It is highly unlikely that you’ll heard another album quite like The Hedge Maze and The Spade in 2022.
The sophomore record from Gavin Murray AKA Trick Mist carries all of the surreal sampling techniques that brought the songwriter acclaim on Both Ends in 2018, but crucially there is a greater sense of melody and vulnerability under the experimental edge of this multi-layered journey into Murray’s past. An introspective tale of love and loss which examines the death of Murray’s grandmother and their close relationship through the years, The Hedge Maze and The Spade is striking both for its raw emotion and the sonic progression in Trick Mist’s otherworldly soundscapes.
The result is one of the most unique albums of the year, and this past month I had the chance to sit down with Murray for an in-depth discussion that revealed all on the new record and much more.
Here is our conversation.
After a four year gap since debuting with Both Ends in 2018, why was now the right time for Trick Mist to return with a full length LP?
There was a bit of a gap I suppose but I think I needed to re-calibrate. I consciously didn’t want to keep tipping away at a new album and end up with a collection of disparate songs. I wanted to re-invent and not repeat myself and that took some time. I wanted to write a record that had a cohesive story bringing it all together.
Sometimes you have to wait for the right topic or moment in life, a catalyst that captures your imagination to such a large extent. I also work slowly in general. I try to build my songs to last and give them enough depth that they can reveal different pictures each listen.
It struck me that The Hedge Maze and The Spade has a more gentle and melodic approach in its sound compared to some of the harsher textures on Both Ends. Would you agree, and was this a conscious effort or a natural progression?
I think it was both. I had spent years listening to loads of ambient music. I had also done some composition work for screen and that really brushed up my melodic skills. So both these factors were in my musical zeitgeist so to speak around the time of making the new record.
I did also make a conscious effort to make things softer, warmer, more meditative and less percussive heavy. I did this because I felt the lyrics and landscapes I wanted to conjure demanded it. I wrote all the lyrics for the album before the music and they acted like a brief which I composed around. It didn’t seem fitting tonally and conceptually to reach for shocking experimentalism or lots of heavy beats. I compose using emotional and conceptual triggers.
Everything has to have a stimulation function, ‘a charge’ that serves the overall tone and concept. The new album is rooted largely in the past and deals with delicate emotional themes and conjures landscapes rooted in both reality and the surreal so the sonic environment had to reflect that. Things ended up being softer, offering more space for the lyrics. Melody came into the picture again as a means of serving the lyrics.
Tell us more about the process of writing the album as a tribute to your grandmother. Did you set out at the beginning to write a complete work dedicated to her memory, or was it something that eventually became clearer as you continued to write the record?
No, I didn’t set out.
What happened was after she died I sat down to write some words. This was purely from a therapeutic standpoint. I wasn’t actually thinking about art when I did this. I was just trying to declutter my head after experiencing such a whirlwind time. I wrote for about 20 mins and the words just flew out. It was crazy! It was definitely that elusive flow state. I hadn’t had much experience of this so it felt like a big moment.
I stood back, read the words and felt almost detached from them and was able to see they were strong. It was at that point that I knew there was a starting point and I needed to dig deeper into these spaces, explore and learn. That’s when it all kicked off. It became clear to me then that I should attack this space and learn more about our relationship. I knew if I explored there would be a lot more discovered beside my own personal past. It became an artistic endeavor that could have universal value and potential.
You wanted to explore and understand your relationship with your grandmother through the writing of The Hedge Maze. Looking back now, do you feel it you were able to achieve that and learn more about your bond through the music?
Yes I do. I think I learned a lot about my bond with her but I was conscious of it not just being about me. I wanted to explore things that were universal and relatable. So our bond was the initial starting point for that wider discovery. Love, loss, wonder and childhood certainly got a good going over for sure. But then in ways it opened up became about her generation vs our generation, nature and wisdom.
When she passed away I felt I needed a period of reflection. I had an impulse to explore my memories with her. I wanted to learn lessons before I could move on. I viewed her as a conduit to the past so I felt like going into that space. I used to always be annoying her asking her about things in the past. She was always very insightful about what felt like another world to me.
The climate crisis was in my head when writing and I figured maybe we could learn something from older generations. A lot of the album was made during lockdown. That was a unique challenging time obviously but I felt personally there was a lot of space for contemplation, imagining. Capitalism essentially stopped during the first lockdown! That was a really unique event. With everything slowed down so unnaturally there was a lot of imagining about the future going on. That definitely made its way onto the album. It’s a space that has one foot in the past and one foot in the future.
There’s a lot of beauty and hope in this record, which is notable considering the primary subject matter is a family member’s passing. Can you tell us more about the prevailing sense of optimism buried within Hedge Maze?
That’s really nice that you perceive that. I think writing about childhood memories, where some of the album is positioned, allowed me to access that positivity. I think childhood memories have this amazingly surreal quality and I suppose I wanted to enlarge that and put wonder under the microscope. The album is steeped in nature so that would always help with installing a sense of hope and beauty too.
I also think a relationship with a grandparent can be so special. It’s a relationship that’s weighed heavily in romance and beauty as generally grandparents leave the nitty gritty authoritative duties to the parents. Due to this I think it offers a great insight into romance. Also I discovered the work of Kerry Philosopher John Moriarty when writing the album. His writings are very beautiful and I think helped me access this other perspective of the world I was navigating in the album. A romantic, spiritual view of things. Crucially, he has a keen eye for criticality and strives for a better future. So it was a healthy balance between nostalgia and critique.
Then I started thinking about the age old Irish literary trope of overly-romanticizing the past and I started to play around with that. I was thinking of people like John Millington Synge and Robin Flower. There was always this tension going on between sentimentality vs criticality. Flann O Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’ perfectly and hilariously amplifies the tension between these two things. So I suppose ultimately what I mean is I was inspired by this tension and didn’t want the record to be overly sentimental and nostalgic. I also wanted it to be critical of the past too. I wanted a balance. That spilled over into my thinking about the present tense. I wanted it to be two-sided, equally romantic and critical. That said, having gone through the journey I too feel like hope and optimism is the overriding take away.
Ending the record with ‘Willingdon Island’ probably helped with the feeling of hope.
Who were your own influences musically speaking when creating the record? It feels to me like there would be a notable contrast in who you may have drawn inspiration from while crafting Hedge Maze and Both Ends, is this a fair observation?
Yeah. I was taking in more ambient influences and less percussive heavy electronica this time round. I discovered American trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell during this album cycle and his music and concept of ‘Fourth World’ music were very inspirational. I see it as a type of ambient music where traditional music is subjected to electronic processes creating a new musical dreamworld that often possesses a spiritual element.
For me this totally resonated with the album both sonically and conceptually.
I also was digging deeper into singing and particularly traditional singing so Joe Heaney was a big influence there. I’ve always had a deep affinity with the world of Irish traditional music. I didn’t grow up steeped in trad, from a trad family or anything like that, so I feel my grasp on this music comes from an imaginary place. That was actually helpful and suited the tone and landscapes of this record. So imaginary trad or abstract trad if you like was something that was able to come to the fore.
The use of sampling within Hedge Maze is every bit as skillful and surreal as throughout the Trick Mist catalogue. I would love to know the records and artists that opened your own mind to the possibilities of sampling as a music form, and how early you began to explore the idea of building songs around samples?
I think it started in earnest for me when I was in college studying Music Tech. I studied the work of Pierre Schaeffer and the musical genre Musique Concrète he’s associated with. These guys were sampling before it was called that.
During those college years I specialized in electroacoustic composition so I suppose that’s a big part of my musical grounding. I remember just loving the idea that there was this mode of working that was completely different from ‘played’ music and I felt it had such transportive power. I learned how the human brain, when confronted with a sound, will try and match that to some experience either lived or imagined. Putting it crudely, if you hear a guitar you think of someone playing a guitar. But when you work with sounds that are unfamiliar then you enter into very fascinating territory and the listener tries to match it to something in their experience or something that resembles an experience.
So if you play with that, you’re into deep stimulation territory then. I’ve always liked the idea of building up my own pallet of sounds that are unique and composing with these. This album’s use of samples and field recordings is notable but unlike the last record it’s not the talking point. It’s the language I speak, it’s not the message. I think on this record though I tried to give my use of samples a different angle and use samples because of their conceptual content. So I could have a sample that didn’t sound particularly nice but what it contains was more conceptually important than how it sounded. That was a departure for me.
So all the samples on the record serve a function; it’s up to the listener to figure that out.
The use of vocals feels more prominent and personal on this record than previous releases. Was that a result of the subject matter being more intimate, and was the writing process a more lyrically focused one this time around?
Yeah it’s something I’ve been working on a lot. It’s the most detailed instrument I have.
How you’re feeling on a given day will be reflected in your voice. I find that very interesting. My music deals with a lot of abstraction, the voice gives a direct line to that human, familiar element. Again the focus and emphasis on this came about because the lyrics and the subject matter dictated it to me.
I had one foot in the past and one in the future so singing and particularly playing around with Irish traditional singing was appropriate for that conceptual environment. I was also working on the emotional content of my voice and trying to develop an emotional dynamism to it.
Are you excited to see how Hedge Maze translates to a live setting? Tell us more about your upcoming tour for the album.
Yeah, really looking forward to getting the songs out there live. Playing live is the frontier, it’s where the exchange happens in a rewarding and special way. I try to go into my songs so I can give them to people. I subscribe to the great Martin Haye’s performance philosophy:
“I must go to the space that I want others to enter, go as deep as possible and trust that the invitation is powerful enough for others to come along.”
The tour starts off with the UK wing (supported by Culture Ireland) with dates in London, Manchester and Glasgow. Then the Irish wing takes in Dundalk, Dublin, Limerick and Cork. I’m blessed to have amazing Irish artists support across these dates. Fixity (Solo) supporting on the UK wing, Video Blue in Dundalk and Howlbux (Elaine Howley and Irene Buckley) in Dublin, Limerick and Cork.
What a gift.
Stayed tuned for HeadStuff’s full album review dropping next Monday as Danny Kilmartin gives his thoughts on The Hedge Maze and The Spade.
Listen to The Hedge Maze and The Spade: