Album: jokes on you
Morgan Murphy was five when he moved to Ireland from Long Island, and 15 when he moved back. As you might imagine, this was a big move for a sensitive kid. “It was pretty much a huge culture shock,” he says. “Growing up, I was very introverted. I was very shy. I didn't say much. I was always nervous to be in social situations.” He made a few friends so as to not be completely alone, but he began to indulge his musical vision by exploring community on internet. When he discovered the internet, a feeling of freedom came over him, a sense of belonging. “It was like a secret party that I just discovered”. As a senior in high school, inspired by artists around age like Bones and Young Lean, he started making his own beats. It helped him find a sense of community he hadn’t had in either Ireland or America. He uploaded instrumentals that he produced under the name notmorgan, a name that let him be anyone but himself. After gaining notoriety as a producer, he started guccihighwaters on a lark, singing over the music he’d been making. The name was a goof, but when his music immediately connected with people, it stuck.
As a singer, Murphy was a bit of an outsider to the SoundCloud rap world he’d begun to orbit. “I was grouped in because of the time and place and platform,” he says. That allowed connection with producers interested in similar mixes of bold drums and elegiac melodies. But his use of original piano with a classic touch and his angelic singing voice gave him an original voice within the scene’s crowded world. Even if he wanted to blend in, he didn’t know how. “Pretty much everything I've done from when I started making music is all on instinct.” With Jokes On You, he says, “basically my goal was to make it sound like me.”
One early song, “I Thought I Died Inside” went viral. It’s typical of what Morgan calls his “drowned out” sound. Tens of thousands of videos use the beat from the song as a kind of Rorschach test. Whatever you hear in the blurred audio sample is your greatest fear. In one video, as the haunted vocal plays, the words “You do not matter” scroll across the screen. There are videos in, Spanish, Hebrew, Polish. Verified influencers with perfectly coiffed hair and those with zero followers alike found the music helped them understand themselves. Though there’s more clarity to the sound on his upcoming debut album Joke’s On You, the emotional connection so many people have to guccihighwaters’ music is unlikely to change.
Though that gothic take on R&B is still his defining sound, on his Joke’s On You, he has sharpened up the productions and taken his vocals from fuzzy to pristine. His voice is angelic and the beats are crystalline. Many feature piano, which Murphy likes for its nostalgic sound. Still, his music is fresh and modern. So modern, in fact, most of Joke’s On Youwas produced during the current coronavirus pandemic. It gives the isolation in the music an authenticity that’s impossible to fake. What makes his music special is that it unites so many people in a particularly lonely time in history.
Across Jokes On You, Murphy sings with an undeniable urgency. Despite the album’s sometimes tragic subject matter, his up front style points to a desire not to wallow in loneliness but to overcome it. That feeling might be new to some of us with the pandemic, but it’s familiar territory to Murphy. “Growing up, I was very introverted, very shy. I didn't say much and I was nervous, to be in social situations,” he says. “So when I moved to, you know, like, a big city, and like, you know, a huge country, and there's so many kids in my school. It was, it was really difficult for me to, like, fit in.” Making music is how he found community. Some members of that community, like Powfu and nothing, nowhere, feature on the album, adding their voices to Murphy’s signature sound.
On “Rock Bottom,” nothing, nowhere joins Murphy for one of the album’s darker moments, when Murphy sings about “feeling like we died 100 times.” Still, though, he still survives. His songs pinpoint the sadness in life, be they always move past its grip. He expresses the catharsis inherent in his music with a vulnerable, beautiful falsetto. When the songs have glittering beats, the music makes for a unique mix. “My approach on “Rock Bottom” was to make a sad, relatable song,” Murphy says, “but also one you can bop your head to.” “Straight Jacket,” which starts with his signature piano before a drum rhythm explodes, takes a similar approach with its bold chorus. “I’m in a straight jacket, you just think it’s fashion.” He’s saying he feels trapped, but how he’s saying, with such power, it’s clear he’s escaped. It’s inspirational for anyone else who may feel that way. You too can escape.
Murphy’s reluctance to embrace the good moments, the ones when breaks out of the straight jacket, come from the real-life shock that an Irish kid from Long Island making beats in his bedroom could experience success being himself as an artist. “Blowing up and not being kind of ready for it was crazy, but I also always wanted it,” he says. “It's almost like I was lying to myself, that I wasn't confident enough to actually tell myself like, Yo, I could really make it. I didn't want to get my hopes up in case I didn't.” Listening to Jokes On You, it’s clear he very much has.
Written by: Matthew Schnipper