Stepha Murphy of Synth-Pop Duo Uruguay On The Benefits Of Doing It Yourself
Stepha Murphy, of L.A.-based synth-pop duo Uruguay, loves to dance. Whether or not she’s any good at it is, as far as she’s concerned, irrelevant. She describes it as “something that I love to do, but I’m not great at.”
“I’ll dance anywhere,” she says, laughing. “You should know this.”
Murphy is a Baltimore native, and her sunny demeanor during our conversation comes as a surprise after spending time with songs like “Sabrina Segment” and “Stay”, which Murphy wrote and recorded with her bandmate Benjamin Dawson-Silvali while they were living in New York and Murphy was pursuing a modeling career. Murphy often assumes alter egos in her songwriting, which, she says, allows her to tap into “different facets of myself.”
Audia caught up with Murphy over the phone from Los Angeles, where she and Dawson-Silvali recently relocated. They have an ambitious year on the horizon for Uruguay, including an EP release and collaborations with West Coast fashion labels and designers. The excitement is palpable in Murphy’s voice as she tells me about her songwriting process and what it was like to discover more about her Native heritage while traveling cross-country. Dawson-Silvali and Murphy named their duo Uruguay after the country of origin of a woman behind the counter of a bakery at the corner of Frederick Douglass Avenue and 117th Street, a place that served as a haven during a particularly tough transitional period after the two had moved to New York.
“We’re grateful for everything that’s culminated so far, and we’re looking forward at what’s come,” she says. “That’s the basis of our name, gratitude. That’s definitely what we’re all about.”
How long have you been in Los Angeles?
We’ve been here for maybe four and a half months.
Have you moved out there permanently, or is this more of a temporary thing?
We moved out here, but we were just back in New York to shoot more content, so I guess we kind of go back and forth. [laughs]
Are you staying with friends out there or are you renting your own place?
I have my own place, which is great, because it’s more affordable here than it was in New York. It’s good to have your own spot.
Absolutely. So when did you and Ben start working together? How long have you guys been collaborating?
It’s kind of crazy how it happened because I was modeling, and he was scoring a drag documentary based out of Bushwick. He was having trouble with it—he just hit a block, right? So I watched the documentary and I was like, “I love this one character,” Mary Cherry was her name, and I was like, “Let me write a song for her.” So I sat down on the couch and I wrote “Sabrina Segment” in literally a minute, and then he was like, “Let me go run out,” and I recorded it, and we ended up using the recording. It was one take, and then we made “Sabrina Segment” [the video]. And we were like, “I think there’s something here, let’s do this.” I had never really sang before that or anything, so—
Oh, wow! I was actually going to ask if you had any vocal training because your vocals are so powerful.
Thank you! When I was little, my mom would try to teach me some stuff, but it was always messing around with her on the piano, it wasn’t really anything professional. And then, in middle school, I just taught myself off of Regina Spektor songs. I just loved them, so I would sing them. But no, I haven’t had anything professional. I didn’t really sing before two years ago.
You and Ben have known each other for a while, yeah?
Yeah, we met back in school. I went to school at UNC-Chapel Hill, I was just starting to go there—he’s older than me, so he was already out. We just hit it off, and then we went to New York, and now we’re here. So, we’ve known each other maybe six years? A good portion of my life.
You’ve done a lot of moving around!
Yeah! A lot of moving around—Maryland, North Carolina, New York, across the country to get to L.A. So, a lot of moving. Driving to L.A. was great, though, because we actually hit up some reservations. I’m Native, too, so that was super important to me. A lot of the motivation for our music came from that.
I actually didn’t know that much about [being Native]. I was doing ancestry, and I already knew I was native and I knew I was Cherokee, but it’s really hard to trace records and things, officially, when you’re Native and African-American, if your ancestors went through slavery. I found out that we were part Arapaho and Creek and Cherokee. I already knew about the Cherokee. So that was really cool for me, because I only identified with Cherokee before that, so to have two completely new tribes was insane.
Did you talk to other family members about that? Was this news to them or did they know about it?
It’s kind of crazy because some people already knew, and it was kind of like an oral history, but for me to be able to find things about it—again, with the Cherokee, that wasn’t a huge deal, but to find things about other tribes [was]. My mom knew she was Native American, her mom, everybody, but it was kind of just lost over time. The traditions and the details—they would do things like eat fry bread, but they didn’t trace that back to anything. They were like, “This is just what we eat.”
Thank you for sharing that with me! I did want to talk a little bit about “Pretty, Pretty Rampage”—I noticed that the vocal stylings are different from your first two songs. What influenced the way that you sang on that song?
It was coming from a place of a different energy. I was channeling this alter ego of a person that I think I’m seen as a lot. I’m really soft spoken, and so people tend to try to take advantage of me. However, I’m super-intelligent at the same time and very capable, and I felt like those things were overlooked. There’s definitely an invisible, and sometimes a visible stigma for women to act like they’re dumbed-down, or to not be as direct as they want to be.
“There’s definitely an invisible, and sometimes a visible stigma for women to act like they’re dumbed-down, or to not be as direct as they want to be.”
So in that song this alter ego is me, which is why I wanted to be soft-spoken—however, she’s saying whatever the hell she wants, and she’s a total badass. It’s kind of an ode to that for all these people that think they can bully you, or [that they] already know you before they even really know you. It’s not giving any time of day to that. It’s coming from a different place in that sense. However, it still ties into the rest of our stuff in that it’s super honest. It’s just a different part of me.
You use characters or alter egos quite a bit in your songwriting. Can you tell me more about that? You mentioned being really inspired by Mary Cherry in Ben’s documentary. How does tapping into characters help you write music?
I’ve always been super creative, and I’m a writer originally, so all of them are different facets of myself. They come out in different characters, so sometimes I see something in someone else and it reminds me of a situation I’ve been in. Sometimes it’s just your subconscious of what you want to say at the time. I’m just using that and culminating it into an actual character for a song. It’s like a little story of their life and how they would go through a certain situations if they were actually a living being.
I also wanted to talk about “Stay”. It’s a really beautiful song—how long did it take the two of you to write that particular track?
Every song that we’ve written, whether it’s released or not—we have so much stuff that hasn’t been released yet—all the ones that I wrote took me, I want to say, at most 30 minutes. Just because if I have something to say, I’m not going to mull over it. It’s just going to happen. If it takes too long, then it’s not meant to be for me.
Ben is different because he has some songs that haven’t been released yet that he’s written, but it takes him a lot of time. It takes him days sometimes, months, maybe years, but for me, it’s just instantaneous.
Looking forward to the next six months or year, what are your specific goals or things you’re hoping to accomplish with Uruguay?
We’re getting to a point now where we’ve been completely independent, so all, everything— photoshoots, graphics, it’s all been us.
And that’s a lot of work!
So much work! And like I said, we don’t come from a lot of money, we don’t know a lot of people, so everything we’re doing is just us. So I think in the next six months to a year, we’re really trying to build a team of people we can trust, so that we can kind of skyrocket. I feel like 2019’s going to be our year.
And also, get into fashion a lot more, continue with all the projects that we care about that are benefits for other people, like all of the immigration stuff going on, Native American rights, everything that we’re super interested in. A lot of our Spotify proceeds are going to causes that we really care about, specifically Native American stuff right now, as well as the immigration separation of families that’s happening. And also being able to travel, like go to London, go back and forth between L.A. and New York, all of that stuff. An EP! All of those things in the next six months. It might seem far-fetched, but we can do it! We’re on our way.
Are you still modeling?
Yeah, I think that’s part of what makes us unique is that we’re not just a band, we’re also super fashion-oriented. So I directed and produced “Sabrina Segment”—we do all our own videos, fashion videos, music videos. We’re definitely a creative project more so than just a band. So part of it is definitely fashion.
Have you been working with any particular designers or labels? What does that collaboration look like right now?
It’s really important to us to [work with] local labels. We’re working with a cool designer, her name is Laura Guzman of GuzFurbished, and she does a bunch of stuff with tattoos, graphic designs, [and] refurbishing things, so we just did stuff with that. For “Sabrina”, we worked with Katrina Emmerick. I got to work with Luelle NYC. We’re definitely getting our feet wet with the L.A. local market, so there are a lot of people we’ve been talking to for designs for shows and photo shoots and fashion videos, so that’s really exciting. I think we’re also, in the next month or two, looking to sign with an agency out here. I was with an agency in New York but then I started doing music, so I wasn’t with them anymore, but I think we’re going to get signed again and start doing bigger things.
Are you guys hoping to sign with a music label? Is that in the long-term plan?
It just depends on if we’re right for them and they’re right for us, because we do realize our stuff is so unique that we don’t want to stop being independent. At the same time, if there’s a label that’s perfect for us, then absolutely. It’s not something we’re against.
Yeah, definitely. You might have to give up some creative control if you sign with a label, so you want to make sure it’s the right fit.
Exactly, it’s not just something where we’re like “Oh my gosh, it’s a label.”