Roisin Murphy: "That Ol' Magic's Back"

And in the nick of time, Róisín Murphy returns. After conquering global dancefloors with ‘Róisín Machine’, the electronic wizard has her eyes on the glitterballs of the cosmos with the release of her new album. Felicity Martin hears how the album touches upon all of her past recordings to produce, once again, something new. “If you narrow down your options, you arrive somewhere,” Murphy proclaims…

Growing up in Arklow on the east coast of Ireland, Róisín Murphy never wanted to be on stage. She wanted to be a photographer or an artist, or even an interior designer – she didn’t know what exactly, but she knew it would be something creative.

“The only thing I ever did as a kid that was performative, that I felt I was good at was poetry. There was a festival in town where all the kids would say poems, and it was a competition. I used to win that quite regularly, once a year. And then I sang a song for them all, ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’, when I was about 10. They all realised I could sing and it was the worst thing that ever happened because they wouldn’t leave me alone! Every time they had a couple of drinks, they were like: ‘Sing it!’ I used to run for the hills.”

When we meet, Róisín Murphy is dodging bright lights. She’s shielding her eyes in one of the DJ’s green rooms at Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace, a newly-unveiled roller disco in west London (an apt place to meet an artist whose music feels like it should be listened to while flying around on four tiny wheels). “Seriously, let’s go, ‘cause it’s so medical in here!” We swap the hospital-style lighting for a lounge area overlooking the vast rink, but as soon as she takes a seat, a spotlight switches on and shines directly into her face.

Across a near 30-year stint in the music industry, Murphy has rarely stopped for much of a breather. The singer-songwriter, 49, has continually reinvented herself, compounding her stellar back catalogue as Moloko in the 90s with what is coming up to six solo studio albums. 2020’s ‘Róisín Machine’, joined the dots between sultry pop and the most hedonistic corners of the disco at a time when the dancefloor was firmly locked off, and somehow seeing her achieve the most critical and commercial acclaim yet.

Although it’s something she’s well familiar with now, releasing new music is still “frightening, every time – no matter what you say,” Murphy admits. “I’ve been going around for a year or two just knowing I’ve got this record in me back pocket, and it’s been a lovely feeling to know I have this to come, because it’s been bubbling for a long time. But that lovely feeling’s going a little bit,” she laughs, “as I get closer to putting it out, because some of the more paranoid thoughts come into your head.”

Her new album, the title of which leaked online earlier this year, but we’ve been asked by her new label Ninja Tune not to reveal, comes with a production partner in Stefan Kozalla aka DJ Koze, who she worked with on his ‘Knock Knock’ album, where he sliced up and warped her vocals, gently weaving them through wistful layers. She gave the German producer the green light from
the get-go – he’d first sent her the single ‘Pick Up’, which she recorded and sent back to him. Overnight, it came back as ‘Scratch That’, a completely different track.

“I thought: ‘Wow! He’s mental him, this guy, he’s mad for it!’,” she says. ‘CooCool’, her new album’s first single, is a romantic ode to uncomplicated love, with sweeping, groove-laden production that evokes Koze’s hip hop background. ‘That ol’ magic’s back,’ Murphy sings, both a nod to the addictive feeling of attraction and the idea that the Róisín machine is whirring back into gear.

That easy-breezy, feelgood factor is at play in the production, with another album track – most song titles are, as-yet, unannounced – finding Murphy faking an American accent and breaking into something not dissimilar to an interpolation of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. Another cut, an Amen break-filled trip through golden-era nostalgia, is another instance of Koze’s DMC origins coming to the fore, given the Róisín touch with chipmunk soul vocals. Elsewhere, cosmic funk sets the tone for a perfect, hug-all-your-friends set closing track or, on ‘Can’t Replicate’, which soundtracked Chanel models stomping down the runway at Paris Fashion Week AW23, there’s a defiant kick with an undeniable nod to Lil Louis’ orgasmic 1989 track ‘French Kiss’.

Working with previous collaborators Mark Brydon (in Moloko), Matthew Herbert (‘Ruby Blue’) and DJ Parrot (‘Róisín Machine’) meant being physically present in the studio with them, but the process was different with Koze. This is the record that’s caused her to embrace Ableton, after he encouraged her to get on the same software so the pair could send ideas back and forth. She started recording vocals in-between doing the hoovering and putting her kids to bed. “I write a lot before they even go to school, or they get up for school, sometimes, depending on how intense I am.” As well as making her more productive, it’s been great for capturing melodies. “Which are very, very fleeting, they’re more fleeting than words coming in and out of your head, and hard to hold on to,” she says. “The way you sing a melody can really sell it, you know, and oftentimes the very first time it comes out your gob is the best time!”

Koze has deliberately included some of these sketchy, incomplete ideas that left her lips: “He’s left things in that aren’t quite formed – they’re there because of the intimate way I worked with myself vocally – but they have a vibe, you know?” This record had him starting out with what she calls “very much just a piece of stone, and then he has to chip away at it to find the sculpture inside.” Throughout the album, Koze’s tinkered and fiddled with her voice so there’s a warm, analogue feel to things, her voice whizzing and whirling like vinyl gently being slowed down, or a CD stuttering and skipping.

Along with joyful romantic love, Murphy tackles themes like the large, unknowable cosmos lyrically – the physical one as much as the dance universe she’s created for herself. “My father was a very philosophical man,” she says about her fascination with outer space. “It mirrors the music, it mirrors the fact that the music’s almost like – it really tells the story, I think, orally without even words or any singing on it. But the capturing of little essences from all over the place perfectly, like they drift past yer ear, like they’re floating in space, these voices.”

To take a technological advancement and fling yourself into it is very Róisín, and this extends to the artwork, which she’s typically hands-on with. Where many artists are deriding the AI boom – and for good reason, per recent news of David Guetta creating a fake Eminem edit using a deepfake of the rapper’s voice – Róisín is intrigued by its possibilities. For the album’s artwork, she’s placing herself inside a machine-generated world.

“I mean, I don’t know what I think about the explosion of AI art yet,” she says, pre-empting the question, “but I do feel like, in the beginning, things are always very exciting, and there are mistakes, and it’s all a bit wobbly. It’s not quite there yet. It’s a very exciting place to look at and observe.” To her, the millions of “outrageous” images that are being generated are “the sort of processing of our consciousness in a way. Like I’m jumping into somebody else’s dream in these images.”

Not a nightmare, though? “It’s a bit of both – there’s all sorts going on. They’re not idealised pop star images, they’re like going into a fucking mad dream, down the rabbit hole.”

Even if she hated singing in front of an audience as a kid, Murphy has always been an exhibitionist, as shown by her various wild stage antics that can involve stalking about, crowd surfing, and even Irish dancing. She’s been bringing that theatricality onto the screen, recently making her acting debut in Netflix’s ‘Half Bad’, where she played a powerful, blood-collecting witch named Mercury. Her next role? She’d love to play Lady Macbeth, or nab a spot in cop drama ‘Happy Valley’. But another project she’s keen to dig her teeth into is a screen adaptation of the Ireland she knew while growing up, amid war and religious and political clashes.

“It was a magical time – it was fooked as well, like – a terrible recession in the 80s but through me early childhood it felt like everything was on the up and up,” she says.

Her father, Mickey Murphy, was a businessman and her mother an antiques dealer. Together they were wheeler-dealer types who did everything from pub fittings to laying roads. They once sold two paintings by Dutch masters at Christie’s, and the next day would be hawking a lorry load of scrap metal.

“Everybody was big personalities and it was loads of singing, strong women and mad, fucked-up men,” she recalls. “It was quite glamorous in a way but in a scruffy sort of way. People really knew how to have fun, they knew how to party. It was such a mix of people and class, from Irish travellers to lords and ladies.”

Aged 12, Murphy moved over to Manchester, becoming instantly enamoured with the strong Black culture there, with reggae and dub creating a cross pollination of sounds. She wasn’t so mad on The Haçienda – she was more into the clubs that played psychedelic, grungy stuff like Dinosaur Jr and The Stooges. At 14, she was in a noise/punk band, the confusingly-named And Turquoise Car Crash The in Stockport, who only played one gig, in which she screamed throughout. Her parents returned to Ireland after divorcing but she stayed in Manchester alone, moving to Sheffield aged 19.

It was there that she discovered a “cosy little music” scene that also felt futuristic to her, populated by people like Warp Records’ Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell who were some of the first people she met there. “I was so thoroughly satiated by a handful of DJs,” she says of her days partying there, “we were like a team – it was a gang.”

Moloko formed in 1994, after a chance meeting in Sheffield with bassist Mark Brydon. Famously, Murphy asked him: “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body,” which would become their debut album’s title. On the first night they met, they went to the studio and recorded together, with Murphy saying words, not yet singing – and this setup earned them a six-album deal.

“It was all talking and putting on stupid voices – a bit like on this [forthcoming] record!” she laughs. “After we got signed, this American A&R man was really pushy, and he heard a tiny bit of singing on the record, and sat us down. He was like…” – she affects a bolshy US accent – “‘She can fuckin’ sing, man!’ He shouted at Mark: ‘Get her to sing, that shit sounds like Nina Simone!’” That was good, Murphy admits, “because if it hadn’t been somebody full-on… one of the English guys would never have said it to us, they would’ve never shouted at Mark. After that it was just finding out about my voice all the way through.”

The duo had immense success, and one of many high points, she says, was shooting the ‘Sing It Back’ video with her then-flatmate in Sheffield, Dawn Shadforth (who recently directed the excellent second series of the Billie Piper-featuring ‘I Hate Suzie’). They shot it “for fuck all money” but “it was just having a really fantastic clear idea, and [Dawn] executed it so beautifully.” Murphy recalls the satisfaction of transforming the music into a live show – “it was amazing we achieved anything live considering where we’d come from as a duo in Sheffield, with no band. It became absolutely fookin’ phenomenal, and you have a better laugh on tour when you’re off stage when you know the gig’s solid.”

When she and Brydon split up, both musically and romantically, Róisín moved to London, and kicked off her solo career. Writing her 2005 debut ‘Ruby Blue’ with Matthew Herbert was like “doing therapy,” she says. “I was speaking to him the other day, and said it took a good few weeks to write, but he said: ‘No, it took ten days to write.’ We just came in every day, wrote every day.” Previously, she’d had little A&R intervention, but now she did – and was dropped by her major label following 2007’s ‘Overpowered’ after saying a remix they’d commissioned was “shit”. She was never afraid to voice her opinions – in Moloko, “if I didn’t think [the label] were listening to me and hearing what I was saying... I’d cry and pound the table, go in hyperventilating.” It’s this, she thinks, that has enabled her to go through the industry pretty much doing what she wants.

She took some time out – even though she doesn’t see it as a hiatus – to raise her children: Clodagh, now 13, and Tadhg, 10 (who she insists “don’t care” about her as an artist whatsoever). The suburban life she entered into around that time would come to feature aesthetically on the Mercury-nominated ‘Hairless Toys’ with its moody void of grey and unpredictable energy. 2016’s ‘Take Her Up to Monto’ portrayed Róisín in a steely worker look, the antithesis of her “Timotei ads” look in ‘The Time Is Now’ video. Then came her crowning glory to date, ‘Róisín Machine’, with its warm disco-funk seamlessly blending into countless dance genres.

With a strong shock of blonde hair and a glint in her eye, Murphy has a magnetic, no-nonsense personality. She’s the kind of person you can imagine having the best night of your life with, but also someone you wouldn’t want to piss off. “I am a born gaffer, Mark Brydon used to say,” she explains. “And I think it’s true because nobody on either side of the family worked for anyone – they was either musicians or they had their own businesses.”

On the cusp of hitting 50, Murphy seems unphased by the milestone, insisting that she doesn’t have any plans as she’s expecting to have a pretty packed summer with the record’s release, and has to be “impromptu”. In May, she’s set to bring the party to what is undoubtedly London’s grandest music venue. “Oh this is going to be so posh!” she wrote, promoting the event. “Imagine me, Mickey Murphy’s daughter at the Royal Albert Hall!”

Murphy is now based in Ibiza with her partner, the Italian producer Sebastiano Properzi, and frequently climbs mountains, breaking a sweat that way rather than staying out all night – although “in the summer we do go around a little bit here and there, to the nightclubs and that. We have a good laugh, but not too much.” Crucially, they also have a banging sound system at home.

Murphy has never been one to pay much mind to fads or fashionable sounds that are picked up and dropped by the electronic music landscape. “I try to avoid current trends,” she nods. “I am a bit reactionary that way – I started out that way: Moloko was a reaction to dance music going really main room and losing us, at that point, in the early-90s. Ever since, I’ve always said: ‘I’m not doing this and I’m not doing that and I’m not doing the other.’ It does help – if you narrow down your options, you arrive somewhere.”

As such, her forthcoming album filters in elements from all her past records, taking influence from her own canon rather than any outside sources. “It has a bit of that joy that’s in the very first (Moloko) record, ‘Do You Like My Tight Sweater?’, and of playing with characters and being extremely funky, and also having a really lovely sound. Then there’s a little bit of the ‘Ruby Blue’ record in there, in that my voice is very – although it’s much more fucked with than it is on ‘Ruby Blue’ – it’s still very sensual, when it’s there. And very in-your-face and sounds really good, you know? Then there’s the experimentation for me in playing with hooks, parts, things that I did in ‘Hairless Toys’ and ‘Take Her Up to Monto’.” There is also, she ventures intriguingly, a “convincing modernity that strikes, that feels like to me is the right time.”

The defiance with which she approaches her music is there in how she presents herself – the anti-normcore and fashion-forward Murphy chose to style herself for her Disco Pogo cover shoot (although she refused to put on roller skates, saying her partner wouldn’t be too happy). She remains one of music’s leading style stars – a sort of proto-Lady Gaga, since being clad in a disco ball-meets knight of the realm outfit in the ‘Sing It Back’ video, and her penchant for avant-garde headgear has seen her in everything from utilitarian hard hats to a sequined, long-nosed mask à la 17th century plague doctor. Her long love of cutting-edge chic drew her into the orbit of Vivienne Westwood, with whom she shared red carpet space and even the runway. When we chat, Murphy is getting ready to attend the late dame’s memorial service, and talks about the “weird, strange shock” of her passing, as “she just seemed like somebody who wouldn’t ever be gone.”

“The clothes – ah!” she glows. “They were a big thing for us in the club scene, after punk and the new romantic [era], there was this other wave where people were wearing it in clubs. You just knew Vivienne Westwood – I think I might have known about it as a label before I knew any label.” When Murphy was in Sheffield, she’d pop over to Vivienne’s shop in Leeds to “buy the odd bit, you know, when you had some money.”

“There was people who just rocked in that scene. It was very desirable for me as a teenager ‘cause it just always spoke so many things. It said: ‘I’m really somebody, I’m really an individual. I’m brave.’”

Since the early days of Moloko, the industry has shape-shifted considerably – back then, “you made your record, your pop video, and you went on tour” – but Murphy’s prolificacy and resilience has allowed her to continually adapt and make things that sound “really fucking different from the last thing”. She’s now signed to Ninja Tune, the label that houses top shelf electronic acts such as Bicep, DJ Seinfeld and VTSS, and is always willing to roll with the industry’s developments, which she says is notably different three years on from her last album.

“What’s lucky is that this record really suits that, suits snippets of music that draw you in, that have a story, and sound really modern, you know?” she says of the emphasis on platforms like TikTok. But she doesn’t have any problems in that department: her 2005 track ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’ recently took off and found a new audience there, gripped by its wonky weirdness.

“There’s a lot for me to be able to feed into this machine,” she continues, that glint in her eye returning. “And it’s fine as long as the content is content. If there becomes a point where I haven’t got anything to say, I will stop saying it. But right now there’s plenty of stories to tell without me having to show you eating me porridge in the morning.” Murphy’s account is very much not breakfast food, though. It’s her delivering her “Hiya, y’alright?” catchphrase, showcasing the outfits of your strangest and best dreams, and stints behind the decks at Pikes in Ibiza.

It’s a testament to her staying power that her gigs have always been intergenerational. “You meet a lot of parents with kids [at them], but actually once I met a grandparent with a kid and child, so three generations!” What’s great about her shows, she says, is that mix. “There’s an expectation of almost, like, the participatory nature of the audience. So everybody dresses up – it’s a party, you know, before they even get in there!”

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