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Interview: Murray A. Lightburn

4 April 2023

Photo by Richmond Lam

Murray A. Lightburn’s latest solo release, Once Upon a Time in Montreal, is a stunning tribute to the pop-rock crooners of the ’50s and ’60s, while also serving as the perfect soundtrack to an imaginary biopic about Lightburn’s late father. Born in Belize, Lightburn’s father was a talented jazz musician who moved to Montreal to be with the love of his life and the songs are, among other things, a reflection of the couple’s 56-year marriage.

In this conversation with The Dears’ front man, Lightburn shares his involvement in the production process and discusses how his touring philosophy has evolved over nearly three decades in the industry. He also provides insight into the inspiration behind the album’s breathtaking cover art, offering a deeper understanding of the album’s overall message.

How involved were you with the minutia of your solo album, all the things that go on with it in additional to actually writing and recording?

MURRAY: I’ve been intimately involved. I went down to the plant and inspected the plates. I personally silk screened 300 sleeves for a limited edition release. I love that kind of stuff. I love being involved with something artisan. We’ve had a relationship with Dangerbird Records for quite a while. I love working with them. There’s a couple people there that really makes working with them easy and cool and fun. There’s people that I talk to on a regular basis, just pick up the phone and we’ll talk for a while and catch up. That’s kind of a cool thing that not everybody has.

Both you and Dangerbird have survived a long time in this industry.

MURRAY: I thank the Lord every god damn day for my life and the career that I’ve had and for everything music has given me. I tell audiences when I’m standing in front of them in Glasgow or London or Berlin that when I think of 15-year-old me with my banged-up acoustic guitar learning how to play songs, it’s an absolute miracle to me. . I was never supposed to be that guy. According to some of my teachers growing up, I was supposed to be a bum on the street. I was supposed to not amount to fuck all. Here I am, flying from this place to that place, driving from this place to that place, people literally buying tickets to come hear me sing a song. That’s insane to me. I never, for a second, take it for granted that anyone is interested in the songs that I wrote. When I see the numbers, it’s like, “Wow, X amount of people bought my record. X amount of people pre-ordered my record. Awesome.” I can’t take that for granted.

Has your touring philosophy changed?

MURRAY: I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve played hundreds and hundreds of shows, I’ve been on tour, I’ve done that grind. It’s time for somebody else to figure that out. My motto has always kind of been that I go where the music takes me. If somebody invites me to go and play and they’re willing to pick up the tab for that, I’m like, “Yeah, let’s go.” I’m not going to say no to that. But, I think there’s another side to that coin which is the music business and what it does to the mind of an artist. We’ve all been pretty programmed that you make a record, you go out on tour, you make a record, you go out on tour. Some of us are still stuck in that cycle. When you’re a new band, you’ve got to grind it out on the road to spread the gospel of what you’re doing. If you’re a band that’s been around for a couple decades, you would expect that there should be a handful of people out there that are the choir at this point. You’re just preaching to the choir. You’re not really spreading the gospel. How big is that choir? Is that choir big enough and loud enough for you to pack up your family and pack up your gear and deal with customs and pay outs and all the stuff that comes with it. Does it make sense?

Was Once Upon a Time in Montreal written in that cycle of making a record and then going out on tour?

MURRAY: I don’t think that way any more. In fact, I think there was only one album, when I was writing it, that I thought about how it would play out live because, at the time, we were touring so hard and I couldn’t help but imagine how the songs would translate live. That album was Gang of Losers and it plays out like a live band is playing it and it has that live band feel to me which was part of the reason there’s no ornamental instrumentation like strings or brass, aside from my old man playing on it. There’s just guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, just like what we did as a 6-piece at that time. Before that, if you listen to No Cities Left, you could tell that’s a band that does not give a fuck about how that’s going to be played live.

Going into this album, I really just took it one song at a time. I didn’t even know I was making a record never mind anything beyond that like going out and playing shows. I think even when I did Hear Me Out, I wasn’t thinking in those terms either. I found my voice as a performer. What I did was I went back to the place where I was writing the songs, which is just me and a guitar and a notepad in front of me on the couch, in that traditional way. I wasn’t thinking about studio arrangements. In that past, that’s not how I wrote. In the past, I wrote in a more grand way where I was thinking of string arrangements and brass arrangements because, as a composer, that’s how my brain thinks. I hear music in a grand way.

At some point, I really started to get into the practice of sitting down at either the piano or with a guitar, just one instrument and my voice and a pen and a notepad. I have tons of notepads filled with songs, different drafts of lyrics, this verse and that verse written this way and that way. I really focus hard on the craft before I think of anything else.

I’m learning to take things a bit slower. I still work fast but I take the steps slower. I think them through. I blueprint them out. I take each step at a time. I learned to do that from performing live on Hear Me Out. I was going out for the first time on tour by myself a lot and going out alone. I remember running into Metric in LA once and Jimmy [Shaw] couldn’t stop saying, “This is it? This is you on tour?” It’s me, a guitar, and a suitcase and he just couldn’t believe it. The next thing you know, I was out on tour with Metric, just going out on stage in front of hundreds of people by myself with my songs. That’s a super daunting thing. It’s terrifying actually to do that with no support. It’s just you. And every mistake that’s being heard on stage is you. Every missed lyric. That’s you. Any note off key? That’s you. What I did to cope with that feeling was to not think about any song but the first song. Get through that song. And then the next song. And then the next thing you know, you’ve played 17 songs and you say, “Thank you. Good night.”

I learned this approach to almost everything I do now. It’s just one song at a time. One step at a time. One thing at a time. Do it quickly, do it with confidence, and then go to the next thing. The bigger picture for me is that it helped me to not be so overwhelmed with things. It helped me in the process of making this record.

So you were just writing songs here and there, not intending necessarily to make a record, and then all of a sudden you discovered that you had an album’s worth of material?

MURRAY: I never thought of more than one song at a time. I wrote it in two passes. I wrote five songs and then I put the whole project down for a long time. I needed to do that because I started writing them right after my old man died. It was just a coping thing. Now I see it as creating these imaginary conversations with the old man. Then I started to think about, “What would he say?” and I started to write songs in his voice. I needed to take a break after I did about 5 or 6 songs because I could see what I was making. I wanted to take some time to clear my head and reflect. That’s when the film score for I Like Movies entered my life. I spent 6 months working on that. It was good to have something like that come into my life and clear the decks for me from that heaviness.

When I finished that project, I was able to pivot back to finishing off and getting ready to make Once Upon a Time in Montreal. I knew what I had to do. It was very clear. At that point, it was like, “I have this song, this song, and this song. I’m just going to work on one at a time until it’s finished.” I knew what I was going to be working on. I had a couple of songs I needed to finish and from that, I wrote “Oh But My Heart Has Never Been Dark” and “Reaching Out for Love.” I knew who I was writing for, I knew what I writing, and those songs came to me like a bolt of lightning. I wrote each of those songs in a day. It really put a button on the whole project. I was ready to bring in the musicians and go into the studio.

I booked studio time. Howard [Bilerman] proudly tells me that the whole recording process was 57 hours. That’s how many hours we spent making that record and you’d never know it. You would think that we had been working on that album for months. In my mind, I was. The arrangements are very buttoned down. Once the songs were written, how I wanted to render it out was very, very, very clear. I knew all the parts that were going to accompany these songs in my head and all I had to do was write them down and get people to play them. That’s it. There was no fussing about it all.

We had the strings come in and they did all the songs for the record inside an hour and a half. I’d never done that before but they were solid as a rock. Howard said that the whole album, including mixing, was 57 hours of work. It’s a testament to the method. When we made Missiles, there were a lot of wasted hours in the studio. The studio was like another instrument where we spent a lot of time fussing around with the sound in the speakers. There’s something to be said for a fully scripted, fully blueprinted out thing. That’s why I like working with Howard. I get the sense that working with him for 30 years now that that’s the way it should be done and I agree with that. I agree with having something super buttoned down, being fully prepared, and the instrument is a means to an end. A lot of stuff was recorded live – piano, bass, drums, guitar. We did a second pass of the second layer which was the strings, brass, winds. Then the vocals. Then we mixed. It happened really quickly. The most ideal thing that I’m still working towards is doing an entirely live record with everybody in the room at once and just making it in a day.

Where does the album artwork come into play? Was it all part of the plan from the beginning? It’s a very striking album cover where everything, from the fonts to the colors to the photos just work. It’s an album cover that is going to stand out in a record store.

MURRAY: Let’s hope. That’s the idea. In my mind, I was making this biopic. I wanted to convey this iconic image of Montreal and something that harkens back to those days. The hotel in the background is the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. A little history about the Queen Elizabeth Hotel is that’s also the same place where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their bed in. It’s a very historical building in the city but also it’s one of the only places in the city that still looks like it could be in 1965. I chose that spot for that reason because that is where that album story starts. It starts in the mid-60s when my parents first came to Montreal. It’s an immigrant story. My mother was recruited by the Canadian government to be a nurse in Montreal and my father followed her here. That’s the story. Why did my father follow this girl to Montreal? Well, let’s see. They stayed married for 56 years. I think it was an interesting story and I wanted to convey that with the cover. The font is literally called 50s Movie Font. I pictured it like West Side Story or this iconic looking, cinematic book cover type of thing. I wanted people to know that when they picked up that package what they were going to get inside was an immersive, storytelling experience.

Just from the album cover alone, I expected it to have a ’50s or ’60s sound and I think you’ve done that. There’s a Burt Bacharach feel to the songs, very ’60s, very cinematic.

MURRAY: The thing about Bacharach, and I’ve been getting that comparison for the last 20 years, is that the pairing of intricate orchestral arrangements, the touch of symphonic sort of sounds with vocal pop music is just not something that people hear a lot any more. It harkens to another era of pop music, an era of pop music that I’m very familiar with. I like that tradition a lot. I think it’s a tradition worth keeping alive. These instruments are still around and they make beautiful noises and they interpret melody in such a beautiful way. Not to mention they’re played by human beings. That interaction with other humans, for me, it’s amazing to bring my string arrangements and work with local musicians when I do hire a local quartet to back me at a live show. I’ve worked with quartets in Mexico and LA and Toronto and London. It’s an amazing thing to bring these sheets of music to them and have never met them and then play a concert together. That’s incredible. It’s such an incredible union. I love telling audiences that I’ve never met these people, that I just met them today and now we’re playing a concert together. Isn’t that amazing?

The album is 30 minutes long but doesn’t feel short.

MURRAY: I know that a record stops sounding good on vinyl after 40 minutes so we’re never going to make a record long that 40 minutes again unless we’re intentionally making a double record. I think people nowadays are more likely to engage with records that are a bit shorter than they are longer. But, there was a time when we were all consuming super long records. I remember The Cure had this one record that was like 75 minutes long, maybe Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and people sat through it.

When you sit down to make a record, you have an eye on how it’s going to come together as a package. Everything from the art work to how it’s going to play over two sides. I’m now focused on how a record plays over two sides, how it’s going to look on vinyl and how it’s going to sound on vinyl because I’m a big fan of records. I don’t listen to a lot of music on the platforms. When I do, it’s only for work. For my own personal enjoyment, it’s dropping the needle on something. It’s lifting up a record and pulling it out of the sleeve and doing the whole ritual of cleaning it and then dropping the needle on it and sitting back and listening to it and then flipping the record over. That whole act is part of the ritual of listening to me for me and enjoying it. That’s a tradition I hope to be part of.

As an artist, I’m sure you’re just happy if people take the time to listen to your music, but of all the different ways people can listen to Once Upon a Time in Montreal, what benefits you the most?

MURRAY: Well, let me tell you. I’m on the hook for all that vinyl they just made. If people were to go out and buy that record, that would make me look good. That would be great. I’d appreciate if people order it from Dangerbird or directly from The Dears store.