The mark of a true vocal siren? If her voice gives you goose bumps. Shirley Murdock had that affect even as a background singer for the band Zapp and via her breakout hit “As We Lay.” Whether or not you related personally to the song’s story of secret lovers, Murdock had to have stirred you. Nowadays, the Toledo, Ohio, native continues to bless us with her heavenly vocals and uplifting musical messages. ESSENCE.com caught up with Murdock to talk about being inspired by President-elect Obama, the church’s real purpose, and why she didn’t have a problem singing about adultery.
ESSENCE.COM: Miss Shirley, you are one of the premier soul mavens of our time. Where have you been hiding?
SHIRLEY MURDOCK: I’ve been busy for the past couple of months trying to inspire people to vote. I was this crazy person walking up to folks like, “Did you register?” I even went to the library to update my voter registration and get additional forms to give to other people. I had an opportunity to hear Obama speak at a town-hall meeting in Dayton, where I live, and as I was sitting in the audience, I looked up and there was the campaign sign that said: Change We Believe In. It inspired me and my husband to write a song with the same title. Since then, the campaign slogan became Change We Need. It was just a little something-something we did after church. A lot of times we are afraid. My mother, who went to see the Lord ten years ago this past October, always told me faith is steppin’ out on nothin’ and landin’ on somethin’!
ESSENCE.COM: As an artist who made the transition from soul to gospel, will you ever return to secular music?
MURDOCK: I’m not sure what genre I’ll do next. Personally, I want to start a new genre called “life songs.” As an artist, I don’t want to be in a box. Gospel just means good news and, honey, every walk of life needs some good news. Music is so powerful and there’s power in the tongue so we have to be responsible for the words we speak. As artists, we have to be mindful of what we put out because there’s so much junk out there, and it has taken root. It disturbs me because, again, as artists we have a charge to speak life. Back in the day, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield had songs that reflected what was going on in the world. We have to point our world and society toward a solution.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think the church is too judgmental?
MURDOCK: The church was not meant to be a hotel for the holy, it was meant to be a hospital for the sick. People should be able to come to church and receive a light of love, not judgment, and have Christians speak words of life. Another wise thing my mom always told me was, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” You have to be effective in this world as a child of God. Back in the day, they didn’t have refrigeration and they had to preserve their meat with salt, and as Christians, we have to be the salt of the earth-if we stay in the four walls of the church we can’t do that.
ESSENCE.COM: No one should judge. As a Christian, did you ever feel convicted about singing your smash hit “As We Lay,” which told the story of two adulterers?
MURDOCK: What a lot of people don’t know is that “As We Lay” was a remake. It was originally sung by a group called The Human Body, which consisted of Billy Beck from the Ohio Players, Ray Davis of George Clinton’s P-funk [the deep bass voice on hits like “Atomic Dog”] and Larry Hatcher of P-Funk’s Horny Horns. Billy Beck sang the lead vocals on the original version but it never really hit for them. Although it was one of the last songs to go on my debut album, everyone thought it would be a hit. However, I had a problem with the song because I was a born-again Christian and the lyrics didn’t sound like [these adulterers] were remorseful, nor was it a Godly situation. So I added a line that I could live with: “We should have counted up the cost, but instead we got lost, in the second, in the minute, in the hour, as we lay.” The reason I had no problem singing the song once I added that line was because it reflected everyday life. It didn’t have to be in your situation for you to understand it. Those words explained that in life there’s a price tag, and the moral of “As We Lay” is that you have to count the cost because it doesn’t just affect you, but everyone in your world. It’s like writing a check and you know good and well you don’t have the money to pay for that bill. It’s a shame that people bounce their life accounts with insufficient funds, making permanent decisions based upon temporary wants.
ESSENCE.COM: What is your life’s purpose?
MURDOCK: I try to write my legacy by the way I live every day. My wise mother said you should live your eulogy every day. You have the sunrise, the day you set foot on this earth, and sunset, the day that you step into eternal life, and then there’s that dash in between. Your life is that dash in between. I try to live my life in such a way that people won’t have to figure out what that dash stands for. Again, we’re the salt of the earth and salt saves and preserves, but it also makes you thirsty. We have to live our lives so that people are thirsty for the beauty and goodness that lives inside of you.