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Tamara Murphy on Jazz and Gender

Written by Jake Amy

Tamara Murphy playing bass
Photo: Hans-Jørgen Jahr

Musicians at the forefront of their field consistently demonstrate excellence in musical ability, however across all employment streams within the music industry, the harsh reality for women is one of underrepresentation. I discussed the issue with esteemed bassist, composer and parent Tamara Murphy, who works alongside some of Australia's best music professionals (Kate Miller-Heidke, Harry James Angus, Ali McGregor, Clio Renner), as well as her cutting-edge approach to composition and improvisation which draws influence from The Necks, and her incredible contextual insight into music tradition (which can be further read about in her master’s thesis).

Tamara Murphy playing bass
Photo: Tim McNeilage

I was reading your thesis. Why is jazz a ‘self-destructing’ artform?

Any artform that tries to put itself under glass is going to eat itself up. In the early-90s there was a revival where jazz became defined as a certain thing that had once been. People began playing jazz in a particular way. If it didn’t sound like that, then it wasn't 'jazz'. I think that for any creative [artform], it is influenced by the time and the space in which it’s created. These days, there are so many different environments that music gets created in. Music becomes really unique because of this. I would argue that a lot of music fits under the jazz banner. 'Jazz' can be quite hard to define because it all sounds so different. Those of us who have studied jazz and improvisation know that there is a heap of music out there that isn’t under the 'jazz' banner, but know that it’s so 'jazz'. Think about Hiatus Kaiyote. Jazz has always been a dirty word and it still is a dirty word. I totally understand why people avoid using it. Heaps of people are convinced that they don’t like listening to ‘jazz music’ when they don't even really know much about it, or what it is and isn't.

Why do we bother labelling genres?

Back [in the 90’s], I think that labelling was mostly for ease-of-browsing at CD stores - it was totally a functional thing in terms of marketing. It was really different to how it is these days. Now, you’re not just looking for a new RnB tune on Spotify. You’re looking for ‘music for a rainy day’! With any genre of music, you have to know where you’re coming from in order to know where you're going. Understanding tradition helps inform and place your music somewhere contextually. It gives you somewhere to go from. That’s the way it is, and it happens in every artform.

As musicians, where do you think we draw our influences from?

Everywhere! I think that we draw ideas from anything and everything that we listen to and these days we have access to the world’s catalogue. The music that I've listened to really informs the way that I play and the way that I write. Last year, Laneous put out his album Monstera Deliciosa, which is one of the best albums that I heard last year. Laneous is a really great jazz guitarist, yet he plays all this other stuff which is ‘not jazz’, and it’s so exciting to listen to. I like the idea that stuff is really fused together, and when you hear his album, there’s Prince in there, there’s D’Angelo in there... Again, those two are totally jazz musicians who didn’t call their music jazz, but that language is totally in there! The live music scene in Melbourne is pretty healthy too, and I think that really informs a lot of things. Everyone plays with everyone else in a bunch of different incarnations, so there is a really nice exchange of ideas. Obviously there is still a lot of creating going on behind the scenes at the moment. When we go to gigs, the evolution of our language and identity develops really quickly. You hear, you’re there, you’re experiencing. It’s really visceral. When you remember a great gig, you don't just remember the music. You remember how it felt to be there. Straight away, it's part of you. I think that experiencing live music is a much better way to create a memory than having something on in the background, where you’re half listening. 

Tamara Murphy
Photo: Hans-Jørgen Jahr

Can you talk about your latest album ‘Spirograph Studies’ and its process?

When I was younger, I was trying to create some kind of stamp and presence. A lot of the writing for my first band Murphy’s Law was heavily influenced by Steve Coleman, Dave Holland and other artists composing in odd time signatures and creating pretty challenging music. As I got older, I lost a bit of momentum as a bandleader, and so I put bandleading on the shelf for a little while. Murphy’s Law never broke up, but some of the band members live internationally now, so as you could imagine, gigging has become pretty tricky!

Over time, I felt as though I wanted to create again, but I just couldn't work out what it was. I had to do some soul searching and I had a desire to try and write stuff that I would listen to. I wanted something with a slower unfolding with elements of minimalism. A bit like The Necks. I wanted really simple music that had a sense of space in it. When I started writing for this project, I had to approach composition differently, because I heard a lot of textures and had totally specific sonic ideas. There’s one track in particular that has a ticking sound, and I got my poor drummer James McLean to experiment with all of these different drumsticks. We workshopped exactly what type of stick he would have to use, and exactly where on the cymbal he had to hit it. James has been unbelievably good about me being a total dictator!

It’s been really fun trying to develop the idea of ‘no solos’. [We improvise] in more of a conversational way, which is taken from The Necks. The Necks is something I've grown up listening to for decades. I’m pretty proud to connect with such a beautiful Australian band that’s part of something that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. In the late 90s, The Necks were meant to do an Australian tour, and for some reason, their drummer who lived in Berlin couldn’t make the Melbourne show, so they cut the tour short. My friend and I were massive fans, so we drove up to Sydney to see the gig. They recorded that gig and it ended up becoming the album, Piano Bass Drums, which is one of my favourite albums. It was such an exciting, visceral experience, and [The Necks] were a huge formative influence for Spirograph Studies.

Due to the reliant and conversational nature of the improvisation, when recording, how did you consistently develop fresh ideas during takes?

In a ‘conventional’ jazz album, an individual band member may take a solo. If the individual is unhappy with their solo, they may ask if they can try again. With the Spirograph Studies band, it’s different because we are collectively having a musical conversation the whole time. It’s also more about the shape of the whole piece. If I wasn’t happy with a take, my thought process might be to develop the piece for longer and not be in a rush to build. With this band, I’m being really fussy about the end product. The music and the people in this band really mean a lot to me. It’s a really nice thing to honour that by only putting music out which I’m absolutely behind.

"Gender should definitely be talked about, but I feel that it’s often put on us [women] to do something about it. The change really has to come from the men, who are in the position to do something about it."

There is still an underrepresentation of female and non-binary voices in our musical community. What’s it like being a musician who identifies as female?

At school, I played in a mixed[-gender] soul band, and I became used to the idea that everyone just played together. I had noticed that there weren’t that many chicks on stage at gigs, but I never thought that being a female would be a liability. It was pretty weird when I went to university and there were only two female instrumentalists in my year. Now, I think that because I teach at a few universities, I have a different responsibility to be aware of gender issues, but I go through different stages all the time. When I look back, my experience could have been so different had I attended another school or generally not had the experiences that I did. I think that I was pretty lucky in that way.

I've realised recently that I’ve been involved in lots of these conversations. Gender should definitely be talked about, but I feel that it’s often put on us [women] to do something about it. The change really has to come from the men, who are in the position to do something about it. I did read some of your other interviews. Did you ask the male musicians about gender? They are the musicians that you need to talk to about gender, because they have the power to actually make a change. I remember attending a conference on ‘gender in music’ a couple of years ago at Monash University. 95% of the people there were women. This said so much about the people who are actually trying to do something about it. When I become aware of the gender issue, it bothers me more.

In the education system, where does change have to come from to directly support marginalised genders and identities?

It's so complex. I think that the most change needs to happen in high schools. I’ve seen that females tend to drop out of playing improvised music at this age. Fortunately, the school that I went to had a super inclusive sense of community, with all genders, races, and sexualities. I felt totally encouraged the whole time, but in retrospect, that was probably an anomaly. Compared to other schools, I was so encouraged at that age and I think that is part of the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing. [Gender discrimination] also occurs in universities, and post-uni too... I get really frustrated when I see a new band coming out that consists of all guys. Dudes: you're meant to be the new generation. How are you still doing the same shit that people were doing 40 years ago when there was no choice? You have a choice now, and you’re still not helping. I reckon that if I was playing in bands that were 100% women, 100% of the time, I would be looking around and thinking, ‘This is weird, right?’... It sort of surprises me that men don't [have those thoughts] all the time. Perhaps they’re just used to it? It flummoxes me when it's a really big band of guys too. There was a compilation album that came out a few months ago. It had heaps of different bands. The back cover has a photo of all the musicians, and I think I saw only three women out of 30 people. What the fuck? We are in 2020. Come on. That is outrageous. How can people not see the issue when it is so obviously not okay?

How do you effectively balance active consideration for gender/identity and choice of musician (based on their stylistic idiosyncrasies/‘sound’)?

In general, I don’t think that men are being purposefully malicious and saying, ‘I’m not even going to consider women’. [Women] are probably not on their radar at all. In my phone, all of my colleagues are saved with a note with their instrument name in it. If I can't do a gig and I want to recommend a bass player, I simply type in ‘bass’ and everyone’s name comes up. I scroll through, choose, and at least I know that I've actually given everyone a fair go, regardless of any part of who they are, which is not their choice. It’s a tricky one too, because I can totally see the other side of it. My band does happen to be an equal split of men and women, but it wasn't engineered that way. I was only thinking about the ‘sound’ of the musicians. It just happened that one of them is a woman, and it happens that I'm a woman too! That already tips the scales a lot anyway.

Tamara Murphy
Photo: @pix_by_ian

It sounds like you’ve taken foundational steps to curate a diverse database of musicians where you ultimately don’t consider a person’s identity so actively. Is that true?

If you still end up with a 100% male band, at least you know that you have considered everyone. For my part, I would never want to be booked because I'm a woman. That’s pretty insulting in a way. To know that I haven't been considered at all because I'm a woman, that’s also really insulting. If I'm not the right person for the job and I don't get it, that’s fine. If I’m the right person for the job and I do get it, that’s great. I’ve been asked to do quite a few gigs where someone is putting together an all-female band. These days, I don’t think of that as being a good motivator for playing great music. When your main motivator is doing an ‘all-female thing’, regardless of musicianship, that’s not what I’m about. All I want to do is make great music. If it happens to be an amazing band which happens to only comprise women, then of course it’s fine. One of the best things that I can do for my gender is making sure my art is really good. Then it's a great example of what can actually be done.

How can current artists be active in changing this predisposition to empower and support one another?

Consider everyone who you’re booking. If you need a horn player, don’t just look to your closest mates… Try to widen the circle and think about who else is out there. There are so many amazing musicians around, especially in Melbourne, who are coming up and changing the face of our music scene. I guess that I also wish that guys were in these conversations more often.

Thank you for reminding me of my responsibility. I've taken note and I'll be discussing this with more people, more often.

Yeah - [discussion] is a really important thing. These issues are so obvious to me and probably not really obvious to guys who may just be accustomed to booking their mates… I think that guys become used to being around lots of guys all the time and they don’t really believe that anything’s wrong. You’ll probably have to ask the guys about this… I’m just speculating.

So what's in the pipelines?

I’ve finally picked all the takes for the new Spirograph Studies album, so hopefully that will be appearing later this year! I really want to record a trio album. I have to talk to everyone and make sure that they’re all on board before I tell you too much about it, but as soon as we get out of isolation, I want to spend a day in the studio and smash out heaps of tunes. I just recorded with Nat Bartsch before lockdown at ABC studios. She’s doing a lullaby band album and I think it should be coming in another month or two. Hopefully a few things will be appearing!

Keep up to date with Tamara on her website


We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.

Thank you dearly to Tamara for your time.

Interview with Tamara was conducted on 30 April 2020.

Article first published 10 May 2020.

Photographs taken by Hans-Jørgen Jahr, Tim McNeilage and @pix_by_ian.

Written by Jake Amy, edited by Hugh Heller, contributions from Rosemary Bassett and Emma Volard.

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