When Nick Murphy, bearded Australian artist formerly known as Chet Faker, rolled up to his post at the center of Paradise Rock Club in Boston, I immediately noticed his suit-jacket-over-white-tee wardrobe, and the tiny pink and white flowers tucked into his lapel pocket. And as the set’s vibrant lights illuminated the rest of the stage, I observed a small flowerpot with the same pink and white flowers sitting inside. Upon further inspection, more quiet ornaments became visible around the stage: an ornate quilted rug underneath the wooden piano, and another further back under the drumset. A worn, colorful quilt patched onto the piano seat, and a rope tassel hanging from the mic stand, grass planters on the synths. Every instrument was draped with strings of beads, bells, knitted fabric; a collection of visibly worn, nearly touchable objects that left me curious of their origin and pleased with the tactile quality of it all.
Since his debut album Thinking In Textures in 2012, Murphy had gathered a cult following after releases like a “glitch-soul take” on Backstreet’s “No Diggity,” and “Gold” from sophomore album Built On Glass. His Sonia Dada cover on Triple J’s Like A Version cover series garnered almost five and a half thousand views, a high for the popular youtube channel. According to Pitchfork, releases like these were in part responsible for the rise of the “chill indie electronica” genre that emerged in the 2010s.
Despite this fame, before releasing his third album Run Fast Sleep Naked in April of 2019, the artist formerly known as Chet Faker (a pun off jazz musician Chet Baker) underwent a change back to his given name, Nick Murphy. In an interview with NME, Murphy describes the way his original solo music project evolved into something greater. As music took a real and central part of his life, Murphy felt that the name change gave him a newfound freedom and control over his work. Murphy’s switch from pseudonym Chet Faker to his birth name signals a deeper switch audible in his music and songwriting: Run Fast Sleep Naked feels closer to home. The lyrics are more honest, the beats more unusual, the instrumentality more unique than past albums. These changes feel like an organic progression from Murphy’s past work: “Rather than a shift in the spectrum it’s a widening of the spectrum,” he says to NME.
Unfortunately but inevitably, Murphy has gotten critiqued on this departure away from more radio-friendly tunes like his infamous “Drop the Game” from 2014. Early in the set, an audience member shouted for Murphy to skip to that song. Murphy, undeterred, reminded us that he’d get there later. It’s clear that Murphy’s musical journey is long and still in-progress: his Spotify page and tour headline keep both Nick Murphy and Chet Faker names alongside each other, and he played a thorough mix of both old and new songs during his set. When Murphy finally played “Drop the Game” later in the set, it felt like a sweet indulgence into the nostalgic and familiar world of Chet Faker amidst more experimental (but still very danceable) Nick Murphy work. Moments like these were palpable during the concert: moments that illuminate an artist making intentional changes to his identity. This tangible sense of learning and growth seemed, in my head, to mirror the collection of items around the stage as well as Murphy’s personal transformation as an artist.
All this talk of slow growth and transformation, though true and visible at the concert, doesn’t quite match the strength and passion with which Murphy dove into his set at the Paradise Rock Club. From the first moment the bass drone ripped through the air during his opening number “Hear It Now,” Murphy was on fire. He then plunged into “Sunlight,” a high-energy and personally poignant song about actually feeling alright and being okay. With every lyric Murphy was gripping the microphone, or expressively gesturing with his hands, or headbanging behind the synths, or spinning center-stage while his musicians took on the richly layered internal organs of the songs. Between fragile whisper-sung lines — that were actually good and, dare I say it, sensual — and rougher, deeper-toned vocals, the entire audience was captivated. Some songs, like “Harry Takes Drugs On The Weekend,” are chillingly gorgeous, experimental and sad, while most others, like “Yeah I Care,” are striking and powerful, danceable in their own body-gripping, enthralling way.
The undercurrents of Murphy’s jazz influences were present even as he dipped into uncharted musical territory, and though Murphy is a solo act, he left ample space for each bandmate to shine through on their instruments, from saxophone, flute, and synth to bass, guitar, and drums. The entire set was aggressively live: among brilliant and responsive stage lighting that amplified the emotions generated onstage, Murphy and his band brought elements and layers to the songs that couldn’t be found in a recorded track. Oftentimes shaking the necklaces of bells and beads and fabric collected around the stage (and at one point using a violin bow on a bass guitar), utilizing their unique sound layered into the already rich texture, the band’s high energy and creative music-making made the entire set a feast for all senses. I was mesmerized, and though of course Murphy’s work was at the heart, the collaborative, collected nature of the set was, once again, extremely tangible.
It’s evident that Murphy holds his work close to his heart – he announces his penultimate song by saying that “Believe (Me)” is about “pouring everything into something.” The piano and trumpet enter first, building a melody that pulses under slow, soft vocals. In the interest of honesty: I genuinely started to tear up when Murphy’s honest lyrics about the passage of time and want and growth suddenly morph. Distilled through a vocoder, the lyrics were pushed past legibility as Murphy and his band members contain the same melody within the song as it grows larger, each piece whirring and droning under the vocoder noise, pierced through by piano notes, and suddenly, climactically, perfectly coming to a close. Something I loved about Murphy’s set is he consistently gave his songs the time and air they needed to breathe, to end fully and completely, exhausting each melody to a most beautiful end. And Murphy’s “Believe (Me)” gave me the space I needed to breathe too, this week when I needed it most.
I left Paradise Rock Club energized by every aspect of Murphy’s set, surprised with his talent and growth and passion and enthralled by the layers to this performance. Between the collection of items around the stage that made the set feel like a traveling home, and the visible musical transition that this real life person was undergoing in front of me, and the sheer skill radiating off every musician on stage. Nick Murphy fka. Chet Faker thoroughly transcends genre: too synthy for pop, too instrumental and gritty for electronic, and blossomed far past the “chill indie electronica” birthplace of the project. Wonderfully difficult to categorize, every song was a cultivated performance, intriguing in its complexity and a full-body delight to witness.