My first Moloko gig was in 1998. A gap year backpacking adventure had brought me to Berlin and Murphy and her then partner Mark Brydon’s debut album ‘Do You Like My Tight Sweater’ had been my soundtrack to the previous year. That their show blew me away is an understatement; I’d never witnessed a leftfield singer perform with such passion and dynamism and connect so strongly with an audience. When Róisín lost her voice towards the end of their set that night, she was hugely apologetic. Walking past her on our way out, she croaked to us, “I’m so sorry!” Still reeling from her performance, I was well and truly won over.
Róisín remembers that gig - the awesome but deathly cold venue that had given her voice a beating, her stage-antics, with “all that mad robotic stuff” and now famed flamboyance. She once cringed at these early displays of showmanship, “I was really embarrassed because it just looked like I was hiding.” Now Róisín sees her performances as “brilliantly naïve” and “poppy in a way that wasn’t back then.” She reflects, “Not that I think it blew the world apart but it was ahead of its time.”
Six years later I saw Moloko headlining a summer outdoor festival in Sydney. The duo were touring ‘Statues’, the first and last album they’d make as friends rather than lovers. With massive hits ‘The Time Is Now’ and ‘Sing It Back’ on every club compilation and turntable that past year, they had the entire audience singing along euphorically as the sun went down. Róisín’s performances had evolved to become more extravagant and even less restrained. With a broken arm in tow and costume changes throughout, she swooped and swirled across the stage in a McQueen dress and Dior feather headdress, and at the crescendo, designer gear and broken arm forgotten, she stunned the ecstatic audience by stage diving into the crowd.
Now 34, with her sixth album - her second as a solo artist - about to come out, a more mature yet nonetheless playful Murphy sits across from me in a swanky Soho bar, sipping Bellinis and cackling in recollection of her antics. Would she say she is an extrovert?
I love that sound of youth in dance music. It doesn’t have to be too clever.
“Probably. I didn’t desperately clamour to be what I am though,” she states defiantly. “I accidentally became a singer and I accidentally discovered that I could put all these things together and it took quite a long time to get it all going at the same rate.”
The famed story of Moloko’s formation begins with the feisty Murphy sidling up to Brydon with the pick-up line, “Do you like my tight sweater, see how it fits my body.” They promptly went to his studio and at her insistence recorded it to music, six months on it became the title track of their debut album.
“I was 18. I didn’t know I could sing,” Murphy recounts. “I got signed because I said “Do you like my tight sweater see how it fits my body” on a track, I did fuck all singing. Everybody sings in Ireland at any and every event. When I was 9 I learned ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ for my mum. They all went, ‘She’s got a voice! She’s the very same as Elaine Page!’”
It’s a sensitive subject to broach, obviously Murphy and Brydon’s relationship ended, but after 12 years, what was the breaking point with Moloko?
“There wasn’t really a breaking point, we broke up and then we made a record and toured it for a year and a half. We played to massive venues, had a great time and left it on good terms. People think how was that possible? But, you know, even on a small bus you don’t have to sit next to each other every day!”
At this Róisín chuckles. Cheerfully coarse in a very Irish way, she inserts haphazard ‘fuckin’s’ for emphasis. Her appearance, however, is demure in a green shift dress paired with Chanel heels. She promises she doesn’t normally doll up for interviews, but she and her boyfriend, artist Simon Henwood, are off to the Royal Academy Summer exhibition private view afterwards - a red carpet affair where they intend to purchase some works to add to their collection. The couple met when Henwood painted her for the cover of ‘Ruby Blue’, her first solo album. They now share a “very large house in suburbia” where they walk their dog every morning, garden and covet a library of 25,000 art and photography books. “It’s brilliant. You get up in the morning, have your cup of coffee, my boyfriend will pull out a book and open it in front of me at something wonderful. He loves to do that and I love him to do that.”
She gushes for a moment and it’s obvious that she thoroughly enjoys this world, far removed from the sweaty clubs and stadium tours of yore. Will her new album reflect a more mature phase of her life?
“No, actually I’ve really tried to be as naïve and pure as I could be on this record,” she tells me, resolute. “I love that sound of youth in dance music. It doesn’t have to be too clever.”
Clever was where ‘Ruby Blue’ sat. With experimental maestro Matthew Herbert steering her first venture into solo territory, Murphy and Herbert utilised everything and the kitchen sink to produce sounds for the eccentric electro epic. “I had to bring a different object in every day,” Murphy recalls, smiling. ”He was a good teacher.”
Two years on, she’s had a label change (to EMI), travelled the world for 8 months recording her second album, ‘Overpowered’, and finally given birth to a pure pop opus. Enlisting the production genius of Andy Cato of Groove Armada and Seiji from Bugz in the Attic, both used their respective skills to reel her sound back into the neu-disco realm that Moloko once ruled, while Scottish upstart Calvin Harris, (Kylie’s current producer), also worked with Murphy on two tracks that didn’t make the cut. Was her choice of producers a conscious effort to move into a more commercial dance sphere?
“Dance music has not been in the mainstream for a long time, so they can’t be that commercially successful,” she claims. “It wasn’t a decision based on commercial success, but utter compatibility.”
A longstanding advocate of quirk, Murphy has often been lauded as a leftfield style icon. Modelling for Vivienne Westwood in 2005’s Fashion Rocks, her sartorial get-ups have been consistently glamorous and cutting-edge. For ‘Overpowered’s album sleeves and video Murphy enlisted previous collaborator Scott King, former art director at i-D and Sleaze Nation. She leans forward excitedly when talk turns to art direction and costumes - a passion that now, with more money in tow, Murphy can fully explore. For ‘Overpowered’ the “tension between the off-stage on-stage persona” was the visual narrative.
“I love being a performer and I embrace it completely,” Murphy affirms. “I love the mythology of performance and the magic of it, but I would like to break down some of the myths of what happens when I walk off the stage and who I am, and show the juxtaposition between those two.”
So Róisín is shot on a busy suburban high street dressed in an extravagant Viktor and Rolf ensemble, attached to a lighting rig blaring spotlights across her face, as she holds plastic shopping bags, “like I’ve just been to Iceland for me tea. There’s one where I’m in the pub and one where I’m in the caff in a red knitted avant-garde costume.”
I didn’t desperately clamour to be what I am…I accidentally became a singer and I accidentally discovered that I could put all these things together.
“The whole thing’s about that humanity,” she explains. “There’s nothing untrue about any of these images because I do walk my dog in the park and I go to the caff in Cricklewood.”
The need to prove she’s in touch with the “normal people” could seem a little condescending, but Róisín is hardly a princess. On the contrary, she’s down to earth, headstrong and roguish, with a fiery Irish streak that has had unsuspecting stylists shaking in their boots. As one poor sucker discovered upon suggesting an asymmetric hair-do for her video.
“I live as far away from all that asymmetric hair as you could possibly get!” Murphy exclaims, still flabbergasted at the suggestion. “So I went into our library, pulled out 25 books of film stars and photography, and showed them exactly what I wanted. Has anyone else got any more references? No? Good, well lets go with my idea then.”
A force to be reckoned with, but why mess with a good thing? Róisín has independently cultivated a strong aesthetic, recently finding inspiration in 30’s and 40’s styles and Katherine Hepburn - another fiery performer. Using clothes from a gamut of new and established designers, in her self-styled video for ‘Overpowered’ she sported London designer du jour Gareth Pugh’s cyber extravagance.
“I don’t wear that stuff in a fashion way, I wear it like a performer,” Murphy insists. “I wear it at a jaunty angle, thrown on with absolute irreverence and that’s the way it should be for me. It brings a bit of humanity, and that’s what people relate to.”
Style queen she may be, maintaining a connection with her audience is Murphy’s main concern. But after twelve years in the business, having carved a reputation as an artist who breaks the mould, does Róisín Murphy still strive to push the boundaries?
“I’ve always tried to stretch myself. There’s an innate boredom within me, a consequence of that boredom is experimentalism. I’m bored most of the time, so I find challenges. The challenge on this one was not to be experimental, because I’m natural curious, but to work with new people and to retain a naivety through all the high production.”
By Camille Ross
Blue felt coat by PPQ, Pink Silk mini dress with bow by Poltock & Walsh , White Leather Shoo-Boots by Brioni
Black leather tassled biker jacket, Roisin's own. Leopard print Chiffon dress by Dag. White Platform stilletos from Showgirls.
Silver and Fluro pink tunic by Jean Charles de Castebajac.
Green foil jacket by Pam Hogg. Black trousers by Noir. Gold platform peep-toe lace-ups by Terry de Havilland. Vintage gold earrings from Pellik. Beaded necklace, Roisin's own.
Midnight blue shift dress by Luella. Brown platform snakeskin Mary-Janes by Jil Sander. Gold collar by Kisa.
Black blouse with Gold Stripes by Pam Hogg. Black stretch belt and wool pencil skirt by Donna Karan. Leopard print bomber jacket by D&G.