Austin360 Artist of the Month: Curtis McMurtry gets political on 'Toothless Messiah'
Any question of whether Curtis McMurtry’s new album “Toothless Messiah” would address the sociopolitical condition of America is answered right out of the gate. The opening track is titled “1/27/17,” and its first line asks: “How are you adjusting to the new regime?”
“I finished the song on that day,” says McMurtry, explaining that Jan. 27, 2017, was when Donald Trump restricted travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries. “It was a complete reaction to him signing the Muslim ban, which is almost hard to remember now. But I was performing that song the whole time he was in office.”
It seems fitting, then, that the Feb. 5 release of “Toothless Messiah” comes just a couple of weeks after Joe Biden became president and immediately reversed that travel ban with one of his first executive orders. The album is the first full-length release in four years from our Austin360 Artist of the Month for February 2021.
What unfolds after the stark and brief spoken-word first track is a record that explores “different perspectives on the same situation,” McMurtry says. “Some people want to resist, some people want to go along with it, some people want to run, and some people want to keep their heads down and pretend nothing's happening.”
In track two, “Food on the Table,” the narrator asks: “Why should we fight if we can still run and hide?” The chorus of “You Need Me to Betray You” captures a character who’s less fearful and more skeptical: “My teachers taught me not to trust my teachers.” Then there’s “The Cavalry Is Here,” which immediately dashes the optimism of its title in the song’s second line: “But they have already surrendered.”
A significant revelation about “The Cavalry Is Here”: “I actually wrote that line when Obama was still in office,” says McMurtry, who turned 30 last year. “I remember writing those lines when the Bush tax cuts ended up getting continued, instead of expiring. And I don't blame Obama necessarily for that. But collectively, Democrats wouldn't fight to end them. It was a frustrating time.”
This underscores an important point about “Toothless Messiah.” While it’s framed around the last four years of the American experience, McMurtry says he doesn’t consider it an album specifically about Trump. So who is the toothless messiah, then?
“I was thinking of weak leaders,” he answers. “It’s Trump a lot of the time, but I was trying not to make it explicit, because I wanted to talk about dictatorship and authoritarianism more generally. Because he's not the first or the last.
“I also wanted to reckon with the idea that some people were projecting a savior where I was seeing a monster. And that's going to happen again, given that 30 to 40 percent of the population seems to want a dictator.”
Early responses to the album’s songs indicate McMurtry may have hit the mark he was aiming for. “I do have fans that are Trump supporters, and they're projecting something entirely different onto the songs they have heard from it,” he says.
“In a way, I'm puzzled,” he adds. “But I think that part of what I was going for is that people see what they want to see. There might be a part of me that kicks myself for not being more explicit. But that was the thesis; that was the exercise.”
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“TOOTHLESS MESSIAH” is also an exercise in brevity. Its 14 tracks collectively clock in at just under 30 minutes, ranging in length from 0:49 to 3:07.
“I think being concise helps the whole record, really,” McMurtry suggests. “It's not because I think people don't have the attention span for something longer. But I used to write longer songs, and now I'm bored of them. So I try and make something that can stay in the moment, even if the moment is two and a half minutes long. That makes it a little more piercing.”
An even bigger part of what makes these songs work is the music that accompanies the words. McMurtry is a singer-songwriter, but he’s not your garden-variety guitar-strumming troubadour. Though he’s played guitar a lot over the years, on “Toothless Messiah” his primary instruments are banjo and its ukulele-hybrid cousin, the banjolele.
“For this record, my goal was to not play acoustic guitar at all, and I achieved it,” he says. “I just felt that I’d hit a wall on the instrument — that I was not progressing, and I was tired of the way I played it. So I wrote the songs on banjolele and banjo, and on resonator guitars that I keep in bizarre low tunings.”
Much of the music revolves around interaction between McMurtry’s banjo and the cello playing of Diana Burgess, a member of classical-indie crossover band Mother Falcon. The two musicians are partners in both music and life. McMurtry says their collaborative rapport was a big part of what made “Toothless Messiah” work.
“It’s like having someone who can read your mind,” he says. “It allows me to write songs on the banjo, knowing that the cello is going to make the banjo sound less abrasive. It's an incredible strength knowing that I can flesh out one side of the chord and she'll hold it down.
“The way I think about the banjo and cello pairing is that the banjo is the right hand on the piano and the cello is the left. So I can do these twinkly ornamental things, but the real meat of the chord is going to come from Diana.”
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Other musicians who help to flesh out the noir-ish, often theatrical sonic template of “Toothless Messiah” include ace percussionist Mike Meadows (known for his work with Hayes Carll, Shawn Colvin and others); pedal steel player Evan Kaspar, who recorded and mixed the album at Austin studio Estuary; bassist Taylor Turner, who’s been playing with McMurtry since their high school years; and horn players Daniel Fears, Roy Thomas, Sterling Steffen and Nathan Calzada.
ONE MUSICIAN WHO does not appear on the album is James McMurtry, the nationally renowned singer-songwriter who happens to be Curtis’ father. It’s not that they aren’t close — they’ve always praised each other’s work, and Curtis sometimes subs for his dad’s Tuesday night Continental Gallery residency gig when James is on tour — but their music has always been distinctly different.
I asked if growing up the son of an accomplished Americana artist consciously motivated him to carve out a style that diverged from his father’s. “I think I was just drawn to different sounds,” he answered. “We listened to very different music. I listened to a lot of the music that he listened to, but I listened to more than he does.
“And that's chiefly because of my mom, I think,” he adds. Elena Eidelberg, who split from James when Curtis was 10, is an artist who makes ceramic tiles that can be seen in local restaurants such as Home Slice. “She listens to a wide variety of music, and she exposed me to a lot of things that I don't think my dad had as much interest in.”
Young Curtis first showed an inclination for finding his own musical path when he started writing songs at age 4. “I used to write blues songs about Godzilla and King Kong,” he says with a chuckle. He began performing around town when he was around 12, playing “teen rock” shows at venues such as Ruta Maya and Antone’s.
At that time, his music leaned more toward garage-rock. “We’d do some covers by the Clash or the Rolling Stones, but we had originals as well," he recalls. "It was usually a bass-guitar-drums setup. I don't think it was too similar to what I try and do now.”
The shift began when he started a band called God’s Chosen People during McMurtry’s senior year at Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy. “I had the idea that the horns would be the focus in that band,” he says. In addition to Turner on bass, “we had drums, trombone, saxophone, trumpet, and Alison Maupin, who would sing and switch between clarinet and baritone horn. It was really with that band that I started trying to make more fleshed-out, more sophisticated sounds.”
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Lately, McMurtry’s musical adventurousness has turned toward producing. He worked with Burgess on her 2020 album “You Run,” and teamed with Burgess to co-produce a recent EP by budding singer-songwriter Bryn Battani.
“I’d love to do more,” he says. “It’s a different muscle. I get really excited by arrangements in general, and making a coherent work like an EP or an album.
"Working with Bryn was really interesting because she has a pronounced 1970s influence on her music, which admittedly is not an influence for Diana or me. It was neat to work in some genres that are not where Diana or I would take our own music.”
WHERE MCMURTRY MIGHT take his own music from here is anyone’s guess, but it seems likely he’ll continue to address the condition of the world around him. Soft-spoken and respectful as an interview subject, McMurtry is often ruthless and incisive as a lyricist; it’s the most defining part of his artistic persona.
And there’s likely to be plenty of topical subjects to tackle as the 2020s unfurl. “Toothless Messiah,” he notes, might be about America’s last four years, but the topic of authoritarianism, either here or elsewhere around the planet, won't fade away.
I ask McMurtry if the album coming out after Biden’s inauguration felt like a natural bookend to its subject matter. “Yeah, it’s a little easier, maybe,” he says. “Or harder; maybe you don't want to look back.
“There's also a part of me that feels very anxious and afraid of what 2022 could bring. But I hope that, as you say, it’s a bookend. That would be great.”
Austin360 Artist of the Month for February 2021
Who: Curtis McMurtry
Record-release livestream: 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, at facebook.com/curtismcmurtrymusic.
New album on bandcamp: curtismcmurtry.bandcamp.com