I Never Meant To Start A War: A Conversation With Curtis McMurtry


One of this year’s early contenders for the inevitable end-of-year best-of lists is The Hornet’s Nest, the second solo album by Austin-based Curtis McMurtry. Released this month, the album is  a lushly produced record that interestingly tips its hat to both to traditional American music and to contemporary pop and R&B production, resulting in songs that sound exciting and new whilst retaining a familiarity that is warm and inviting. It doesn’t hurt that McMurtry has a sticky-sweet singing voice, either; my first listen to Hornet’s Nest instantly had me hooked on the music of this young banjo-picking hip-hop fan.

 When listening to The Hornet’s Nest, I  really picked up a hip-hop vibe in your production.

Oh, absolutely, 100%. My favorite albums to come out of the last few years have been Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and D’angelo’s last album as well. I’m impressed and surprised you picked up on that, because honestly I didn’t think it was that overt.

“Smooth As Thorns” really impressed me—and is that autotune?

Yes, it is. There’s a little bit of that on the album in general. It’s not a heavy presence, not like a lot of hip-hop musicians or Bon Iver have done in the past few years. I’m not big into using it to turn your voice into a robot—it’s a cool device to use in moderation but it can be and has been overdone—but I do recognize it for being a valuable studio tool. Almost every commercial record made in the last fifteen years has it in use in some form. I mean, I’m listening to Alison Kraus and Robert Plant’s record, and boom, it’s there—the last place you’d expect it! (Laughs)

Do you think that The Hornet’s Nest is a more accurate representation of the music you make? It’s quite different from your debut, so much so that one could listen to one and not realize that the other was made by you.

I produced and arranged  The Hornet’s Nest entirely by myself. Respectable Enemy was produced by Will Sexton, a friend and someone I really respect, but The Hornet’s Nest is a portrait of me and the kind of things I’ll come up with when left to my own devices, and I don’t have to compromise what i’m doing in order to chase commercial success. I’m much happier with the final result this time around. Don’t get me wrong, I think the first album’s great.

Oh, I do to. I wouldn’t say one’s better than the other; they’re just different. The first time around, I must admit, we were trying to court the Americana audience. I may have sabotaged it because i wanted to use strings and horns, while Will really preferred the production to be me and a guitar. That kind of arrangement is cool, but truthfully it doesn’t excite me a lot. I made it in Austin, but I was living in Nashville, and I think at the time I was caught up in thinking about who would be listening to the record—that’s sort of a Nashville mindset. With The Hornet’s Nest, I don’t think i really cared or gave much thought about who might listen to it. (Laughs) Commercial considerations aren’t unimportant, but it can become stifling if you’re not careful about it, too, especially when you’re making music that comes with certain expectations that have nothing to do with you and your art.

And, admittedly, you do have a pretty big legacy…

Yeah, I do, but I tend not to think about it that much, except I know that I have to expect it to come up in reviews and press. I’ll play a show or I’ll put a new song up, and inevitably someone will say, “Gee, you know, this isn’t really the kind of music his dad would make, so it would be silly for us to compare the two,” and then the rest of the piece will turn around and do just that! (Laughs) It doesn’t dictate or hamper the way I write or the way I arrange things, but it can definitely affect the reception of what I do.

Since Respectable Enemy was your debut record, did you feel like maybe you had to do that because those names would inevitably come up?

I think I was generally more excited about Americana as a genre at the time. I mean, I loved jazz and classical and hip-hop as much as I do now, but to me I think I was excited because in my mind, Americana wasn’t something that was really well-defined. When I would think of that term, my mind instantly wouldn’t think of alt.country, and even though I know now that that’s the default genre for a large majority of Americana fans, I think I had a more naive idea about what Americana meant. In the years after releasing Respectable Enemy, I think I know exactly what Americana means to a lot of people and what people making what they define to be Americana claims it as, and I don’t like it. I don’t think that’s what it should be.

If anything, I really don’t like what is defined as “Americana.” I don’t like that the definition doesn’t include jazz; to me, that’s just ludicrous.  I’m disappointed that “Americana” doesn’t mean rap, too. I notice that whenever we talk about “roots music” or when “roots music” outlets talk about themselves, the first thing I think is, “Well, just whose ‘roots’ are we talking about here?” The definition is very, very narrow. It seems to only mean Appalachian-derived music, where authenticity matters much less than homage.  I mean, rap is obviously roots music, jazz is obviously roots music, but in the Americana world, nobody will even consider that. When I look at who they give awards to, it’s either alt.country, folk, or just a handful of soul bands who are so rigidly devout to the image of what “soul” is that their music lacks any real passion. 

With Respectable Enemy, I was really excited about Americana and I was hoping it would be pushed in different directions, with horns and strings and an expanding definition of what fit the established sound of Americana, and it didn’t really happen like I expected it to. With The Hornet’s Nest, I just really didn’t care, and it didn’t matter to me if it would be called Americana or not.

It’s tough—you have to establish yourself, but where do you go from there? Do you dig into that established notion, or do you expand outward? It is definitely a tough process. You sit there and you think to yourself, “Okay, this is what I want to make.” But then you just sort of have to sit back and say, “You can call it whatever you want to, this is just the record I made.”

There’s a scene in the film Inside Llewyn Davis, where a woman from Arkansas is appearing at this New York folk club open mic night, and the main character—a guy who is obsessed with authenticity—is just sitting there, heckling her, berating her, and it’s largely because she’s authentic and he is not. Here he is, he seemingly “loves” this authentic music, but when met with it, he turns his nose at it and dismisses it as inferior, and that’s sort of a truism in that world.

That makes me think about the Bluegrass world. There’s this mindset that a lot of musicians have bought into wherein they tell themselves that there are certain instruments that constitute being ‘bluegrass,’ and nothing outside of this set definition are appropriate for this strictly defined term. Yet what these purists miss is that the inventors of the genre didn’t think about it in that way. They were innovators, not re-enactors who were caught up in a pose. I think the whole authenticity thing is a myth, truthfully. You can purist about the music you make, but music grows on its own, in spite of your rigid definitions about what that music should be.

And it can be laughable, too. When I lived in Nashville, I’d meet singers who would have this Southern “twang,” but then would come to find out that these were people who grew up in Connecticut or some place that’s definitely the opposite of the image they are projecting. If that’s your thing, hey, that’s cool, but it’s really interesting to me how some people will convince themselves that this image is who they are, that this fictional projection is actually their roots. It can be sad, though, because people can be oblivious to how their sincere belief in this faux image can make them a laughing stock. It’s just not being truthful to oneself, and that’s the most important thing an artist must be, first and foremost.

On some level, I feel like that’s the difference between Respectable Enemy and The Hornet’s Nest. I’m proud of them both, but to a certain extent I feel like The Hornet’s Nest is more representative of who I am, the music I like, and the music I want to make. I’m really proud of this album. I’m looking forward to sharing it with the rest of the world, and that people are liking it really makes me happy.

Curtis McMurtry’s album The Hornet’s Nest will be released February 24th. 

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