Photo by Jack Bool
Only one song on Feelings, the first full-length album from dance duo Brijean, was written during the pandemic. It’s called “Paradise.” “The antithesis of reality,” Brijean Murphy, the vocalist, percussionist and mastermind behind the project said, and laughed. “It was just a daydream.”
Although there was nothing about those early weeks of the pandemic that screamed “paradise” to Murphy and her co-producer, fellow musician and partner Doug Stuart, Stuart remembers that the track came from a sense of calm. “Even though, obviously, so much was happening in the world that was overwhelming, there was an element of tranquility,” he said. “I think maybe that was the place that the daydream was allowed to come out of.”
Murphy has found a knack for conjuring dazzling, introspective sonic escapes. “I write just to soothe anxiety and enjoy the playful and gentle respite from gnarly stuff,” she said. “If I imagine a space that feels really good, it's a little trip. It's a nice little space to exist in.”
A few months ago, Murphy and Stuart made a more literal trip. They packed their Berkeley home and 400-square-foot studio and found affordable housing in New Mexico for a “DIY residency.” They even adopted a puppy, Shuggie (like Shuggie Otis), from a cattle rancher. But before all of this, for over 10 years as working musicians, the hustle was real.
Murphy grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by jazz, soul, and Latin music. Her dad, Patrick Murphy, was a percussionist and engineer who often had fellow musicians over. “We kind of had the jam house,” she remembered. When one of her dad’s best friends, Trinidadian steel drum legend Vince Charles, passed away, Brijean inherited his congos at age 14. She went on to become a session and live percussionist around the Bay Area, performing and recording with groups like Toro Y Moi, Poolside, and U.S. Girls. During that time, she met Stuart, a self-taught producer who studied jazz and bass in college, at a “little hole-in-the-wall” venue, Sophia's Thai Kitchen in Davis. They began recording together in 2018 and put out their first EP the following year. Walkie Talkie was a sampling of tropical house that provided a sunny escape — Something many of us would yearn for in a matter of months.
It was the constant search for work, unreliable income, and random, soul-sucking bar and wedding gigs that partially forced Murphy to see herself beyond an “aux percussionist.” “What encouraged me to step forward was definitely the support of Doug and my friends, but also thinking, ‘What's there to lose?’” she said. “I could just keep hustling and try to back up another group for the rest of my life, and maybe that could work, or maybe it's not sustainable.” She chose Brijean instead.
Percussion serves as both the stage and starring role of every Brijean song. Feelings brims with different bells, cabasa, caxixi, bongos, shaker, tambourine, timbales, and even a silver “bougie baby rattle.” Brijean put Feelings together around January 2020 prior to signing onto Ghostly International, but most of the album’s live drumming and percussion took place throughout 2019, as Murphy and Stuart had a variety of musician friends over at their studio.
One guest was Chaz Bear of Toro Y Moi, who Murphy has played with since 2011. “He's been trying to bolster me and support me, letting me explore my own projects,” she said. “He’s seemingly effortless when he's working. He's patient and not attached to anything,” said Stuart, who remembers one jam session in which he was playing keyboards while Bear observed.
“When we stopped playing, I was like, ‘Oh, there's probably nothing there.’ And he's like, ‘Oh no, I've just cut this little loop.’” That was a starting point for “Softened Thoughts.” “He's like a wizard,” said Stuart.
Murphy met drummer Pepe Jacobo at a hotel salsa gig, and he quickly became her friend and mentor. Apart from drumming on “Lathered in Gold” and “Moody,” Jacobo offers vocals to a spoken word interlude, “Pepe.” It came from accidentally leaving Jacobo’s microphone on after a recording session. Over twinkling bells and psychedelic keyboard, he says gently, “How you feel? Good / That attitude keeps you going.”
Jacobo’s speech coincidentally summarized what Feelings is all about: intuition, self-awareness, and pleasure. Murphy often takes 10 to 20 minutes to write words to a track, even though she never wrote lyrics or sang lead vocals before Walkie Talkie. “Just go to what feels good,” is her mantra when writing. In a voice that is honeyed and airy, like a jazz singer performing on a cloud, Murphy sings lines that seem to reference a healthy, loving relationship. “Hold onto me, that feels nice,” she coos on “Paradise”; “Do you need what I need too? Do you feel what I feel too?” she wonders on “Day Dreaming.” The songs are actually written in ode to Murphy’s psyche. “I'm like, I don't want this just to be a love song,” Murphy says when she’s writing, asking herself, “How can somebody, maybe myself, searching for something deeper and more introspective… How can this also guide that?”
Brijean songs are also very textured and visual, perhaps because of Murphy’s work as an artist (she even made the visuals for the duo’s “Hey Boy” video). “When I'm writing, it's mainly daydreams and then going into a visual world for a moment, like I'm setting the scene with my imagination,” she said. Lyrics, production and instrumentation often feed and inform each other. On “Ocean,” the slowest Feelings track, temple blocks emulate ocean rocks scattering onto the shore, while keys and cello stream together like sunlight glittering on the water. Murphy muses like a calm tide, “I want to drink up all your ocean / I want to feel how deep it goes.” “Lathered In Gold” opens as opulently as its title suggests. Groovy string samples play through an old Roland synthesizer and accompany live saxophone. “I was wrongfully obsessive about making music for a James Bond, ’70s film,” Murphy remembered. “And then we looked for references and I was like,‘This is not what I meant.’” “But I knew what you meant,” Stuart replied, grinning. The couple often finish each other’s sentences and are eager to delve into each other’s talents. “Somehow,” said Murphy.
Brijean’s new album is all about these perceptive moments; how Stuart and Murphy felt when they made the record together, and how it makes them and their listeners feel. It’s the kind of music that can be played for hundreds of people at an outdoor festival (post-pandemic), but it’s just as ideal for a solo dance party. “My main goal for a lot of the music was, ‘Can you dance to it? Can you sway to it? Can you groove to it?’” Murphy said, adding, “And then, ‘Can you drive to it and still feel yourself?’” With Feelings, no matter the circumstance, Brijean are hoping you feel what they feel, too.
Natalia Barr is a music and culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications like Rolling Stone, Interview Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Crack Magazine. Find her on social media @nataliabarr_.