Róisín Murphy: disco machine
Róisín Murphy is back with her fifth solo album, ‘Róisín Machine’. Carl Loben catches up with her to talk artistic exhibitionism, lockdown videos, her early clubbing years, and why she’s an unstoppable machine
When Róisín Murphy performed at the massive 10,000-capacity queer warehouse rave Homobloc in November, she was readying her latest solo album, ‘Róisín Machine’ — her fifth since splitting with Moloko, with whom she first broke through around Millennium time with huge house music smashes ‘Sing It Back’ and ‘The Time Is Now’. But that was just before 2020 struck, and the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down.
During the early weeks of Lockdown in the spring she was asked to contribute to Homoelectric’s 12-hour live stream, Stay Homo, and rose to the challenge. “Oh I’d do anything for Luke [Unabomber],” she says. Her nights out clubbing in Sheffield and in Manchester, especially at Homoelectric, are part of her DNA.
With just a week’s notice she cobbled together six intimate live performance pieces to showcase some of her songs — the five singles on her new album, plus the perennial ‘Sing It Back’, the Mousse T version that’s like an homage to Donna Summer’s disco classic ‘I Feel Love’ — and sang them all live in her living room, surrounded by some fancy visuals concocted by her lighting designer Tom Schofield. It was brilliant, home-made DIY glam artistry, with a tinge of wry silliness thrown in. While premiering the Cosmodelica lysergic-funk remix of her ‘Murphy’s Law’ single by Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy (no relation), she donned a succession of outlandish hats — a floppy striped mannequin with a hole cut in it, a green puffy cushion — and accidentally fell over backwards during a succession of high kicks. “I’m alright,” she exclaimed, carrying on regardless.
“In Lockdown there was an intimacy I gained with my fans that I’ve never had before, there was a stripped-back aspect of it,” she says. “I did performances, but I did other things where I was just in my living room with no make-up on, just loving music and showing them who I really am. Or just dancing in my living room, totally as myself. That was quite a relief, and a nice thing for me. Obviously I do a lot of dressing up and stuff, but I’ve always felt, if you’re gonna do that then you have to be able to take it away as well. You have to be able to show yourself, too. So that was quite liberating in a sense — to have the space to do that.”
One of the Europe’s most loved electronic music artists, Róisín can’t wait to get back to playing live again. “Oh god, I am so looking forward to it,” she exclaims. “I didn’t expect to be a performer, though. Maybe if I’d gone to art school I’d have ended up as a bloody performance artist, but I never considered it and I certainly wasn’t one of these kids that was going to acting school or tap dancing — every time I tried anything like that as a kid it was a total disaster. But once I did get on the stage, it felt like what I was supposed to do. I’ve got a lot to express, and I can’t do it just walking down the road going to the corner shop.”
Since the early ’00s, she’s worked with a number of different producers, including Matthew Herbert, Maurice Fulton, DJ Koze and Seiji from Bugz In The Attic. “They're all different, it gives me a total new feeling every time,” she says. “It’s great being a solo artist, I’d hate to be in a band and stuck with the same three people for the rest of your life. It’d be awful.”
Her history with DJ Parrot, her current collaborator, goes back to her time living in Sheffield many moons ago. She worked on some tracks with him for 2007’s ‘Overpowered’ album, and otherwise would frequently play him tracks of hers that were produced by other people. “He’s such a good friend and I could really trust him, so I was running things past him to see what he thought — and he was very encouraging,” she says. “After all that, when I thought ‘What kinda record shall I make next?’, my immediate thought was to work with Parrot. So I rang him and said, ‘Let’s do a much more focused house/disco album’.”
They'd made the album’s opener, slo-mo disco groover ‘Simulation’, quite a few years ago, with other songs germinating more recently. “Parrot would send me a few tracks, and I’d maybe go in the studio down here [in London] and write ‘Jealousy’ or whatever, and send it to him,” Róisín says. “Maybe write ‘Incapable’ and send it up to him.”
A couple of the new tracks caught the ear of Damien Harris, aka Midfield General, who’d recently returned to work at Skint Records, now a subsidiary of BMG. “It was delightful to meet an A&R man again who actually gave a toss,” she says. “I’d been in the wilderness that way for very many years. So he signed us, and that was it. Within a few months we had the album done.”
Róisín starts talking about the pronunciation of her name (it’s ‘Roe-sheen’, as she’s from the Republic of Ireland), and why she named her new album ‘Róisín Machine’. “I am a machine, I never stop,” she says. ”I direct all my videos, I do all the creative direction, I find my producers, I take everything to the last nth degree, I’m involved in every aspect of what I do — I’m as dull as a fucking machine. Sometimes I nearly have breakdowns about it, but it’s important to me and I’m a perfectionist — that’s what I am. But it’s also so that maybe people will be able to say my name. People will be able to get their heads round it; it rhymes with ‘machine’.”
Growing up in the small town of Arklow in County Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland, Róisín would borrow her beauty queen auntie’s ’60s clothes to dress up in as a kid. “I’ve always been an exhibitionist, and I think exhibitionists are really misunderstood,” she says. “A true exhibitionist is not an egotist: they’re an artist, and the joy is putting together the thing that’ll make people look. It’s not the people looking, it’s the putting together and the creation of it, and the thought and idea and all that — the total joy of it.”
Her parents moved to Manchester when she was 12, and when they split up when she was nearly 16, she stayed living in Manchester on her own. “It made me; it was absolutely brilliant,” she says. “Making that strong decision to go it alone has solidified a certain strength in me that I can still call on to this day.” She started going to lots of gigs with her pals — a Sonic Youth show really turning her head (“Kim Gordon was the coolest thing I’d ever seen”) — and became part of the indie alternative set, “hanging around in the punky pub in Stockport with all different kinds of weirdos. I was still a total exhibitionist — I’d roll around Manchester dressed up as a Victorian ghost, pushing a Victorian pram.”
She started going to clubs as soon as she was old enough to get in. “We went everywhere,” she recalls, referencing blues shebeens in Hulme, the Hacienda (“I was never mad about [it] in there, the sound wasn’t good”) and Black music emporium Precinct 13. “That’s where I started to learn my wonky dancing. Never looked back, basically.”
Moving to Sheffield helped her embrace electronic music even more — “the music scene in Sheffield was much more focused in that direction; they were futurists,” she says — and some of the first people she met there were Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell from Warp Records. “They were really sweet to me; Rob said ‘I don’t know what you’re gonna be, Róisín, but you’re gonna be something’,” she remembers. “I get that a lot. I still get that now in a way, cos I’m not famous. I get it when I go out to a club and I’m all dressed up and having a dance, and people are looking at me thinking, ‘She’s gotta be someone. Is she someone?’ I’m like a famous person without being famous.”
Róisín met a dance music producer named Mark Brydon at a party in Sheffield in 1994, walking up to him and saying “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body”. They started dating, and would go off to record things in the middle of the night during studio downtime. “We’d be out at a party and I’d start talking shit about something and he’d say, ‘Come on, let’s go and put it down’,” she says. “I didn’t think I was becoming a singer, I thought I was having a laugh with this guy who I was madly in love with, who happened to have a big massive studio.”
Named after a druggy drink in the film A Clockwork Orange, as Moloko the duo scored a deal with Echo Records (“They signed us for a six album deal, on the basis of me saying stuff”), making more of a quirky, beatsy, trip-hop sound for their first album ‘Do You Like My Tight Sweater?’. They did reasonably in the alt. pop universe, but when the stripped-back, percussive third single from their second album, ‘Sing It Back’, wasn’t a hit, Róisín begged the label to get remixes done. “Moloko had been a reaction to house music; Mark had already made dance music, and at that time it was seen as very throwaway music,” she tells DJ Mag. “But I’d been in New York dancing to Francois Kervorkian the whole time, going to every club possible for two months. Nu Yorican Soul were releasing stuff, I was seeing incredible musicians playing with Masters At Work, and it opened my mind to the fact that, no, this music wasn’t gonna be a flash in the pan.”
She didn’t rate the Todd Terry remix of ‘Sing It Back’ when it came through, even though it cost a small fortune. “We could’ve bought a small house in Sheffield for what we paid for that remix — seriously!” she says. Meanwhile, a relatively unknown German producer called Boris Dlugosch had got his hands on the parts to the track from the German arm of the label, and sent Róisín his reinterpretation of ‘Sing It Back’ on a CD in the post. “I put it on in my little flat in Sheffield, and I could see a hologram of myself on Top Of The Pops! Literally, I just knew it was a hit.”
She rang the label to say that the Boris mix should be the A-side, and when they refused, “I went down to London and laid down on the floor in their office, crying, ‘Please put this one out, it’s going to be a hit!’ ‘No, it has to be the Todd Terry one’. I don’t normally give up, and I fought and fought and fought, but eventually had to give up. They put it out, and not much happened with it.”
Then, at the 1999 Miami WMC the week of release, everyone was playing the Boris Dlugosch mix. “Pete Tong was playing it on Radio 1, people were ringing in to say it was the hottest record,” and so she rang the label boss that night on his home number. “I said, ‘You got the radio on? You better fucking go into the office on Monday, delete that release and start again!’ So that was how that happened. Fucking hell, I know it all, don’t I?”
‘Sing It Back’ was a global smash, the follow-up ‘The Time Is Now’ was pretty huge too, and Moloko got booked for a slew of big festivals all over Europe. “We spent a good few years on the road fine-tuning, and became a great live band. Those two hits gave us the opportunity to do that, and that’s why I’ll always be grateful to them,” she says. When she split romantically with Mark, Moloko fizzled out and she became a solo artist. And a brilliant one at that. Róisín’s songwriting has embraced many different forms over the years; from storytelling to Burroughsian cut-up style, and most points in between. “I’ve tried every metaphor and way I can think of to write a song,” she says.
We riff off some of the album tracks for a bit, such as the fierce rulin’ rollercoaster of ‘Jealousy’. “Oh, I’ve suffered from jealousy my whole lifetime — people being jealous of me!” she says. “It’s true. Even in school, it was terrible. I was so full of myself though, I probably deserved it.” Warm disco-funk album cut ‘Murphy’s Law’, a recent single, oozes Metro Area cool. The traditional adage Murphy’s Law is that ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong' — have calamitous things happened to Róisín over the years? “Yeah, but then again afterwards you think I’m kinda glad it did,” she says. “Either it makes you stronger, or it leads to something that you didn’t expect.”
She talks about mistakes in art sometimes leading to fruitful things, and how she could be fairly calamitous when she was younger: “I was a disaster, constantly covered in cuts and bruises. I’m very dyslexic, I don’t know me right from me left, I would get lost very easily before there was such a thing as Google Maps... oh my god, I’d have to have someone holding my hand all the time to get from A to B, I’d have no idea where I was going. And that can lead you to places, can’t it? And it did, in many cases.”
She then starts talking about Danceteria, the early 80s NYC joint she’s been researching where club culture and black dance music crossed over with post-punk and new wave. “That's kinda what led me to the visuals for this album, to go back to my punky roots,” she says. “We’re in a shit-show, but out of a shit-show in the '70s came punk, and out of the shit-show of now must come some irreverence and some balls and some bravery, and some just not giving a fuck. We’ve got to stop tonging our hair and being obsessed with the highlights on our faces. The women of that period didn’t give a fuck, and that’s what we need now.”
Róisín Machine’ is out on September 25th on Skint.