Machine Learning: Roisin Murphy Interviewed

The thinking raver’s diva of choice chats simulation theory and Kanye West popping round for a cuppa...

Irish art-pop empress Róisín Murphy kicks off her new(ish) disco-inflected solo LP with a sprawling eight-and-a-half-minute instrumental track called ‘Simulation’.

I mean, who does that. Bold as fuck. And more to the point, why does it work so well?

“I fetishise ideas,” Róisín tells Clash chattily down the phone on around the squillionth week of lockdown, when asked if she’s hinting at simulation theory.

Simulation theory, by the way, is the fashionable Elon Musk-favoured idea that we’re all living in some elaborate fabricated alien computer programme.

“I get really curious about ideas like that, I read about them, and they come out in my songs.”

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So we’re all living in a simulation folks, happy to clear that up for you. And Róisín Murphy is a proper wise cat so you’d better hang on every word she says. Respected in this fickle biz for 27 years now, most obviously for her early brace of hits with Moloko – ‘Sing It Back’, and ‘The Time Is Now’ – she’s seen fads come and go. So what we get now, on ‘Róisín Machine’, is closer then we’ve ever been to her artistic true north. Whatever that means.

“There’s always been a dissonance in my career, things that don’t add up for some people. Early on in Moloko I was at a record shop signing, and this fan who’d obviously been listening to us a lot came along and was completely gutted to discover that I wasn’t a Black girl. He just couldn’t get his head around it!”

“Back then there wasn’t much in the way of electronic music coming out of Ireland – people expected Irish people to be in the Hothouse Flowers or whatever and that was it.”

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Róisín acknowledges she didn’t exactly help, gadding about from image to image and vibe to vibe with reckless abandon.

“We’d leap from one aesthetic to the next. In the video for ‘Time Is Now’, I’d be non-threatening, hair flying all over the place like a fucking Timotei advert.”

“Then on ‘Pure Pleasure Seeker’, we’d channel Roxy Music, playing up against snide Bob Harris on the Old Grey Whistle test, decked out in all their sequinned glory. Funky as fuck.”

Incidentally, you may well have heard ‘Pure Pleasure Seeker’ on the telly of late – bedmaker Eve Sleep used it to great effect in an ad campaign featuring a dancing toy sloth. Nice little earner, that?

“They were a cool company, they sent me two beds, mattresses and pillows and duvets and everything, all the way to Ireland.” – So lockdown has been nice and cosy in the Murphy household then. Except, has it been? With a new album, bristling with floor-fillers, isn’t COVID just a massive, tragic, disco-less ballache?

“Not really,” Róisín begins carefully.

“I’m being told constantly, that this album is sort of… filling a gap in people’s lives, since all this began. In that respect I actually think the record itself is a bit of a simulation.”

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Manifesting this idea on the record is producer Parrot – aka Richard Barratt – a mate of Róisín’s from back-in-the day Sheffield.

“Parrot built this album like a structure. A giant, escapist disco palace. You chug in there with ‘Simulation’. Then you start coming up. There’s all these different rooms – a big, fancy Studio 54 room, the UK Bass soundsystem room. There’s a funky room, a loft, some weird goth shit happening over in the corner.”

“And underneath it all there’s this cellar, throbbing with the great whump and clang of Sheffield minimalism.”

Parrot – who oldschool heads will know for lots of tunes, not least All Seeing I’s ‘Beat Goes On’ – takes an almost occult approach to the mixing desk.

“You can climb inside his productions,” says Róisín. “He spends a lot of time in the studio with his eyes squeezed shut. He’s a visualiser, with a very strong visual brain muscle. There’s hidden frequencies in there. His frequencies, which are in everything he makes. He collects frequencies, the way some people collect crystals.”

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Róisín Murphy’s career can be characterised as a series of such two-handed relationships between her – the effervescent, spiky diva – and whichever backroom knob-twiddler is flavour of the month.

Does she feel comfortable in her role as muse?

“Absolutely, because that’s exactly what I am. I’m an old-fashioned muse. And I’m attracted to maverick producers. Scary guys … guys that aren’t that approachable, very self-contained people. Guys who have a very deliberate vision.”

“And I’m out in front. But they have my life in their hands. A certain power over me. Initially I need to be humble, but ultimately I’m good at getting close to them. Breaking down their walls.”

Mark Brydon, her long-term collaborator with Moloko, was also her lover. “I found what I wanted to do with my life the night I met him. It imprinted on me, and it took a very long time to untangle that, so I’ve done my best not to have affairs with producers since. Best to keep all that separate.”

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Despite her lyrical forays into simulation theory, meat-and-potatoes relationship drama is still a big theme in Róisín’s work.

“’Jealousy’ [on ‘Róisín Machine’] was written in the first throes of romance. I enjoy wallowing in the dark energy of the world – the glamorous disasters. I find it more truthful.”

“I actually think disco, as a genre, is quite brilliant at doing that – holding more than one emotional charge, all in the same tune. ‘I’ve just fallen in love! And I’m crazy jealous right now!’ Two feelings for the price of one.”

While Coronavirus unleashed it’s fiery brand of dispiriting bullshit, Róisín has been quietly enjoying the pleasures of home. When we speak, it’s at a decidedly un-divaish 9:30 in the morning, and she’s just back from the school run.

“It’s nice to be home-centric. My sitting room has become a little cottage industry of its own. I’ve been very creative throughout, writing songs, making stupid little performances, recording podcasts.”

“My real ambition right now is to make more film. I have this huge fascination with people and their faces. I love the thought of being able to draw performances out of other people. I reckon you don’t need much more than that to be a good filmmaker. And nowadays with Instagram and what have you, it’s so much easier to do the visual research – it’s an incredible resource.”

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Róisín has seen the creative world flipped on its head in more ways than one since her Moloko days. “When I was in a relationship with Simon Henwood [an artist, and father of Róisín’s daughter] I remember him having had this vast art book collection. He never stopped buying visual books.”

“Kanye West would pop over. Simon was his creative director. They’d pore over a giant volume of, say, Jean Cocteau. You could trade on that sort of collection back in those days. Not really, any more.”

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Róisín, it turns out, loves the backend side of pop stardom even more than singing.

“I have a lot more in common with my crew, than the band,” she says. “Even now, when we do livestream shows, I turn up at mid-day to go through the lighting design, content design, where the cameras are going to be.”

“Don’t get me wrong, the band are my brothers. But they can just sod off to the pub, or go BMX riding and come back with a fractured wrist. When you’re with the crew, there’s a different rhythm, different jokes.”

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And in spite of the All Encompassing Shitty Bummer that is 2020, Róisín is upbeat about how well her record is connecting with fans. “The way Parrot and I approached this project was to think of it as something flexible, something that can be interpreted.”

“It’s not actually for the clubs – which is probably just as well. We like what Larry Levan did with records. That idea that a DJ or a producer can take, like, a Bananarama record, or a Depeche Mode tune, and extend it and clad it in other stuff, dub it and re-purpose it.”

“Change the sound system, take out certain frequencies. It’s the antithesis of the rock mentality, where you go ‘HERE IT IS, HERE’S YOUR VINYL’ – our definitive artistic statement.” – ‘”So we might not be touring, but our record will be out there on different systems, having a life of its own. I love the idea that this is sort of a remix album, and the actual “real” album is hidden, obscured, unseen.” – So you’ve made the Plato’s Cave of dance records then?


Well there’s an idea.

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Words: Andy Hill
Photography: Elliott Morgan
Fashion: Roisin Murphy

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