Canada's Song Bird sings a happy tune
Regrets, she has a few, but, all in all, life's good for Anne Murray, writes Cathal Kelly
Though she hasn't performed in public in nearly a decade, people still stop Anne Murray in the grocery store to ask how her career's going.
These gentle interruptions have been part of Murray's life for years, but they take her by surprise now.
Murray is sitting in the living room of her Markham, Ont., home, miming her way through one of them, turning her head this way and that to indicate which character is carrying the conversation.
"They'll come up to me and say, 'Anne?' And I say, 'Yes. Do we know each other?' And they'll say, 'Well, no …' Then it occurs to me why they're speaking to me.
That I did that other thing for 40 years. That's the God's truth – I've forgotten that I was famous. I guess it's laughable."
Murray is one of those people who hold good manners as the highest level of human endeavour. Although she's 72 years old and her knees sometimes bother her, she still gets to her feet whenever a person enters a room.
"You know what? When someone does that for me, it makes me feel really good. It's like you're important."
She also takes notice of people who don't return that small kindness.
When Murray meets people in the grocery store, she's happy to stop and chat. They talk about tours she is no longer on and albums she is no longer recording. Most just want to know how she's doing, as if she were some high-school friend they'd lost touch with and had heard lived a complicated life.
Murray reassures them that everything's fine. That no, she doesn't miss touring and no, she doesn't want to record new music. The person who did those things has passed on.
"I suppose it's a compliment that they recognize me. I'm an older version of that person," she says, a bit warily. "I've always had a quiet career. I just went along. I was a workhorse."
You did sell 50 million albums.
"Well, that's true," Murray says, brightening. "I forgot about that, too."
'… It just sort of kept going'
Most of us have a mental picture of how we think we'll look when we reach our 70s. I suppose I'll resemble several half-filled potato sacks piled one atop the other.
How you want to turn out is like Anne Murray. Perhaps your base memory of her is from the 1980s – a pantsuit, that signature spray of short, blond hair. Mostly, you'll recall the smile, its width and warmth.
Here's happy news – none of that has changed. Murray is exactly as she was. Perhaps a touch more frail, but still spry and intense. She bounces into a room like Jack LaLanne turning up to bend steel bars on Johnny Carson.
She's had some people over earlier in the day. They've taken the couch apart and put it back together in a way she doesn't like. So Murray spends several long minutes wrestling with the cushions – "this damn thing" – until they are reassembled to her liking. Once done, she pops into the air and falls back onto the couch, fully embedded in a crease. She looks like a particularly pleased-with-herself eight-year-old.
"Ready," she announces.
She was always an athlete and remains one. Does yoga. Has a trainer in twice a week. Swims for an hour every other day with her daughter. You know she would still beat you at golf – she was once an 11-handicap – and suspect she would humiliate you.
"I am very fit," Murray says, extending a fist.
She had to move recently from the house she owned in Markham for 38 years. The stairs defeated her (those knees again). She's now living in a sprawling condo nearby – one of those impossibly immaculate and airy apartments you thought existed only to serve as a soundstage for some comedy set on the Upper East Side.
She managed to fit all her art in. Pride of place is given to an Alex Colville titled On a River. In it, a man, seen from behind, sits forlornly in a small boat looking out at the bend of a Maritime waterway at sunset. When the painting is mentioned, Murray jumps from her seat and hurries across the room to make sure the frame is straight, then stares at it, arms hanging at her side, for a long while.
It would not be correct to say Murray has reached the contemplative stage of her life, because she was always that way. She was conflicted from the very beginning, constantly talking in interviews about taking a break or quitting the business. Regrets? It's not a question of having a few. Murray's career was a long series of personal compromises, many of which still confound her.
She was not working-class (her father was a doctor, her mother a nurse), but she had that outlook. A slightly thwarted kid from what she calls "Hicksville, Nova Scotia," tough-minded, driven to work hard, though initially with little sense of mission.
She became a professional singer for prosaic reasons. In 1967, aged 22, she made $4,550 as a teacher (Murray recalls the precise amount). The next year, she made about 20 grand performing.
"That was pretty good money. So I said, 'I'll stick with this for a while.' And it just sort of kept going."
If you are a certain age, that "kept going" summons up a lot of memories – Singalong Jubilee, Snowbird, Christmas specials, a long series of firsts for a Canadian artist cracking the U.S. market, all those millions of units shifted.
Murray was in many ways this country's first booming cultural export.
She has happy memories, especially of those tenuous early days when she had to get her record producer's guitar out of hock and was meeting the first people who would mentor her toward success, including her former husband, Bill Langstroth. But a lot of what followed is a grinding blur of travel, performances, promo appearances, interviews and studio sessions.
Asked what things she would do exactly the same were she to do it all over, Murray steers the conversation back to the things she would change.
"For instance, there's one thing. I wouldn't release an album every 10 minutes like I did. I would just tell that record company to go …"
Murray comes up off the couch and begins to form the sound of an "f," but thinks better of it.
"That's something that I regret – that I allowed them to browbeat me into doing an album every year. Because when I took time out to have children I got behind in my albums. One year I had to do three in a row. The same year! Just to keep up with my contract with them. What a pile of bullshit that is."
A message begins to slowly scroll across the ticker board in your mind: "Anne Murray just swore."
At root, this is about the two children whose childhoods she missed while out on the road. Long before anyone was talking about women having it all – career and family – Murray had to make that choice.
"I don't believe it can be done," Murray says. "When my son was in his teens, he was a really fine drummer. He was asked in an interview if he would consider going into the business. And he said, 'Why would I ever go into the business that took my mother from me?'"
Murray pauses to replay the moment in her mind. She saw the interview on TV, she thinks. She's not sure. She only remembers what was said.
"Why would he do that? And, yeah, exactly. Why would you? But we've discussed it since and I didn't really have a choice. I was the breadwinner. That was my job. In this business, you either do it or you don't. You don't half do it."
So she did it. There was a time in this country when Anne Murray was so ubiquitous, she seemed as if she'd been written into existence by the Fathers of Confederation.
A former business manager tried to push her out in front of a bid to buy the Toronto Maple Leafs, back when Harold Ballard was running the team into the ground. Murray wasn't interested in the deal and they didn't have the money. His only rationale was, "What Canadian would say no to Anne Murray?"
When Murray is asked to explain how she became so synonymous with her country, she has to think a while before coming up with her idea of a Canadian identity.
"What you saw was what you got. There was no difference from me on stage and me sitting here talking to you."
She was under constant pressure to go deeper into the United States – move to a bigger entertainment hub, expand the brand.
"That worried me early on in my career – that I would change. If I went to New York or Los Angeles that I would become somebody I wouldn't like. That person that gets a big head and starts thinking they're more special than anyone else. I never wanted to be that person."
Despite her hesitations, she cut a trail for others. Every contemporary young female solo star is, in one way or another, Murray's heir. She was an ingenue of crossover music when such a thing still had no label. Taylor Swift might be the closest comparison.
"[Swift] is a pretty smart cookie. She's got her head screwed on. She's got it together."
Along with social graces, "having it together" gets you tens across the board on the Murray scorecard.
"Not all of them do … this Katy Perry business. Somebody told me she's put out a 96-hour video?"
Close. Perry has just live-streamed her life for 72 straight hours as part of the promo for a new album, including a therapy session and frequent crying jags.
Murray shakes her head, eyes bulging. "I have no response to that."
Murray is about as likely to live-stream 10 minutes of her private life as she is to shave her head and join a cult. During those early days on the road, she wouldn't leave her hotel room. Her first band was a bit wild – "… a lot of drugs and stuff. Which I had to deal with, of course …"
Murray was in her mid-20s, doing 200 shows a year and unable to tell you from one night to the next which city she was in.
"It was horrible. It was very lonely," Murray says. "The show was great because at least there I got to sing. But I was alone."
She was raised in a tight, raucous, overwhelmingly masculine milieu. Five brothers. All of them pleasant ruffians, to hear Murray tell it.
"They beat me up, they beat each other up. Everybody got beaten up," she says brightly.
Eventually, her brother Bruce Murray joined her on the road as a backup singer and got her out of her room. Those were the salad days – family close by, a new band filled with grown-ups, and for a while there, rented jets and lavish hotels. She'd almost begun to like it, but then she had kids and it got hard again.
As for all the "Canada's Songbird" stuff, Murray waves it away: "It really had nothing to do with me. I couldn't take on that responsibility. If that's what people felt, then that was fine with me. But I had work to do."
So she did. For the better part of 40 years. She had said from the beginning that she would re-evaluate this whole singing thing from year to year. One year, she'd had it.
"Performing really lost its joy. I always loved the recording studio, but even that became a chore," Murray says.
She did one last tour in 2008 and that was it.
"It was a very good career, but it wasn't noisy. It was just … work. Just work. I wanted to go out quietly."
'I know how good I am'
Nobody wants to end up like Frank Sinatra – forgetting the lyrics to your own standards, telling the same stories twice at a show. But most of the bigs can't resist a few regular nights at Madison Square Garden or a Las Vegas residency. It's more about the crowd than the money.
Murray could still go the Billy Joel/Elton John route and do a few shows here and there. She's got another greatest-hits coming out soon. Maybe goose sales on that a bit.
"Yeah, I could," Murray says with a shrug. "But I was done. I really wanted this time. And boy, was it ever the right thing to do."
One suspects that were she to return now, it would prompt a reconsideration of her legacy. Many of her contemporaries – Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young – have become icons in their dotage. Murray certainly occupies a distinct cultural niche, but gets perhaps too little credit for her craftsmanship.
"I would rank her as the major player of the whole lot," says Lightfoot, who's known her since the sixties. "She sold a whole lot more albums than I did. She was … I don't want to use that word … is someone who truly mattered."
"That subtle, sexy rasp, in just the right place, was a real inspiration," says Bonnie Raitt, a singer whose long career arc has been very like Murray's. "Not overkill – not trying to sound like something she wasn't – just real and soulful … I also appreciate the classy way she always presented herself – focusing on picking great songs, never going for commercial gloss."
Where does Murray think she stands in the pantheon of great pop singers?
"I know I'm a really good singer, but I don't think I'd show up on a list anywhere. Somehow, I have not garnered the same respect that some other people have, with a higher profile and a … louder career."
Is that a regret?
"No," Murray says, for the first time sounding surprised at a question. "I know how good I am … There are people who know that. And those are the only people I'm concerned with."
Murray rates three disparate artists as her favourite voices – Raitt, seventies crooner Harry Nilsson and louche soul legend Dusty Springfield. Murray adds that she "could certainly hold my own" with any of them.
She still sings with her family – dinners at the condo, summers back in her hometown of Springhill, N.S.
Someone will pull out a guitar, her son plays a little piano, and together the family forms "a nice three-part harmony."
It's reminiscent of the early "girl bands" Murray used to form with her students when she taught school.
That's Murray's life now – play dates with her grandkids, golf with friends, singing for free and just because she wants to.
Hundreds of people still e-mail her out of the blue to tell her how much her voice meant to them in a tough time, or to ask her advice for a child's singing career. Murray's advice is this: "Don't."
Amid the order of her living room, only one thing is out of place – an open DVD copy of The Sound of Music tossed in front of the television. It's almost too perfect a touch.
Murray's been watching it with her three-year-old granddaughter. They sing along together. Murray starts listing off tunes and when she gets to one whose title she can't remember, she sings it instead: "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens …"
It's not the voice you remember. The timbre of the lower end, the power of it, isn't quite there. But it is still so unmistakably Anne Murray that you fight the urge to close your eyes. But she stops very suddenly.
As inheritances go, voices are fickle. Of the six siblings in the Murray family, only two can sing very well. Murray's daughter has the gift, but not her son. Now she believes the three-year-old has it as well.
"She has that thing. Really talented," Murray says delightedly, then catches herself. "But you're not going to see her on television. I can tell you that for sure."