Most musicians have a story behind their sound. Whether it starts in local scenes, stems from a reaction to popular genres or movements, or is a nostalgic nod to music from the past, this narrative is an undeniable characteristic of artistic integrity. Melbourne native Nick Murphy, known to the world as the beard-clad and smooth-singing Chet Faker, is a prime example of an artist with one such tale.
Murphy’s story is his attempt to find a harmonious relationship between polar opposites. Maintaining a balance extends far beyond just amalgamating influences, something he takes into account both in the performance of his music and his views of it as a sustainable art form to outlast any single movement or well-hyped genre du jour.
Drawing from both his acoustic background and heavy involvement in the deep house and techno scene of Melbourne, Murphy describes his on-and-off devotion to these respective forms as playing a big role in the creation of his sound. “I had for so long been swapping between being obsessed with playing live and just playing with my guitar and singing my songs, working on the simplicity of just the guitar and the chords … then I would go through phases where I was obsessed with electronic music and production on the computer and all of the options and sounds that you can come up with.”
Murphy’s sound, while being an amalgamation of distinct and clear-cut influences, is difficult to describe. Calling it electronic doesn’t seem to cover all of its intricacies, particularly his stunning vocal abilities, and labelling it as alternative seems just as fruitless. This dilemma is clearly one not new to him, as he tells me with a laugh. “Well sooner or later I’m going to have to learn how to answer that question. I mean I call it soul, but I think that’s wishful thinking, but I’m still quite happy to keep calling it soul.”
Undoubtedly this ‘soulfulness’ is ever-present in Murphy’s music, the way his voice bleeds through the smooth electronic compositions, creating one of the most unique sounds of any current musician. Early attempts at labelling his own music by genre on Soundcloud only further reinforced Murphy’s definition of ‘soul’, although directly addressing an element that is sure to be key to much of his appeal. “For a while there I felt like I was either writing something that was smooth and sexy or really chilled out and it puts you to sleep, so I got this ‘sleep/sex’ thing started. I’m aware that they’re both not real genres, but maybe I should just say that: ‘sleep’ and ‘sex’, it’s a crossover between sleep and sex.” Whilst perhaps being a fairly ambiguous attempt at genre definition, it may also be the most accurate to describe a sound so new and appealing.
The song that kick-started his musical career as Chet Faker, the famous cover of the ’90s R&B jam ‘No Diggity’ by Blackstreet, may be responsible for both the shaping of his music and the way in which it is both perceived and received by the listener. “I played this bar in Melbourne and I got home at about 3:33 am, I’d had too many Red Bulls or too much soft drink, so I was kind of buzzing.” He introduces the story as one that he has had to tell countless times, but still with a reminiscent interest. “I just basically sat there and wrote it from scratch in about four hours. I did the whole beat first, and it wasn’t like ‘I’m going to do a cover of No Diggity’, I was just working on a beat. Then I finished the beat and it was there, but I was delirious and so wasn’t really paying any attention to the fact that I didn’t want to put any vocals onto it, I was just doing, I was thinking about. ‘No Diggity’ was kind of stuck in my head and I just started singing that, and it sat on top of the beat really well.”
Undoubtedly an odd choice of a song to cover, it seemed to not only kick-start his career as Chet Faker, but also radically helped shape his sound. “I kind of put that out just on Facebook and YouTube for my friends … looking back on it the next day or a week later I was like ‘Oh yeah, that’s actually a sound I’m really comfortable with and would like to keep doing’.”
It has also turned out to be a sound that is appealing to audiences all across the world. With the cover hitting number one on the online music aggregator Hype Machine, receiving thousands of streams online, and being both played and touted by radio DJs across the globe, it truly puts into perspective the way that his music has managed to disseminate to all corners of the globe.
In elaborating on the way that Murphy came to find his ‘soul’ sound, he reflects on the nature of it being unexpected. While he had been going back and forth between two distinct styles for some time, the manner in which the two gelled was something he had not anticipated. “It was definitely unexpected, I think that’s what happens with a lot of musicians though, I think they stumble across what works for them. As a muso you work hard enough that sooner or later you fall into your own, it becomes this combination of all the ideas and techniques that you’ve got. I think my head just kind of clicked and I found a style I was happy with … I was always very conscious of wanting to find a sound I could call my own or just try and make it as mine as much as possible.”
A distinctive sound is one that Murphy has achieved for from the very beginning, referencing what can be described as modern musical ‘movements’ that he loves but actively tries to separate himself from creatively. “In all my songs the vocals are often super clean … I didn’t want to just be part of the whole ‘chillwave’ movement, even though I love all that stuff, I wanted to try and do my own style. I think I was just trying to find a balance that I was happy with.”
The truly rapid nature in which his music has gained popularity is no more evident than in his history of live performances. “I mean technically we’ve played more shows in Texas than in Australia,” he tells me. “It’s been a bit ridiculous really, it’s not something that I’ve asked for, but at the same time the opportunities are so good and you can’t really say no to them. If I had the power to plan out the way things go I certainly wouldn’t have picked our sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth gigs to be at Texas for SXSW.”
On further talk of his experience at SXSW, it seems as though he relished its atmosphere as opposed to the stock-standard festivals in Australia. “It’s a bit different to the festivals I’ve been to, you know, not everyone’s there to get absolutely wasted,” he elaborates, “people are there to actually find artists. I had people coming up to me after my shows and asking me to write down the names of songs and where they can find my music.”
His live performance comes in two ways; solo, or with a band that consists of a drummer, bass player and guitarist. Obviously the difference in instrumentation would have an effect on the respective forms of performance, not only for the audience, but also for the performers, something he definitely takes into consideration. “They’re really different. It kind of depends on what mood I’m in, it’s always more fun sharing a stage with people, because if the crowd is really vibing you can look at someone that you’re playing with and enjoy it together. A lot of experiences are a lot richer when you share them with someone. But having said that, the solo ones are really nice because I can just take my time and can change things on the fly and not confuse the shit out of my band members, because it’s just me. You know, if I’m playing the shows solo I might as well do what I’m happy with.”
This recognition extends further to the way in which he perceives his own music; while viewing it as ‘soul’, he holds a unique understanding for the way in which it is accepted by the listener. Murphy is able to create music that he finds incredibly satisfying and representative of himself as a musician, while also being adored by fans the world over. It’s not something common to many contemporary musicians. “Yeah it’s cool… I think I’m particularly lucky that the sound I’m making fits into everything now. I mean maybe it’s because of my age and the fact that I grew up in the ’90s and I’m getting all the same cultural influences that everyone is getting. That’s not to say that, although electronic music is what I really love, it’s not the kind of music that I want to make forever.”
It’s very easy to say that big things can be expected from Murphy in the future, especially when taking into consideration his achievements in only one year under the moniker of Chet Faker; however, it is important to consider his music in the context within which it exists, as well as Murphy’s own aspirations and relations with his work as a musician. In acknowledging that his rapid success is in part owing to his cultural influences being similar to those of many of his listeners, as well as his recognition of the fleeting successes and constraining stigmas attached to the internet’s hyped genres, he allows himself to see and leave room for the development of his music within the grand scheme of things.