Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch on His Unusual Creative Development

For its first Denver show since 2004, veteran indie-pop group Belle & Sebastian will collaborate with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for an expanded presentation of its signature storytelling style. It’s a songwriting method with creative roots in the years that bandleader Stuart Murdoch spent more or less bedridden due to chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition from which he had only partially recovered by the time he formed the band with friends in 1996.

During those less active years, Murdoch fueled his imagination and intellect with the work of authors such as Graham Greene, Jack Kerouac, Bertrand Russell, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera.
“Every week I used to lodge my record of the week and my film of the week and my book of the week,” says Murdoch about the contents of his old diaries. “I was pretty voracious, considering I wasn’t doing much. That was a great world in which to sort of escape.”

Murdoch had kept current with modern music as a teenager in the ’80s, but when, in his words, “the underground went overground,” in the ’90s, he lost interest. He chose instead to listen mostly to music of the ’60s and ’70s and only occasionally to more contemporary groups like Felt, Cocteau Twins and the Sundays.

“It was pretty gentle music for being lost when you didn’t have much energy,” says Murdoch.

But it wasn’t just media that inspired his nascent songwriting. It was projecting his imagination and fantasies onto the people around him, who were active and leading lives that he couldn’t at the time.
“You have to head toward what interests you,” offers Murdoch. “It’s a sort of magical feeling. It’s almost like a little crack opens up in the day and you head toward that, this little beam of light. You have that funny feeling, and you try to pin that down. I used to get that feeling from people because I was so inactive. Everyday people, people that were active, people that were working, didn’t know how cool they were to me or how inspirational they were to me. So that was one advantage of being a forced voyeur of everyone around me, living this glamorous, active lifestyle; I would romanticize these characters. I think I do it less now because I’m more active, and everyday life doesn’t seem quite so romantic.”

Anyone who has listened to a bit of Belle & Sebastian’s music knows that the albums are filled with sensitive and thoughtful character studies, stories and moments in time, captured with a rare combination of elegance and earthiness. The band’s latest effort, the electro-inflected Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, was produced by Ben Allen, who is better known for his work in hip-hop. Still, it retains Murdoch’s signature biographical songwriting style.

“With ‘[Enter] Sylvia Plath’ — obviously, I didn’t know her, and I didn’t know much about her, but I know as much about her as I ever knew about the person I wrote ‘Ease Your Feet in the Sea’ about,” he explains. “[It’s] just what you do with someone who has passed briefly through your life and you get a snapshot that’s enough to go on. You would never claim to be someone’s biographer — far from it. But if you do it with care, then hopefully the song has got some worth.”
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.