Words by Art Jefferson
Images by Amy T Zielinski and courtesy of Colleen Murphy
Before the days of digital downloading, buying and listening to an album was truly an experience. You would wait for the announcement of the release date, and once that specific day arrived, you quickly hopped on public transport or drove to your record store of choice hoping that a vinyl or CD copy was available. If you were blessed enough to buy a copy, you would rush to take public transportation back home to play your purchase on your turntable or CD player. If you drove, the plastic wrapping around the CD casing got ripped off quicker than the wallet of a tourist aimlessly loafing around the Trevi Fountain in Rome. In went the disc in your car’s CD unit and your drive home instantly became slower as you absorbed every musical note played and lyric being sung or rapped from the artist . If the album was really good, you reasoned that the wait was worth it, and that LP got played day in and day out. In the current age of instantly accessible songs and a singles driven music market, the experience of thoroughly listening to a possible classic album has transformed into quick run-throughs and disposable product. However, DJ, producer, label owner, radio presenter and writer Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy is helping to change the current climate by re-igniting the art of listening, experiencing and enjoying.
As an avid music lover, Colleen Murphy collected vinyl records as a youth. The Massachusetts-born enthusiast went on to study at New York University where she had deejayed and produced radio shows, a passion which extended from her high school years. In 1992, a friend took her to David Mancuso’s infamous parties at The Loft, where she would discover a new depth of experiencing sound. Befriending Mancuso, Murphy acquired an additional wealth of information of the trade, something that she has implemented throughout her illustrious career.
By the early 2000s Colleen Murphy began releasing a number of impressive recordings under her Bitches Brew label which included work by Jinadu, Bambu, Panic, Darkstarr (the collaboration between Murphy and Ashley Beedle), Wild Rumpus (her collaboration project with musician Gary Lucas)and more.
With a mission to enhance the way listeners experience music, in 2010 Colleen Murphy created Classic Album Sundays, a communal LP listening event in North London where albums are played from start to finish on premium high fidelity audio gear. Coverage of CAS by the BBC as well as numerous publications internationally, helped the event’s popularity to spread globally with Classic Album Sundays now happening in various cities around the world.
Along with recently hosting and producing a documentary about Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for Absolute Radio and Universal, Colleen Murphy and Gary Lucas are back with a new Wild Rumpus album titled “Musical Blaze-Up”, scheduled to be released on May 27th. The record’s mesh of dub, blues, rock, country, electronica and more, is the ever open window of Murphy’s diverse taste and vast musical knowledge.
The way we digest music may have changed over the years but as the high priestess in her new church of sound, Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy is rapidly creating global converts who are more than willing to experience this magical audible voyage.
Art Jefferson – I know that you and Gary Lucas have been collaborating for a while, back when you were in New York. Can you talk about the origins of the Wild Rumpus project?
Colleen Murphy – Gary and I met in New York at WNYU, one of the biggest college radio stations in the country at the time. I had him up on my radio show and he played live surrounded by pedals and EFX and I was blown away. We remained friends while I lived in NYC and I had him up on various radio shows I was doing. We didn’t start Wild Rumpus until I moved to London. Gary’s wife is British so I saw him a fair amount and he had been asking me to do music together for years. With my impeccable sense of timing, I chose to start work on Wild Rumpus after my daughter was born. That’s why it has taken so long!
Art Jefferson – I think that this project in a sense is a clear definition of who you are as a person. From DJing down to ‘Classic Album Sundays’, you have consistently been a front representative for the idea of the ‘listening experience’. How would you sum up this Wild Rumpus project and album?
Colleen Murphy – The album “Musical Blaze-Up” is a sonic road trip that fuses together many of the musical genres I love best: disco, dub, psychedelic rock, experimental, bluegrass, surf music. Gary is the most versatile guitarist I know (he even performs Chinese pop!) so I felt we could do anything together. The first time I heard him play he was on the National steel guitar and I knew I wanted to get that sound on our record. I always thought bluegrass and dub would go well together (Dennis Bovell has done a similar thing and there have been many Jamaican covers of American country songs). The album has many different types of sounds but I think it all flows together. I was adamant about not making a boring, straight-line type of a record.
Art Jefferson – Do you think that the over accessibility of music due to technology have contributed to the lack of demand by the general public for strong, solid albums?
Colleen Murphy – I do think that is somewhat the case. There is just so much music which is both a good and a bad thing. It is good because people are doing it for themselves and it is much more democratic. The flip side is that there is a lot more to sift through to find the golden nuggets. It is probably the same ratio of good versus bad albums that there has always been – just a lot, lot more. Add our diminished attention spans and the shuffle culture to the mix and you get a certain apathy. However, I am optimistic that artists and fans are bringing the album back and the success of my Classic Album Sundays is a good example of that change in attitude.
Art Jefferson – Just to get into a bit of your history, you started out as a radio DJ even before meeting David Mancuso, but going back further than that, when did your intense love of music begin? Were you one of those kids who were collecting records at an insanely early age?
Collen Murphy – I got my first transistor radio at the age of seven and became obsessed. I had a lot of teenage aunts and uncles and started to raid their record collections and was making mix tapes at 12. Then at 14 I got my first radio show, started seriously collecting records at 15 and then got an after school job at a record shop when I was 16. So yes, I was obsessed with all different kinds of music. Growing up outside Boston, Massachusetts, I had a lot of great radio as commercial radio was much more free-thinking in the seventies and early eighties and we had a lot of college radio stations, too. I was the weird kid that listened to weird music in my small New England town.
Art Jefferson – Speaking of David Mancuso, were some key lessons that you learned from him early on as a DJ that still resonates with you to this day?
Collen Murphy – The biggest one is dropping the ego. I studied Zen Buddhism in my university years and while working in Japan so it wasn’t a new concept to me per se – it was more about how this could be brought into playing records. DJs (or musical hosts as David describes it) come in two species: the self-centred ego-driven performer who is raising their hands up in the air to receive the crowd’s adulation (even during a mix when it becomes obvious their set has been prerecorded) and then the type of musical host who is more of a musical conduit, transmitting the pulse and life energy of music. I know what I would rather be.
Art Jefferson – In the early 2000’s I was purchasing vinyl releases from your Bitches Brew label. I recently revisited some of those records and they still sound just as good now as they did back then. What initially prompted you to launch the record label?
Colleen Murphy – I don’t think this was obvious to me at the time, but looking back I think it had to do with doing things myself and holding the reins. I have always found it best to do one’s own thing rather than wait around for a break and I am used to multi-tasking even if I often think I am a Jill-of-all-Trades. I wanted to have a platform for my own productions and also to release music that I felt would stand the test of time in the face of much of the colour-by-numbers, derivative house music that was being released at that time (and still to this day). Now the label is solely for my own productions and I often get the vinyl rights for the remixes I have done for labels like DFA and K7.
Art Jefferson – Another one of your claims to fame is your incredible knowledge of sound. Around what time did you start getting deep into the technical aspects of gear and sound quality?
Colleen Murphy – My first job was producing syndicated radio shows for over 200 college radio stations and 50 commercial radio stations. I programmed, scripted, voiced, recorded and conducted the interviews, edited on quarter-inch tape and mixed the shows on tape so I was relatively adept in the studio. When I first started playing records with David we were using his Koetsu cartridges, Mark Levinson pre and power amplification and Klipschorns, so I learned by doing and by being thrown into it. It was one of the best ways to learn.
Art Jefferson – On the topic of sound, in the everlasting debate of vinyl v. digital, many purists will say that music tends to sound better on vinyl in regards to quality, however engineers have stated numerous times that CDs replicate a sound closest to the way the album or single was originally recorded and mastered. What’s your take on vinyl vs. digital? Do you think it’s more about the experience that we have with vinyl?
Colleen Murphy – Well first of all CD is 16 bit with only a 44.1 kHz sampling rate so it is not even a complete audio file and lacks in resolution. However, there are higher resolution downloads and these are becoming more popular with better disc storage and some great digital streamers on the market. Digital is very convenient and is very useful and it will never go away. Let us hope it progresses rather than regresses which is what it did for some time after the CD was introduced. However, my love is analog and vinyl as I do not think you can replicate the emotionally engaging and engrossing listening experience with a series of ones and zeroes. Vinyl demands that you engage with it from the artwork down to flipping the record. It is more of a relationship.
Art Jefferson – Are there any forthcoming projects on Bitches Brew that you can speak about?
Colleen Murphy – Not yet. Classic Album Sundays is occupying much of my time but I’m not putting the label or my productions to bed! I just want to wait until I have the right idea or get offered the right remix.
Art Jefferson – Finally, if you could only live with three classic albums, which ones would they be?
Colleen Murphy – I ask people this question all the time so I really should be better prepared! I don’t think I could live with only three records and I can’t say this is a comprehensive list, but three of my favourites are:
Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady – one of my favourite albums since the age of 16.
Black Uhuru – Dub Factor – my favourite after hours record with superb production by Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle.
Joni Mitchell – Blue – one of the best artists (and I’m not going to say female artists as she ranks this way amongst both genders) of all time as far as I am concerned.