“MY WHOLE career has been a happy accident,” says Róisín Murphy. “Even the fact that I’m a singer at all is a total accident. I walked into a party, fancied a fella and just walked up to him and said, do you like my tight sweater? He took me to his studio in the middle of the night and recorded me saying it, and it was the start of a relationship, not the start of a career.”
The Irish-born singer’s drunken chat up line became the title of the album she went onto record with the man she met that night in Sheffield, Mark Brydon. And an obligatory element of every interview Murphy has done since then.
Moloko made quirky, avant-garde electronic funk experimentalism topped by the sound of Murphy’s beautiful, jazz-influenced vocals being chopped up, mangled and stretched beyond all recognition. Their music ended up being remixed into the kind of enormous house anthems that soundtrack the never-ending summers of Ibiza. But there was nothing accidental about their success.
When Murphy and Brydon split as a couple and then a band, the sessions for Murphy’s debut solo album found “lunatic producer” Matthew Herbert sampling her hitting and shaking a variety objects from her home and her life. The resulting album, Ruby Blue, was a warm, intimate and beguiling mix of jazz, electronica and Murphy’s extraordinary contralto voice, which was adored by many of those who heard it – but not that many people heard it, and even fewer bought it.
Dropped by the label she’d been with since she was a teenager, she offered to buy a pint for an old friend in return for some much-needed career advice and ended up being signed to EMI. With anyone else you might suspect a not-so-hidden agenda, but the refreshingly straightforward and direct singer seems to have an innate aversion to taking the easy path. There are elements of her career which defy all logic.
“I absolutely maintain, – and treasure – the idea that accidental and natural kind of circumstances are the best ones to develop something creative,” she declares over the phone from her home in London, in an accent that is simultaneously very Irish, a little bit south Yorkshire and a touch south London. She is also agreeably sweary, although you can tell she’s trying to keep a lid on it.
She secured a large advance from EMI, much of which she spent making her second album, Overpowered, the way she wanted it to be made, with producer Seiji aiming firmly at the dancefloor but with a distinct if slightly off-kilter pop sensibility. It was a great album but, as she put it, Overpowered “didn’t make me a pop star and nobody quite knows why”.
Overpowered contained some of her most accessible music since the days of the chart success of Sing it Back, but ultimately it was too clever by half. It wasn’t stupid enough to really work as proper pop music. Murphy can write a killer hook that will stay in your head for months but she doesn’t really do banal platitudes and black and white certainties. As one observer put it at the time, “she’s everything Madonna wants to be, but isn’t”.
After some entirely predictable “shenanigans” and “loads of arguments” about her artistic direction, she parted company with EMI.
Since then, Murphy has gone on to collaborate with the likes of David Byrne, Fatboy Slim and even Tony Christie, released a string of house records with a number of well-respected producers, and last year, an EP of cover versions of Italian disco and pop classics – in Italian – with her partner, DJ and producer Sebastiano Properzi. And she’s also had a couple of children.
After a brief hiatus, when she concentrated on being a mum, Murphy’s next big project is her third album, Hairless Toys, named, typically enough, after a guide lyric misheard by longtime collaborator Eddie Stephens. It’s worth noting that, this time around, Murphy paid for the recording of the album herself before licensing it to Play it Again Sam.
Working with Stephens in an intensive five week-recording session last year, Murphy says the album required “great discipline but there was also a laissez-faire attitude of let’s get it down, not question it, and move on. I think that’s the ideal combination when you’re doing anything creative. I think you need to capture energy. If you overthink things, you can really fuck them up.”
Hairless Toys is something of a tour de force, and perhaps her most accomplished album to date, leaning more towards the delicacy and low-key experimentalism of Ruby Blue than to the big, singalong choruses of Overpowered, but still packed full of Murphy’s trademark passion, charisma and style. Relentlessly innovative but instantly recognisable, she continues to sound quite unlike anybody else on earth. And Murphy has grown into a skilled and engaging songwriter too.
It’s a diverse, experimental and yet genuinely charming collection that alternates between tender laments for Broadway musicals that haven’t been written yet and thudding four-to-the-floor house, soulful, slow-burn torch songs and even something not unlike country and western – or at least the Cramps’ version of it. She even gets a bit Fleetwood Mac at one point.
Murphy’s musical palette has always been richly varied and uniquely colourful, but sooner or later, I observe, she always seems to return to house music.
She’s not so sure about that, telling me that she’s interested in club culture as a whole.
“I’m a bit of a twat when it comes to club culture,” she says, sounding very matter of fact. “I take it all quite seriously. Not a lot of people really get it when I start talking about discipline within club culture. I suppose northern soul people get it. You know, you can’t bring drinks onto the dance floor, you can’t fall over, you’ve got to wear the right clothes, you’ve got to learn the dance moves. There are quite strict rules attached to it.
“It can be very, very off putting for people – but I really like that. I found that in Sheffield, to a degree. There was a certain aspect of the DJ delivering a tutorial. It sounds shit but I really enjoyed it, like they were teaching you the lineage of the music itself – where modern music came from – by kind of building through music from the past up to the future, if you like.
“And there’s this aspect of club culture having an aspirational value to it, that idea that, well, I’m not going to do what my mum and dad did. I’m not going to take a shit job, I’m not going to do what society expects me to do. It can lead you to think, what’s been laid out for me isn’t enough.”
She draws on these ideas for the album’s beautiful opening track, Gone Fishing, a tender lament to a lost way of life written after Murphy found herself “deeply moved” by Jennie Livingston’s documentary about the community around the New York drag balls in the mid 1980s, Paris is Burning. It’s already one of my favourite songs by La Murphy.
Exploitation, the first single from the album, and a very minimal kind of wobbly house, appears to find her musing on her complex relationship with EMI (“never underestimate creative people and the depths that they will go .. who’s exploiting who?”).
Continuing the theme of self reliance, the self-directed noir-rish video for Exploitation portrays Murphy as a faded Norma Desmond in vintage Valentino spiralling down into her own personal hell. It’s the first time she’s directed a video. She plans to do more.
“It is the modern way,” she says. “You can’t really call yourself a complete modernist unless you do take more and more control over your career in music. The whole way that the industry is going requires you to take more responsibility as an artist, which I think is actually a bloody brilliant thing.
“I came into the industry in the 90s, and really, it was a culture of imbeciles with regards to the way the musicians were treated. It was all, oh, don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, we’ll figure that one out for you. You will never understand this and we’ll do it for you – and by the way, you’ll have to pay us for it.
“It doesn’t wash anymore, all that,” she decides. “In the modern industry we’ve got to take control, we’ve got to take more responsibility, you’ve got to be more disciplined.”
“I never thought about discipline in my twenties. Not once. I probably went through my entire twenties without even saying the word. The culture wasn’t really about that then. It wasn’t as serious a world, in a sense, as it is now. I don’t think musicians should be kept feeling stupid. I think it’s about time we took a bit of responsibility for the other things that are going on.”
Ultimately, she says, her job is all about quality control.
“Obviously I’m a singer and I write lyrics and all that, but I’m the one that puts their foot down at the end of the day. As you get older, you’re more able to turn round to people and say, don’t tell the vision people what the vision should be. You just get more ballsy.
“It’s just as easy, it’s just as quick to do something with the highest quality threshold as it is to do something that’s shite. Doing something that’s totally uncompromising is just as easy to do as something that’s totally compromised. I just put my foot down.”
The album is closely followed by a London show at the Roundhouse and a number of European festival dates. A low-key preview gig, ahead of the tour proper, takes place at Gorilla in Manchester this week.
Murphy says she doesn’t know what the tour is going to look like, but she does know what it won’t be anything like the big production “disco pizzaz” of her last big tour, for Overpowered, an all-singing, all-dancing affair with lightning quick costume changes between practically every song. This time, it’ll just be her and five musicians on stage.
“I think the music is more beautiful than anything I’ve ever done live before. It’s going to be a bit more about listening. I hope that doesn’t sound boring, because I still want people to sweat, and enjoy themselves and be hysterical, but there will be an aspect of it that is like, wow, I haven’t heard anything like that onstage before.”
Murphy knows Manchester of old, having moved to Stockport with her family in 1985. When her parents divorced and went back to Ireland, she stayed and threw herself into the city’s thriving life music scene.
“It started with gigs, because I couldn’t get into nightclubs when I was 14. I easily went to two gigs a week for about a year. It was people like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, it was all that era.
“Then we started going to a night called Isadora’s, which I think was under the Corn Exchange. It was like a psychedelic club, so we started going there, and they’d be playing Spacemen 3 next to the Stooges. The next thing we knew, they were playing I am the Resurrection and we were surrounded by football hooligans, but they were all hugging us. And we were like, oh my god, what’s going on here?
“In retrospect, I realise that it was all because of E. I witnessed this thing in Manchester where all the boundaries came down. Where these different youth cultures were looking at each other and it wasn’t about seeing the differences anymore, we were all seeing the similarities, for a time. And it was an absolute sublimely beautiful moment. So yeah, I went to every single club you could go to in Manchester. I went to the PSV regularly, lots of blues in Moss Side. I got around a bit.”
She remembers her time in Manchester as just about the first time she was able “to go and do what I wanted. It was a wonderful time.”
We’re lucky she made the move over to Sheffield really. Otherwise Murphy could‘ve easily stayed in Manchester, pursued a career in photography and the world might have missed out on one of the most individual voices in contemporary music – and a woman who has performed some of my favourite songs ever. All this from a drunken chat up line.
Anyone who writes about her is contractually obliged to include that tight sweater quote. I tell her I read a better quote from her about how, when she first met Mark Brydon in Sheffield 21 years ago, and delivered the line, she’d turned him on and freaked him out, all at the same time. Is there anything of that in the way she approaches her music?
“Yeah, just a bit, I suppose,” she replies. “There’s a lot of Cindy Sherman in me. That’s who I wanted to be. When I first saw her work I was like, thank fuck. Because, at the end of the Eighties, we were coming out of a world where feminism was great, essentially, but it wasn’t much fun. There wasn’t much sexiness to it.
“Seeing this artist playing with all these feminine roles, that I’d be obsessed with since being a child – because I was a child who could sit down at a very young age and watch black and white films – I was filled with those sort of different feminine roles and ideals, they’re all going round in my head. They’re all fantasy, and they’re all, you know, enjoyable.
“Seeing an artist taking them back, and twisting them to make them something very empowering was a bit of turning point for me, and probably lots of other girls too. That’s where it comes from, I think. That’s where I got the balls to be like that.”
Murphy has a very individual sense of style that has manifested itself in a succession of extraordinary and beautiful outfits from the Moloko days onwards. Initially mixing high street with vintage, she has since developed a taste for very high-end couture. The feeling seems to be mutual.
“We are attracted and inspired by what we call mega-women: strong women who follow their own path and are uncompromisingly themselves,” Viktor and Rolf have said of Murphy. “Róisín Murphy is a source of inspiration for us; we share with her the need for theatricality and performance in our work.”
Murphy has also collaborated with Linda Farrow on a range of sunglasses, and modelled for French designer Alexandre Vauthier’s debut couture show. She clearly enjoys the artistry of fashion, but also just likes dressing up in beautiful things.
And while she’s admitted in the past, unapologetically, that she has a liking for “expensive shit”, the clothes she’s wearing on the sleeve of Hairless Toys are what she describes as “nylon pieces of crap” (“I’m not snobby about it, I use the tools that I use”).
But things are changing – and in Murphy’s view, not for the better.
“I’m definitely not as enthralled with fashion as I was. Even high fashion seems much more mass produced than it was, here in London. London was the last bastion of a sort of punk attitude in clothing, even eight years ago, it’s not like that anymore. There’s new designers and they immediately get press people and start working out which celebrity is going to wear which gown where, and all this shite.
“Eight years ago, I was able to go and see Gareth Pugh in his warehouse in the East End and scramble around on the floor and pull these amazing things out of plastic bags that he’d made and say, can I borrow that? And he’d go, yeah. He wasn’t worried about whether it was part of the marketing plan.
“So the clothes can still sometimes be very avant-garde in London, because that’s the identity, but the backbone of the business is not punky anymore. It’s all sorted out, it’s all sown up, if you’ll forgive the pun, so it’s not as exciting for me as it was.”
It’s a long time since the girl from Arklow, Stockport, Sheffield and London has been merely “the girl out of Moloko”. Playful, dramatic and endlessly surprising, Hairless Toys is an album made for listening as much as dancing, and it doesn’t reveal all its secrets at once. It feels like a big deal.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more happy,” says Murphy. “I’ve achieved exactly what I set out to do. I’ve made a really good record, people are reacting to it exactly the way I wanted them to react to it. I’ve got all this control. I made the record without a label, in the modern world you can do that, you can think, it’ll be fine, I’ll find a way to put it out.
“And it’s all going exactly the way I wanted it to go. Textbook. I’ve never actually been so pleased with myself. It’s all worked out the way it should.
“Not for EMI though. They’re still waiting to make their million quid back. Never mind.”
[This is a longer version of an interview which was published in the Big Issue North in May 2015]