The Big Issue : Edition 502
34 THE BIG ISSUE 8 – 21 JANUARY 2016 MICHAEL HURLEY SPEAKS in a slow drawl these days, with an accent that still – despite his five decades travelling all over North America in the name of his intimate, eccentric and poised folk songs – occasionally betrays a distinct East Coast burr. He actually hails from Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1941 (seven months after Bob Dylan). Perhaps more than any other folk artist of the 1960s, Hurley embodies the phenomenon of the drifting troubadour, a theme that recurs in many of his early songs. That spirit is still with him, he says from his current base in Oregon, “but I need to have a home. I have one here now, and it’s good.” Land of Lofi (2013) is his latest in a catalogue that includes close to 30 albums, dating back to the scratchy but extraordinary First Songs (1964). Other influential releases include the rustic Armchair Boogie (1971) and the surreal, shambolic Have Moicy! (1975), a collaboration with the equally esoteric Holy Modal Rounders, Jeffrey Frederick and The Clamtones. Experiencing Hurley’s music, with all its humour and innocence, is like stepping into some slightly misshapen world. Yet it still explores the essential questions of humanity: questions of love, subsistence and shelter. His songs are further grounded by their debt to the Mississippi bluesmen of the 1930s, and to such folk pioneers as Woody Guthrie. His ongoing mission has been to expand on that template. “A lot of the lyrics in the blues are snatched from lyrics from all the other blues songs,” he says. “A very plain, ordinary idea like ‘My baby left me and I don’t know what to do’ is not much of a theme for a whole song.” One of the most striking things about Hurley today is that he still sees himself as a “jobbing” musician. While other revered singer-songwriters of his generation might be basking in their legacy or retired, his mindset remains one of an old-fashioned performer, or entertainer, who relies on gigs to get by. This is why he now lives close to a major city. “There are a lot of gigs available in Portland,” he says, without a shred of romance. “There’s enough opportunity for almost any kind of music to get gigs and make a living. Other cities don’t have as much opportunity; it seems to be better than San Francisco or New York City. But there’s millions of people playing music now all the time. When I started out, I didn’t realise it would turn out that every 10th person owns a guitar. Seems like a lot of people want to be musicians, and it makes for a lot of competition. Things are different.” Hurley’s profile increased – and his chances of employment improved – in the mid-2000s, when he was publicly lionised by the so-called “freak folk” movement and cited as an inspiration by Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Cat Power and Espers. However, he remains decidedly unmoved by the extra attention that came his way as a result. “I’ve just always gone along at the same pace,” says Hurley. “Though now it’s easier for me to book gigs. Things are going better for me. But I still like my privacy and my home life. Off-stage that’s what I’m used to, but now I can do all these tours, I welcome them.” Any ambivalence towards his critical revival is unsurprising, given he has never aligned himself with any significant musical scene or community. Hurley is a genre unto himself. Despite being associated with the much- romanticised Greenwich Village folk corral of the early 1960s, his peculiar style positions him on that scene’s fringes at best. “It’s an error to associate me with the culture of Greenwich Village,” he notes. “I grew up near there and hung out a while there, but I don’t see myself as a product of that culture.” When asked if he sees himself as a product of any culture, he laconically remarks: “My family and the area where I grew up, the literature and songs I had growing up, self-discovery, integrating into the world, making friends, developing interests, studying.” Hurley’s obliviousness to his own myth reflects a man reluctant to discuss his own music and his history. And that’s not to even mention his output as an illustrator, painter and zine publisher. As a child it was visual mediums that dominated his attention: “When I was a little kid I didn’t really care about music.” It is inevitable, then, that Hurley’s attitude to the process of songwriting is pragmatic, workmanlike and devoid of the mystery that many associate with the art. “A song should have at least three verses,” he remarks. “Sometimes Igoonandmake10,orfive.AndI don’t go for repetition much. Instead of repetition I’d rather go on and say something else. I’m telling a story.” by Barnaby Smith » Michael Hurley is touring Australia, 21–24 January. MICHAEL HURLEY HAS BEEN QUIETLY MAKING ALBUMS SINCE 1964. NOW THE ELUSIVE FOLK MUSICIAN IS ABOUT TO MOSEY HIS WAY DOWN TO AUSTRALIA. ILLUSTRATIONBYKATEBANAZI Touring TroubadourPHOTOGRAPHBYSARAHTAFT "While others of his generation might be basking in their legacy or retired, Hurley's mindset remains one of an old-fashioned performer."