By Blake Maddux
Somerville musician Michael “Mike” Murray is not showing off when he says, “It’s harder for me to think of a place that I haven’t played around here” (rather than the ones that he has), or that he’s been included “on more stuff [i.e., recorded material] than he can faithfully remember.”
In both instances, the Winchester native is simply being honest. He has built up this impressive résumé over the course of nearly a decade as a musician.
More often than not, Murray is juggling more than one musical project at once, in addition to teaching full time at Community Therapeutic Day School in Lexington and being the father of two-year-old Benjamin Lawrence Murray.
Currently, he sings lead and plays rhythm guitar for Michael Murray & Tsoysli, which he pronounces “so-slee.”
“I was on a camping trip with a friend who speaks Swiss German,” he says about the source of the band’s name. “I get very excited about fire. I really like to look at fire, manage fire, and build fires. I was trying to explain to her that I’m not crazy about fire. She explained that there’s a word in Swiss German for someone who really is into fire but is not a pyromaniac, and that’s the word. She said that it’s kind of a slang word. It doesn’t necessarily have one spelling, but she said if she had to spell it, that’s how she’d spell it.”
Murray also plays lead guitar in Somerville band Nowhere Lights. This band is fronted by fellow Somervillian Neil Lawrence, who plays bass guitar in Tsoysli, which also includes guitarist Jonas Kahn and drummer Jeff Allison (a current and former Somervillain, respectively).
The two musicians met in late 2004 at PJ Ryan’s in Teele Square. The following April, Murray began a Thursday night residency at PJ Ryan’s that would last until October 2010.
Murray and Lawrence eventually joined up to play in a group that covered the music of the Irish band The Pogues. The band performed under several monikers, including two that were taken from the titles of Pogues songs – Boys From County Hell and Wild Cats of Kilkenny.
During the half-dozen or so years that Murray sang lead, this cover group celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in a big way.
“We used to do four or five shows in a day,” Murray said, “and a huge number of shows over a few days around St. Patrick’s Day. It was a good time!”
Each of these gigs was at a different venue, but according to Murray, “The mainstays became The Indo (The Independent, in Union Square) and PJ’s. They became our definite gigs.”
Murray remembers these times fondly.
“We always finished at PJ’s. By then, we’d be in top shape. Most years, particularly if it was anywhere near the weekend, it was this great experience where there was no separation between the band and the audience. Not just physically, but everybody singing along. There were 10 people in the band, so on the fringe of the band you really would be interspersed with audience members. It was a lot of fun.”
While Murray has always managed to secure a steady flow of work as a musician, it is not how he makes his living.
After graduating from UMass Lowell in 2001, he worked for three years at Ottoson Middle School in Arlington, first as a teacher assistant and later as a teacher.
“I was very excited that I had found something other than music,” Murray said. “I got my sociology degree but that doesn’t really lead to jobs necessarily. I was excited to find something that I seemed like I had a knack for and that I enjoyed doing.”
During this time, he met Debbie Shansky, who would become his wife a few years later.
In 2004, Murray decided to devote himself to music for a year. He had released an EP called You Can Have These Songs. He said that the positive response that he got from people whom he did not know was “the signal” that encouraged him to pursue music more actively.
Not having the steady income that teaching afforded him meant making sacrifices.
“I lived in a tent in friends’ basements and yards,” he explained. “Debbie let me use her basement in her apartment on Cedar Street in Somerville, next to the train track.”
However, he admits that he “had hard time with a lack of structure. I needed to get a job.”
In 2005, he obtained a part-time position at Arlington High School, where he worked for two years before Community Therapeutic Day School in Lexington hired him and Debbie Shansky.
Murray and Shansky got married in August 2007, “at almost the exact same time that we started working there,” according to Murray.
“I am kind of on a career track now, which I’m excited about,” he confidently declares.
Of course, that does not mean that his pursuit of music is going whiter and die. He is currently recording the first album with Tsoysli (the fifth in his career on which he is at the helm), and things are not getting any less interesting.
“We’re recording it at a studio in Winchester that we have access to where David Hasselhoff used to record.”
Michael Murray & Tsoysli plays at PJ Ryan’s in Teele Square on Saturday, March 23, at 10:00 p.m.