Murray A. Lightburn on Rock and Race

Murray Lightburn Photo by Richmond Lam
April 19, 2019
With his new solo album, the Dears’ frontman continues to untangle historically intertwined musical and racial stereotypes.

When Montreal art-rockers The Dears released their debut album, End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, back in 2000, it was before the internet made it easy to glean a band’s entire backstory before you heard a note of their music. Instead, listeners immersed themselves in The Dears’ cinematic vision free of any context—the CD artwork featured no photos of the group. That a band could sound so confident and fully realized on their first album was startling enough. But when fans went to see The Dears in concert, they were greeted with another surprise: The band’s French-kissed, Britpop-inspired epics weren’t being sung by some Damon Albarn doppelganger, but a Black man.

Murray Lightburn’s lapel-seizing voice and intensely romantic lyrics earned him the nickname “Black Morrissey” in an early concert review, and the tag stuck as The Dears joined the likes of Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade at the forefront of the mid-2000s Montreal renaissance. And while The Dears helped upend expectations of what an indie-rock band can look like, Lightburn has also had to contend with deeply ingrained preconceptions of what a Black artist is supposed to sound like.

Even at a time when indie rock is more musically and culturally diverse than it’s ever been before—with several Black artists exploring the intersection of alternative and R&B sounds, often through a politicized lens—Lightburn’s exquisite new solo record, Hear Me Out (Dangerbird Records), is a singular anomaly, a tender collection of orchestral pop and pastoral soul rooted in his domestic life as a father of two. We talked to Lightburn about how he’s navigated the music industry for two decades as an outsider among outsiders—and how race has impacted his career despite his best attempts to look beyond it.

Spotify for Artists: When The Dears first started, a lot of people were surprised to see a Black man fronting a band making music in the European indie-pop tradition. Do you still encounter people who are taken aback by the kind of music you make?

Murray A. Lightburn: Definitely. If you don’t know what I’m doing, and you just meet me and I say I’m a musician, there’s an assumption there. One of the first times I was crossing the border [into the U.S.], they were like, “So what instrument do you play—bass?” Funnily enough, I actually am a really great bass player—it’s in our blood [laughs].

But yeah, there were assumptions about The Dears based on what we sounded like, and then we’d show up and there’s me, a Chico guy on drums, a Moroccan Jew on guitar… it was a motley bunch. And maybe that held the band back a little bit. Because if we were skinny white dudes, our trajectory could’ve been a lot different.

What did you make of the “Black Morrissey” tag?

I thought it was funny when I first saw it, but when other people jump on that bandwagon, I’m a little skeptical of where they’re coming from. It’s been a weird thing to live down, because even in reviews of my latest record, it still comes up. It’s like a tattoo on my forehead. Something else I noticed when The Dears came up is that we got a little glory there for a bit, and then when Bloc Party came along, we kind of got edged out. It was like a king of the mountain thing—only one two-tone operation is allowed at any time! Then it was TV On The Radio, and Black Kids for a little bit, Twin Shadow… Now that hip-hop is dominating pop music in such a huge way, people like to think, “Well, Black people are doing great!” But if you’re in rock ‘n’ roll, not really. You’re expected to fall in line with the trends of other Black artists, which is a weird thing to navigate.

Have you felt any pressure to write more directly about the Black experience?

I don’t think that’s my role as a writer. I feel in my own way, I’ve contributed to that dialogue, just by existing in the world and playing to a sea of white people every night. But what I’m hoping to contribute has a lot more subtext to it. My existence is meant to remind people that a Black artist can exist this way, in the way I exist. I have lots of Black friends in that other musical world [of hip-hop and R&B], and they appreciate what I’m doing, because I’m like some kind of ambassador to the other side [laughs]. I meet Black kids all the time who say, “Man, when I saw you on [Canadian video network] MuchMusic, it changed my whole perspective on shit.”

Do you feel like perspectives are changing in general?

Well, what’s weird is the media establishment still likes to keep us in cubbyholes. I don’t get a lot of widespread attention, because I’m too far out of the rap-artist narrative—going to jail, in jail, coming out of jail, the struggle, the controversy. I feel like I want to be cut from a cloth that’s a little more old-school than that, as far as Black artists go. It’s like, “I’m an entertainah! It’s showbiz!” I sing love songs, and that doesn’t mean I don’t have ideals, but I don’t want to write about the Black experience all the time. I can’t speak for every person of color, but I feel like I can speak for a lot of us when I say we just want to be in the room—we don’t want to be in the room representing people of color. We don’t want to be considered because we’re Black, we just want to be considered for our work. So in my world, I’m just trying to do my job as an entertainer, and trying to transcend, transcend, transcend that thing that’s the first thing people always see when I walk into a room.

—Stuart Berman

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April 19, 2019
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