Although New Orleans has a reputation as a brass/jazz/funk playground, it has been a home to songwriters since the beginning of the 20th Century. From Clarence Williams to Jelly Roll Morton to Dave Bartholomew, from Allen Toussaint and Earl King to more recent tunesmiths such as Paul Sanchez, Anders Osborne and Ed Volker, there’s a history of musicians putting words and notes together in profound ways. With How to Be a Cannonball, Alex McMurray takes his place in those ranks. His songs range from melancholy ballads to psychotic rockers, and most deal sympathetically with fringe characters and misfits. We sit on his back porch facing the barn and beyond that, the field where Chaz Fest happens. A train whistle blows from Press Street, and it’s that train that McMurray taped to start the record. “It creeps into your dreams,” he says.” You don’t notice after a while.”
Ironically, songwriting doesn’t come easily to him. “Sometimes I get inspired, but not too often,” he says. “I have to sit here and stare at this blank page for four hours or write automatically. Some songs take seven or eight years to write. But the good thing is that there are lots of songs in various states of completion.”
McMurray started writing for his college band, the Vince Berman Trio, while at Tulane. He played in All That, Michael Ward’s Reward and other bands after graduation, then found an outlet for his compositions when he formed Royal Fingerbowl in 1995. His songs were discovered by an audience of friends and like-minded folks who knew every word of “My Money” or had been there when someone had pulled those stunts on Gravier Street that made their way into “Nothing but Time.”
Royal Fingerbowl played all over, got a label deal, got screwed, and when the band fell apart, McMurray was already doing one night a week at various venues and stuck with the Circle Bar on Wednesdays for years. Fans could hear him there or with the Tin Men, 007, the Tom Paines or some one-off bands.
His songs took shape at the Circle Bar, where the nights were freewheeling. The set cycled through rock, sometimes traditional jazz, almost always a sea shanty request, a pop cover and a waltz or two—all with great turns of phrase. When asked where he gets his words, he reaches over a cluttered desk for a copy of four novellas by Raymond Chandler. “Every line is great,” McMurray says. “Instead of saying ‘OK,’, they say, ‘Okey.’”
McMurray pauses. “Being a suburban kid in New Jersey, it’s probably disingenuous, but I find appealing the characters who are outside of my world, which is pretty boring and vanilla—the guy with the peg leg, the carnies and the strange people who would come and set up the Firemen’s Fair every year. There is something to it, some kind of grim beauty and strange dignity. The tougher people with more ingenuity and a more interesting story, these are the people that I’m drawn to write about or try to imagine.”
Bassist/sousaphonist Matt Perrine has been making music with McMurray since the mid-’90s. He says, “He’s my favorite songwriter in town. He has the ability to talk about many different subjects at the same time, and to make two opposite points at the same time with the same lyric.” Perrine’s love of McMurray’s creativity is not just analytical. “I have a connection with his characters in some way that satisfies something in me. Alex’s songs tend to move me. It’s nice to have material that I feel emotional about. That helps the music to be better—and with Carlo Nuccio, I can share my emotional relation to his songs.”
Drummer Carlo Nuccio is unguarded in his enthusiasm for McMurray. “He’s one of the most special cats I’ve ever known,” Nuccio says. “The fact that he lives in my city and that he’s producing the music he produces in front of my eyes for me to witness is a fucking blessing like I’ve never known before.” Nuccio, a fine songwriter himself, gets right to what elevates McMurray above his peers. “He can get three or four details about a character across in a sentence. He can say, (In the song “Otis Takes it on the Lam”) ‘Hey, little boy, I’m underneath the sink with all the poison.’ It’s not enough that his character Otis is hiding out. It’s where he’s hiding out. ‘Rattle those pans / I’m sick of all that nuthouse chow.’ He could say he’s hungry, but Alex lets you know where he’s been.”
The Bywater settles into its afternoon lethargy and McMurray reflects. “The inspiration comes from all around,” he says. “You write down a line or a chord change, these little kernels of beauty I’ll call it, and you save them and try to put them in your metaphorical shoebox. On a rainy day you can take them out and arrange them on a pillow case or something—little flies’ wings and fishhooks and shiny pennies—and string them together and make some weird trinket. You collect stuff and try to put it together in a way that communicates something from deep within you to hopefully deep within someone else.”
Published July 2009, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 22, No. 7.