Queen Róisín is a disco machine

Former Moloko singer, Róisín Murphy’s solo career has been one of misdirection, divergence and canny swerves. She’s now five albums deep, skipping between singing in Italian, making some of the best vocal anthems of the past 20 years, and working with innovative producers like Crooked Man and DJ Koze. We spoke to her during the pandemic, where she was holed up at home writing songs on Ableton.

Interviewed July 2020 by Bill

Tell me a bit about your relationship with Sheffield. Even though you’re not there any more it keeps…
Drawing me back?

Moved to Sheffield and started Moloko there. I’d been really into music in Manchester but I didn’t know loads of people who made it. In Sheffield it was impossible not to meet people who made music or ran record shops, or DJed, or all of the above. They were the first people I met. I just met people doing things. It was really a DIY atmosphere when I moved there. 

When was that?
I was 19, born in ’73

Did you go to college there?
I started going out with a guy who had to go to college in Sheffield after he’d had a year in an architecture practice in Manchester. So when I went I didn’t have much to do. Those were the days, you know. I had housing benefit, I had the dole, and I didn’t really have to have a clue about what I was doing with life. One of the first people I met in Sheffield was Rob Mitchell from Warp, and his wife Michelle, they were good friends with my then boyfriend. After I broke up with him they sort of looked after me. I used to go round and they’d feed me. He said to me round then that he didn’t know what I was going to do but I was going to do something. Which is a phrase that’s been said a few times to me, before I became a singer. 

When you moved there what was in your mind in terms of ambition or career?
I did a part of a foundation course in art. I couldn’t afford to finish it, couldn’t afford to pay the bills at the end of the year, so I didn’t get anything to show for it in the end. I did have a year of playing around with film, photography and editing. I probably would’ve found myself at university doing art or something. But I got a record deal instead. 

How did you meet Mark Brydon? 
I met him in a scruffy basement house party. I went up to him and said, ‘Do you like my tight sweater,’ cos he was quite fit. And he liked that, so we actually recorded that night in Fon. It wasn’t the first studio I’d been in. In Manchester I’d been in and out of Strawberry Studios. One of my first boyfriends in Manchester had his own home studio and that’s really a long time ago. He was making hip hop. He actually put out a few records. P Love and Blue I think they were called. He brought me down to Strawberry a few times. It was the most beautiful studio. Fon was gorgeous too, it was based on the Starship Enterprise.  

How do you feel about those early albums looking back, because you seemed to get pigeonholed as a trip hop band in the UK. 
The trip hop thing was such a shock to us. We felt like we were working in a complete bubble when we made that record and then the first thing that happened was we finished the record and it was about to come out and Portishead dropped. Honestly, there was no similarity other than the singing. The tone of the vocal was, I can remember being like, ‘Oh God somebody else sings a bit like me’. Just the tone, like, she was going for that soul thing. Actually, she wasn’t going for that, she was that, she is that. Brilliant singer. I’m just a massive admirer of her. But my record was finished and I’d never heard the Portishead before. We came out at a similar time, within a few weeks of each other. Then the NME and everyone put it together as a trip hop thing. It was horrifying for us. We didn’t think anyone was making that kind of music. Not that anyone did specifically make music like us. We weren’t making a trip hop record, we were making… We were more about what we weren’t making. 

What was inspiring you musically at the time?
The Timbaland stuff was pouring in. It was the tail end of the LA hip hop thing.

Dr Dre?
Exactly! Dre was a big influence, the way he was sampling and being into Funkadelic. Acts like Betty Davis. That was a reference point as well. A bit bold, a bit naughty, a bit irreverent funk, but also experimental. I listened to Sonic Youth as a kid. Things like, Grace Jones, Laurie Anderson, as a kid, I remember ‘O Superman’ being a hit. Mark liked the ones that did the cover versions?

Flying Lizards?
Yeah things like that. We were looking anywhere but at four on the floor. At the time it took me going to New York a couple of years later, to re-find house music, as I’d enjoyed it as a teenager. But as I’d got through to the mid ’90s, Mark and myself had already lived quite a number of years going out clubbing to that kind of music and we felt it was going round in circles and surely wouldn’t last forever. We knew that good house music was good and Mark certainly knew that. He had a massive collection of it. He was very burnt from his Acid Jazz experience [Cloud Nine] and that really fed into the first Moloko record too. Let’s just do something totally different because that didn’t work out.

When did you meet Parrot?
Very soon into being with Mark. They were best friends. 

Was the first collaboration the Spook record [a cover of ‘Feel Up’]?
Was that before the Pulp record, because didn’t I do ‘Sorted For E’s & Whizz’ with Parrot as well? Took a while, Jesus it’s taken years to find a balance that’s really productive for me and Parrot. There’s just a million reasons why it’s always been very stop-starty until now. 

Any particular reasons?
Just the way it was. When we did ‘Simulation’ we just did it as a single and I was in that mode of, ‘Let’s just put out a few singles.’ I’d had a baby and I couldn’t really commit to an album. We put out a single but I think we hoped there’d be more of an uptake than there was, so there wasn’t much of a reason for him to break his heart making records with me until recently. 

It perplexes me why you’re writing all these amazing songs that should be on Radio 1 but they’re not…
They’ll never be on Radio 1. That’s just not gonna happen. 

Maybe it’s an indication of what pop music is like at the moment. 
But I’m not a pop star. I’m not even made out of pop star material. What I’m made of, that people don’t get, is the same shit as you. That’s what makes me different from other singers of electronic music. Because I love it and I’ve lived and I’ve done it. I respect it. I have loyalty and I believe in it. So many producers don’t want that, they want a singer who’s just going to come in on top of stuff and not be ingrained in it somehow. Most of the girl singers who make music [sighs] and I’m not – some of them are great – but most of them are not into clubs, they’ve never even been in fucking clubs, dancing till 6 o’clock in the morning. They’re not steeped in it. There’s a dissonance. Even people that are not me don’t even wanna know that! They think I was a lovely girl, it’s safer to think of me like that. This imagery that went with ‘Time Is Now’ and ‘Sing It Back’ that doesn’t really tell you anything about me. 

But those songs aren’t really even very representative of the music you made with Moloko, it’s much more diverse than that. 
That’s true. It’s that beautiful Timotei advert for the ‘Time Is Now’, the glittering dolly in a glass box that ‘Sing It Back’ video was. They were great videos but once I started showing a bit of northern soul and a bit of grit underneath the persona, then you become less poppy, as an icon. 

The internet seems to have freed you up to do lots more interesting things under your control and you have become more agile in your decision making. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
Well I do everything from the gut. Everything is done because it feels right in the moment. But I’m so visual as well. It works in that medium. I enjoy it in that medium. It’s not a chore for me to make little films and put up imagery and work within a visual field, as well as an audio one. I’ve got a good sense of how things should be presented, visually. I always have. I’ve always been very controlling over. 

Is that easier as a solo artist working with an indie label?
No. Nobody has ever told me what to do. 

So you had a good relationship at Echo and with EMI?
Echo never stepped in at all. Talk about lovely bubbly English people, they were lovely. At EMI… I had complete control. I signed the deal through one of my best friends who was an A&R there, God help him, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. I worked with Scott King, who was fucking brilliant [on visuals]. That was the first time I ever worked with a Creative Director, somebody who had a vision for the whole thing. And this idea of the Man Who Fell To Wimpy, it was a perfect idea, perfect for me. That is my life, in a way, this extraordinary creature who has to get on the bus and the Tube, and picks up food from McDonald’s for her kids. I’m not famous. I get this a lot: She must be someone! They don’t know who I am but they know I must be somebody. Story of my life. 

Maybe you were destined for this. 
But I feel like my catalogue is what matters. Every single thing I’ve done, especially in the last few years, you have a good run and you put out a few good singles, it consolidates everytime, everything that’s gone before. I’m actually proud of every record I’ve made and that’s an amazing thing to say. Very proud of every record. Couldn’t pick a favourite. If there’s going to be an ultimate success story with my career it would be what that catalogue’s going to mean in the future. And now I’m going forward. There’s been a lot of work done with my manager Rhianna, so I’ve re-signed to BMG, they have all my publishing, from Moloko to Overpowered and picked up the recent stuff. So I’m proud of every single song I’ve written but now I’m thinking about my catalogue and how I can consolidate it and keep it alive. 

How are the new songs shaping up for the new album?
You know most of them already. There are some new bits and bobs. There’s a new track coming out that was more or less written by Amy Douglas for me, which I’ve never done before. It’s a new song called ‘Something More’, which is ace. Have you heard it?! Amy mainly wrote it. Usually I write my own lyrics and melodies but I asked her to write something. She sits down on her Bontempi organ and she writes songs like… I’ve never seen anything like it.. I asked her to write one song and six brilliant songs poured in, it was like… she farts them out. I did tell her what to write about and we totally changed the arrangement but basically it’s her song. First time I’ve done that. 

What’s it like working with Skint.
Well it’s working with Damian isn’t it? He’s a very nice man. 

And Parrot, how do you two actually collaborate?
I try to work remotely, but it’s never good enough for him. I’ve got a setup at home. Suits everyone else. [DJ] Koze never complains but fucking Parrot, it’s like… ‘You’ve gotta come up. All the vocals are pure class on this record, I’m not fucking havin’ that!’ So I have to go up. 

Are your collaborations normally quite quick?
Well as I just said I’ve been working with Koze for four and a half fucking years and that’s nowhere near finished. Parrot’s quick as you like. It’s logical the way he works. It’s within a boundary. He has to be able to sit and close his eyes and imagine, but how he makes them sound like the perfect club record when he never goes out to a club is another amazing thing. He must have the most incredible visualisation skills. He’s very strict. 

Is that easy for you?
It was my idea for him to start making dance music again. He’s very disciplined in every way. You’re talking about… Although he’s stopped going to clubs, he knows it, he knows it inside out, he closes his eyes and he’s there so he knows how it should work. Maybe if he was trying to make a northern soul record it might get more complicated. I do love to go into a studio and come out with a song at the end of the day. That’s my ideal. Always. And I do it mostly. 

And do you go in there with lyrical ideas or it is all ad libbed?
I didn’t do much writing in the studio with Parrot. It was mostly written remotely. In fact I don’t think any of it was written face to face. He insists I go up to the vocals. Usually I sit at home and write. I wrote ‘Simulation’ in a studio in London. But now I’m all Ableton. I’m full on Ableton at home, which is a new thing for me and has made me write in a different way. 

In what way?
A bit more breadth. I have a bit more time to think so I can go away and come back the next day. Also, I discovered harmony! Who knew?! I mean, all these years I just had to be… Parrot did the harmony. I has to be this and I’d do it. Sitting there working on it on my own I actually uncovered some secrets there and it blew me mind and it was only in the last six months. Now I’m not scared of doing harmonies in front of people. 

What are the plans over the next year or so.
Haven’t thought about anything more to do with music, but I do know I want to move into film in my 50s. I’m 47. By the time I’m 50 I’d like to have to my first feature in production. I’ll be writing and directing. I might get help with the script, but I’ve got the story. It’s an Irish film. 

Would you still be making music?
Well once a singer… I think I’d be heartbroken if I could never get up on stage again and sing. But I’ve got it in my head that I’m going to focus on film in my 50s. 

Róisín Murphy live in Zagreb, 2022.

It’s such a strange time to think of plans given the current circumstances. You must thrive on live performances, how are you coping?
Well, it’s even harder to get on with my husband. Going to gigs every weekend. It’s my life. 

How have you rearranged that?
I have the very best nanny, pay her a fortune. Great partner who’s there for me. The way it’s been the last few years it’s not touring but you’ve got a festival weekend, you’ve got a gig that other weekend. So I come and go a little bit, but it keeps me sprightly. 

How are you orienting your weeks now we’re not allowed to do what we normally do?
I did loads of writing. Loads of it. It was genius that I happened to have that Ableton set up, it’s just a joy to have it there whenever you need it. A constant stream of producers bringing tunes to me like cats with a dead mouse.

That must be great.
You have to say no a lot. The type of guys I work with wouldn’t want me to going around singing features, left and right, while they’re trying to make album statements. For a girl like me to do a feature, it’s a bit pain in the arse, because I’m so visual, and you have no control over that when you’ve done a feature. I turned up to do a video and it was this famous fashion photographer and, well, it’s just not me to lie on a fucking Lamborghini! 

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton