Overpowered by Róisín Murphy (EMI)

MY WORK is done. Ever since I was introduced to Moloko’s debut album by a girlfriend in Leeds in the mid 90s, I’ve been diligent in returning the favour to womankind by turning a succession of lucky, lucky ladies onto the unparalleled genius of Róisín Murphy.

No, not at all, you are very welcome.

Despite her undoubted star quality, and since this is all about me, I think this perhaps has more to do with Róisín being the vocal-led stuff that I play at home the most that isn’t offensive, abrasive or otherwise objectionable. These perhaps-not-quite-so-lucky ladies were essentially clutching at musical straws.

I’m joking. Who wouldn’t like Róisín’s stuff, once you’ve actually heard it?

There was a time when that phrase seemed destined to be inscribed on Murphy’s gravestone.

Her first solo album, the intensely personal Ruby Blue, found producer Matthew Herbert coaxing a series of delicate, soulful, funny little songs from a fragile young woman emerging from the hurt and uncertainty that accompanies the end of a love affair and also, in this case, her only professional partnership.

Herbert asked Murphy to select important objects from her everyday life and constructed the music from samples of her shaking, rattling and rolling them around the studio. It’s much less gimmicky than it sounds and, gently encouraged by the producer, her confidence returned. You could say that she literally put her heart and soul into Ruby Blue.

Echo initially released the album as three separate 12-inch singles, each with great artwork by Murphy’s then partner Simon Henwood and each limited to just 500 copies. The label were looking for hit singles to sell the album but there was no obvious The Time is Now or Sing It Back to push.

And that is the simple, harsh reality behind the decision to drop Murphy from the label that she’d been signed to since she was a teenager. That’s showbusiness.

She went back to Ireland to lick her wounds, give birth to her daughter with Henwood, and learn how to be a mother.

A couple of years later, Murphy was back in London again and somewhat adrift. She met up with Moloko’s former musical director Eddie Stevens for a pint and a bit of career advice. As it turned out, Stevens, who was an A&R for EMI at the time, could do much better than that. A deal was, as they say, swiftly inked.

Overpowered was the result.

After Murphy’s slightly cottage-industry collaboration with Herbert on Ruby Blue, I was excited to hear how the resources of a major label would affect her sound, although the involvement of Seiji from broken beats innovators Bugz in the Attic, and her own inate affinity with weird, promised something a little more leftfield than the norm.

Despite this, incredibly, the story goes that a number of adult humans at EMI – presumably not including Eddie Stevens – saw Murphy live and thought the charismatic, motormouth singer could be their new homegrown Robbie Williams-style superstar.

“I got signed to EMI because I reminded them of Robbie Williams,” she says in the booklet for the original CD release.

In what deranged parallel universe could that ever be an actual reality?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate this impressively bananas clusterfuck of collective delusion.  

You can just imagine her, sat in the meeting, going, ‘yeah, totally, the new Robbie Williams, only a woman – me. Definitely. Anyway lads, I’m off to Miami, when do I get the advance?’

It’s a great story that seems to sum up perfectly the deficit of imagination, depth of ignorance and lack of foresight that ultimately brought about the music industry’s thoroughly well-deserved self destruction.

Except that it’s not true.

“I lied,” Murphy told Gary Ryan at the NME. “That’s not true. I was just joking – my irony often goes awry.”

Either way, EMI wanted a pop record. And that’s what she promised them.

Murphy consistently works with brilliant, inventive producers – Mark Brydon, Matthew Herbert, Parrot, Anu Pillai, Dan the Automator, Maurice Fulton, her partner Sebastian Properzi, and Eddie Stevens is no slouch either – with a variety of contrasting approaches but, generally speaking, they are at their most effective when la Murphy gets a little space to do her thing.

Although much of the initial writing/production legwork for Overpowered was done by a core team of Seiji and Paul Catto (of jazz house stalwarts Reel People) in London, rather than work with a single producer, arranger, mixer or co-writer, Murphy opted to work with loads of different people all over the shop.

roisin4

She’d eventually spend eight months intensively writing, recording, mixing and remixing in London, Barcelona, Madrid, Miami, Las Vegas and, perhaps inevitably, Sheffield. Yes, nice work if you can get it, but Murphy was pretty disciplined it seems, and adopted Matthew Herbert’s strict 11am to 6pm working day on her travels, with the expectation that she would produce a workable song in each session.

Her collaborators included Richard X, who’d given the Sugababes an entirely new lease of life – and their first number one – with his Freak Like Me/Are Friends Electric mashup a few years earlier, and Dan Carey, who’d gone from producing breaks for Dust 2 Dust as Mr Dan to co-writing Slow with Kylie.

At EMI’s suggestion, Murphy also worked with Cathy Dennis, who’d written Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, and Calvin Harris, fresh from doing In My Arms with Kylie and eager to expand his repertoire.

Obviously, there’s an antipodean pop princess-shaped theme emerging here, but it’s worth remembering Murphy also worked on tracks for Overpowered with Andy Cato of Groove Armada, NYC house music keys wiz Eric Kupper, and MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra strings arranger Larry Gold.

She also called on the talents of Jimmy Douglass, who made his name producing acts like Aretha, Evelyn Champagne King, Odyssey, Slave and Gang of Four, years before he even met some bloke called Timbaland.

Apparently, Murphy wanted to get Maurice Fulton involved too, but it didn’t work out, and Parrot and Dean Horner, old friends from Sheffield then working as All Seeing I, ended up flying the flag for South Yorkshire on their tod.

Everyone, apparently, knew there were many more writers, producers and mixers vying to appear on the album than there were available slots. There was no A&R buffer, as she enjoyed in her interactions with EMI. She was the person everyone had to impress.

“I was the boss,” she told Gigwise. “I worked with all sorts of different people, at different levels too – the writing stage, the mixing stage, even production between the two. Each of those decisions were mine. I got to the end of the process, and when one producer wasn’t prepared to take something somewhere, I could get another one to do it”.

“That was quite nice. But it was an awful pain in the arse too. It’s very expensive. That kind of behaviour haemorrages money.”

There were some casualties along the way.

I did some songs with Cathy Dennis for the Róisín Murphy album but then Róisín decided not to use them because she is a bit mental,” Calvin Harris told Popjustice like a massive shithouse. “She must be crazy because the songs are really good and Cathy Dennis is obviously legendary”.

“I now have two backing tracks that are completely wasted. Geez! What else Roisin – are you going pay my bill now, you twat? She fucking cost me all sorts of money and now she’s not even using the songs. Honestly, the world of pop music – I don’t like it at all”.

Clearly, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

“We did two tracks,” Murphy told Justin Strauss. “And everyone in the label was convinced that one track was a hit – and I hated all of it. I knew I wanted to write with Cathy Dennis because I wanted to do a song like Can’t Get You Out of My Head. But it was total cheese what we did. It wasn’t about it being too pop. It just wasn’t that good. You know? And it was a massive, big argument”.

Sophie Ellis Bextor added her vocal to one of these offcuts, Off & On, for an album a few years later. Murphy generously commented at the time that Sophie’s version was actually much better than her own take on Off & On. And then, helpfully, a fan released her original version on YouTube so everyone else could hear too.

I’m with the guy in the comments for Sophie’s vid who says: “Buena versión, pero soy fiel a mi Roisin, es única y la amo <3”.

“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,” Murphy told me some time later (not in relation to this specific incident). “Doing something that’s totally uncompromising is just as easy to do as something that’s totally compromised. I just put my foot down.”

Overpowered, the lead single from the album, was competing with the Sugababes, who had just had their second number one single of the year, as well as the likes of Britney, Leona Lewis, Take That and McFly.

When the single was released a couple of months before the album, its main physical product, a maxi-CD single, was ineligible for the singles chart because, with a radio edit, two B-sides, two remixes and a video, it had too much content. That is some truly impressive shooting yourself in the foot action from EMI’s marketing department.

In terms of albums, Radiohead had just released their dreary In Rainbows opus for free download, while Stereophonics had a number one with their much-anticipated, career-spanning retrospective, Songs So Beige You Will Literally Want To Poke Your Eyes Out Just To Feel Anything At All.

I wasn’t really paying attention to any of this shit, of course. At the time, I was much more interested in exploring the nooks and crannies of Sergio Mendes and Astrud Gilberto’s back catalogues than listening to anything that might ever trouble the pop charts. Róisín excepted, obviously.

Even though Overpowered only came out in October 2007, it’s all a bit hazy. Overpowdered, perhaps. I was living in a tiny attic flat in bohemian Chorlton, had a little bit of money for once and was out three or four times a week. I was burning the candle at both ends but not, as previously, burning it in the middle too. I regard this as a progression. 

I think I bought the CD for my girlfriend to play in the car. I was immediately struck by the exquisite cover photography featuring la Murphy resplendent in Gareth Pugh, Givenchy and Victor & Rolf. According to Murphy, the photography for the album and single sleeves alone, by Vogue Italia photographer Jonathan de Villiers, cost £125,000

Buying a girlfriend a present unprompted doesn’t really sound like something I’d do, it’s true, although buying them a gift that I would also be able to enjoy does. But she might’ve bought it herself. Either way, even though I loved the album, I didn’t get a copy for myself. Rookie error.

We went to see Róisín on the tour that accompanied the album (which just scraped into the top 20 albums chart) and she was predictably fantastic.

Shortly after the album’s release, everything went tits up at EMI. The company had been sued by Apple (the label) over non-payment of $50m Beatles royalties a couple of years before and, though the exact details of the final settlement were not disclosed, it seems likely it involved a similarly hefty payout.

And Robbie Williams’ six-album deal a few years before that, which saw the Stoke light-entertainment homunculus trouser around £80m, probably didn’t help the company’s balance book either.

Having disclosed a loss of £260m, the company had been acquired by Terra Firma Capital Partners for £4.2bn in August, and their restructuring plans for the business included reducing costs by £200m per year. Around 2,000 people would lose their jobs. 

Ridiculously cost-intensive though the creation of Overpowered might have been, EMI was not brought down by Róisín Murphy. The company was on its way out anyway.

The venture capitalists who now controlled EMI had zero interest in restoring the company to its former glories. They were looking for fat salaries and a profitable exit within three years. Bits of the EMI businesses began to be sold off.

Still signed to the label, Murphy actually began putting together a new album with Seiji, including a cover of Bryan Ferry’s Slave to Love, originally recorded for a Gucci ad.

She seems to have finally extricated herself from her contract around the time Terra Firma sold EMI to Citigroup, before Citigroup sold off the remaining publishing, recording and back catalogue assets to EMI’s competitors.

It was all over.

We were living in tumultuous times. While all this was happening, the Lehman Brothers bank collapse had triggered a global debt crisis that eventually led to a general economic downturn.

I’d somehow managed to keep my head above water with the move to digital in previous years, but the sudden across-the-board reduction in editorial budgets made it impossible to earn a living as a journalist. It was impossible for me to earn a living as a journalist anyway.

It was just heartbreaking. It was the only job I’d ever done, or ever wanted to do. It was a massive part of how I defined myself. I ended up answering the phones in a call centre for six miserable months. I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t think I was a lot of fun to be around.

Unfortunately, my relationship turned out to be a little more transactional than anticipated, and I’d not had much to bring to the party for some time. It didn’t end well.

I wasn’t in any great rush to hear Overpowered again, put it that way.

Happily, over the years, seeing Róisín play live, I’ve been able to hear various tracks from Overpowered with new ears – and associate them with happier times. It helps that Suzie just loves Róisín’s stuff as a whole. She doesn’t differentiate. It’s all the same to her.

Back in the day, she had to buy a CD of Sing It Back for her then three-year-old son, who then proceeded to play it at full blast about 20 times per day for a couple of years. And she still loves Róisín’s stuff.

I had a look at buying the limited-release vinyl version of the album on Discogs but couldn’t cope with paying anything like £100 for any album, even one by the divine Ms M. I had to make do with a few tracks from iTunes but this was not a particularly satisfying solution.

Thankfully, the album was reissued this time last year by Manchester-born reissue specialists Be With (“Because you need it on vinyl”), with the kind of quality and attention to detail we’ve come to expect from both label and artist – but at a much more affordable price than the original. And the lurid pink/orange vinyl is cut loud. It’s an example of how to do reissues properly.

Unsurprisingly, listening to the album again offers no great insights on that particular failed relationship. I think we should probably just chalk it up to experience. But, more importantly, listening to Overpowered knowing what Murphy has done since does provide an interesting perspective.

Opening with the glorious mid-tempo chugger Overpowered, co-written with Seiji and Mike Patto, the album starts as it means to go on. Apparently inspired by Tiga’s I Wear My Sunglasses At Night, a gentle acid pulse runs throughout as Murphy sings about the heart ruling the head, specifically ‘Oxytocins flowing ever into my brain’.

Murphy often opens her live sets with Overpowered to this day. It’s stood the test of time.

You Know Me Better, created by the combined talents of Murphy, Andy Cato, Eric Kupper. and Ivan ‘Ill Factor’ Corraliza, ups the ante considerably. It is fire. Delirious and delicious dancefloor devastation is guaranteed, and it’s got a killer hook that will stay in your head forever. Certified banger.

“That is just amazing,” sez one YouTube commentalist. “She has got it all: the looks, the voice, the vibe. She could easily make it as big as Kylie Minogue, but she does not want to take the easy way out. RESPECT!”

Militant R&B jam Checkin’ On Me, co-written with Douglass and Corraliza, switches gear and slows things down a touch, with strings by Larry Gold for maximum drama. The Murphy gives a typically confident, soulful, swaggering performance. It’s just a delight.

Co-written and produced with Andy Cato and mixed by Dan Carey, Let me Know is another absoluter banger aimed squarely at the dancefloor, that, according to my notes (yes, notes, what of it?), brings the classic Italian piano house sound up to date with a vengeance.

In fact, Let Me Know harks back to the golden age of the Paradise Garage, drawing a fair bit of inspiration from Tracy Weber’s Sure Shot and D Train’s Keep On. It remains a live favourite, and went down fantastically well at Homobloc at Mayfield Depot last November.

A memorable video, in which Murphy pays homage to Cindy Sherman’s Centerfolds series, finds the singer adding a little Arklow sparkle to an inner-city greasy spoon. This version of Murphy, the quintessential Murphy in many ways, in all her leg-kicking, robot-dancing, fascinator-topped glory, never fails to bring a smile to my face. The woman is an amazon. And she has a classy touch.

You start to wonder how long she can keep up this kind of quality and then you hear Movie Star, which was co-written with Seiji and Patto and produced by Dean Horner and Parrot. It is one of the album’s rare missteps.

Hearing it again now, I can confirm that it’s actually got a great lyric (‘We’ll make a movie, the darlings of cinema, You’ll be director and I’ll be your movie star”) but it still doesn’t work for me – it’s too linear and one-dimensional, obvious even. She should have left this stuff to Cher and Madonna.

And did I mention that 1991 called and says that Frank de Wulf wants his synth sound back?

It would be very easy to say it sounds like she decided to go a bit Goldfrapp – and pretty much everyone who reviewed the album at the time said exactly that – but I find that very difficult to believe. She’s better than that. Movie Star doesn’t sound like it belongs on a Róisín Murphy album though, even now.

She’s not played it live since the album came out. I rest my case.

Primitive restores the album’s equilibrium. Co-written with Corraliza, produced by Douglass, with strings by Gold, this low-slung, understated slice of electro soul may have a slightly gimmicky chorus but, fucking hell, what a performance. Murphy’s vocal just dances around the melody, with abandon.

Our baser, animal instincts, it seems, will always out. This is a recurring theme in la Murphy’s ouevre. Primitive somehow manages to be frostily austere and yet also very warm and tender, all at the same time. It could almost be a Moloko track.

Footprints, co-written with Seiji and Mark De Clive-Lowe, and mixed by Jimmy Douglass, finds Murphy getting on a soulful early 80s electro vibe. Suzie, who is usually very reliable on this stuff, says it reminds her of I Wanna Be Your Lover. LinnDrums are go.

Dear Miami was one of the the main reasons I wanted to buy the album again. Co-written by Seiji and Patto and mixed by Jimmy Douglass, this languid, playful, achingly pretty little jam is not just one of my favourite songs by Róisín – it is one of my favourite songs by anyone.

Its talk of self-absorbtion, a passsion void, and ‘untold power to do what we wanna do’ may be familiar to Winter Music Conference attendees. When Murphy sings about melting snow in Miami, I don’t think she’s making an environmental statement. Or at least, not that kind of environmental statement anyway. Strictly rolling VIP.

Crybaby, co-written with Horner and Parrot, is another one that I do not care for. Even if it does appear to celebrate the godlike genius of Divine. And the cowbell. But it just sounds out of place on the album. I’m not even sure if more cowbell would help.

The album’s final collaboration with Corraliza, Douglass and Gold, Tell Everybody, is a slightly twisted minor-key electro soul number with yet another superlative vocal performance from our heroine and a truly wonderful chorus. It’s also a spine-tingling foretaste of the kind of sparse, unashamedly leftfield and offbeat material that would define her Hairless Toys album. Immense.

Horner and Parrot change tack from their previous contributions on the album with Scarlet Ribbons, with, for me, a good deal more success. But you can only imagine what the lads at EMI thought when they heard this genuinely charming reggae-tinged ballad. I like it.

Body Language, the album’s final Cato collaboration, is a piece of angular and taut yet joyous and compelling electro pop built around relentless drum and bass. It’s brilliant. Róisín really is much better than everyone. But she has not performed Body Language live since she toured the album. Madness.

The album closes with Parallel Lives written with Richard X. After she sacked off Cathy and Calvin, this one was probably EMI’s big hope for a successful single, and while this slice of bittersweet mid-tempo electro pop certainly has a nice groove, it was never going to be a big mainstream hit. As far as I can make out, she has never performed it live.

This is a truly fantastic album. It might not have sold loads but over the years it has become hugely influential and you can hear echoes of its sound in the music of everyone from Lizzo and Billie Eilish to Ed Sheeran and the Weeknd. And the experiences she had making the album have shaped what Murphy has done ever since.  

When I interviewed Murphy in 2015, she said Overpowered “didn’t make me a pop star and nobody quite knows why”.

It’s a cute quote, but the reason why she’s not a popstar is because she has absolutely no interest in making pop music.

“I mean, obviously, people say what I’ve made is pop, but I would kind of disagree,” she told Slant when Overpowered came out. “I would say that I’m more fascinated, on this record, with disco, house, with emotional dance music, really, than just ‘pop’.

“I don’t think I’ve ever aspired to make pop music. That doesn’t interest me in any way. If it becomes popular by default that’s fine. Everything I do is about being outside of the box, trying to express something complex about being a human being”.

From what I can make out, none of her fans care that her records aren’t in the charts either. While we all seem to be mad evangelists for the Murphy, she’s also our little secret.  Mainstream acceptance is a signifier of nothing, and particularly not quality.

Let us not forget the wise words of Sid Vicious when he said:

I’ve met the man in the street and he’s a cunt.

Murphy learned a lot during the making of Overpowered, not least from working with such stellar collaborators drawn from across the spectrum of top-quality dance music from the mid 70s onwards.

She also got more experience in how to doggedly pursue her own singlular artistic vision in the face of opposition from people with no imagination. She is in control of every aspect of what she does.  

Going for quality over quantity with short-term deals for specific releases with outfits like Be With and the Vinyl Factory – with lavish, limited-edition artefacts for hardcore fans and collectors who are prepared to pay a premium for a classy product – means that Róisín can continue to do what the fuck she likes.

I think she knows what she’s doing.

Long may she continue.

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