BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
The Murphy bed is one of those quintessential Irish-American success stories, born (allegedly) of romance and determination. As legend has it, San Franciscan William L. Murphy came up with his namesake invention at the turn of the 20th century because it was improper for a gentleman to host a lady in a room containing a bed – which made wooing his intended difficult, since he lived in a one-room apartment. So he devised a special hideaway bed to turn his bedroom into a parlor, got himself a patent, and did very well for himself; the company he founded is still in operation.
The Murphy Beds, the New York City-based duo of Massachusetts native (and sometime Boston resident) Jefferson Hamer and Dublin-born Eamon O’Leary, may not have the same historical or cultural impact as William L. Murphy’s creation, but it, too, is an Irish-American success story, on its own terms.
During the past 18 months, Hamer and O’Leary (when not pursuing other projects and collaborations) have performed at venues in New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Ireland, and here in the Boston area at The Burren in Somerville; the duo will be back in town Feb. 14, when they play The Paradise. They’ve also released a 10-track CD that very effectively captures their laid-back yet deceptively elaborate, quietly mesmerizing arrangements of mainly traditional Irish and American songs.
The format for their material is largely consistent, with Hamer on guitar and occasionally mandolin, O’Leary on bouzouki and sometimes guitar; they sing in close harmony – O’Leary has a slightly bassier voice, blessed with Dublin accent and intonation, while Hamer is a little higher up on the register and with no obvious affectation to his vocals.
When it comes to song selection, The Murphy Beds boast a distinguished pedigree: some from the repertoire of traditional singers like Donegal’s Lillis O’Laoire (“Rise Up, My Darling”), Arkansas’ Almeda Riddle (“The Old Churchyard”) and the redoubtable Paddy Tunney of Fermanagh (“Lovely Willie”); others from classic song collections, like that of the aforementioned Francis Child (“Bonny George Campbell”) or Sam Henry’s Songs of the People (“Sweet Bann Water” and “The Navvy Boy”); and for good measure, the well-traveled 19th-century composition by W.T. Wrighton and J.E. Carpenter, “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still,” one of those songs that resides equally comfortably among Irish, American, and British singers.
There’s a pastoral, unhurried feel to the music here, but at the same time the interplay between Hamer and O’Leary gives their sound complexity and depth: The exquisite instrumental breaks in, for instance, “Rise Up My Darling” and “Lovely Willy” recall the fretted-string intricacies of 1960s/70s Irish revivalists like Planxty, Sweeney’s Men and De Dannan. At other junctures, such as their take on “Come In (The False True Love)” and the lovely old hymn “The Old Churchyard,” you hear the distinctly American side of their joined musical personalities, and it all seems perfectly natural and unforced.
“I’ve always preferred a recording where there is a sustained mood,” says O’Leary, “instead of those where you’re treated like someone with a short attention span: ‘Here’s something fast. Now here’s something slow. Now here’s lots of noise.’ We were going for a unity of sound.”
Adds Hamer, “I like the idea that every album is a ‘concept album’ – and that means you stick with the concept.”
Well-matched as they are, Hamer and O’Leary took different paths to traditional music. O’Leary’s was perhaps more conventional: During his teens, he befriended the Mayock family from Mayo, who were very much rooted in the tradition. “None of them played guitar, but I could, so I started learning traditional music in that role,” he says.
O’Leary began spending time in New York City during the 1990s – moving there for good in 1994 – and became a fixture in the city’s Irish scene, performing and touring with numerous musicians. He appeared on the 2004 album “Live at Mona’s” along with Patrick Ourceau, Dana Lyn, Cillian Vallely, Brendan Dolan, and Susan McKeown, among others.
Hamer credits a college professor of his for directing him toward folk music. “In class, he mentioned Jethro Tull, which was a band I liked. When I talked with him, he told me, ‘If you like Tull, you should check out Fairport Convention, or Martin Carthy, or, Richard Thompson, or Steeleye Span.’ So I started listening to those guys, and that got me going in the direction of folk and acoustic music. But when I got a guitar, I actually went to playing bluegrass first. So I was learning American, English and Irish folk music all at the same time, and that gave me a broad base in which to work; I was able to draw from lots of different sources.”
Hamer’s ecumenical approach has led him to collaborations with the likes of local fiddler-vocalist-songwriter Laura Cortese and, more recently, with singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell, resulting in the widely acclaimed CD “Child Ballads,” an assortment of new, Americana-influenced adaptations of English and Scottish folk songs found in the venerable collection of ballads by Harvard professor Francis J. Child.
In 2008, Hamer made his way to New York City, and it wasn’t long before he crossed paths with O’Leary. “The thing is, New York is a big city but a small town, in the musical sense,” O’Leary explains. “If you’re into old-timey or bluegrass or Irish or anything along the lines of folk/acoustic, you meet eventually.”
As it happened, the two first met at a mutual friend’s house, and discovered that each had a fondness and familiarity for the other’s native music. “I knew Eamon played Irish, which was certainly of interest to me, but I was surprised at how much he loved country music – I think a lot of Irish musicians share an enthusiasm for classic American songwriting. So we found ways of connecting outside Irish traditional music.”
O’Leary adds, “I just love good songs, and there is a lot about American folk that attracts me. As everyone knows, you get a lot of crossover between Irish and American music, so it’s not that big of a stretch for me.”
Hamer and O’Leary originally began playing together as part of a quartet, but after a time realized they had a good enough rapport to work as a duo. They came up with a repertoire and decided to make the CD, so they set up recording gear in Hamer’s apartment and went on from there. “The act of recording really encouraged us to create, and helped us define what we wanted to be,” says Hamer.
A key decision in the process, says O’Leary, was “not to do overdubs, because once you do something like that it opens the floodgates. Doing it straight forced us to be creative: How can we get the maximum effect out of two voices and two instruments? “We felt that, if you treat each song the same, you bring out what’s best about them.”
Now, having made their metaphorical and musical bed, O’Leary and Hamer are content to lie in it as often as is possible. “We do have a lot of things going on,” says Hamer, “but we definitely enjoy playing in this groove.”