’s not.

“I think, for me, it’s a tough watch because it’s genuine so the moments when I’m talking about having been sexually assaulted and things like that, that’s very difficult for me to watch.

“I’ve already heard from one person who has a partner who was sexually assaulted as a kid.

“He said that, ‘What John’s does here, You don’t understand, he’s saying something that men are not generally allowed to do’.

“I do think it’s true.

“I’ve been given an opportunity to do it as well.

“They allowed me to say in a creative space.

“We’re covering this shit up.

“It’s hard but we need to talk about it.

“It would do a lot for people.

“I know that it’s done a lot for me.

“Years ago, all it brought out of me was hatred and anger.

“Now, it’s something that I can use to, hopefully, help other people to see that they can do the same thing that I’m trying to do: Talk about it, acknowledge that you’ve been victimised, but that doesn’t make you what happened to you.

“You’re not a victim to the thing itself, you don’t have to remain in victimhood.

“You can have a life that’s good.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Murry was adopted. He believes an agreement was struck between his Cherokee schoolgirl biological mother and his parents, who thought they couldn’t have children.

“A lot of the family stuff was really difficult as well.

“There’s a lot of things that we don’t explicitly say or talk about in the film.

“But I’m Native American.

“The people that raised me are not my biological parents, they’re adopted parents.

“I think what we were able to get in there was a lot about the larger experience of anyone who is of that culture and lives in our world today.

“There’s a great RTE doc about the Choctaw in Mississippi who are part of the five tribes I come from.

“They gave the last of their money during the removal of the Indians to the Irish in the famine so the Irish in turn gave- I think it was like 13 billion- to the Navajo during the pandemic, ‘We’ll help you out’.

“Damn, I love to tell people the three most common surnames for Native Americans are O’Reilly, Kearney and Murphy.

“The Scottish and Irish were put into precarious places in the United States to use them as a barrier against the Indians, that’s what they thought.

“And so at first, they kind of fought but then after a little bit, they all kind of had babies and got married and sh*t, because they had more in common than they didn’t.

“So the three most common Cherokee last names are Kearney, Murphy and O’Reilly.

“There’s a lot of love that goes both ways between these cultures because there’s a lot of commonality.

“I see it in Ireland just in terms of matriarchy.

“Irish people always understand what I’m saying when I say, ‘If you want something when you’re a kid, you don’t go ask your dad. We all know who’s in charge’.

“There’s something in the heart of the country, in the heart of the people that feels the same, that is recognisable to me.

“America doesn’t have that anymore for the most part.”

John might not have had an addiction when he was sent to rehab, but he developed one no doubt from the trauma.

He would nearly lose his life from a heroin overdose.

His best-known song, Little Coloured Balloons is a nine-minute meditation on how close to death he came.

“That’s a thing that haunted me for a long time.

“I think the experience of that happening, I kind of am grateful for it.

“Life is a fragile thing.

“It was scary.

“I chose the things that could have cost me my life- It did for a minute, I guess.

“It’s not actually that terribly hard to go back to because I’m just grateful to be alive all the time.”

But the experience of singing his well known song is different.

“That is hard,” he says of Little Colored Balloons.

“I remember writing that song.

“I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t a very good song’.

“People took to it.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to play this, I have a responsibility to deliver in a way that is honest and so going into that kind of place I can feel that I’m almost opening a door in yourself to go back to something and that’s always a bit difficult.

“I have less control over it now.

“I have more trust that the song itself is a cathartic thing: I’m okay.

“To go into that place, it is scary.

“It’s a strange thing, it feels almost like a séance.

“It feels almost like a wake.

“So it can be kind of heavy because I’m so far from that place now.

“I can trust the song now.

“I think the song is good outside of me now.

“I don’t think I own it anymore. I don’t think it matters whether I wrote it or not.

“I think I’m just there to do it and I’m okay with that.

“That took a lot of doing that song.

“I can remember the first tours that I did.

“A friend of mine, a photographer, came around and took pictures. They ended up becoming photographs of me after playing shows. I would always do that song last and I would sometimes end up in tears. It was too much.

“Now I can kind of just do the song and let the song be over.

“It’s a song.”

The last words John said before he blacked out from an overdose, and understanding that he could very well die, were, ‘I’m okay with it’.

Like he says, John is now far from the bad things he wrote about in that song.

“Isn’t this summer gorgeous? It’s an incredible summer, isn’t it?

“Back then I didn’t care what season it was at all.

“But now I’m really concerned about these strawberries and the cabbage, because there’s some bugs trying to get at the cabbage.

“I love this stuff, I love it.

“I love the world.

“I have an amazing partner who loves me.

“I’m just grateful that I’m home.

“It’s an incredible thing.

“I love Longford.

“I don’t care what other people think. I know that the midlands are magic.

“But honestly, there’s something about the heart of the country that does remind me of where I came from.”

John remembers how he first came to Ireland.

“It was a tour that I was doing.

“Willie Meighan, who had Rollercoaster Records in Kilkenny, put it together.

“I was living in California, I had split up with my ex-wife.

“He said that I said to him when he bought the plane tickets, ‘Don’t worry about the return, I’m not going back’.

“And I didn’t.

“On the second record I made I realised, ‘I’ve overstayed the visa so I better figure out how to go to Canada, make the record and get back in’.

“I flew back to Ireland.

“When I went through the airport the guy there goes, ‘I can deport you, where you been?’

“‘I’m a musician’.

“And he goes, ‘Oh yeah, how do you make a living?’

“I was like, ‘I’ve had songs in TV shows and video games’.

“That’s true, but not terribly true.

“And he goes, ‘like what?’

“And I said, ‘The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy…’

“And I was like, ‘Sh*t, I’m running out of stuff now’.

“And he goes, ‘Sons of Anarchy. I love that show. Welcome back’.

“Then I figured it out from there.

“That’s when it started to feel like, ‘Okay, I really am home’.

“It’s a pretty special place.

“I realised when I was in Mississippi I just felt homesick, I wanted to be back in Ireland.

“It almost felt like, ‘I just want to go back to where I know how things operate’.”

For all the success The Graceless Age brought him, John was not sure he even wanted to release it and certainly didn’t think it would earn such a fanfare.

“I didn’t have any ambition when it came to releasing it, I just felt like I needed to make it.

“I sent it a guy who was my old manager. He said, ‘I can’t put this out’.

“Then this person who had interviewed me, the way he wrote about me was like, ‘Man, he gets me’.

“So I thought, ‘Give me your honest opinion’.

“He was like, ‘Well, I think this record is f**king great. And if I can’t find someone to put it out, I’ll put it out myself’.

“The attention it got was natural.

“He gave it to people, he gave it to Mojo.

“He just loved the record.

“He was genuinely excited about it when he gave it to people or told them about it.

“I couldn’t really deny that this record was having a genuine effect.

“At the beginning, it was unnerving really.

“I felt a real responsibility to the people who connected with the record.

“It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.”

When he first came to Ireland, John was still reeling from the loss of his mentor Tim Mooney.

“When he died my mother said, ‘He picked up where your daddy left off’.

“And I never thought about it like that but it’s kind of true.

“With the second record, I was probably a little hesitant.


“And over time what you realise is it doesn’t matter, just write the damn songs.

“That’s what I do now.”

It would be five years before John would release the follow up.

He recorded A Short History Of Decay in July 2017 with Michael Timmins producing.

Once again it was acclaimed.

He would follow this with The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes in 2021, produced by John Parish, best known for his collaborations with PJ Harvey.

“Mike’s whole approach was, ‘Don’t overthink this, let’s just do this’. And it worked.

“The third record, that was another interesting experience.

“Every one of these things has been another bit of letting go, a process of letting go and letting songs breathe.

“I have to kind of trust that these things move through me, it’s not actually me writing them.

“Otherwise I’d be good and that would be a terrible thing to think.

“I think a little bit of self doubt is a good thing.

“Otherwise you become Bono.”

John is ribbing here and goes on to say he loves U2.

John has recently appeared in the video for Enda Mulloy’s A Message from Stephen (Carry Me Home). Enda is well known for playing bass in The BibleCode Sundays.

“The reason I was part of that video was because I’m a big fan of his, of the BibleCode Sundays stuff and just that entire group of musicians and people.

“When it comes to Enda’s playing, I’ve never seen a bass player knock out tracks like that.

“He’s a lovely human being.

“People like Enda. I didn’t realise it until a couple of weeks ago. (Video director) Paul Gallagher was like, ‘You know Enda plays with Sting sometimes?’

“I’m like, ‘What? Quit making sh*t up’.

“And then I was like, ‘Enda, do you play with Sting?’

“And he was like ‘yeah’ and he showed me a picture.

“I went, ‘That is just weird’.

“It’s just weird because he never brought it up.

“He doesn’t care to tell you because he’s interested in what he’s actually doing.

“He’s just that good of a guy

“All the best musicians are.

“And in the states, that’s just not the case anymore.

“Too much ego going round, not enough love of music.”

John is looking forward to the upcoming screening but is unsure if he will be able to watch it.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be actually able to watch it with people in the theatre.

“I want to be able to, I think I can.

“I want to see it on the big screen.”

The Graceless Age- The Ballad of John Murry has its world premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh on Saturday 15 July.

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