David Murphy

David Murphy

David Murphy is a multi-instrumentalist based in Cork, Ireland known best for his work with the pedal steel guitar. Murphy’s unique application of the pedal steel guitar has resulted in his invitation to participate in many collaborations and projects over his years as a session musician and band-member. Acts like John Blek & The Rats, Arborist, M. Ward, Willy Vlautin, The Delines, Richmond Fontaine and Jolie Holland have had the pleasure of Murphy joining them on pedal steel.

But, what spoke to me most, is his brand new instrumental album Cuimhne Ghlinn: Explorations in Irish Music for Pedal Steel Guitar, on which he breathes new life into old Irish tunes like slow airs and harp tunes. As soon as I heard its first single, I was completely hooked. Which is why he was one of the people I just had to film with during my visit to Ireland for Kilkenny Roots. Upstairs at Bridie’s on John Street, David Murphy played the album’s opener Aisling Gheal, album closer An Spéic Seoigeach and Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song.

What inspired you to focus on the pedal steel guitar, and how did you develop your unique approach to the instrument?

David Murphy: “As a teenager playing guitar, I was really into acoustic finger style and the slide approach in American folk and blues. I was hearing lots of pedal steel on contemporary records of the time too that I was really into, bands like Calexico and Richmond Fontaine were using it in a really tasteful and subtle way. And it was prevalent in Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell records too – it piqued my interest and I took a gamble and bought one. I quickly got deep into it and I knew very soon that it was the instrument for me.”

“Eventually it led me to studying all the great players of the instrument from the mid-20th century on wards, mostly within the country music world. With no teachers in my area, I just taught myself and despite it being a slow process, I threw myself into the deep end and started gigging with it right away in the bands I was playing with, which was the best way to learn and, artistically, to carve out my own sound.”

Can you describe the journey of taking the pedal steel guitar outside its traditional roots?

David Murphy: “I have broad tastes in music – from folk and country music to ambient and electronica – and have been always keen to explore how pedal steel can work in such contexts or within those parameters. The instrument is hugely versatile. It can be so evocative and atmospheric but also beautifully melodic and there is no instrument quite like it really. It has unique timbre, tuning and tonal capabilities. It offers rich sustain, swelling glissando and the ability to bend expressive and mournful notes that merge kind of seamlessly into different chords. It’s got that unmistakable, crying sound.”

“In the 21st century, it’s continued its evolution into electronica, ambient and experimental music realms and that is something I am hugely interested in – where the instrument is going next. I’ve been lucky to collaborate with artists from a wide range of genres, contributing to pop, folk and country records as well as with experimental electronic and ambient artists and on film soundtracks. Sometimes it’s challenging to understand what the artist is looking for the pedal steel to provide. It’s very rewarding to be trusted to bring my own sensibilities to other artists’ projects – getting to dive deeply into different genres or styles of music and add a new flavour to the song or track with pedal steel guitar.”

What was the creative process behind Cuimhne Ghlinn: Explorations in Irish Music for Pedal Steel Guitar?

David Murphy: “For a while an idea was percolating to make a solo record but I knew I wanted to do something radical and I knew I wanted to explore something within my own ‘voice’ or perhaps with music that was geographically a world away from where pedal steel is most commonly heard. Coming from Ireland, I have a great love of traditional Irish music – despite not having actually ever played it or immersed myself in the tradition as a musician – and have a deep respect and appreciation for it.”

“One evening I worked out a well-known slow-air – Aisling Gheal – and it felt really good. I couldn’t wait to dive into figuring out some more tunes that I felt had that ethereal ghostliness suited to pedal steel. It felt like there was a really interesting commonality in mood and sentiment with these compositions and with what the pedal steel can evoke – a kind of sad, keening voice. It quickly became apparent that this was the direction a solo record was to take.”

“There is a wealth of tunes and songs in the Irish tradition that are suitable for pedal steel guitar. I knew also that I wanted to present it in a 21st century manner with a contemporary and modern-classical feel – blending it with piano, strings, synths, loops and rhythmic beats for these historic tunes. So it felt like not only a first for the instrument, but also an exciting project for me to arrange these works in a modern Irish framework.”

How do you choose which tunes to reinterpret with the pedal steel guitar?

David Murphy: “Certainly jigs and reels and polkas are not going to work on pedal steel guitar and it wouldn’t be appropriate to even try! But slow airs, harp tunes, sean nós (unaccompanied singing) songs all have that melancholic, lamenting quality that is inherent in the pedal steel guitar’s abilities to convey emotions. Sometimes it’s a case of experimenting with different tempos or keys to see what suits the tune in re-imagining it for pedal steel guitar. Mostly it’s a case of listening to old and new traditional Irish records, listening out for melodies and moods or reading the lyrics to understand what story or tale is being told.”

“We are lucky that there are amazing archives and collections dating back as far as the 16th and 17th century that have been documented and preserved. One such tune on the album, Citi na gCumann, was recorded by Alan Lomax when he came to Ireland to make field recordings in the early 1950’s. It was interesting to me to think that Lomax was here creating that seed for the renaissance of traditional Irish music at the same time that the pedal steel was developing and blossoming in America. Its role and sound within country music at that time really spoke effectively to the sentiments of a rural population.”

How did the contributing musicians influence the final result?

David Murphy: “I was so lucky to have such an amazing group of musicians to contribute and collaborate with. Some of these I’d played with before in various other bands or projects and I knew they understood what I was trying to do with the pedal steel. Steve Wickham (The Waterboys / U2 / Sinead O’Connor) and Laura McFadden (Arborist) were both big parts of the sound of the album and I’d discussed the concept with them on a few tours. It was equally exciting to have other musicians on the album that I’d never worked with before – Peter Broderick, Alannah Thornburgh, Aisling Urwin, Rory McCarthy – all of whom I’ve really admired.”

“The beauty of having such an amazing cast was that I had to provide very little direction. I trusted everyone to bring their own magic to the tunes – it was a simple case of me just choosing who was on what track and giving them free reign. It all felt very natural and intuitive.”

How does your experience performing with other artists influence your solo work?

David Murphy: “Playing with diverse artists is a huge thrill for me. My experience playing with international artists like M. Ward certainly gives me the confidence to try something new. Playing with a band like The Delines allows me to fall right into their world with the pedal steel, painting little vignettes within the band. Performing with them just puts you right into the middle of their stories which are almost like miniature movies – the stories in the songs certainly hit hard.”

“I’ve always been interested in film soundtracks since a very young age. Touring with novelist and songwriter Willy Vlautin, performing live pedal steel whilst he read passages from his books demonstrated how pedal steel can create such evocative soundscapes. That all certainly was a big influence my solo work.”

Out now

David Murphy’s full-length studio album Cuimhne Ghlinn: Explorations in Irish Music for Pedal Steel Guitar is out now on the Rollercoaster Records label

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The Rain Song (Led Zeppelin)
Tidal | Apple Music

David Murphy

Apple Music


Filmed & edited by Matthijs van der Ven.
Additional filming by David Lawson Froggatt.
Audio recorded & mixed by Matthijs van der Ven.

Kevin O’Shea on acoustic guitar.

Bridie’s Bar & General Store
Kilkenny Roots Festival
Kilkenny, Ireland

Gary Kehoe
Rollercoaster Records
Kilkenny Roots Festival
Everyone at Langton’s and Bridie’s
Kevin O’Shea

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