Absence makes the heart grow fonder. It's a cliché but in the case of Róisín Murphy it rings true. It's been 8 long years since the former Moloko singer released her last album, the critically-acclaimed Overpowered. Whilst it may not have set the charts alight, the record developed a considerable cult following amongst pop music fans. Murphy has been on the down-low ever since, lurking in the shadows except from the odd single or remix and last year's Italian language EP Mi Senti. The arms-flung-wide, misty-eyed reaction to the announcement of her return in January has been an assuring experience, she confesses. “ I get a lot of [exasperated voice], "Oh god, Roisin! Where have you been!?!" Stuff like that, I won't lie, does feel so good.”
Her relief is understandable. The pop world can be an unforgiving place for those who break with the traditional two year album cycle; record, release, tour, repeat. Absence only makes the heart grow fonder if people remember who you are. Let alone finding a record label to have enough faith in you (and enough money) to sponsor your return.
She's in good spirits when we catch up over the phone. She's just finished a day of rehearsal in Putney for her first live shows in support of Hairless Toys, which will include a date at London Roundhouse. Tickets sold out in 5 minutes and at the time of writing, the album is sitting in the top 10 of the midweek charts. It seems she needn't have worried about audience apathy. But did she miss the life of a touring musician? “It's not to be on tour, as such, but to be creative all the time. I was starting to want that again but before I was pretty okay with not doing it. Those years went by so quickly. It was nice to jump out of there a bit and...” she hesitates. “Well I could never be normal, sorry about that, but I did some things that I wouldn't have done otherwise.”
Being 'normal' in Murphy's case means the birth of her two children. Her life up until that point however had been pretty extraordinary by anyone's standards. Born in County Wicklow in Ireland, her family moved to Manchester when she was 12, only to return to Ireland four years later, leaving Murphy behind to fend for herself at her own insistence. It was at a party in Sheffield a few years later that she introduced herself to soon-to-be boyfriend and musical collaborator Mark Brydon with the chat-up line, “Do you like my tight sweater?” A year later, it would become the name of their first album as Moloko.
It was their third album, Things to Make and Do, in 2000 that catapulted the band into the public consciousness thanks to their break out hits 'Sing It Back' and 'The Time is Now'. One more album followed, Statues in 2003, after which Murphy and Brydon ended their musical and romantic relationship. It paved the way for a solo career that has gone from strength to strength, starting with the Matthew Hubert produced Ruby Blue in 2005 and the aforementioned Overpowered in 2007. In that time she also became the darling of the fashion world, performing at swanky fashion label parties, attending endless Haute Couture fashion shows and has been routinely praised for her unique sense of style both on and off stage.
It was only last summer than Murphy found time to begin the sessions for Hairless Toys. After sending the kids on holiday with their grandparents, Murphy began intensive writing sessions with her long term musical collaborator Eddie Stevens. After 4/5 weeks of writing they finished with an sizeable cache of 35 songs. Unlike previous writing sessions where Róisín might be after a certain sound or even bring in a record to the studio to replicate, for Hairless Toys they both followed their intuition, feeling as went along. “I was thinking a lot about lyrics because that's primarily what I do and I was just letting it happen. I think the same thing is true for Eddie. I know instinctively he isn't the type of person who you can play records to and ask, 'Can we do something that has that kind of feel?' He's not got that sort of creativity to him. He's coming from a spontaneous musicality, 'cos he's like a musician - a virtuoso musician, really. So I would just put him on a downer if I played him other peoples music, do you know what I mean? It was really just doing it in the moment and whatever was coming out was coming out.”
This intuitive approach makes sense when listening to diverse styles on the record. It sashays between funky jams, sinister-downbeat techno, contorted disco and there's an unexpected country/soul number to boot. I can half imagine its the aural equivalent of taking a walk through Murphy's eclectic wardrobe, each outfit so dramatically distinct from each other that it demands its own attention. Yet Hairless Toys never feels cluttered or confused. It has an enigmatic charm, it's dark, alluring elegance pulls you in. Anyone looking for throwbacks to the glossy disco-pop days of Overpowered might be surprised at the change in direction. I suggest to Murphy that it must have been tempting to revisit that era given the album's popularity. Suddenly her Irish accent booms down the line, probably to preclude any suggestion she should be repeating herself but also I detect a tinge of self-assurance, as she admits, she was aware of the risks. “All those worries obviously were there somewhere in the back of my mind but you have to overcome because I can't work to please people. I have to please myself. I'm always trying to make the best record I can make, really. That's all I can do.”
Murphy has arguably taken more creative control on Hairless Toys than any of her previous projects, most notably directing her first music video for 'Exploitation'. She attributes this to the confidence she has gained over the years. “Milestones you pass on your career, every time they give you that extra little confidence. Creative confidence. I would still say today I still suffer from not being confident in knowing that I will definitely have a place in the world or that I will be appreciated. I'm much more confident about that than I ever was but its still a thing that drives me.” Nearly 20 years since Moloko's debut, did she ever imagine she would come this far?
“No. Well I did, that's a lie. Certainly once I started to do good shows [I did]. For a long time it was awkward if I'm fair and honest about it. We were a studio act so to try and transcend that and transpose it into a live show was very difficult in the beginning. But once that stopped being awkward, which I suppose was maybe the third album or something, then if anything I expected to be more famous! And more loved! And more revered than I was than anything else (laughs). Before that it was an absolute blag.”
The video for 'Exploitation' follows Murphy as a glamorous actress falling from grace, cut with scenes of her stumbling drunk through hallways, smearing lipstick round her mouth and then there's what she calls “the egg thing”. She sits against a black screen, dressed in funeral attire, spinning a peeled, hard-boiled egg on a table. The eggs appearance isn't the result of savage budget cuts for props, she assures me. “I've been waiting to bring that fucking egg out for years mate I can tell you!” It's a homage to a 70s advert directed by Japanese artist Kazumi Kurigami featuring the actress Faye Dunaway (who Murphy bears an uncanny resemblance to). “She peels and eats a boiled egg but she does it with such flair that I've just been obsessed with it from the minute I saw it. I was like, I must boil an egg next time I'm making a video. Note to self.”
It's inclusion seems less arbitrary when Murphy explains a little more about the meaning behind the album title. “I developed this sort of atheistic for Hairless Toys that came out of the phrase 'hairless toys'. It doesn't actually mean anything to me. It was just a mistake, something Eddie thought I had said but I hadn't. But when I came to style the shoot for the record, I found I was able to pick things up an say, 'Is this Hairless Toys? Yes. Is that Hairless Toys? No.' It just had a thing. And I guess it developed from there and I felt that Cassavettes [John Cassavettes - film director] just had a bit of hairless toys about it. Gena Rowlands had hairless toys. I kinda fell in love with her so there is an element of that in the video.
I suggest that hairless toys could mean something both immaculate and creepy. “I think that's quite an interesting way to see it and in some ways that is how I feel about it. Like even a 60s or 70s shopping precinct which has been built to work perfectly, to be nice and clean, better than the old Victorian shops...” And it doesn't have a soul yet? “Or it doesn't really work, yeah. There's something a bit wonky about it. At the heart of it there is some sort of lack.”
Changes in the industry since Murphy's first album with Moloko have undoubtedly helped artists like her take control of the additional creative decisions which are part and parcel of releasing records. Whilst the big budgets for videos may be long gone and record sales in decline, Murphy makes the point that cheaper technologies have enable artists like herself to create in all forms to a professional standard, which in turn liberates them from labels meddling in creative decisions through fear of artists pissing money down the drain (labels were very happy to do that themselves).
“I think it is a much healthier place for someone like me who wants to ultimately jump in and make her own videos, wants to get involved in every aspect of it, and wants to fucking make whatever type of record she feels like making at the time. All those sorts of anomalies with me work quite well. I have 35 songs from that period and I know that I could put more of them out in different ways, in different forms. I can licence that over here, I could release that here. I could do a little EP, do an EP in Italian and do a record like this and then put out a bigger one, then put out a smaller one, y'know? All that is great! I can jump in and make the video, and it's not dead weird because lots of young artists are working like that now. It's really fabulous, I love it. I'm not saying we have the same amount of money to spend on the ideas because that is definitely true. You've got to keep the budgets down but in a way there is something good about that. Why be haemorrhaging money on stuff and not thinking about it as an artist? What is there really to gain from being kept like an imbecile, not knowing what the hell is actually going on in the business side of what you do? What is good about that? Not that much, to be honest.”
Forging her own creative path and taking control is key for Murphy as her career progresses. “I would like to find a way of being creative for the rest of my life, which the blue print of pop star doesn't really work with, I know. So I kind of keep needing to subvert that as I go along so I find a place for myself continuously.” Let's make this moment last, she sang on 'The Time is Now'. These words sound prophetic now. And I'm sure they will continue to do so for some time yet.
Hairless Toys is out now via PIAS.