In 2011, Australian singer/songwriter Nick Murphy released a cover of Blackstreet’s 1996 hit “No Diggity,” going viral almost immediately. That’s when the world was introduced to Chet Faker, the alias he went by until 2016. Under Chet Faker, he released Thinking In Textures in 2012, the first proper introduction to his chill, electronic sound popularized in the blogosphere but perfected by few. Murphy refers to it as the “Australian pace” he is used to, punctuated by a soft chuckle.
By 2013, he had collaborated with fellow Aussie producer Flume for Lockjaw, a three-track EP made in collaboration heaven as Flume’s liquid production dances around Murphy. 2014 saw the release of Built on Glass, his acclaimed electronic soul debut that spawned hits such as “Gold” and “1998.” Shortly after came the Work EP with Marcus Marr, an infectious juxtaposition of jazz, soul and dance. Murphy’s worldwide popularity was steadily growing, fans enamored by the mystery behind such an idiosyncratic style.
And then Murphy announced that he was dropping the Chet Faker moniker.
“Every artist says they didn’t do it for the success. That’s really easy to say until you have success,” Murphy tells me over a video call, glancing back at the paper lanterns that adorn his studio. “You got to ask some real serious fucking questions, and I had this little voice that wanted to explore these spaces I knew I couldn’t go with Chet Faker.”
After the 2016 announcement that Murphy would be dropping the moniker to perform under his birth name, confusion struck. In an attempt to hold onto the millions of fans amassed around the stage name, his team tagged releases as “Nick Murphy FKA Chet Faker.” But as Murphy explains, “It was always a separate project.”
With a newfound approach to his artistry and a move to New York, Murphy felt it was time for a change. From 2016 to 2019, Murphy engulfed himself into new sonic territories under his birth name with much grander expectations. Wobbly synths and soft-spoken vocals turned into crushing falsettos and full bands, eventually culminating in 2019’s Run Fast Sleep Naked as a thesis statement for the other world he had built.
“Nick Murphy asks a lot of the listener, a bit like ‘If you don’t get this, fuck you because I’m not here to explain it to you,’” Murphy explains as he huddles over his phone in his tiny New York studio. “But the Chet Faker stuff is very giving and not challenging. The Nick stuff assumes the listener is investing time and energy into listening and it asks for patience and understanding. Faker doesn’t do any of that.”
Where some fans experience confusion over the split between the two personas is where Murphy thrives, affording himself a freedom to create between two names as outlets for his different ideas. However, Murphy clarifies, “Freedom is what we’re all trying to get, but to be free is so fucking hard.” His last release under his birth name was 2020’s Music for Silence, an hour-long piano improvisation album born out of solitude and healing in an abandoned New York church, which led to a lasting catharsis.
When Murphy opens up about his process, a smile creeps underneath his beard, clearly indicative of the pride he has with the worlds he’s been able to create for himself. “If I’m going to do this for the rest of my life, I’d rather do it myself. It might not be pretty, but I could be like, ‘Let me do something weird here,’ and have fun with it rather than being stressed,” he tells me. “Every time I take a risk, it pays off. I’m always tempting the universe.”
Once he felt that Nick Murphy was unsuitable for his latest endeavors, he announced a return to the Chet Faker name with his newest album, Hotel Surrender, a joyous record that combines all of his styles thus far into a dynamic, funk-filled statement.
“I never had such a literal response to music. I never have literal influences, and if I did talk about them, it didn’t make sense,” Murphy explains when asked about why he’s never been as open to press about his inspirations. Nonetheless, he indulges me with enthusiasm over the neo-soul of D’Angelo, the funk of Sly & The Family Stone, and Gavin Bryars’ challenging avant-garde compositions. Also, some “pop shit,” as Murphy affectionately calls it.
Those inspirations are fully crystalized on Hotel Surrender, infusing the Faker brand of mellowed-out electronic haze with striking live instrumentation. Sticky bass on tracks like “So Long So Lonely” brushes elbows with saxophones and piano keys, dancing in time with Murphy’s layered harmonies. “Feel Good” is an apt title, with Murphy presenting his own take on funk with a blend of artificial and natural sounds. Then there’s “It’s Not You,” where Murphy’s vocals take a front seat as he eases into a silky falsetto that would make D’Angelo turn his head.
One of the most striking qualities of Hotel Surrender is its unabashed happiness, one that can only come out of the cathartic breakthrough Murphy experienced in the recording of Music for Silence. The subtle romanticism of lyrics such as “I’m swimming in you now / You’re swimming in me” on “Whatever Tomorrow” showcases Murphy’s delicate understanding of human connection as something as precious as the music he loves to make. His words carry weight as he crafts them with care to form the vivid portraits of love and heartache in as few strokes as possible, letting the music fill in the blanks.
Murphy also took over much of the creative direction for Hotel Surrender (even taking some of his own press photos), fully embracing the retro aesthetic and opting for earth tones juxtaposed with a Day-Glo color palette. Murphy’s “Whatever Tomorrow” video features his grainy face processed through vintage televisions and old-school camcorders, reminiscent of watching late-night music performances on the family television with the volume down. “Feel Good” is a complete visual shift, with Murphy rollerskating through a deserted road adorned with linens as animated sparks glisten over his body. It’s also a subtle callback to his video for “Gold,” a breathtaking visual featuring synchronized roller skaters that currently sits at over 230 million views on YouTube.
These differing aesthetics are intentional, calling back to the idea of the television and Murphy’s sentimentality. “It reminded me of being a kid and watching TV on the weekends with all these different channels and different vibes and information. There’s this crazy, massive input coming through one source,” Murphy explains. “It wasn’t algorithmic. It wasn’t aimed at you, it was aimed at everyone. The visuals for the album are not necessarily a whole, but I suppose it’s all tied together.”
But no matter how effortless Murphy’s art may seem, he still finds faults in it. To him, that’s the best part. Inspired by the traditional Japanese aesthetic worldview “wabi-sabi,” Murphy has always accepted the imperfection of his art. He explains to me: “If something is fucked up, I know it’s human. If I was too polished, some people may be disappointed. I’d probably have more success, but I like to keep it where I like it.”
Much of Murphy’s self-assuredness was born out of isolation. He stares off into the distance on our call, grinning as he remembers walking along the empty streets of New York to his studio at the beginning of the pandemic. Eventually, he bought a bicycle.
“I remember riding down this little hill near where the Manhattan Bridge hits and realizing I didn’t even look if there were cars. Then, I was on the wrong side of the road just cruising. I thought to myself that I was going to miss this. I was going to miss having the whole city to myself.”
As someone who also relished the silent New York streets, I reply with, “I loved it too, but sometimes I feel guilty for saying that.”
“I think you’re allowed to miss it,” Murphy reassures. “That doesn’t mean we want the world to be like that. For introverts like us, we felt like we could think and breathe without this external shit for the first time in our lives.”
A few weeks after our conversation, I can’t help but wonder how Murphy would feel returning to performing when I climb the stairs at Elsewhere’s rooftop in Brooklyn, where he was performing a DJ set in support of Hotel Surrender. The picturesque New York we both loved has been repopulated with old and new characters, this time with their faces uncovered in pure bliss.
The trains are full again.
So are the restaurants.
The couple next to me engages in a long, passionate kiss.
Murphy approaches the booth with a huge smile on his face as he takes off the multicolored crochet hat I recognize from our call and settles into position. He grabs the microphone and says “Fuck COVID!” to a thunderous maskless cheer into the Brooklyn air.
The world is slowly returning to normal, and Hotel Surrender is Chet Faker, ahem, Nick Murphy’s soundtrack to processing the lessons we’ve learned, and the joy we should feel.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.