John Murrell: Musical Virtuoso
Music Man: Johnny Murrell on working with kids, mental health, and the Tulsa music scene
If you’ve attended any arts or music-related event in Tulsa in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Johnny Murrell there — either performing himself or supporting another local artist.
A consummate creative, Murrell wears many hats: he’s a talented musician, songwriter, actor, podcaster, stylist and educator. More than anything, though, Murrell is a community builder and someone who wants to make Tulsa a better place in any way he can.
“I love this place, and I want to invest time in it to make it better,” Murrell said. “It’s valuable for me to stay because of the people in our community.”
Murrell was born in Kansas City and moved to Tulsa as a baby, where he lived until finishing high school. He took to music naturally, he says, and, as a result, started piano lessons at a young age. His parents, both educators, and three older brothers constantly filled the house with sound, playing everything from Carole King and Frank Sinatra to Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer, instilling a love of music across genres in Murrell from childhood.
“When I was a little kid, I would crawl around the kitchen, open the Tupperware cabinet, get wooden spoons, and just start playing the drums,” Murrell said. “I don’t think there was much of a choice — I think it was very deeply natural in me.”
After graduating from Bishop Kelley High School, Murrell enrolled at Wabash College in Indiana, where he studied music and Spanish. Once he earned his degree, he completed an internship at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in Washington, D.C. Then, he decided to move to New York City “with a guitar, a duffel bag, and $700 in my bank account,” he said.
While working a retail job in Manhattan, Murrell founded a successful band called Robbing Johnny. It was through one of his bandmates that he was introduced to his first teaching job at a charter school in Harlem for underserved children. With no teaching experience, Murrell was hired to teach music and language arts, thrusting him headfirst into the world of education.
“I had no training, and they just threw me in there … I was just learning in real time,” Murrell said. “It’s like living in a foreign country and having to figure out the language and learn how to live there.”
Murrell spent three years teaching at the school and said the experience informed his love of working with kids and teaching them lessons through music.
“Working with these kids, they really do want to learn, and they want to be inspired,” Murrell said. “Watching them grow and learn and knowing that you’re impacting their lives — there’s nothing more valuable than that.”
After living and working in New York City for several years, Murrell and his then-partner moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at an after-school program at a public school while pursuing music. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple moved back to Tulsa. When they broke up shortly after, the loss of their relationship threw Murrell into chaos.
For the next two years, Murrell said he worked on himself tirelessly, studying books about mental health and emotions and finding a psychologist who helped him look inward.
“I started farming weed for F5 Farms, and while I’d work, I’d listen to audiobooks by therapists, psychologists, and doctors … I was consuming all of this content, just watering plants and feeding my brain at the same time,” Murrell said. “These books made me exponentially more emotionally intelligent and self-aware. [Studying them] enabled me to be a more grounded, level, calm, loving person.”
Ready to share what he’d learned, Murrell took the tools he’d picked up regarding mental health and combined them with his musical knowledge for his work as an educator in Tulsa. Teaching music in public schools in town, Murrell said he wants to teach his students not just music theory and songwriting, but also how to regulate their own emotions.
“I’ve been doing meditations with the kids at the beginning of class, telling them, ‘Focus on the sensation of breathing, don’t let intrusive thoughts and emotions distract you,’” Murrell said. “Teaching the kids that you can manage your own emotions and your thoughts is so important. It’s the way to get ahead of fights, getting in trouble, and impulse control issues — it can be super helpful.”
In addition to pouring into his students, Murrell has made pouring into the Tulsa music scene a priority, too. When he moved back to Tulsa, he made an effort to befriend local musicians and support them at their shows around town.
“My friend took me to see the Soup play at the Colony, and meeting them helped introduce me to a big portion of the music scene over time,” Murrell said. “I was like, ‘Man, I would love to have musicians of this caliber playing with me.’ But instead of being, like, ‘Will you play with me?’ I just supported them, went to their gigs, and made friends with everyone over like a year and a half.”
Murrell has drawn on the connections and genuine friendships he made with other musicians when performing his own music.
Noticing his talent and his ability to create community, Mercury Lounge gave Murrell a residency in May, where he played five times over the month. Musicians from several different bands learned Murell’s songs and joined him on stage, performing in front of a packed house every Monday. He made the residency a full experience, bringing in chefs selling homemade food, florists selling bouquets, and even an artist who painted live during Murrell’s set.
“It was five of the most phenomenal weeks I’ve ever been part of, and I proved to myself that the way I’ve been showcasing local talent, and trying to healthily cultivate the music scene here, is paying off,” Murrell said. “It showed that my music has resonated with people, which reminds me of why I’m doing this.”
One way Murrell continues to highlight other local musicians is through hosting the new podcast “Tonight at Thelma’s Peach.” Murell interviews each band who performs at the bar that night, and then splices the interview together with footage of their live performance.
“You get to hear about funny things that have happened on tour, their inspiration, how they started, and then you can actually see them performing,” Murrell said. “We’re trying to bring the artists to you … I want everybody to meet my friends from the bands they already love on a more intimate level.”
Though the Tulsa music scene itself is full of immense talent, Murrell said performers are not always compensated fairly.
“It’s easy to take advantage of artists because they need exposure, which sets the basis of venues not paying artists very much, or at all,” Murrell said. “A lot of musicians have stood up and said something, and some venues are listening, but it’s extremely important to know the value of music and the value of original art.”
Looking ahead, Murrell shows no signs of slowing down. He’s currently working on a 20-song album with many other Tulsa musicians and producers as collaborators. Additionally, he and Thelma’s Peach owner, Andrew O’Meilia have plans to keep growing and expanding the bar’s performance space. Finally, he plans on hosting voter registration events to help people in Tulsa get more involved in local politics.
On a personal level, Murrell said he wants to continue building a life for himself in Tulsa while investing in the local community as well.
“I eventually want kids and a family … I want to have what we need to be happy and comfortable, which isn’t much, and then put the rest back into the community,” Murrell said.
To stay updated with his latest performances and events, make sure to follow Johnny Murrell on his official Instagram account @johnnymurrell.