Listening to Jamie Dunphy and True North’s album, Dark Night Bright Morning, might make you a little uncomfortable. This is because Dunphy sings so open and honestly about his life, both the good and the bad. What follows, is a conversation about some of these truthful musical moments.
Skope: Some of your lyrics suggest you had a religious upbringing. True? If so, can you describe how that part of your life has influenced your music?
Jamie Dunphy: Yes, I grew up in a pretty strict Christian household, and my father became a minister when I was a teenager. As an adult, I became more interested in Eastern religions, and attended a Zen Buddhist sangha for many years. Dark Night Bright Morning is a set of songs about my late teens and early 20’s, so definitely my religious upbringing comes into play. I think my Buddhist beliefs inform everything I do, and themes of our interconnectedness and impermanence run throughout the album.
Skope: The album, Dark Night Bright Morning, opens and closes with “Time.” Why is time so important to the purposes of this album?
Dunphy: I began writing this collection of songs after reading a book by Robert Lanza called Beyond Biocentrism, in which he explores recent discoveries in physics and demonstrates pretty convincingly that everything we think we know about how time and space work is wrong. It got me thinking that if time is cyclical, or at least not truly linear, then the past is more accessible to us than we may think. So, I decided to take a deep dive into that period of my life as a way of healing and moving forward. We reprise “Time” at the end of the album to imply that cyclical nature. I love that our co-producer/engineer Brian Charles (Zippah Recording Studios, Boston) included a piece of the reverberating sound that ends the record right at the beginning as well. It’s our “Pink Floyd” moment!
Skope: In “Years Before,” you mention a time when it was years before your first drink. Is this just a time marker, or has drink been a struggle for you?
Dunphy: Fortunately drinking has not been a serious issue for me, although during the period of my life I’m writing about on this record, I did find myself turning to alcohol for escape. “Years Before” is partly a lament for that loss of clarity that we at least think we have in our youth. For me at least, alcohol definitely contributed to that loss, as did the pressure of becoming an adult, and the cloudiness that comes when you begin to doubt yourself. I had a lot of bravado in my youth, but after some big losses and disappointments it took me a long time to recalibrate, figure out what my strengths were and move forward.
Skope: The band that came to mind when “The Great Divide” started playing was REO Speedwagon – for better or for worse. What are some of your primary musical influences?
Dunphy: I’ll take it! They’re much maligned but seriously, who doesn’t crank “Roll With the Changes” once in a while? I started listening to music in the early 80’s, so those were the kinds of bands I first heard, REO Speedwagon, Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, basically any band with a video in the early days of MTV. Eric Clapton was making a comeback with Behind the Sun, so he became a big influence guitar-wise, and of course every kid with a guitar wanted to be Eddie Van Halen in those days. In terms of writing, I was really taken with Stuart Adamson of the band Big Country, and more recently, I’ve been kind of obsessed with Jason Isbell. So it’s no surprise that True North has some more anthemic rockers and some more intimate, personal songs. At the same time, I have a master’s degree in guitar performance and spent 15 years or so playing jazz gigs every weekend. I also have an interest in early music, and I’ve played Renaissance lute for about 10 years. I don’t know if any of that experience creeps into my current rock writing and playing, although perhaps my jazz background and ideas about phrasing, etc. show up in my soloing.
Skope: Speaking of “The Great Divide,” what are you saying with this song?
Dunphy: “The Great Divide” is about our existential loneliness, and the fact that, no matter how well you get to know anyone, you can never really know what someone else is thinking to what their experience of life is really like. I remember realizing this for the first time as a kid and becoming very sad and scared. I was terrified of being alone. So, the song is also an admission of some of the unhealthy things I did in my youth, and a recognition that a lot of that behavior was fueled by this fear. As an adult, I can better see our interconnectedness. Physics has shown that this idea that we are all completely separate physical entities with clearly defined boundaries is simply not scientifically true. And through meditation, I’ve had small glimpses of our “oneness.” I still recognize that you can’t really know what someone else is thinking, but those thoughts aren’t who we really are anyway. On a deeper level we’re all connected.
Skope: You sound like a well-adjusted adult now, after a rough childhood. What most helped you get to this place?
Dunphy: Thank you! And honestly, my childhood was not as rough as some. I experienced some emotional abuse, as well as bullying and physical abuse at school. But I felt physically safe in my home, which many kids do not. I’m very fortunate that I met my wife when I did, as well as a few really good friends who helped pull me out of the darkness, so to speak. And I’m really lucky to be in a band now with two of them, Seth Peterson who plays bass and Tod Salmonson who plays drums. When I was able to start making music again for the sheer joy of it without worrying about chasing record deals and all that nonsense, a lot began to change. And when I began to slow down and meditate daily, that helped enormously as well. Again, I’m eternally grateful for these people and experiences; I recognize that I was starting to go down some dark roads and things could have turned out quite differently for me.
Skope: On “Pieces” speaks about moving to a cold weather place. Where did you move from?
Dunphy: I grew up in northern New Jersey, then went to Syracuse University for two years and stayed an additional year. So, Syracuse is the town I’m singing about, a city that is cold in a lot of different ways. That song is really kind of a microcosm of the album, and I go on to sing about moving to Boston, meeting my wife and starting to “come out of the cold,” so to speak.
Skope: What does the album title, Dark Night Bright Morning, mean to you?
Dunphy: In the end, I think the record is about finding a way through dark times, and certainly I’m experiencing a bright morning right now. It’s definitely a pretty dark album overall; I hope listeners aren’t disappointed with the fact that the “bright morning” part is really just the last track (“For a Future to be Possible”)! Well, maybe two tracks if you include “The Girl in the Boat.” While the album explores some difficult personal experiences, I hope it reflects my belief that there is a way out, and that meaningful, positive change can happen for people of any age.
Skope: Who is the song “Ships” directed to?
Dunphy: It might seem strange to insert a cover song into this very personal record, but “Ships” by Big Country just seemed to fit perfectly. Stuart Adamson said the song was about, “people that think they get passed by things, because everybody does at certain times.” I definitely felt this way in younger days, feeling like the world was beating me down and lamenting the lack of support. But that’s what you get when you push people away, right? When I sing that chorus (“Where were you when my ship went down…”) I’m always thinking of people who let me down in the past, with a recognition that I did not treat them in a way that warranted their support, that I was not a good friend at the time. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned that mutual support is the only way any of us is going to make it.
Skope: “For a Future to Be Possible” is rather pessimistic for an optimistic song. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Please explain why you call yourself on or the other.
Dunphy: I actually don’t think that song is pessimistic. I definitely see how a line like “everything is here right now, even if it’s not to stay” could be taken as such, but to me, that’s part of the beauty of this life. The fact that’s nothing is permanent makes it all the more meaningful to me, and it also means that positive change is always possible. We’re not bound by past mistakes, our upbringing etc. And because of those beliefs, I would say I am an eternal optimist.