When Pierce Murphy planned a two-week trip to Greece last October, the Denver-based jazz and soul singer and guitarist wasn’t thinking about making an album. He and his girlfriend, Sameera Ahmed, have always been fascinated by the country's culture and history, and they traveled there on a personal pilgrimage.
Murphy used the vacation as an opportunity to propose to Ahmed on top of a cliff that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and the town of Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete.
He knew early on that he wanted to document the trip in music. He scribbled ideas and lyrics for four songs while in Crete: one when they arrived, and the others in the towns of Heraklion, Agios Nikolaos and Chania. He also jotted down ideas while they were traveling on the ferry between Crete and Santorini, as well as on the plane to Athens.
There was a guitar with five strings at the Airbnb where they stayed in Athens, and Murphy was able to map out some chord progressions for a few songs. He decided to take a more rhythmic approach to the lyrics than he had in his previous work.
“There was a distinct rhythmic pattern that I was writing them with,” he says, "so it was kind of in my mind. I knew what the flow of the song was going to be...at least the timing. And with that, it kind of lends itself to certain things chord-wise.”
When he got back to Denver, Murphy began fleshing out the nine songs that would make up what he calls his “neo-soul epic,” Ellada (the Greek name for Greece), which drops on August 21. He wanted the album to have a ’70s soul-and-funk feel while also using his own customized synth sounds to give some of the tracks a dreamy vibe reminiscent of his otherworldly experience in the country.
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There are adventurous spots on Ellada where Murphy worked in J Dilla-style drag beats and Hiatus Kaiyote vibes. The couple didn’t have Internet access during their stay on Crete, so while driving around the island, they listened to what they already had on their phones — acts like Childish Gambino and Frank Ocean, which explains some of the album's hip-hop influence.
Murphy, who earned a Bachelor of Arts with an emphasis in jazz guitar from Metro State University and a performance certificate in jazz voice from the University of Denver, also wanted to weave in Maurice Ravel-inspired choral arrangements.
“I used to sing in choirs in college and high school, so a lot of the choral stuff that's in there...I was trying to catch some of those elements and make it a kind of lush and beautiful experience, because that's the kind of experience we had in Greece,” he says.
Murphy, who plays nearly all of the instruments on Ellada, says every decision mattered while working on the album.
“For me, the philosophy of approaching things and respecting and revering the beauty of them is really important," he explains. "And it's becoming more and more important to me as I’ve gotten older — not worrying so much about all these other little things that we tend to base philosophies on, or whether things are good or bad, but just [thinking] about what the beauty of this experience is.”
“A Place Like This Makes You,” Ellada’s opening cut, is about how Crete is Europe’s most ancient civilization, where humans have been living since at least 130,000 years ago.
“It did feel kind of oddly familiar the whole time,” Murphy says of his visit there. “It just felt like this is where things belong, like this is where things happened. There's this beauty in the air that I really wanted to capture and remember.”
And while Murphy tried to capture the beauty of Greece with his songwriting, the country’s music itself seeped into Ellada, especially on “A Place Like This Makes You,” where he built chords from notes in the same double harmonic major scale that was used in “Miserlou,” the folk song that Dick Dale made famous in the ’60s.
“It creates all these unusual chords and these unusual places,” Murphy says. “It's really fun to explore, and that scale appears in some of the solos and things throughout the record. When there's a guitar solo or something, I'll stick some of the notes in here and there.”
Greece wasn't the first country to inspire Murphy. Over the course of a month in 2014, he wrote songs in five different Japanese cities that eventually made up the 2017 album To Japan. He'd arrived in the country with a backpack full of clothes, an iPhone 5 and an existential crisis.
“My cousin was studying abroad in Tokyo at the time, so I had somebody to link up with when I needed to,” he recalls. “He's a musician as well, and we went to a pawn shop and bought crappy little acoustic guitars. And one of his friends on the way back from the pawn shop said, ‘You should write music while you're here,' and I was like, ‘That's a really good idea.' So I started that process of writing songs every time I had some downtime.”
Murphy also penned songs — audio snapshots of the trip — on bullet trains between cities. It took him a few years before he started recording To Japan. After it was released in 2017, he took his band to Japan to do a DIY tour there for a couple of weeks.
“It was an amazing experience to be able to bring the music back to Japan,” he says.
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While Ellada is more focused musically, Murphy, who grew up listening to indie rock, says he was grappling with his musical identity on To Japan, alternating between music that sounded like Elvis Costello and that of experimental jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who played on David Bowie’s final studio album, Blackstar.
But ultimately, the album soaks in the history of the culture that Murphy was surrounded by, and Ellada does the same.
“A lot of the time I'm writing this stuff,” Murphy says, “[what] I want more than anything is that if a Greek person hears this record, they'll be proud of it and think fondly of my experience of their place. It's cool to have that extra weight, to try to rise to the occasion.”
Hear more at Pierce Murphy's website.