Bill Murray and Jan Vogler
Bill Murray is on the road. Calling from Charlotte, North Carolina, where it’s well after midnight, he and classical cellist Jan Vogler are winding down after a performance on their unusual tour, which sees the famously quirky movie star singing – yes, singing – and reciting literature with a chamber trio, of all things.
For such a spontaneous spirit, maybe it’s no surprise that Murray, 68, would take a late-career dive into music. After all, there are countless stories circulating of Murray crashing real-life situations like some affable genie, before exiting as unexpectedly as he arrived.
He often materializes at indie rock gigs – catching bands like Rilo Kiley, Best Coast, Kings of Leon and Girlpool – and has been spotted riding kids’ bicycles down the aisles of Walmart. He has crashed engagement parties, suddenly tended bar at a music festival and even once washed the dishes at a party in the home of some strangers.
His unlikely partnership with an acclaimed cello whiz sounds a bit like that too – Vogler, who hails from Germany but now lives in New York City, met Murray on an international flight, and their friendship and collaboration grew organically.
Murray revels in being unpredictable. When setting up interviews with him, journalists are warned that he simply might not call, depending on how he’s feeling at the time. And when he does call, a day and a half late, he’s as likely to be gracious and articulate as he is to roast the interviewer: “I mean, you could sing in front of this band, and your voice sounds like a frog.” (He’s not wrong.)
The man is no stranger to travel, shooting on location often across his 40-year movie career, but bouncing from city to city each night is new for him. It’s just another part of the learning curve for his left-turn musical team-up with Vogler, which has so far yielded the 2017 album New Worlds and a widening tour.
“Yes, that is new,” admits Murray in his distinctively sleepy Chicago accent. “I didn’t realize that, about an hour before you do the show, you have absolutely nothing [left]. Yet somehow we end up doing a show that’s better than the night before. I don’t know how it happens. It’s a deep mystery.”
“That’s something that musicians know all our lives,” Vogler chimes in. “We always feel miserable before the concert, and stress out that we can’t do again what we did yesterday. And then when we come on stage, the audience carries you to these new heights somehow.”
For Murray, who minted his withering wit and deadpan charisma in pop-culture touchstones like Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Rushmore, Scrooged and the early days of Saturday Night Live, this isn’t his first brush with music. Playing the carefree bear Baloo in the remake of The Jungle Book (2016), he sang ‘The Bare Necessities’ with a winsome drawl. And, on the 2015 Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas, he dug into lovable holiday standards alongside Miley Cyrus, George Clooney and members of the French rock band Phoenix.
“I’ve always loved music,” says Murray, pointing to his stints singing in folk and rock bands as a teen in the late 60s. He also sang in Chicago improv-comedy troupe Second City, debuting his scenery-chewing character “Nick the Lounge Singer” there before taking it to SNL. He has shared stages with John Prine, Eric Clapton and even Clint Eastwood, and he delivered a crooning karaoke version of Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’ during his Oscar-nominated performance in 2003’s Lost in Translation.
But, as Murray tells it, the Christmas special was a major confidence boost. “I went into it thinking I was just gonna collaborate,” he says, “and I ended up singing 10 songs. I felt more comfortable each time. I’d done The Jungle Book, and I had a lot of encouragement from the [film’s musicians]. It made me feel really good, and that I should develop it. Not develop it, but work at it.”
While Murray’s singing is decidedly unpolished, that’s key to its charm. Plus, one can’t help but hear echoes of his various film and TV roles from over the years – and start to smile and chuckle before he even cracks a joke. On the New Worlds album and tour alike, he tackles irreverent versions of showtunes like ‘Ain’t Necessarily So’, ‘Moon River’ and several selections from West Side Story, accompanied by a chamber trio consisting of Vogler on cello, Chinese violinist Mira Wang (who is married to Vogler) and Venezuelan pianist Vanessa Perez.
As if that’s not enough, Murray recites prose and poetry from Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman and others. So how do fans of Murray’s wise-cracking comedy take to him dabbling in the greatest hits of American literature?
“Oh, they love the reading,” says Vogler. “Bill is a master of reciting poetry and literature, and of course the works are so unbelievably great. We frame them with music, and sometimes we put music underneath. The texts are very, very touching, so it’s material that carries us through the whole show.”
“Now I have to say something nice about [the] musicians,” laughs Murray, before doing just that. “It’s like you’re singing on top of clouds. They surround a note, and you’ve just got to get kind of close to it. They’re doing all the rest for you.”
It helps that Murray and co are open to improvising from night to night, playing around with distinct versions and even catering encores specifically to the vibe of a given audience. And if you think Murray’s singing is only for laughs, his centerpiece rendition of Van Morrison’s ‘When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?’ is decidedly emotional, his cracked voice radiating surrender.
Coming from such different worlds, do Murray and Vogler have much shared taste? “Well, there’s something much more important than taste here,” answers Vogler. “It’s chemistry. It’s more than one plus one. It’s multiple times that. And you can’t really calculate that.”
That extends to their other two collaborators, Wang and Perez. Murray agrees: “It’s not so much taste. It’s a different kind of thing, where if there’s something that doesn’t feel right, there’s a clarity. So when we talk about how to make a piece work, it’s in a sort of secret language that we all understand.”
Some pieces are tougher to crack than others, and there’s one in particular that’s still not quite ready. “It’s like a piece of marble,” says Murray, “and you keep chipping away at it and changing the way you attack it. There’s something in these pieces that attracted us, and we have to figure out how to get it across.”
That flexible, instinctive approach sounds quite similar to how Murray approaches his screen roles, whether playing purely for comedy or doing more dramatic acting in films like Broken Flowers and Razor’s Edge. But his dry wit is always at the ready. Asked if his debut Australian tour might include Christmas selections, he quips, “We should probably do some Halloween material first.”
And when it’s pointed out that you can’t get much more distinguished than playing Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House, he responds: “Well, we could play the Forbidden City, I suppose.”
Courtesy of The Big Issue Australia / INSP.ngo