A wise man told us that it isn’t drugs, poverty or wild lovers that makes a great artist. It is discipline and time alone. But beware: reduce your entire life to a claustrophobic, sometimes windowless box of creativity, and a creeping, anxious insanity can soon soak the scene.
It’s a psychological choreography that Nicholas Murphy – who releases as Chet Faker – danced for two years during the writing, recording and production of his debut album, ‘Built In Glass’ (Clash review). So, how did he tiptoe the madness?
“Well, there were definitely moments,” smirks the lonesome beatnik through his big, rusty beard. “It was good, though. Self-awareness became this really valuable skill that I had to maintain, because you get to this point where you don’t know what is up and what is down. Sometimes you’re not making progress, and you’re making things worse. It almost felt like that for the entire process.
“But, there is always this gut instinct right at the bottom of your stomach that knows when something sounds right. So, I just kept working. I had a feeling that I would know when it felt finished. And eventually… it did.”
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Chet Faker, ‘Talk Is Cheap’, from ‘Built On Glass’
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Holed up in a small converted cooling room in North Melbourne’s meat market, with an emergency bottle of self-awareness nearby, he began to work on the follow-up to his 2012 debut EP, ‘Thinking In Textures’. It was quite a feat to follow when one looks back on the success of the down-tempo R&B tracks he first released.
Aside from racking up a casual few million online plays, they earned him Best Independent EP at Australia’s AIR Awards, and unexpectedly channelled into 108 million pairs of ears during halftime at the 2013 Super Bowl as part of a Beck’s beer promotion. It would take more than that to inflate a firmly grounded Murphy though, and he keeps the cooling room nice and minimal.
“One or two new keyboards and a bass. I didn’t want to blow myself out of the water with too many options. I felt that ‘Thinking In Textures’ only touched on a musical subject. There was still a lot I could explore in that, so I didn’t feel like I needed to add too much.”
His name, Chet Faker, borrows from the short and preposterous lineage of letter-swapping satire that spawned Joy Orbison, Com Truise, Slick Jagger and, more recently, Joanna Gruesome. Forgive that though, for Murphy is probably the only one to actually wander down vaguely similar creative walks to his misspelt subject.
“I hated jazz until I was, like, 20,” he explains. “Then I got a job in a bookstore next to a record shop, where I grew up in Melbourne. It was run by this French guy called Max. He sold me my first record and started getting me into some Afro artists like Abdullah Ibrahim and Mulatu Astatke. Astatke is dope. He’s still putting new stuff out that is two steps ahead. That Afro tip broke me into jazz. From hating it to, two years later, absolutely loving the stuff.”
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There are positives and negatives to everything. Consequently, the record explores both.
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The jazz influences are clear on album track ‘Talk Is Cheap’ (video above), which opens with a melancholic saxophone melody, before a chilled-out beat drops in that perfectly illustrates Murphy’s love for production. On both this effort and LP opener ‘Release Your Problems’, the listener becomes privy to the two gears that Murphy keeps in that soulful voice box. The lower pitch: a blasé and deep voice, which he often deploys during verses, and then the higher pitch: the acrobatic soul voice of a growing singer/songwriter. A tenor honed on the live circuit?
“Totally,” confirms Murphy. “When you are playing live you develop more and more. You start to find your voice. I was 22 when I first met Clash (for one of our Next Wave features, here). They say your voice doesn’t even fully develop until you’re 25. I’m 25 now, so I guess I’m getting there.”
With that voice, Murphy paints his words, and lyrically this album is an intimate affair: filled with naked-flame heartache, mountain-top admissions of love and twisting tales of betrayal, all derived from the changes to Murphy that a life in music has enforced. We ask if he ever resents the speed of his unexpected success?
“No, not at all, but it has been a lesson. With unique luxuries come unique problems. There are positives and negatives to everything. Consequently, the record explores both. It’s been a gift, the last few years, because I have had to find my own value, and figure out what is important to me rather than what other people think. It’s been a rollercoaster. And that’s just musically. Then there is your personal life to throw in. At some point on this album, they just blend.”
Throughout our interview, he mentions Burial and his current obsession with NYC-based Venezuelan producer Arca, and there are numerous moments on ‘Built In Glass’ where he visits his electronic influences. ‘Blush’ opens slowly with a palpitation of garage synths. Double-tracked vocals give the track a lyrical preface, before it divulges into a 90-second hypnotic instrumental four-chord structure prang-out. The groove accelerates into the next track, ‘1998’, a ’90s Chicago house revenge track about a bitter friendship.
“House music,” laughs Murphy. “I had to put that in there. That’s a big influence for me. I’ve always loved house music and good techno. The first album, you’re supposed to show all aspects of yourself. That is a big part of my life. So, I felt like if I didn’t put that in there now, people would be like, ‘What the f*ck?’ further down the line. I wanted it out nice and early.”
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Chet Faker and Flume, ‘Drop The Game’, from the ‘Lockjaw EP’
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While working on the album, Murphy took a short break with fellow Australian Flume, and the two spent four days in a friend’s beach house writing a set of polished electronic tracks that would come to be known as 2013’s ‘Lockjaw EP’. Ghosts of influence from those sessions followed Murphy back into his own album: “I wrote ‘Melt’ right after that getaway, and you can hear it. I tend to like things a bit softer than Flume, but now and again I let it out.”
The track also features a smooth and laid-back verse from Florida-born singer/rapper Kilo Kish, whom Murphy contacted online. “I felt like ‘Melt’ was a good song,” he says, “but it was boring with just me on it. Kilo’s stuff is dope and I’d been listening to heaps of it. I got in touch and asked if she wanted to be on the track. She put down a verse and did her thing, which was totally dope. The rest is history. I haven’t even met her yet.”
Listen to ‘Built In Glass’ on speakers and you’ll be fairly besotted with this fluid collection of modern soul jams. But listen on headphones and you’ll unlock a Pandora’s box of intricate production mixed deep into the juju, which remains hidden due to Murphy’s refusal to excessively EQ his tracks. With such stubborn artistry on display, it didn’t shock Clash to hear that a year ago Murphy had 12 songs, a track order and an album title, but decided to scrap the entire thing and start again.
“It was too polite,” he reasons. “I was trying too hard to please people and I wasn’t doing anything for myself. ‘Built In Glass’ – what you have now – isn’t a filtered honesty. That’s the real deal. There are times on this record that don’t make me look good. But it is honest!”
Had he had a label at the time, they would have viewed the decision as madness, but Murphy’s choice to only sign when he was happy with a finished product meant he had nobody to answer to but himself. It’s a sense of creative control that could serve him well. Perhaps it was madness. Or, perhaps, you need to lose your head just a little before you can truly think outside the box.
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Words: Joe Zadeh
Photography: Dom Smith
This interview appears in issue 94 of Clash magazine – click here for details and purchase links.
‘Built On Glass’ is out now on Future Classic. Read the Clash review here.
Find Chet Faker online here.