Contemporary pop acts are revelling in the avant-garde. But Róisín Murphy was making art-pop in the 1990s – R&bleep, alt-disco and ironic glam. In 2019, the Irish trend inventor is orchestrating not so much as a comeback as a resurgence. She has already aired the compelling singles ‘Incapable’ and ‘Narcissus’. And more music is on the way.
This December, Murphy will travel to Australia for the first time in a decade, having last performed at 2008’s V Festival and side-shows. She’ll headline the legendary Meredith Music Festival alongside Oasis’ Liam Gallagher.
“All right!,” Murphy bursts out mischievously. “It’s gonna be a mashdown, isn’t it? We’re gonna have a party!”
Murphy is bringing a lavish production, with full band and projections. But, while she delivers “a cracking festival set,” Murphy is anticipating her extended side-gigs. “It’s a totally different atmosphere,” she tells Music Feeds. “We’re able to build a more comprehensive story musically when it’s our own show.”
The charming Murphy, presently living in London, is up early. Britain is in the midst of Brexit mayhem. “It’s very complicated at the moment in the UK,” Murphy laugh-sighs. “It’s very hard to work out what’s going on at all. I really don’t understand it… I just think, on a daily basis, you hear a different facet of Brexit and so it’s very hard, for me personally, to put myself in a place where I really can understand what’s going on. I don’t understand the Irish backstop and I don’t understand this and I don’t understand… Every day it’s a new thing that is more and more complex and baffling for the normal person on the street.”
Murphy’s career has been defined by serendipity and, to an extent, spontaneity – her original aspiration to be a visual artist, not a singer/songwriter. As such, the former Moloko frontwoman scoffs at the suggestion that she could be a role model for rising stars.
“I’m an awful individualist. You know, I don’t consider myself as part of the industry. So I feel like I can’t advise anyone, because I don’t do it in a way that’s anything but an instinctive journey. And that’s how I started. I honestly fell into this thing. I’d be very wary and frightened to change all of a sudden the method.”
Murphy spent her formative years in Ireland, moving as a tween to Manchester in Northern England. Murphy’s parents then separated and, though her antique dealer mum returned to Ireland, she stayed – independent at 15. Murphy wound up in Sheffield where, partying, she encountered local producer Mark Brydon. Today her flirty overture – “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body!” – is the stuff of pop history. They’d become collaborators and lovers, devising the post-house Moloko and securing a deal with Echo. Murphy applied an “art school attitude” to music, her approach conceptual. Indeed, she now directs her own videos. And Murphy has long been a fashionista fave.
Moloko’s 1995 debut, Do You Like My Tight Sweater?, was incongruously classified as trip-hop. The project developed into a live entity. “We ended up going with a band and then I became a performer and then I went back in the studio and learned more about the studio and on and on and on it went – and that’s how I go.” The pair enjoyed modest success – ‘Fun For Me’ was even synced for the blockbuster Batman & Robin soundtrack. Moloko followed with I Am Not A Doctor. The drum-heavy track ‘Sing It Back’ belatedly blew up when German house DJ Boris Dlugosch remixed it. Moloko’s extravagantly organic third foray, Things To Make And Do, saw them finally breakthrough – its euphoric, symphonic disco anthem ‘The Time Is Now’ their signature. But Moloko’s professional – and romantic – union dissolved, with 2003’s Statues.
Still on the Echo roster, a solo Murphy teamed with pal Matthew Herbert – an IDM renegade – for 2005’s avant-jazz Ruby Blue. Wonky and whimsical, it confounded Echo – and passed by the charts, only to acquire cult status. A free agent, Murphy signed to EMI after having “a pint” with Eddie Stevens, Moloko’s old keyboardist/music director then involved in A&R. She cut an ambitious (and big-budget) electro-pop album, Overpowered, with input from Groove Armada’s Andy Cato, Timbaland cohort Jimmy Douglass, and Richard X. “But, still, it wasn’t like a big overarching plan,” Murphy stresses. Singular, she abandoned material penned with an emerging Calvin Harris and hitmaker Cathy Dennis.
Post-Overpowered, Murphy went on semi-hiatus, starting a family (her partner is Italian producer Sebastiano Properzi of the Fatboy Slim-endorsed Luca C & Brigante). Yet, in 2015, she unveiled the freeform Hairless Toys, recorded with Stevens. It was nominated for the Mercury Prize. The next year, Take Her Up To Monto, from the same sessions, appeared. Through 2018, Murphy circulated successive club tracks with US expat Maurice Fulton, another idiosyncratic house producer (cue: the funky ‘All My Dreams’). She generated greater buzz again with June’s ‘Incapable’ – groovy deep house – on Skint Records, the UK concern behind Fatboy Slim’s crossover. The diva liaised with DJ Parrot (aka Richard Barratt), a pioneer in Sheffield’s dance underground. Murphy knew Barratt in her teens (he’s credited on Overpowered and produced 2012’s Balearic one-off ‘Simulation’.
At any rate, Murphy has been gratified by the reception to ‘Incapable’ – the antithesis of a cry-dance bop with its hook, “Never had a broken heart/Am I incapable of love?” “People really like it and respond to it. I’m a bit surprised that people feel so akin to the lyric, actually. I thought it was quite an unusual emotion. But it turns out everybody feels like [that]. Maybe it’s a bit of a modern thing. Everybody’s a bit displaced and atomised. It’s a bit scary that everybody [is like], ‘Oh, it just means so much to me – I can’t fall in love!’ It’s a bit disappointing. There you go. So, when I write songs about being really brokenhearted, deep in my head, of being a plaything and all that, people like it, but they don’t respond to it the way they do about being a complete bastard.” Notably, ‘Incapable’ was remixed by the disco superduo of Dimitri From Paris and Aeroplane. In the interim, Murphy has officially released the opulent ‘Narcissus’, a fan favourite. The singer is uncertain if she’ll follow this music with an album. “Well, there’s more where it came from, kind of ready to go. So we’re just deciding whether that should be an EP or an album or some other singles… We’re not sure yet.”
Ironically, while Murphy is perceived as an outsider in popdom, her influence is pervasive – and she’s a gay icon. Murphy presaged Goldfrapp, Robyn and, arguably, Lady Gaga. Even Madonna’s IDGAF disco opus Madame X has a Murphy-esque defiance. Nonetheless, Murphy expresses an affinity with teen phenom Billie Eilish, stating that her music “sounds really interesting.” “She’s a really good pop star at the moment, anyway – she might let us down, who knows? But, at the moment, she’s a very interesting pop star.” Murphy relates to Eilish’s experimentation. “The music is actually quite high art,” she muses. “It’s a total different generation to me, but there are massive connections between the music… Some people said that it sounded a bit like some of the stuff on the Ruby Blue album in the production side. I’m into all the melodies, as well as the weird range of the melodies and things. So I feel a connection there – and a kindred spirit.”
Murphy has experienced frustration with the music biz. Last year she tweeted, “I’m crying a lot, tiredness. I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall. I make good and surprising records, I kill myself to make visual, in which I prove it’s about ideas and soul because god forbid anyone should give me a budget. But I get indifference in the industry.” Happily, colleagues reached out to help. These days Murphy is also more philosophical about her overground profile and the creative liberation it affords her. “I feel like I’m in my own stream, which is a very lucky place to be. It’s unique and it’s very lucky and I manage to make a living. I’m very happy at the moment, basically, in a nutshell, with how it all is for me. But I was exceptionally tired at that time – exceptionally tired. There wasn’t the support in place. But so it goes. There’s ups and downs – and we have to be strong.”
The Guardian recently published “The 100 Best Albums Of The 21st Century” with Ruby Blue at #97. However, Murphy is most satisfied with Hairless Toys, believing that she and Stevens “came up with magic.” “I think Hairless Toys probably is the best album I’ve ever made. It’s just perfectly shaped and it’s exactly the right length and the songs are all the right length and it’s sublime the way it’s been mixed… It was a big outpouring for me because I hadn’t made an album for a very long time.”
As of August, Moloko’s albums are being progressively reissued on vinyl. But Murphy is opposed to any reunion tour – and she’s too dynamic an artist to trade on nostalgia. “I mean, Brydon is geriatric now, so that’s out of the question,” Murphy quips. She does revisit Moloko songs live. Murphy has consistently pulled out Statues’ jazz-soul banger ‘Forever More’ in recent setlists (including Primavera Sound). And she’s content for Moloko’s catalogue to be reappraised. “I’m very proud of it – very proud of it. Obviously, there’s a lot of learning curves on those records. [But] I’m proud of them. It’s nice to re-release them, which we are doing one-by-one. Hopefully, some people get a bit more of an overview of Moloko, other than ‘Sing It Back’, ‘The Time Is Now’, with the reissues. It was to talk about these bodies of work a little bit more and look back on it from a more macro lens than when we were right up against it. It’s interesting. Time goes by so fast – 25 years, Jesus Christ!” As she concludes, this subcultural celebrity is as down-to-earth as ever. Murphy apologises, “My husband’s calling me – I have to go and do something.”