Before there was Shania Twain, there was Anne Murray.
Yes, that Anne Murray. She was Canada’s original country, pop, adult-contemporary crossover who baffled publications, critics and music programmers with her refusal to be bound by genre. She was also the first Canadian female solo singer to score a No. 1 hit in the U.S. with her 1970 breakthrough, “Snowbird.” Twenty-plus years before Twain’s fly-trap-sticky choruses became the karaoke anthems that bridged generational, gendered and geographical divides, Murray — a Springhill, N.S., gym teacher-turned-award-winning vocalist — was the country’s gold-standard superstar.
“When I sing a pop song, I’m a pop singer,” Murray told Orange Coast magazine in September 1982. “When I sing a country song, I’m a country singer. I’ve been very lucky to cross over, because by doing that, you can’t be pigeonholed.”
Today, June 20, 2017, Murray turns 72. She’s been retired for a little under 10 years, but she does have a forthcoming double album of greatest hits coupled with her personal favourite songs to sing, dropping in August. She doesn’t get much radio play anymore, and sometimes there’s a certain implication to her very name that reads as soft, safe, vanilla.
But that’s not what this story is about. This is the other side of Anne Murray, and all about the making of an icon. A woman who's sold more than 55 million albums, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, who used to roll in circles that led to this photo of her, John Lennon, Alice Cooper, Micky Dolenz and Harry Nilsson, and who never shied away from her ambitions — professional or personal. She vocalized a clear, focused pursuit of a career throughout her interviews in the ’70s and ’80s. Interviews that Twain, Céline Dion, k.d. lang and countless other aspiring musicians — all influenced by Murray — would have grown up watching and reading.
Murray was also a one-woman hit machine for 40-plus years, shouldering the expectations of fans, media and the music industry alike. She won Grammys, a record number of Junos and amassed more than 70 singles to her credit. Between 1968 and 1988 alone, she churned out at least a record a year (and sometimes two or three).
“Oh, it was just a year? It seemed to me it was every 10 minutes,” Murray jokes over the phone from her home in Toronto. “That's what it felt like to me when they [the record executives] were pushing me, pushing me, pushing me to release. If I had it to do over, that's one of the things I would do differently. I would not let them do that to me, you know? Because I was having success, they just— it was just one album after another, it was way over the top. But anyway, it happened, it's done. But I would do that differently.”
She was also touring constantly in support of those releases, and Murray remembers that when Bruce Allen, who's worked with Bryan Adams and Michael Bublé, took over managing her in 1996, he couldn’t believe her schedule.
“I was a real work-horse,” Murray says. “I thought that's what I had to do, this was my job, and I was the breadwinner in the family. I did have ambitions and I did want to pursue this because I feel it was a gift given to me, you know? And you just don't ignore it.”
Murray married then-husband, Bill Langstroth, in 1975. Langstroth, who hired Murray for her first professional singing job on the Halifax CBC show Singalong Jubilee, was described frequently in the media as her mentor. In fact, he was her partner domestically, not professionally. “He’s never been involved in my career except in those early days,” Murray said in an archival interview. “For about a year he managed me…. Since then he hasn’t been involved in my career, and I like it that way.”
They had the first of two children in 1976, and Murray struggled balancing her family and showbiz life, something she talks about frequently in her older interviews. She’s very clear about how important her children are to her, but she’s equally clear about not denying the ambitions she had for herself and her career.
“That was really important to me,” Murray says, of the purposeful duality of her messaging. “And I probably would do the same thing again, but in hindsight I wish there had been a way that I could work it out that I could've ... I missed so much! With my kids I just missed so many things, and that's a regret I have. I don’t dwell on regrets or anything like that but I, you know, if there had been a way and I know that I’m just re-iterating what many mothers have said in the last 30 years, but it is just really difficult. And when you travel a lot, it's a killer. When you leave, it's just a wrench. You're wrenching away from the family. When you get home, you try to jump right back into that, and it doesn’t work right away because you're encroaching on a life that they've established, and what they have to do to get along. It was really hard.”
The record execs weren’t happy at the time, either. Murray remembers getting a little behind in her album production because of having kids, in the height of the frenzied output, and the attitude was "How dare you stop and have children?"
“Believe me, there were those conversations,” she says, laughing.
It’s not lost on Murray that, for most of her career, the topic of sacrifice and balance was a question reserved primarily for women musicians and never their male counterparts.
“Because they don't have to balance it,” Murray says. “They have a woman at home balancing it. But things are changing in that regard. My son, for instance, you know, like he does every bit as much parenting as his wife. And every bit as much cleaning, and every bit as much laundry. It's very fair, and it didn't used to be that way, so I’m liking what I see in all of this.”
Since her retirement, Murray has been all about family time, hanging out with her kids and grandkids. She never plans to sing publicly again.
“I wanted to go out still singing well, and not having to make excuses, and I just couldn't handle the road anymore,” Murray says. She talks about the financial impossibility of touring, and the prohibitive cost of taking a night off when you’re the boss and footing the bill. Yes, even Anne Murray can’t afford to tour anymore, financially, artistically or physically. “My final tour of the U.S. and Canada, I did 57 shows, and I betcha my voice was the way I wanted it to be, maybe on five nights.”
Even now, speaking with Murray over the phone, her voice is like melted gold and her early songs are like sunlight glinting off the ocean’s surface. There’s a reason she was Elvis’s favourite female vocalist (he covered her first hit, "Snowbird"). When she sings there’s something about Murray's tone and timbre, an implicit, fearless sincerity, that’s both soothing and skin-tingling. She beat out Dolly Parton and “Jolene” for the best female country vocal Grammy Award in 1975 with “A Love Song,” and Barbra Streisand for the best female pop vocal Grammy with “You Needed Me” in 1979.
Musically and lyrically, as was often the style at the time, her songs skewed a bit old-fashioned and traditional, which makes sense given that she grew up singing along to Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Andy Williams. Her first few hits — “What About Me,” “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and “Snowbird” — are in keeping with those artistic influences.
But there are small moments of subversion at work on almost every hit. "Snowbird" is a sweet-sounding song about someone who knows her partner is unfaithful and wishes she could go off with the one she truly loves — but she can't. In “Could I Have This Dance,” Murray flips the heteronormative script, doing the asking and choosing of her prospective mate. “You Needed Me” starts out with how the “you” in the song saves her, but she saves that "you" right back.
Murray continued to upend expectations right through to one of her last huge hits, the 2007 record Anne Murray Duets: Friends & Legends, which featured all women artists, from superstars (including Dion and Twain) to emerging artists.
The record also included the particularly poignant “I Just Fall in Love Again,” in which Murray laid down her vocals on a posthumous track by her best friend, the late Dusty Springfield.
Even though she doesn’t miss singing publicly, Murray says she sings to her kids and with her family. She’ll be hosting a reunion of her band this summer, too, and expects there will be some jamming. She doesn’t plan to do any performances in support of the new double album, but says it’s been 25 years since her last greatest hits record, so it seemed like a good time. And she’s happy for the chance to assemble a list of her personal favourites, too.
Among those will likely be “A Million More,” which Murray says is in her top three favourites of all the songs she’s ever recorded.
Her second favourite is "Song for the Mira," which she describes as an anthem of her home province, Nova Scotia. “The last time I played there, to hear 10,000 people sing the chorus is pretty, pretty moving."
Murray’s third favourite is the aforementioned “You Needed Me.” She doesn’t remember the first time she heard it when screening demos in the ’70s, but she remembers the second time vividly. It was in a box called “listen to again” and she had to sit down. “It just took my breath away. And I thought, ‘Well how could I possibly have not felt this way the first time I heard it?’ I went right to the phone and I called my office and said, ‘You have to put this song on hold. It's unbelievable.’ And it just went from there.”
Looking back now, it’s incredible to think that Murray was worried she would be just a one-hit wonder, and that “Snowbird” would be the extent of her legacy.
“It does happen, and you worry that it's gonna happen to you 'cause you don't know what's next,” she says. “Just because it happened with ‘Snowbird’ for me, it doesn't mean that there's gonna be another one around the corner.”
Though Murray describes it as “naive," she was fairly confident that “Snowbird” would be a hit. She grew up listening to music her whole life — "I devoured everything on the radio, I felt like I knew music” — and “Snowbird” was the first original song that Murray had ever heard. Written by the late Gene MacLellan, the Canadian songwriter told her, “Do with it whatever you want.” And she did.
“I started playing it for people and everyone loved it,” Murray says. “I had a very good feeling about it, but I didn't have any false hopes, I just went with the flow and went to see how it would go and it just took off.”
It would be four years before Murray scored her major followup hit, but after that, the singles just kept coming, and the accolades, awards and album sales kept mounting. Now, here she is on her 72nd birthday and while she’s happy to look back, she also doesn’t miss it one little bit.
“I did it for 40 years and that's long enough to do anything.”
More to explore:
Anne Murray’s music special in Jamaica.
Anne Murray performing “You Won’t See Me” with Chicago.
Anne Murray's interview and medley with Dusty Springfield.
Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner