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Meet Cillian Murphy, deejay extraordinaire

Besides being a talented and versatile actor, Cillian Murphy excels in yet another role—that of a disc jockey

The Irish actor is as highly talented as he is versatile. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Sanjoy Narayan

LAST PUBLISHED 03.12.2023  |  04:00 PM IST

Perhaps you are just as big a fan of Cillian Murphy as I am. The Irish actor is as highly talented as he is versatile. His recent performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan’s biopic on the physicist who led the development of the atomic bomb during World War II is stunning. In the role of the complex and controversial physicist, who later regretted his part in creating one of the world’s most devastating weapons, Murphy captures brilliantly the transformation of an ambitious and highly intelligent scientist to a remorseful, haunted man accused of treason.

Or you might have been captivated by him in the Netflix series Peaky Blinders, in which he plays Tommy Shelby, the ruthless but charismatic leader of a post World War I Birmingham underworld gang. Murphy is an anti-hero in that sprawling but highly addictive series. You may have also seen him in Incentive, a film in which he plays the heir of a powerful corporation and is the target of dream thieves led by Leonardo DiCaprio. You might even have been lucky enough to have caught him in one of his early roles in the film, Breakfast On Pluto, in which he plays a transgender person growing up in a conservative Irish town in the 1970s.

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It doesn’t matter which role you have seen Murphy in, it’s likely that you instantly became a fan. As I did. There is, however, another role of his that I have lately become really enamoured of. Cillian Murphy, the disc jockey. Yes, Murphy has hosted a music show on BBC Radio 6 Music called Cillian Murphy’s Limited Edition. He started the show in 2019, first as a guest presenter sitting in for Guy Garvey, the frontman of the English rock band Elbow. Subbing for Garvey soon turned into a regular gig for Murphy and continued to host a late-night Sunday show for the BBC. He did it in two series till 2021 and then reprised it last autumn with a third series.

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It is a late-night show that starts at 10pm UK time (so, in the very early hours IST) but it is archived for a few weeks on the BBC 6 website and can be streamed any time.

Murphy certainly has an eclectic taste in music and plays songs from a staggeringly varied array of genres. You can hear familiar tracks from Frank Zappa, Van Morrison and Iggy Pop but also Jamaican reggae from the 1970s band, Zap Pow, electronic trance from the British producer James Holden, and rural country blues by Geeshie Wiley, the 1930s singer who recorded only six songs and who, had she been better known, could well have been one of America’s earliest and foremost female blues singers. Or he could choose to intrigue you with the intertwining of oboe solos with vocals on Number Man (a cantata for the ghost of J. S. Bach), by the American composer David A. Jaffe.

Murphy’s conversational style, made all the more appealing by his accent that has a touch of the Irish brogue, connects informally and easily with the listener as he recounts his memories about a song or a band or a musician. A relatively less known fact about Murphy is his own past as a musician. In his teens, he was part of a band in his hometown of Cork in Ireland. The band, which explored acid jazz, progressive and psychedelic music, was called The Sons of Mr Green Genes, inspired by a Frank Zappa song title, and Murphy played guitar and sang in it.

Murphy’s monologues during his show are short and non-intrusive but interesting, funny and informative, delivered without an iota of self-importance. The best thing probably is the new music that you can discover on Murphy’s show. In a recent episode, he played a rare and unusual cover of a famous song, Mister Big A´Stuff, by the American soul and funk singer Jean Knight. Only, this version, titled Sister Big Stuff, was by John Holt, the Jamaican reggae singer who died in 2014.

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Murphy’s show can help you delve deeper into music you didn’t know that much about. Such as the mysterious British collective Sault, which make neo-soul, R&B, and neo-classical music, but about whose members little is known. Their music is compelling (listen to the song Wildfires) but they never give interviews, never play live gigs and have never released music videos.

On a Sunday night not long ago, Murphy began his show by playing some staples by stars such as David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed, but then he introduced Arthur Russell, with a version of his track Let’s Go Swimming, which is dubbed by the Montreal synth and bass duo Gulf Stream. Russell, who I must confess I had never heard before, was an American cellist, composer and singer, who died at 41 in the early 1990s. I learnt that Russell briefly dated Allen Ginsberg and sometimes accompanied the beat poet’s live readings with his cello solos.

Those sort of rabbit holes are plentiful in a Cillian Murphy show. One moment you are listening to Dylan singing I Want You from Blonde On Blonde (1966) and in the next, you are whisked away to lesser-known territory, a song titled Jesus Going To Clean House by Nashville duo Lee Tracy and Isaac Manning.

The third series of Murphy’s show finished with the 10th episode on 19 November but you can still check it out along with earlier episodes in BBC6’s archives. And, enterprising listeners have made enormous playlists of all the music that Murphy has played on his shows that, with a bit of googling dexterity, are not too difficult to find.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. Sanjoy posts @sanjoynarayan