On ‘Exploitation’, the first single off her last album Hairless Toys, Róisín Murphy sang: “Never underestimate creative people and the depths that they will go”. Although, as she says in our conversation, there’s not much place for the literal in her work, that line encapsulates the spirit behind her twenty-year career; reinvention. With only three solo albums released since the end of Moloko, and a crazy amount of remixes, collaborations, and one-off singles, Murphy has managed to keep her fans on their toes for more than a decade now. She’s merged pop, house, and disco with an avant-garde sensibility and a stunning, shape-shifting visual output that never ceases to provoke. Murphy, who’s returning with the ambitious TAKE HER UP TO MONTO, out on Play It Again Sam this July, is the recipient of this year’s AIM (Association of Independent Music) Outstanding Contribution to Music Award, so we reached out to her for an update on her new record, some mandatory reminiscing, and a lesson in “relaxed swagger”.
DiS: Receiving an award like AIM’s “Outstanding Contribution to Music” must make you think about your whole career and achievements so far. How do you feel about it, looking back on it?
RM: If I look back on it, it seems very miraculous to me. I try to just look forward, honestly, most of the time. I think about the next thing. I never feel that satisfied, and I still feel like I have a lot to prove all the time!
I was reading an interview you did a couple of years ago where you said: “I’ve been controlling to a degree that’s scary to some of the industry, but it’s my art”. I find that very pertinent to this award, which celebrates independence in the music industry.
RM: I’ve always been in control, really from the beginning. There wasn’t any interference in what we did in Sheffield [as Moloko]; the songwriting, the record company and so on, there wasn’t any interference. We made what we made, and then we gave it to a record label and they just put it out! That’s what I was brought up doing ‘cause I accidentally fell into making music and then I just carried on that way, because that’s how I started it. I think that sometimes, there’s the assumption that in order to make it original, I have to be fighting with everybody all the time, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s not been the case, really, in my career. There’s been some big showdowns, here and there, splattered throughout a twenty-year career, but I think that’s normal. But it’s the unusual things, things you wouldn’t realise; things like begging a record label to put out a record that subsequently became a massive hit, you know? [Boris Dlugosch’s remix of ‘Sing It Back’, which went on to become a huge club hit]. That was an argument! That was a fight! But that’s not the fight that people expect that I’m having. People expect that I’m having these fights where I am kind of constantly told to be commercial and so on. No I don’t want to be commercial! [laughs].
I choose people to work with, that’s probably the biggest thing I do, honestly. And then I have to just go with it, I have to go with what my instinct was. And I can’t change that part; I can’t stand in the studio with Eddie Stevens, or Matthew Herbert [who co-produced Ruby Blue_] for that matter, make them listen to Calvin Harris, and make it sound like that with a massive speaker or something – it’s just not gonna work. You choose who you choose for reasons which are pragmatic, emotional, instinctual, and then you have to go with it. And that’s what I do.
When you returned with the EP Mi Senti in 2014, many fans thought you were taking a risk by covering Italian songs and singing them in the original language. Looking back at that project, do you think it influenced your songwriting on the following records?
Totally. There’s a more conversational strain going through my vocals on these last two albums, and as for the songwriting, it’s a bit more close, and I think that’s what I picked up from those Italian songs. I just naturally picked it up because that’s what those songs are written like; they’re written like somebody is actually speaking into your ear, like they’re just talking to you. It’s the rhythm of it, the intimacy of it, even if it’s in another language and you don’t know what it all means. I just feel that from them, and then looking at lots of Patty Pravo and Mina performances, they were all very conversational performances. They were these astonishing creatures that walk into your aura and start talking to you through a song. There was a bit of that going on in my songwriting as a result of doing the Italian stuff, which is ironic because it’s in a different language, you know? It’s ironic that it would make me being more conversational. It’s definitely what I feel from those songwriters; like on Lucio Battisti’s ‘Ancora Tu’; he’s talking to you! It’s a nice way to communicate in songs, it’s very unusual. It was good for my voice too in terms of range.
Speaking of songwriting, even if TAKE HER UP TO MONTO is seen as a sort of ‘companion’ record to Hairless Toys, coming out of the same recording sessions with Stevens, you seem to experiment with dynamics in a very different, unusual way. Sometimes you have very different sections within the same song.
Yes, it’s very different, I think it’s a more extreme record, and has more extremities. It goes out in all directions, it goes out from the centre pointing in all directions. Hairless Toys is a more subtle, cohesive record. And you see, the aesthetic is the way I respond to the music. In Hairless Toys I responded with this mystery, timeless, lost-in-time “no man’s land” aesthetic to it. And then with MONTO, the aesthetic was much more immediate and in your face, an extreme kind of aesthetic. And modern, in the present – I shouldn’t say modern, but just present really, in the moment. The aesthetic reflects the differences quite nicely, in a subconscious way, not in a literal way, ‘cause there’s nothing literal about the way I did the visuals.
When you say ‘present’, does it have to do with making your work less referential? I’m thinking about the nostalgia for club cultures from the past that your music is often associated with.
I think both these records are all full of fragments of things that you can identify, but it’s a new thing, a new dish. There’s definitely bits and pieces of things that you can identify from my past, and from things that are, yes, identifiable. It wasn’t the priority to be modern. In a way, maybe we just take that for granted, that what we’re going to do is modern, because we’re not trying to be retro! We’re definitely not trying to be super-purist either though, like we’re trying to do “very modern music”. I don’t think that’d be the major, important thing. This is about freedom and being able to flex what you have. It “gets bored” quickly and just moves on.
Talking about the aesthetic of the record, what was the idea for the artwork and the video for ‘Ten Miles High’ you directed?
As a reaction to the direction of the last one, as I said, this one is supposed to be very in your face. The title is part of that as well, grabbing this Irish lyric [a folk song, popularised by The Dubliners] and putting it in big black letters on the front of an electronically produced record; there’s an irreverence to that. And the aesthetic started with me being really into architecture, with me saying: “If I want it to be about the moment, about the now and what I wanna show people is the present time and if it’s me that’s doing it, it’s me that’s directing the artwork and the video etc, then what I should try to do really is show people what I see through my eyes. That’s a simple thing! So what do I see? I’ll just step out on the street and I’ll show them what I see, what I’m looking at all the time, what I’m photographing all the time anyway”. I’m all the time on the travelling infrastructure of the city, all the time looking at buildings, and all the time navigating my way around. It’s amazing the way the city is so complicated and yet so well organised and simple, and I just float through it. It’s about that. A love affair with this town, in the last few years. So I thought, I’ll just show people what I see, trying to be very immediate in that way.
What about the clubbing side of today’s London?
This era of my life is not really about clubs for me. I did go to see DJ Harvey play at Ministry of Sound a few weeks ago, which was fantastic. He played for seven hours nonstop. Somebody wrote a terrific article about how it was full of middle-aged people. The only reason I read it was because all these friends of mine on Facebook were posting it saying: “This is disgusting, this article”. I read it and it was so funny, but it was a wonderful night; brilliant, absolutely brilliant music. But no, I wouldn’t go every weekend.
You surprised the crowd of NYC Downlow at this year’s Glastonbury. How was it
Oh, it was amazing! I filmed the whole thing and then I lost my phone, really annoying!
Must have been fun though?
It was a lovely, lovely experience!
Going back to the record, the song ‘Whatever’ stands out for me. It’s remarkably delicate compared to the rest.
I love that song, I think it’s probably gonna be a single.
Can you tell us a bit about the writing on that one?
I try jump in and out of character. Part of the song is me, then I’m singing as if I’m a man, so I jump into somebody else’s character. It has elusive lyrics; it’s about accepting what people are. I think there’s actually a thread going on through the record – just acceptance of what people are and what I am. “I’ll accept you if you accept me”, or “You except me and I’ll accept you”, that sort of thing. There’s a lot of that.
Yes, ‘Thoughts Wasted’ too, now that I think about it.
Yes, I think so. That one goes a bit all over the place! It’s also about how it’s alright to be a bit lame, it’s OK not to be perfect. And then in ‘Pretty Gardens’, obviously, that’s all about that too. There’s a confidence in the songwriting, that’s the kind of confidence to be imperfect, you know? It’s not about perfection at all, it’s just a sort of “relaxed swagger” in a sense. You get to that as you get older, I find, but it’s not as easy to be like that when you’re young. I think it’s part of the joy of growing older.
Just realising “Humans are fucked”, as you sing at one point?
Yeah, but there’s a lot of in-between in my songwriting too. There’s not like: “I’m sure about this, I’m sure about that”, there’s more a lot of “Anything could happen”. I’m trying to express something complex. That sounds fun, doesn’t it, for pop music?
What’s wrong with the idea of being complex?
Yeah, well. [Sighs] I know, but there’s a bit of a turn-off if you tell people: “I make complex pop music”. They’re like: “That’s a non sequitur, isn’t it?”. But anyway.
Reading your interviews over the years, when people tried to push the whole “Do you feel like a popstar?” thing, you seemed to bring up the complexity argument in a way and say: “You know what, I’m an artist, so…”
Yeah. I am a popstar though as well. Even though I am not a famous popstar, in my mind I kinda was born to be a popstar so, I am a popstar, but I am not famous. Where does that leave me? I’m not sure.
A complex popstar, I guess.
Uhm, yeah. I don’t know how you can really be a non-famous popstar, but I am. Popstar in my own lunch break.
TAKE HER UP TO MONTO is out July 8th on Play It Again Sam
July 15-17 - Longitude, Dublin
August 13 - Sziget Festival, Hungary
August 15 - Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London
August 19- Pukkelpop, Belgium
August 28 - The Big Feastival, Cotswolds
September 1-4 – Festival No. 6, Portmeirion
September 10 - On Blackheath, London