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You Should Know: Murphy Kaye

Milwaukee songwriter Gabrielle Powell admits her previous band name probably turned a lot of people away. Before the pandemic, she was recording under the decidedly non-radio friendly moniker Wanderslut, a handle she’s since dropped for a more intimate alias Murphy Kaye (a pseudonym she landed on by pairing the name of her first dog with the name of the highway she lived on growing up). “I just really wanted to start moving toward sharing my music on a broader scale,” Powell says of the name change. “The old moniker was sort of standing in the way of that.”

And to be sure, Powell’s music deserves to be heard on a wider scale. Praised by Milwaukee Record's and the Journal Sentinel's year-end coverage, Murphy Kaye’s new single “ Joyride” is aching and confessional, nakedly personal even as it introduces lusher, more orchestrated production than Powell’s previous projects. Powell talked with us about the story behind that song, why she switched stage names, and her plans for 2022.

Murphy Kaye | Photo credit: Gabrielle Powell

Wanderslut was a pretty divisive stage name. Do you think you were trying to chase away listeners with that moniker?

Yeah, I think it was like a little bit of a middle finger to society, but I stand by it still. But I think that there's a season for everything. And now it's the season for Murphy Kaye.

Was there a change in musical direction that came with the name change?

I think a little bit, yeah. I started writing a lot more songs, and I think I'm dialing in what I want out of the music a little bit more precisely as time goes on.

What do you think that it is that you're trying to get out of your music?

I think I'm trying to accurately reflect what's going on in my life more, rather than trying to fit a preconceived box of “this is the music I want to, this is what I want to sound like.” I don’t want to sound like XYZ artist; I've just been trying to figure out how to sound like myself. And that’s a weird and difficult journey, but I think that as time goes on, and as I've been working more and more, I’m getting closer to it.

Is your new single “Joyride” autobiographical? Are you able to share the story behind it?

I would love to. “Joyride” is about a friend of mine who was really struggling and having a difficult time. And it's sort of about reckoning with growing up and finding out that you can only really control yourself. You can only really control so much in your life, and if you want to have other people in your life, which I would hope that we all do, sometimes there are going to be disappointments and difficulties. In the end, you can only control yourself and there are good things to remember about every relationship

Your music is very confessional. Is that style of music hard to write?

It is. It's hard for a few reasons. I think one of them is that I am choosing to share things about my life, but I think that that also means that if there are people in my life who aren't willing to share, you have to sort of protect their anonymity, too. So there are a lot of details that I change or leave out, because I’m not trying to air their dirty laundry. So it’s been interesting for me to try to take these stories that could be just like a journal entry with names and faces or whatever attached, and take out the identifying details.

Earlier this year you started a project where you attempted to write a song each week. How did that work out for you?

I got to 28 weeks. You know, I have a video about this on my YouTube channel about what happened and why I stopped. And it's not to say that I won't come back to it, but I got to a point where I felt that it was making me a worse songwriter and it was making me second guess myself more than anything. And that was sort of the opposite of the goal that I started out with.

One of the really good things about growing up and continuing to be an artist in different ways is that you learn to drop things that aren't serving you anymore. You learn to reevaluate your goals especially with a long-term project like that. And I got six months in and I was going, “I'm not enjoying this. It's making me sad to write music and I don't ever want to feel like that.” I can feel sad and write a song about that, but I don't want to feel sad about the process of writing a song, because that's sort of the opposite of what I want.

Did you get any songs you can use for future projects out of those 28 weeks?

I'd say there are like four or five that I'm looking at out of the 28 that I would feel comfortable using. And even before I started, I had a backlog of songs, and I just started doing a little bit of recording, too. So, I'm really excited for 2022. It’s going to be a good experience going into 2022 to be able to release more music than I have in the last like two years combined.

Some of the most successful indie artists of the last few years are songwriters not unlike yourself: Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, artists in that lane. Do you think that creates an opportunity for a songwriter like you to find a bigger audience than you might've five years ago?

Yeah. I mean, I think that being able to say your record sounds like Phoebe Bridgers, people hear that and they perk up, whereas before if you’d said it sounds like a smaller set of artists that nobody had heard of, they’d probably put it in the “no” pile. I try not to chase trends, but it does make me happy to see that guitar music and indie rock are finding their way into people's hearts.