Look closely and there’s an Italian thread running through British youth culture. It’s there in most periods – whether it’s the espresso bars so beloved of the mod movement, or the Italo disco currently inspiring minds across the charts.
So, for Róisín Murphy, an EP recorded entirely in Italian perhaps isn’t to be unexpected.
“Well, I’ve been into northern soul, I’ve been into mod – there’s a bit of all that in there,” she explains. “I think quite a lot of aspirational youth culture has had some Italian influence. I don’t think even Italians are 100% aware of that, to be honest, or as proud of it as perhaps they should be. Most Italian people that I’ve met in my life I’ve met in Ibiza. So I’ve met the crazy, wild ones, I suppose.”
Happily married to Italian producer Sebastiano Properzi, Murphy recently took time off music to focus on her two children. And when the time came to return to the studio, the singer wanted to attempt some of the songs which had been inspiring her.
“I came across (Italian singer) Mina 20 years ago, in New York,” she recalls. “A friend of mine introduced me to her music. I was intrigued at how amazing she was – just so glamorous, so fabulous and so soulful. I just got fascinated with it, and wondered if I could sing in Italian.”
With Properzi handling production, the two began sketching out new arrangements. Taking time to soak up the vocal parts, these were set against layers of quite fresh – but explicitly Italian – sounds. “Even though the music’s not the same as the music we’re covering, the references are still coming from Italian music, Italian electronic music. Italian pop or Italo disco, stuff like that.”
“There was a fair bit of research, for sure,” she continues. “There was an awful lot of listening to music, but it didn’t start out as a great big plan, where there was going to be an EP. It started out as: I wonder if I can sing that song in Italian? We looked at the first one, and I just wondered if I could sing it – that started the ball rolling, and then we did another one, and another one, and another one.”
In part thanks to the team’s intense preparatory efforts, the resulting EP, ‘Mi Senti’ (stream it below), fell into place with remarkable ease.
“It happened quite naturally, to be honest. We didn’t have all the time in the world to just sort of try a million different things. Everybody involved in the project was busy on other things, so we certainly took the tools that we had at hand and used them to make this record. And we did it quite efficiently, I think, considering it was a complicated thing to do.”
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I definitely walked out the door a couple of times with these songs...
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Switching languages, Murphy is very open about the challenges presented to her. Alongside the problems of pronunciation, the vocalist faced moving into a quite distinct tradition – one which stretched her like rarely before.
“It’s such a big range,” she explains. “Especially on the Mina tracks. It’s tricky. She’s a fantastic singer, it really makes you understand what an amazing singer she was, and is. I definitely walked out the door a couple of times with these songs. I was being asked to sing brilliantly, because you do have to on a song like that, [you have to] reach into yourself a bit. Then I’m being asked to sing in Italian or be asked to understand what the Italian is and pronounce it properly. But then you calm down and you come back, and it all goes well.”
“Translation is the tricky part of it, because you want to sing like you know what it means,” she continues. “So in many cases I sang the songs so many bloody times in order to get them right that I was sort of singing them by heart in the end. Some of the songs were easier than others. ‘Pensiero Stupendo’ was hard because it’s a really sexy song, it’s very ambiguous – you’re not supposed to know what it means, really, as the listener. So first of all I’m removed from it [because it is] Italian, and then I’m removed from it by the fact that I’m not a swinger. I have to get into that character, and it’s quite an ambiguous one. That was interesting.”
A remarkable project, ‘Mi Senti’ finds Murphy embracing something entirely new yet delivering a document which bristles with her unique character. Culminating in original track ‘In Sintesi’, the EP finds the singer making a largely effortlessly return to the studio – even if tour plans remain tantalisingly in the distance.
“I don’t know yet,” she admits. “We’re hoping to do something a bit special, but in terms of touring this [EP], you can’t tour six tracks and charge people for tickets. So we’ll figure out something a bit special for it. I’m sure I’ll include these songs when I do tour, after I put my [next album] out. I’ll be able to jump into Italian all of a sudden, at a Róisín Murphy gig! It’s not as if the music doesn’t fit comfortably next to the rest of my repertoire, for want of a better word.”
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Listen to 'In Senti' in full on Clash before its release on May 28th, courtesy of the Vinyl Factory (pre-order link).
Words: Robin Murray
Photos: Ami Barwell (online)