Major Murphy and Jess Williamson Are Just Working For a Sustainable Career

Jacob Bullard and Jackie Warren catch up with the singer-songwriter.

Jacob Bullard is the vocalist and Jacki Warren is the bassist of the Michigan-based rock band Major Murphy; Jess Williamson is an LA-based singer-songwriter whose album Sorceress was released last year. To celebrate the recent release of Major Murphy’s album Access, the two hopped on a call to catch up.

— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Jacob Bullard: What’s up?

Jess Williamson: I’m so excited to talk to you guys. This is so fun. I wish we were hanging out in real life.

Jacki Warren: I know. Me too.

Jess: What are y’all up to?

Jacki: It’s finally getting warm here, so we might go to the beach later, or tomorrow. It’s in the 80s today. We were wearing coats last week, so.

Jess: Oh, my god, fun.

Jacob: Yeah. Michigan’s intense in that way. It’s very dramatic. 

Jacki: You’re back in LA, right? 

Jess: Yeah, I’m back, and it’s feeling really good. This thing happens to me every time I leave though — like I was in Texas last week and every time I go back, I’m like, Oh, I never want to leave Texas, I should move back, I should live in Marfa. And then as soon as I get back to LA, I’m like, Oh, yeah, I love LA, it rules here for sure.

I’ve been writing a lot. Actually, Jackie, I want to send you a new song I wrote literally yesterday. 

Jacki: No way! You just kind of got inspired yesterday at home and just kind of went off?

Jess: Yeah. 

Jacki: Amazing. Did you write on guitar or on keys?

Jess: Yeah, this was on guitar actually. OK, so what I’ve been doing is, I have this drum machine app on my phone that is changing my life. It’s called Funk Box, Katie [Crutchfield] told me about it. It has these vintage sounds that I really like. 

Jacob: Are we talking LinnDrum, like ‘80s? 

Jess: Well, the one that I use is — famously JJ Cale used it a lot, I can’t think of the name right now. It really elevates when you have this drum machine going and you’re just strumming chords. 

Jacki: Something to vibe to.

Jess: It’s changing how I’m writing songs. 

Jacob: That’s exciting.

Jess: But I wanna hear about how you guys write songs.

Jacob: I’m in the midst of a kind of a writing time too. I feel like I’m being blessed with ideas and melodies right now, it’s exciting. I try to kind of keep it mysterious. I think that’s a big thing for me, I try not to really think about it too much. In some ways, it’s like a spiritual practice. I’m always kind of trying to trick myself or surprise myself with the process of it, and keep it alive.

Anytime I put pressure on myself it never happens. 

Jacki: I would say I observe that it’s very much a posture of receiving. It’s kind of like a channeling thing, where I don’t see you as actively meddling in the process. I also notice you don’t really get attached to, like, a small thing. I’m like, “Oh, record that! Make a voice memo! Pick that melody out!” And I feel like you’re more fluid with it. 

Jess: That’s very cool.

Jacki: You kind of just walk around for weeks playing variations of the same chord progression. And then then the humming starts, and then I start humming to harmony and we’re kind of weaving humming parts, and then some words just kind of present themselves.

Jacob: Yeah. I would say more often than not, it’s humming first and then you try to figure out what words would sound good with the melody for me. But sometimes you just have one word — I don’t know if you ever have that, Jess, where it’s like, somehow that word is just like speaking to you. I’m trying to think of one recently that I’ve had — I’ve got one called “Everybody’s Pain.” I don’t know if that’s going to go anywhere, but, you know, you just try to pluck a word out and you’re like, Alright, let’s see where this takes me.

Jess: I do the exact same thing. I have like this long note of just weird little phrases.

Jacki:  That’s what we’re looking at, on his phone. [Laughs.] I’ve never seen this note.

Jess: Jackie, what do you think of the note?

Jacki: I love it.

Jacob: “All in the same boat” — I love expressions. I’m always trying to include expressions, cultural things that people say.

Jacki: “A care in the world,” I’m seeing. “A missed opportunity.” “A minor tragedy.”

Jacob: Hey, hey, alright, not too much here, I don’t wanna give it all away. [Laughs.]

Jess: How are you all feeling about the album coming out and everything?

Jacob: Feeling great, feeling good. This album was a wild one, it was a wild ride. There’s definitely a part of me that’s like, wiped ou.

Jacki: Over it. 

Jacob: Yeah. If you think of it in terms of a marathon, we weren’t skipping across the finish line. It was kind of like we collapsed in a heap at the end of it. 

Jess: Like at the end up making it, or just at the end of releasing it?

Jacob: Just the whole thing. It’s finally out, it’s done. We work with a label, but it’s a small label — and I love that too, I was very heavily involved in every part of the process.

Jacki: It makes for a very intimate process, which is cool. But also the intimacy can be exhausting.

Jacob: And we were all trying new things. I was trying new things in the songwriting, and then we tried new things as a band, and then we tried new things in the studio. And then the label wanted to try working with new people in a new kind of marketing strategy. There was a lot of new stuff we all wanted. Every step of the way, it was kind of like we were pushing ourselves to try to get to this next stage. And so I think that was just a lot of work.

Jess: What number album is this for Major Murphy?

Jacob: Two.

Jess: OK, that’s what I thought. Yeah, I love the record, y’all. And actually, my friend Dave, who is a Major Murphy fan — I told him about this conversation with y’all, and he has a question. Dave would like to know, who is Major Murphy?

Jacob: Oh, yeah, that’s the question. There’s no literal Major Murphy that I know of, or there isn’t, in my mind. I like the mystery of it, I thought it was fun. Sometimes I think it’s me. 

Jacki: It’s a name from a book. 

Jacob: Yeah, I was reading this far out book called Messengers of Deception. It’s all about UFOs and cult stuff. 

Jess: Oh, hell yeah, sounds cool. 

Jacob: It’s a really cool book. But there was a character in the book who was a real life person — it’s like a nonfiction investigative book — and they they didn’t want their identity to be revealed, but they agreed to be interviewed for the book. And so their alias was Major Murphy.

Jess: Ooh, I like it! That’s cool. Are you writing songs for the next Major Murphy record?

Jacob: Yeah, I think so. I’m definitely on a wavelength and feeling excited about it. I’m always kind of trying to write songs, just for no reason, but I’m also finding inspiration thinking about the band and writing songs for the band and for another album. It’s fun to make albums and think about songs as a kind of a group or a suite. Is that something that you experience? 

Jess: Yeah, I think I do. I do like to think about the album as its own little world. It’s like you’re creating this world. I like making records, I like thinking about this body of work, like this collection of songs. But it’s funny because I think most music listeners are not really receiving the music as a body of work. I feel like with Spotify and stuff, we’re living in this kind of—

Jacki: Singles, baby.

Jess: Yes, yes. I was talking to a friend recently who is a songwriter, and he’s about to put out a record. He’s like, “After this, I’m only doing singles. I don’t want to make records anymore. I want to make a song and I want it to come out the next week on the internet.”

Jacob: Oh, yeah. There’s a definite appeal to that for sure.

Jess: I mean, the pop stars do that. They just drop a track and then it’s on the internet and radio. And that seems fun too. You can really respond to the times in real time. For us, making records, putting it on vinyl — you have to have at least a six month lead time just to get the vinyl made.

Jacob: Especially now, because it’s all clogged up.

Jacki: Now when people ask about the songs that we’re releasing, they’re like, “Tell me about that song.” And, you know, we’re like, “Well, this thing happened, like, four years ago, but it took me this long to move beyond it, metabolize it, write a song about it, record the song.” It’s a long process. But, yeah, the world that’s created in the whole piece is so gratifying too.

Jess: Yeah. I mean, I know that there are of course music fans that love records and love to sit with the album — I always thought that that was the norm, and I’m realizing now that that’s actually more of a niche thing, to sit with an entire album. People just make playlists. Which I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just funny because, for me as a songwriter, I’m so focused on the album — the body of work. 

But I did have an experience last summer where I wrote this song during COVID about COVID, about my experience, my feelings on lockdown happening and stuff. And I recorded it in my house, and my two friends that played on i  recorded their parts in their houses. And then a couple weeks after I wrote it, it came out on just online. It was so fun to just do it at home for free, basically, and then to just have it come out right away, and have it be this song that spoke to this moment that we were all in.

Jacki: Yeah, you get the gratification of experiencing the response. The immediacy has got to be such a thrill, because you’re still in it, the song is so fresh.

Jess: Yes. And we were all in that scary time, and I put a lot of my feelings about it into the song. For other people to listen to something that speaks to the moment that we’re all sharing…  I’ve gotten like quite a lot of messages just about that song. I would say even more than my album, which came out a month before. So I struggle with this, kinda, because that model is pretty cool.

Jacki: Yeah, I loved that song and I perceived that it did really well too. People love that digestible… They love the singles. They can put it on their playlist.

Jess: They really do. Moving forward, everything got turned upside down — I think it’s a cool moment where, as musicians, we can start to rethink some of these models, and really look at what what works and what feels the best. Maybe for me, it’s going to be some combination of both. Because I do want to make a record and I do want it to come out of vinyl and I do want to obsess over the packaging, and all that stuff. I know you all do that, too. That matters to me, and that matters to the small subculture of people that it matters to. 

But then also, I’m really curious about collaborating with other people, doing more home recordings, just putting singles out kind of quickly, because that’s fun too. I feel like we can kind of play with a lot of different approaches. What do you all think?

Jacki: And that can be something that can tide you over, while you’re in the two year process or whatever.

Jacob: I think they kind of feed each other. This kind of applies to something I was going to ask you about, Jess. The one year anniversary of Sorceress just happened, right?

Jess: Yes, it did, May 15.

Jacob: I saw you post about that. I’ve made anniversary posts like that myself, and I feel like that’s becoming a popular thing to do. In some ways, I really like it — paying attention to the times of when things came out, and noticing like, Oh, this time last year I was releasing this album, and now I’m doing this, and just seeing how those things correlate. I like paying attention to those cycles and rhythms and stuff. But at the same time — so I’m really into the Beatles and I’m always trying to watch interviews and stuff, and I’m always struck by [how] some of these huge iconic artists don’t remember anything. Someone’s like, “Did you know that it’s been 50 years since Sgt. Pepper came out?” And he’s like, “Oh, wow, thanks for reminding me.” I just think about those artists, and I think they were so in the moment, and prioritizing their creative output and the process. 

Now that we’re in this digital Instagram, social media age, do you feel like it’s almost a trap to be already kind of mythologizing our own work, through these, like anniversary posts? As an artist sometimes I wish I could be just more no-looking-back. I want to savor those moments, and I’m happy to be reminded of them. But another thing I’ve been thinking about is not dwelling on my work, you know —doing my work, doing my best all the way through, but then once it’s done, just moving to the next thing and not stewing or dwelling over things. So I feel like it’s all tied up in this process of just, how do you create a flow state?

Jess: It’s so interesting to think about how our heroes, like Paul McCartney or, for me, Leonard Cohen, how they treated their output back then, versus us doing fuckin’ one-year-later Instagram posts. Because we’re living in this funny social media world, there is something about participating in that that does feel cheaper than, like, Paul McCartney being like, “When did Sgt. Pepper come out?” [Laughs.]

Jacob: Recently I was listening to Bob Dylan interview, and he really didn’t like his first record, he didn’t like how it turned out. 

Jess: I never knew that. 

Jacob: And so when it came out, he was vocal about like, “I don’t like this. I’m over it.” I’m like, Man, that’s cool. Now, I feel like we don’t have the ability to just be ourselves, almost, because it’s not a good look on Instagram or something. But Bob was just plowing forward onto the next. There’s something powerful about that. 

Jess: I think you’re onto something. I think the trick is to just be a thousand percent yourself, because that’s what resonates with people. Maybe you’re feeling called to be a little bit more of a dark horse, you know. That’s not a bad thing.

Jacob: I’ve gotta get some shades. [Laughs.]

Jess: [Laughs.] I mean, this is a common thing. I’ve had this conversation with a lot of people, of like, “I don’t want to play the game, I don’t want to post on the internet.” And to that I say, then don’t do it! I actually have a lot of fun with my social media, for music. I find it to be ultimately a really positive thing, because for me, what I like about it is it is a direct link to people all over the world who listen to my music. I love that, I love getting messages from people. They’re listening to my music, it’s in their life, meaning something to them. Like, what an honor. And then we have this very easy way to be in touch. For me when I post that my record came out a year ago or whatever, I kind of do it for those people. Like, this is a celebration of the thing that brought us together.

But I did have this moment, because both [of my records] came out in May — Cosmic Wink came out, like, May 11, 2018. So I had two back-to-back anniversary posts and I was like, OK, that’s the end. I’m not going to do this every year. [Laughs.] When did [Access] come out? 

Jacob: April 2.

Jess: That’s still a kind of a pandemic record. Are y’all gonna tour at all?

Jacob: We’re in a really funny place with live stuff. We were already in a kind of liminal space — we started in 2015, and did four years of DIY shows and I was doing all the booking. We’ve never worked with an agent. So we’ve done the regional stuff. I love playing live, but it got to a point where I was like, I can’t do this booking anymore. And then on top of that, we were getting advice from Winspear, who’s our label, to kind of starve the market of our presence so that we could hopefully find an agent or hop on a support tour.

Jacki: Support tour was kind of the next big thing.

Jacob: That was the next big thing leading into lockdown and the pandemic and everything. We were like, OK, we’ve done pretty much everything we can ourselves.

Jacki: But also we were kind of spinning our wheels, because, I mean, it’s no small feat for anybody to play a show. You really put yourself out there. But I feel like every show felt like such double duty for me and Jacob, because we are both parents of the same child, and we’re both in the band. So we kind of got to a point where we were like—

Jacob: We gotta get paid. 

Jacki: So for us to play live, it’s got to really be worth it. That’s kind of the way I was advising — just, like, focus on writing, focus on recording and hold out for a support tour where, maybe you’re not getting paid a ton more, but at least it’s to a bigger audience.

Jacob: You’re getting some money, some guarantee.

Jess: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. The fact that we’re even having a conversation about why, like, we would want to ask to be compensated well, to play music for people — it’s like, yes, y’all have a child, so of course. But also, shouldn’t we just be paying bands better in general? Like, somebody’s making money. 

Jacob: There’s money going around.

Jacki: Jacob and I were just talking about that yesterday — when you do, a lot of times, a live performance thing, even with a lot of the bigger things like playing for TV, you don’t get paid.

Jess: I recently was asked to play a show where I would have to drive 12 hours, probably, or pay to fly. And they they reached out like it as if it was this great honor to be asked or something. And the amount that they wanted to compensate me would barely even cover the travel expenses. I’m like, Well, of course I would love to go there and play music, and maybe there was a time in my life where I would have said yes to that. But now I’m like, If I don’t start asking for what I need to actually feel good about about performing, then I’m never going to get what I need. I think when we’re younger, we’re just happy to be there and we’re stoked and it’s fun and whatever. But I just am working to have a sustainable career.

Jacki: You’re like, “I have I have a dog to feed.” 

Jess: I have a dog to feed!

Jacki: It’s hard, though, when you’re like, I’m going to be the one, I’m going to stand up and I’m going to turn this down and put it out to the universe that an abundance of better paying opportunities are going to come. And then, you know, somebody else who’s willing to do it for free takes the gig. It’s hard to say no.

Major Murphy is a rock band from Michigan. Their new album Access is out now on Winspear.