GOING FORWARD / LOOKING BACK
Electronic supernova. Alt pop icon. Roísín Murphy gets into the groove and reveals the stories behind what it took to find her voice and what the future holds as she brings us back to the dancefloor with her best music yet.
Words: Tracy Kawalik
Rays of sun shoot out like lasers over West London. Behind piercing blue eyes, a cappuccino and a packet of cigarettes, Irish electronic supernova Roísín Murphy draws me close, picks up her phone, and presses play. Melancholic harmonica from a rare 1963 studio outtake of Bob Dylan’s ‘Moonshiner’ melts out from her speakers and up into the clouds. We both hover in silence, taking in the first verse until she sits back and winks, "this one's fucking good, isn't it?"
If anyone possesses the talent to suss out a top tier track, it's Roísín Murphy. After all, she's produced three decades worth of prolific music herself. She's carved out a presence as an Alt icon of underground basement clubs and the highest echelons of pop. Then clocked a cult fan base across the globe.
Switching records, she reveals she's recently gone on a Bob Dylan listening spree. "Have you watched Scorsese's film about the Rolling Thunder Revue? Dylan does ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ on that in this completely different way where he warps the melody like he's put it into autotune! I've settled on that as my absolute favourite record of his. Then there's one song I love because he sounds like a drag queen impersonating Marianne Faithful," she laughs. “Another one is ‘Do Right To Me Baby’ - I'd love to play that in a club. I never really appreciated how much of a badass he was until now! He was just Bad! Bad! Bad! He has that real, 'I've got the talent, but I fucking know what to do with it!'
Gearing up to perform her critically lauded, fifth-solo album Roísín Machine for the first time - arguably her best music to date- Murphy has every reason to channel a bold, Dylan flex of her own.
A diamond amid the dystopian lockdown darkness of 2020, Roísín Machine is a house-infused, disco-laced elixir for dancers gagging to get back on the floor. Roísín gives her sultry vocals a deep Grace Jones lick and expresses desire, regret, and self-knowledge in her lyrics, ultimately taking on the role she was born to play: a succinct dancefloor truth-teller. All this backed by sleazy funk bass lines and psychedelic disco-struts begging to be blasted on a behemoth of a soundsystem - it's no surprise Roísín Machine became universally recognised as one of the top albums of the year.
More than that, the album acted as an audio reminder of the early mornings writhing hip to hip in packed out clubs, blissfully losing ourselves among saccharine smoke and strobes, and a hopeful future when we reconnect in that same euphoria.
One year out of practice, some might be dubious about their first gig back - not Roísín. "I've already been that woman coming out of the darkness and into this familiar but unfamiliar space. For me, I've done this before in a sense. "
To witness Roísín Murphy live today, is a multi-sensory intoxicant you won't soon forget. So for an artist who delivers live performances with such a next-level magnitude, it's surprising to learn there was ever a time the stage felt like unfamiliar ground. "I felt awkward for a long, long time in the beginning, and I think that came from not understanding what I was trying to project,” she says. “Essentially I was just a punk with the mentality of knowing, ‘What I don't want to do! What I'm not like! What I'm not going to do or say! How I'm not going to perform! What I'm not going to wear! And when it came to Moloko, we knew, ‘We're not going to make acid jazz, we're not going to make funk flow, we're not going to cow-tow to what everyone else was doing. I knew I wasn't going to wear a little t-shirt and jeans and look really serious all the time! I liked to have a joke and use my wit. I wanted to experiment and have a play.”
Brought up in Arklow, County Wicklow, Ireland, Roísín sang a bit as a child alongside her family but downplayed her voice fearing she sounded like Elaine Paige. "When I moved to Manchester at age 12, I got really into bands like Sonic Youth, Jesus and Mary Chain and the Bottle Surfers,” she recalls. “The only songs I'd sang before were things like 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina', and I certainly wasn't going to sing that around this lot. It didn't cross my mind that music would be my thing.”
A move to Sheffield at 19, alongside her introduction to nightclubs, sparked an unexpected shift in the plans. "My introduction to singing was very intimate. It took place with two people falling in love madly, then immediately on the same night we started to make music," Roísín says tenderly.
The first love she's talking about was producer and one half of Moloko, Mark Brydon. "When he met me in 1994 in the club, the first thing I said to him was, "Do you like my tight sweater?" He brought me to his lovely studio in Sheffield, FON Studios, where many big important acts recorded, and he recorded me saying that line, and that became our first song, ‘Do you Like My Tight Sweater’.”
Member of funk outfit CHAKK, who used the money from their chart success to build the famous FON Studios in Sheffield, Brydon was around this time producing for major labels. But on the side, sort of like his hobby, he had this project called the Numb Skulls. "It was just all the obscure stuff he wanted to make that didn't fit into any category- and that's where I fitted in,” Roísín says. “I'd say stupid stuff on the mic, and he'd put my voice over one of his beats in the studio and record it, and it went on like that for a little while. But all along, as I said, it was about him and me having an affair. That was much more important than anything else we were doing with music."
Roísín might have previously doubted her vocal abilities, but Mark's manager didn't. He took a clutch of tracks bearing her singing and Mark's production to London and came back with an offer for a deal with Echo Records. "When we started Moloko, we were already over ‘four-on-the-floor’. And I think especially for Mark and his generation who had been involved so early on..they had hit several walls with it,” says Roísín. “For instance, you could have a hit, but certainly, the industry didn't think you could have another one with a dance record. It's not as though they were looking at dance acts like ‘Oh, here's the next Pink Floyd’. The industry treated us and those early dance hits like a joke or a novelty and with the attitude like ‘Enjoy it while it lasts because it'll blow over by next summer!"
"There was a period where even we were convinced dance music had an expiry date. Mainstream dance music was starting to sound really ‘samey', in the big rooms anyway. And the separation between music heads and people who were just into clubbing got deeper and more divided - that's what got us turning toward trip-hop. Many music people were coming with a similar feeling to us, like "I'm not just gonna do that same beat over and over again?! What other beats are out there? Can I sample beats? Can I loop beats? Can I be into Funkadelic and hip hop and rare groove and still make club-ready music"
In the end, Moloko carved out a highly original sonic aesthetic of avant-garde, alt-pop and screwball trip-hop that saw them play a pivotal role as pioneers of the genre. "We were really madly in love, and all this beauty had just fallen out of the relationship, and it was spreading around, and everybody responded to it. It was just so magical!," Roísín gushes.
In under a decade, the duo clocked colossal fame, prime chart positions, and international success, having created some of the most seminal music in the genre's history. The remix of 'Sing It Back’ by Boris Dlugosch has since featured on more than 110 compilation albums. Then just like that, Moloko put out their emotionally visceral break-up album Statues, shook hands, parted ways and haven't spoken since.
The first time I experienced Roísín’s vocals was the place everyone should - melting out of towering speaker stacks across a dancefloor. I was a podium dancer, in a Canadian rodeo town on the other side of the world and nervous as hell. But Roísín’s music made me move with a provocative prowess and playful confidence like no one elses. Eventually I’d dance in some of the biggest clubs in the world, and I owe a lot of that Roísín and what her music did to me. One of those records being, her solo verse on the early b-side ‘The Truth’ by Handsome Boy Modelling School. When I reveal to her that its my personal favourite to dance to, she’s impressed. "That track was a significant song for me as well," Roísín confesses behind a glowing smile. "First of all because it's really good and I really like it. But ‘The Truth’ was the first significant thing that I did outside of Moloko. I locked myself in my bedroom for a couple of days and wrote that song. I went over to San Francisco, and Prince Paul ( Gravediggaz and De La Soul) and Dan the Automator (Gorillaz) picked me up at the airport. I'd had the 4-track under my arm when I got on the plane and kept it with me the whole time! When I sang the song the first time, they were like, ‘It's perfect’ It was a big deal for me to do that with no help from a boyfriend/Mark."
Out on her own, Roísín quickly gained traction for her talents as a solo artist as much as her fiercely uncompromising, creative vision. "I went ahead and made my first album Ruby Blue in the same way I'd always done with Moloko; with the producer, Matthew Herbert, and how I wanted to do it. My record company didn't hear it, they didn't know how it was going to sound, but they just made assumptions that I would make… I don't know another ‘Sing It Back’. I delivered it to them, and the only thing I remember is them saying, ‘That's the wrong record. You've made the wrong record!’ It was ahead of its time that record, and it wasn't perceivable as pop back then. But ironically, ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’ became one of the biggest tracks and certainly one of the biggest streamed things that I've got…and it's one of the maddest songs I've ever made! "
Off the back of Ruby Blue, Roísín signed with EMI and released her superb second full-length solo album, Overpowered. Guest spots followed with artists like Fatboy Slim, David Morales and Tony Christie, and a collaboration with Freeform Five on the single ‘Leviathan’ which all kept her ticking on the scene. All before an unexpected 8-year hiatus took place, while Roísín became a mother.
A series of rare DJ gigs, PA performances and solo singles caught momentum and led her to an explosive comeback. From 2014-2017, Roísín would put out her third studio album, 2015's Mercury Nominated Hairless Toys and 2016's equally revered Take Her Up To Monto. But before all that in 2014, she'd show off her vocal chops on Mi Senti EP- a collection of five opulent Italian covers and one original composition ‘In Sintesi made with her longest standing band member Eddie Stevens.
The EP was one of her most unique musical projects and certainly her most technically ambitious. Diving into the inspiration behind the album Roísín reveals much of it came as a love letter. "My partner Sebi is Italian, and he's a music producer. At the beginning of our love affair, I met him in the studio, and he was just showing me all these amazing singers and sort of mid-century Italian stuff through from the '50s, 60's 70's even into the '80s,” she says. “One day he showed me a song called ‘Non-Credere’ by the famous Italian singer Mina. It was a real close up video of her singing it, and I thought I might just be able to learn this phonetically for him and see what he makes of it when he gets back type thing. Which I did. Then it all started there. It was like, "Oh cool, let's go on to another couple!"
The cover of Mina's ‘Ancora Ancora Ancora’ (originally a stunning power ballad) is slowed, with Murphy's voice pushed beyond her usual limits for an effect that creates a lush theatrical performance. "Technically, it's the most I've pushed myself,” she says. “It was hard it was, really tough. Obviously, the language is one thing, but the ranges are quite expansive in that kind of songwriting for classically singers of this level. Each one is often written for those specific singers in mind. A bit like when they write scripts for a certain actor."
Versatility has long been at the core of Roísín's skillset. DIY innovation fuses with polished sonics, balancing her experimental tendencies with major hooks. Because of that, her contact book of industry heavyweights, high profile artists and producers vying to collaborate are bursting at the seams.
One in particular that she'd been chasing herself for years was Maurice Fulton. So when he reached out to say he was available to make their infectious masterpieces 'The Rumble' and 'Worlds Crazy', Roísín was ready. "Maurice has spent a lifetime immersed in music for dancing,” she says. “His experience and depth of knowledge is undeniable. So the minute he said he was ready, it was like ok! Let's go! I dropped everyone and everything and did as I was told!"
A slew of exciting club singles propelled Roísín on a meteoric trajectory after that. All this building to what's been hyped across the industry and fans as her best music yet. Her recent clutch of 12" tracks on Roísín Machine, all made by her most trusted musical partner and long-time collaborators, Sheffield legend Crooked Man aka DJ Parrot (Richard Barratt). DJ at legendary Sheffield club Jive Turkey in the late 1980s with his partner Winston Hazel, member of influential Warp records bleep n bass duo Sweet Exorcist with Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H. Kirk, as well as a range of projects that has straddled leftfield pop to abstract dance, Parrot's eclectic production work made him a natural partner for Roísín ambitious dance music.
Together with Roísín the music he makes is extraordinary. On Roísín Machine he produced impeccable feats of sonic engineering that wisely never dared to upstage the star of the show. All the while patiently awaiting his turn to take centre stage on the fresh-pressed remix album Crooked Machine.
If Roísín Machine was the big night out… Crooked Machine is the afterparty where things get darker and more twisted. Like the original LP, it's put together as a continuous listening experience, ingeniously and seamlessly edited in such a lush way, it encourages repeated revisits to fully explore the magic at work.
"Parrot doesn't try to be 'cool',” suggests Roísín. “I reckon that's the last thing on his mind. He makes music with a real sense of responsibility to the craft. He just cannot make rubbish music. He'd be too ashamed. So everything he is and everything he has learned is put into everything he does. I think Crooked Machine is one of his greatest achievements so far. I left him and Fat Dave to their own devices on this and they have outdone themselves! I absolutely love it!! I think I prefer it to the original album, slightly less me and all the more 'cool' for it!"
Hot on the heels of Crooked Machine, esteemed producer and remix mastermind The Reflex got his hands on Roísín Machine. He reshaped and rebooted a pair of impeccable singles and released Crooked Machine The Reflex Revisions. There's also been a supersized, four to the floor piano-house remix of ‘Shellfish Mademoiselle’ by Leeds producer mastermind Paul Woolford. As well as a propulsive, dark and throbbing beastly ‘Kingdom of Ends’ re-rub by Collective States.
Having meticulously and purposefully laid out Roísín Machine initially to replicate the programming of her live shows, Roísín giggles "Now I'm in a place with it, like fuck, what version's do I do?! And then which ones to go-between! "
"My biggest challenge still is the awkwardness. The more you do, the less dissonance there is in the things that you've already done, you know. So, eventually, it starts to make sense that you're Irish and you're into electronic music, and you went to Manchester when you were in Sheffield. As the story broadens and the music supports it, it becomes more cohesive and one thing. So that's less awkward. But the next thing…. Is the next thing. ‘Whats' next?’ I'd love to work with Moodyman. That would be big. Then I think to myself, ‘What will it be like to work with Koze now’. So where does that end?!"
The creative pressure that comes with being irrepressibly creative, intensely passionate, and such a perfectionist has sometimes left Roísín feeling like a slave to her own rhythm. "I have a lot of highs and lows,” she says thoughfully. “You can write a song and think, ‘Fucking hell, that's brilliant. It's all come together’, and then you can be floating down the road, and some other aspect will come to you that you missed, and you'll go all depressed. As I get older, it does worry me a bit that I've spent so much of my life at the will of my work. I’ve never chosen the easiest path, but it’s the only way I know, so I’ll continue to create and make music, and have to roll with it."
Across Roísíns 30 years of musical output is a plethora of tracks that resonate deeply with her wildy diverse fanbase, from Manchester and Sheffield acid ravers, to queer club kids and the new generation just tuning in now. Much of that comes from Roísín being a little bit of each herself.
When pressed to offer up advice for the generation of musicians, artists, and producers coming up behind her, Roísín immediately shrugs it off. "I don't feel in any position to give advice to the new-gen. The younger ones are taking control now because they know, well the power’s with us really. Everybody's coming to me for my music, so I'll set up my own label, I'll set up my own deal, I'll make my own videos. I'm just coming around to that way of thinking, so if anything, the new generation could probably tell me much more about how it's done these days. I came into the industry in an alien landscape to what it is now. I was like, ‘Record companies, they'll look after you. And management, they'll look after you, won't they?!’ People like me who came into the industry are just beginning to get a handle on what's been done, where, who's been paid, who hasn't etc. "
Roísín might sound like a novice of the new world but over the course of 2020 she proved that when it came to transmitting the creative energy of her live performances on ultra-violet frequencies, she was a force majeure of live streams. Whether that was with pounding bass, bright lights and all the chaos of the club alongside her wildly talented backing dancer for her solo streams. "She is jaw-droppingly brilliant. I absolutely love having her there. When she's body-pumping, the energy she gives out is like having a "Bez" or a vibes man on stage!," Roísín brags.
She showed lavish costume changes for her lo-fi debut of ‘Something More’ which featured her twirling and undulating between doorways of her Ibiza villa. Perfomed on Jools Holland via Zoom on New Years Eve or her a thundering PA set alongside Honey Dijon at Glastonbury's Live Stream.
"I'm a film-maker at heart, and I'm really interested in faces and performing,” she beams. “So I didn't feel a disconnect doing the streams. Instead, I went into an actor type space. It's not like you're waiting for the applause or anything, so it becomes more about what can I do? You can get all sorts of stuff from me that you don't get in a live show, like a close up of my face. That can tell a million stories, so it's nice to get right up in peoples faces and show them my eyes so that they get to see what I'm really doing when Im performing."
If it seemed like Roísín was in her element dancing with herself, she was. Today she's dressed in a denim shirt, silk neckerchief and acid yellow Homoelectric t-shirt. Reflecting on her most memorable gigs she talks about a surprise PA set with Block9 at their revered Glastonbury club destination NYC Downlow the day Brexit was announced. A college radio PA in America the day Trump was elected. But the one that's totally stolen her heart was her one-woman show at Homoelectric, back where it all began, in 2019. "I'm really hoping to do more of this. We had a huge stage. Massive big screens, and steps with screens that cascaded in front of that, a big gangway and just tunes. It really worked in that sort of warehouse space."
Roísín continues, "The crowd loved it. It's still bouncy, it's not like I'm interrupting their night with something going really funky and my normal 17 piece band set-up. That can get too indulgent rather then immersive. There's a time and a place for a live band, and in the end I've got the records to play in a club environment. Drop me in and I perform them! I've got a stick for the visuals, a stick for the microphone and a stick for my earpiece, so you better have the screen in place! I'll take it from there. "
It now smells of rain, but the sun still pierces overhead. I reluctantly look at the time and order another coffee, having been blessed with more of Roísín's company than I expected. But as I turn off my dictaphone and prepare to say good bye, she lights up a cigarette and charmingly asks "I've told you my story now. What about yours?"
Taken back, I try to play down being starstruck and open up about my time as a professional dancer. We swap stories about our favourite clubs such as Amnesia, which she performed live in with Moloko and eventually our shared love of Berghain. She tells me "My relationship to writing music is deeply connected to dancing. I've learnt a lot about the structure of music by dancing to it. It's like making music into a 3D space, it's almost like making a sculpture or a drawing with your body, and that can only serve to reinforce your understanding of its structure. You're sort of drawing the picture with your body of the music, you're making it in to another action or another experience, and it teaches you the maths of music without having to try to learn. I don't know dancing in any sort of technical way. I've not trained or anything. I'm not the greatest dancer but I love it. It's the best thing.
Roísín reveals she made quite an impact with a live performance a couple years back at Panorama Bar and on the dancefloor at Berghain. “That was like the last "big night out" for me. It was such a trip. It was my first time ever there. I wasn't playing until at 9 at night, so we went at 11pm in the morning that day, and it was like going for exercise for a couple of hours! You're drinking water, going around, dancing like crazy, it was brilliant! Eventually, I changed and did the gig and then afterwards I went over into Berghain."
Having totally melted into the sound system on a solo trip myself, I nod, knowing the power that specific dancefloor holds all too well. "I went down onto the dancefloor and disappeared. Security was giving it out to my partner like, "Where has she gone. We can't leave until we know where she is" I had 5 hours and the time went like that! I was surrounded by some lovely strong and sturdy lesbians who were taking care of me. My every wish was granted. The room is treated for sound absorption and reflection. The ground is all rubber underneath, so it sounds like a vocal booth in this cathedral space. It's classic German ingenuity and efficiency. Classic German, efficient hedonism. They were playing really deep dub techno and I've never really danced to anything like that for that long. It was played in such pure that night, and that was where I sort of thought about tis thing of how your body draws the music because that's what I was doing. There's loads of space in techno. My kind of dancing is all low and funky, allowing itself to be a little out of control. And it was like a trip where my body was just drawing that music, it was absolutely brilliant.”
A self-professed show-off and exhibitionist since she was a kid, Roísín describes dressing in a Chinese kimono and posing in various tableaux in her front window. Fast forward to today and her same fearless fashion sense can't go without mention. She admits that she's overstretched herself with upward of three dozen costume changes a show in the past and she's scaling that down for the upcoming shows. Possessing a portfolio of furiously experimental looks, frequently styled with hats and accessories that read more like elaborate modern art masterpieces. I have to ask if a particular outfit that was ever too much for even Roísín herself. “Loads of things I did were fucking mad! I have many Spinal Tap type stories I could tell you. In Moloko there was a time I'd crawl onto the stage with a dog lead and get into a dog bed" she laughs.
When we get on the topic of her band and returning to the stage, Roísín waxes lyrical about the possibility of hitting the road again and playing back at her favourite London venue Brixton Academy. "I'd like to be back on a tour of my own. Venue to venue. That's when you really get into a groove. It's your world. You roll into town and takes over for a bit while you're there. I loved that. There's a bit of a sort of traveller, gypsy type person in me for sure."
She stands up to leave and gives me a hug. Both still riffing about the fast-approaching Brixton gig she concludes, "It's always nerve-racking no matter what happens with a performance. In the run-up you're trying to switch on all the switches bit by bit, every day is a new thing. You get on and it's like riding a bike type of thing. Everyone's expectations are different about what they want me to play. In the end you get what you're given, and with my catalogue I can just bang them out and you can lose you're shit! You're always wondering if you're gonna pull it off. So far, I always have pulled it off!"
From the outset, Roísín made it clear that whether she was the frontwoman of Moloko, a solo singer-songwriter, high concept performance artist, producer, or aspring filmaker she'd be an enigmatic force hat would inevitably blow the music industry away.
As she turns to walk out, we talk about what the future holds for the next project she flashes me an enigmatic smirk that hints she's only given us a glimpse thus far of what she's capable of.