One of the questions in the recent UK census asked: “What do you feel is your national identity?” offering the options Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish, British and Other.
To most people, the answer would involve a straightforward and instinctive thought process, but not ALEXI MURDOCH.
The singer-songwriter spent much of his childhood and teenage years in Elgin and now owns a remote house on the west coast facing the Hebrides where he eats porridge for breakfast and wrote his latest album Towards The Sun in its entirety.
You wouldn’t be surprised to learn, therefore, that Murdoch is almost universally described in online articles as Scottish, but it’s a label that makes him decidedly uncomfortable.
“I don’t really regard myself as anything particularly,” he says. “I have a problem with nationality in general. I find it causes problems. It can limit people’s perception of what they’re hearing. I’ve always been rather suspicious of the very idea of geographical boundaries and representing identity that way.
“Patriotism seems all good and well but, in reality, the attachment to some idea of identity is based literally on these quite arbitrary – or, at the very least, historically arbitrary – boundaries that have been harboured usually by violence and aggression in the past.
“Obviously there are cultural differences between people but it just seems that placing importance on the very idea of being from one place probably does more harm than good.”
Murdoch was born in London two days after Christmas in 1973 and initially raised just outside of Athens by his Greek dad and English mum.
It wasn’t until Murdoch was of school age that his family moved to Scotland, before the lure of the American dream saw him relocate to North Carolina to enrol at Duke University.
Murdoch freely acknowledges he doesn’t have a place he would call home.
“Not really,” he says. “I’ve moved around a lot. I have Scottish family and I live out on the west coast now and I love it there and don’t see myself leaving, but I’m pretty restless. I feel more at home on my boat out at sea. Maybe that’s because of the lack of any kind of flag or nationality. It’s not that I don’t feel I belong, because there are places I resonate with, but I spend a lot of time away.”
It has been during his many extended stays across the Atlantic that Murdoch has forged an incredibly successful career in music.
His sublime 2006 debut album Time Without Consequence, with its lights-out atmospherics and echoes of Nick Drake both vocally and in its hypnotic acoustic melodies, has shifted more than 100,000 copies, allowing Murdoch to easily sell out 500-capacity venues across the US.
Remarkably, he has managed to generate a large and devoted following without the support of a record label.
Even if his name isn’t familiar to you, there’s a strong chance you’ll have heard Murdoch’s music without realising, since his songs have popped up in the background of dozens of television shows (House, The O.C., Prison Break, Dawson’s Creek) and films (Garden State, Gone Baby Gone and Away We Go).
“It was a choice for me early on,” he explains. “Either I allowed the music to get out that way or you go with a record label, because one way or another you’ve got to figure out a way to finance making records and get your music out there.
“There’s no way that that’s not going to feel like a compromise to me, it definitely does. But having said that, it has become such an accepted form of discovering music. People watch so much crap on television that it seems like they have developed a capacity to be able to tune out, or at least separate, the music they might discover and the actual programming that it’s a part of.
“The worry would be that they’re so attached to the programme they discover it from that, for them, that becomes the meaning of the song. But I’ve found that, with the music I make, people don’t seem to be too bothered about where they first heard it.
“The collision of art and commerce has never been a comfortable one but at the end of the day it’s a real one. I hope the choice I’ve made is the lesser of two evils.”
This year, however, Murdoch is making a concerted effort to forgo preaching to the converted on North American tours and step outside his the comfort zone.
He has given respected German-based label City Slang permission to release his latest album Towards The Sun in Europe, and this month he has been playing in less-visited cities such as Amsterdam, London, Paris and Berlin, although sadly no Scottish dates have made it into his schedule as yet.
“I’ve been doing this independently since I started,” he says. “I just followed where the music took me and it took off in the States. However, I’ve always had this strange feeling that I need to get back home, whether it’s the UK or Europe.
“I feel that the music I make is part of some kind of tradition that is almost automatic. It’s subconsciously ingrained or genetically there or part of the landscape, and yet I don’t really know enough about it.
“People have lost touch with the real traditional music, their local traditional music. They have ideas about what traditional Scottish music is but it’s quite a narrow perspective. There’s probably some amazing music happening in these rural spots that I’d like to investigate.”
Alexi Murdoch’s new album Towards The Sun is out now on City Slang. The title track is available for free download via Bandcamp.
Alexi Murdoch – Something Beautiful