Guitar Girl'd: Interview with Jessie Murphy of We Are The Woods on the Release of 'Whales and Roses'

by Laura B. Whitmore
Posted Nov 12, 2012 at 1:24pm

The first time I heard Jessie Murphy and We Are The Woods, I thought maybe they were a bit too sweet and pretty for Guitar World. But on further inspection, Murphy has proved me wrong. She can enrapture and wail!

Part rocker, part quirkster, part folky, part songstress. Murphy’s parts make a very delightful whole. With the release of their new album, Whales and Roses, she and bandmates Marcia Webb and Tyler Beckwith create a concoction of peculiar and varied subject matter, spot-on harmonies, acoustical enchantments and a dash of fun.

We Are The Woods hail from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Murphy and Webb met up at Columbia University in New York City and decided that future cavorting was in their stars. Whales and Roses was recorded with producer Jeremy Sklarsky (producer of Freelance Whales' debut album Weathervanes) at Threshold Recording Studios in NYC.

I spoke to Murphy as she was preparing for its release, which is out now on Rex Records.

GUITAR GIRL'D: You must be excited. You’ve got a new album out.

Yeah! I’m really excited about the record. It’s my favorite thing that I’ve ever done together with my band. So I’m really excited for people to hear it.

You guys did a PledgeMusic campaign for this album. Can you tell me a little bit about how that went?

We had great success with it. We did a funny sort of fundraising video that we thought was hilarious, and that other people thought was half as hilarious as we did - but that’s still pretty hilarious! We made 50% over our target. 10% of the proceeds went to 350.org - an organization that we really support and we want to see succeed. They’re an organization that worked to fight the effects of climate change and bring awareness, and also try and secure a better future for our planet as a whole. So we felt really good about sharing the bounty with them, and it was great! We loved pretty much everything about PledgeMusic.

Let’s talk about your album a little bit more. What were your influences when you were working on this album?

The songs had been written over a longer period of time, and there were songs that didn’t make it on our previous record that we put on this one. There were newer songs, too.

As far as the songwriting process goes, that’s pretty diverse. I really wanted the album to be electric mainly. Our last album had been much more folky in some respects, with percussion as opposed to a full drum set. We talked about how we love the Fleet Foxes record for a current reference. We wanted a lot of classic sounds in there.

I grew up listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash, Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkel, and also the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and a lot of blues stuff. I’m not sure if all that classic rock has an influence record, apart from the Jimmy Page tribute song, but it’s still a pretty organic sounding record with live instruments. Everything got played, there’s no programming on the record. So there’s that!

Tell me about the instruments you used on the record. What gear did you play?

I played a couple of different guitars. One of my favorite guitars I play a lot is a Gibson 446, which is the guitar that Pat Martino played in the ‘70s. It’s a semi hollow body, cutaway, pretty lightweight guitar. It’s not great at holding tune so it really shines in the studio, so you can retune at will.

The person that owns the studio is a guitarist, so he had a lot of guitars there. He had a really nice Tele that I played on some stuff, and he had a 335 that I played on some. We did do some acoustic layering just to fill out the songs. The ukulele was played by my band mate Marsha and our producer Jeremy. For most of the tracking we put it through an older Vox amp. I also brought in my Fender Deluxe Reverb, just because I really love the sound of that Gibson guitar through a Fender amp. I’m definitely a Fender amp junky.

Is that what you use live?

You know, it kind of depends on the club. We do a lot of gigging in New York City, so the less you can tote in a cab, the better. I’ll suss out if they have a decent house amp. If they don’t have anything, I’ll bring my Deluxe. I don’t have a reverb pedal, but I do have a funny converted black face Champ that’s kind of like a Frankenstein. If I had a reverb pedal, I’d probably take that out, but I don’t right now.

Do you play live with that Gibson 446?

I do, it’s a bone of contention right now with my band mates. I got this really lengthy, sweet email from a fan that was basically working up the chutzpa to tell me that my guitar was really interfering with the crowd! She was like, “Every time you tune, Marsha has to talk.” Marsha’s really awesome, but you can just tell that she doesn’t know what to say. So I wrote back and said “Look, we’re on it, I just have to get the resources together to fix the guitar.”

I did recently pick up a guitar that was at my parents, it’s a black Fender Telecaster Aerodyne I think? It’s made it Japan. This businessman gave it to me as a gift a while ago. He thought he was going to play guitar when he turned 40, and it didn’t happen.

My chops escalate at least four notches when I go from the Gibson to this guitar because the action’s really low and I think it’s got 10s on it. I’m used to 11s. So that’s kind of fun. My husband’s like, “Wow, you’ve gotten so much faster!.” I’m like, “It’s the guitar.” But I’m happy to forecast that illusion for everyone!

I read a Jimmy Page interview one time where they asked him, “What’s your advice to young guitarists?” And he said, “Use lighter strings.” That was all he had to say! So why not, right? So the Telecaster might become my main guitar. I love my 446, but it’s a bit of a situation.

Well maybe you’ll get to a point where you can rotate and someone can tune it for you.

Yeah, that’d be cool!

Speaking of live shows, are there any songs on this new record that you particularly love to play live?

Yes. I still study guitar. I have an awesome friend who I take lessons with periodically. I had this thought at 18 that when I’m 30, I’ll be a virtuoso, and that’s not the case! I stopped playing electric, because some boyfriend had told me he liked my songs a lot better on acoustic. So I played acoustic for years.

And then it just hit me, you know, acoustic is just not my spirit animal. I love the acoustic, but that’s not really where my voice is. So I went back to electric and have just really started improvising and playing lead again. So right now, “Laser Light Show” is the only song in the set that has an extended solo in it. So that’s my favorite because, you know, who doesn’t like to take a solo? So I’m really getting back into pedals now and all the options there. “Library” is also a favorite right now. It took us awhile to tighten it up live, so that the power and energy of the song comes through and the timing is really solid - and now it is. I love playing it because it’s so locked in.

I like that song, because it’s just quirky! I like what it’s about. I’ve never heard anybody sing about that.

Yeah, it needed a song right? The verses are actually lines pulled from Emily Dickinson poems. I think I pulled them from two or three different poems. That’s the little nod to her. Yeah, it’s a fun song.

So any thoughts or advice you can share with other guitar players out there?

Yeah, well, obviously... practice. Ha ha. I think I’ll share my motto with is “learn any which way you can.” I remember when I started to play, I had this really rigid idea of how you were supposed to learn on to play the guitar, the authentic way to do it. And that was strictly transcribing everything by ear. Turns out, I’m not very good at that!

At this point, I’m decent at it, because I’ve been doing it for a long time, but when I first started I just didn't’ have the natural knack for it like a lot of people do. I heard one of my favorite guitarists, Ronnie Earl, say that he was terrible at it! He just made up something that was close. That was very liberating for me to hear. In this day and age, when you have access to YouTube and great magazines like Guitar World, just go for it.

Play with anyone you can who’s better than you. Leave your ego on the side of the road. Be aggressive about it, be like, show me how to do that. That’s how I learned a lot, by being a pushy New Yorker! Anyone that was better than me, I would try and play with them. That’s a way to learn really well, by picking up things directly from another person.

Look for Jessie Murphy and We Are The Woods tour dates later in spring 2013. Find out more at wearethewoods.us.

See their fun PledgeMusic video from their successful campaign right here.

Photos: Don Razniewski

Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the co-producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.