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Róisín Murphy interview – “I’m not destroyed, I’m not a cliché, and I’ll always fucking have it!”

We catch up with the irrepressible Róisín Murphy at her Ibiza bolthole and find out why she just couldn’t give up the disco

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Meta-disco maverick Róisín Murphy doesn’t appear to have missed a beat since last year’s wildly successful ‘Róisín Machine’ hit the stores. She’s been as industrious as ever: among other things recording charismatic lockdown-inspired YouTube videos from her living room, directing and performing a Livestream event for Mixcloud, and all the while carving out time to work on eagerly-awaited new material. “I wrote a really great track last week… it’s got fucking oboes on it,” she joyfully exclaims from her Ibiza bolthole, where she’s currently riding out a portion of the pandemic wave. “I said I wouldn’t do disco again, but I couldn’t turn it down. It’s just an amazing arrangement.” As well as this top-secret new piece, she’s also been working with production maestro, DJ Koze, on music that’s steadily approaching completion. “The people who’ve heard it are really interested in it, so I think it’s gonna be a bit of a smasher.”

Murphy has been embedded in the club-minded subconscious since she exploded onto the cross-over dance stage in 1998, singing her heart out dressed as a glorious human mirror ball in the video to the hyper infectious Boris Dlugosch remix of Moloko’s ‘Sing It Back’. She’s continued to release imaginative, heartfelt and stubbornly uncompromising music ever since – in the process earning a Mercury Prize nomination for 2015’s ‘Hairless Toys’, and steadfastly working with an untouchable cast of majestically skilled production minds.

Róisín Machine was almost a decade in the making and was comprised largely of new material, book-ended by previously released tracks ‘Simulation’ and ‘Jealousy’. The momentum to actualise the album was maintained in part thanks to the success of the single, ‘Incapable’ – a spellbinding disco chugger weaving the tale of a woman unscathed by love. Such is the gravity of the vocal delivery, one could be forgiven for thinking the song is autobiographical, but that isn’t entirely the case. “It’s not that simple,” says Murphy. “She’s a character. But, I will say I’m – touch wood – fairly unscathed. I think it’s a woman saying: I’m not destroyed, I’m not a cliché, and I’ll always fucking have it!”

The flip-side of unfiltered human desire is examined on the record, too – on string-laden powerhouse, ‘Narcissus’, which tells the ultimate story of unrequited love. “That’s the other side of my coin,” she says. “I’ve had that feeling many times. Just being in awe of a very special guy, let’s say, someone really brilliant. I wanted to write a song about it because I think it’s not too bad to give yourself away to that sometimes.”

While undoubtedly bonded to a core of burning disco magma, the album journeys well beyond the shiny gloss of the genre, and it would be reductive to describe it as solely a disco record. Darker and more abstract tones are easily detectable: from the brooding, unresolved topography of ‘Kingdom Of Ends’, to the broken rhythms of ‘Shellfish Mademoiselle’, or the contemporary r&b infused swagger of ‘Game Changer’.

The album was half-finished when the first UK lockdown was announced, but there was never any question of delaying its release, which was partly down to the prodigious work rate of the record’s producer – long time collaborator and friend, DJ Parrot. “Energy is very important when you’re making an album like that,” says Murphy. “The energy was there to follow it through, and Parrot is like a steelworker up there, you know, keep banging out that steel!”

Richard ‘DJ Parrot’ Barratt (AKA Crooked Man) was one of the first people Murphy met when she moved to Sheffield as a 19-year-old after some years living in Manchester. “Funnily enough, when I first moved to Sheffield I couldn’t believe my luck. It was so easy to meet interesting people there.” It had proven harder for her to establish herself in a scene in Manchester, though life there did revolve around music. “We all loved music in Manchester, going to clubs, going to gigs, collecting records. But we weren’t making music.”

In Sheffield, opportunities for creative exchange quickly presented themselves, and early on, Murphy became friends with Warp Records co-founder, Rob Mitchell, and his wife, Michelle. Perhaps surprisingly, back then a music career wasn’t something Murphy imagined for herself. “I didn’t think I was gonna be a musician,” she says. “Rob used to say to me, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to be, Róisín… but you’ll be something!’ I got a lot of that,” she laughs.
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Over the years, the Steel City has punched well above its weight when it comes to forward-thinking musical output. As well as Moloko, Crooked Man, and the Warp Records family, Sheffield has given birth to a wealth of iconic acts, including Cabaret Voltaire, Pulp, and The Human League. Murphy feels that the city’s durable sonic DNA stems from its famed industrial heritage. “They have this pride in their industriousness,” she says. “I guess, when they were running things, all the steel all over the world came from Sheffield. The engineering, everything.” Coupled with this, the city’s changing fortunes following its economic decline meant creative spaces could be rented cheaply, helping to spawn a vibrant local scene. “It was cheap to have studio space… and everything was on the same street more or less. (It was a) classic DIY scene, but there was a real depth to it. There was a lovely synergy and a modernist, futurist outlook.”

Sheffield’s apparently magnetic pull appears reluctant to relinquish its hold on Murphy, and the most recent project with Parrot wasn’t the first time she’d been drawn back there to collaborate. Baltimore-born rhythm master Maurice Fulton has long called Sheffield home, and the intergalactic funk he and Murphy created together is among the most memorable work from her sparkling back catalogue. “It was just bizarre going back to Sheffield to go to Maurice Fulton’s studio, do tunes, and then journey back through Sheffield, journey back through my youth, you know? And then straight after that, I’m doing stuff with Parrot which takes me back to Sheffield again.”

Murphy was already an avid fan of Fulton’s freakishly unique sound, and she admits that she pushed hard to make that particular union happen. “I was trying him for a long time. I always loved him. When I heard him do the Kathy Diamond stuff, I just thought… I could kill this too, you know. She’s brilliant as well, don’t get me wrong. I mean… wow!” Fulton eventually agreed to remix ‘House Of Glass’, and the stunning end result and enjoyable working experience convinced him to pursue the endeavour, with the pair going on to release four acclaimed and highly collectable EPs through The Vinyl Factory.

Alongside Barratt and Fulton, Murphy’s list of studio accomplices reads flawlessly, with Matthew Herbert, Seiji, Dan Carey, and Freeform Five among those in the select number. Murphy feels that every producer worked with has helped extract from her musical pearls that have surprised even herself. “The best thing I’ve done is who I’ve chosen to work with.” Her collaborators represent some of the finest subterranean-leaning creators in the game, and as such, one would be forgiven for thinking that outright mainstream success has never been her primary objective. “I don’t know what I’m looking for really, except for making absolutely brilliant stuff,” says Murphy. “But I’m not so jaded or disenfranchised to believe that there isn’t a market for (my music), because I do believe there’s a market for it, and I think it’s OK to think that.”

Murphy comes across as refreshingly down to earth, one of us, and this authenticity combined with her sharp wit and irresistible force arguably renders her more of an anti-diva than a diva. With her verve, lust for theatrics, ferociously captivating live performances, and poetic lyrical content, she’s certainly too vivid to fit into today’s carefully manicured pop mould. Regardless of this, she remains blissfully untroubled by the vacuous world of Instagram-obsessed pseudo-stars with which the planet is increasingly overpopulated. “We’re islands in the stream, all these things in culture. We’re not necessarily that connected. I’m just trying to make fucking amazing music with what I’ve got in front of me.”

Perhaps testament to the projected longevity of her indelible output, in 2019 re-issue specialists Be With Records – who largely operate in the realms of otherwise unobtainable and ultra-rare collectables – saw fit to release Murphy’s 2007 album, Overpowered. Such is its quality, there’s a sense that her diverse back-catalogue will continue to be explored and enjoyed for generations to come.

As well as the tantalising news of her forthcoming music, Murphy reveals that she’s just finished filming a short for the Choice Music Awards to be aired on Irish broadcaster, RTÉ. “It’s really good. I arrive on a tractor! I mean who else is gonna arrive on a tractor in the Ibiza countryside? Come on! And I’ve got a massive big pitchfork. I didn’t have any fancy clothes to wear really, but I did find this branch whittled into a big pitchfork. It’s very ‘get off my land’,” she says, laughing heartily.

Murphy has previously stated that she intends to pursue film direction in earnest once her music career winds down, and she already has a list of credits under her belt for her own music videos – including ‘House Of Glass’ and ‘Narcissus’ – as well as punk group Fat White Family. Due to pandemic-induced disruption, much of her planned film work has been put on ice, but the production of November’s lavish Livestream for Mixcloud represented her most ambitious directorial project to date. “That was the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “That was a big deal for me to bring that together.”

The candid YouTube performances recorded from her London home during lockdown provided some welcome light relief to her fans. As well as going some way to satisfying her performer’s instinct, producing the videos allowed her an opportunity to hone her new craft. “I love making them and they’re a great little format for learning to make film,” she says. Despite her affection for the medium, today’s fast-paced, disposable media environment is something that causes a measure of concern. “I’m a bit worried about the form because now people don’t want any more than 15 seconds of things. But the kind of music that I’m making now – this record that’s produced by Koze – might suit that better. Like, some kind of weird modernist journey.”
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Despite making the most of her time in this most unusual of years, Murphy does confess to missing the cut and thrust of live performance and real-world audience interaction. But, more pressing than this is the unease she feels for her stage crew. “I miss hanging out with them. I’m very worried about crew people especially in this. My crew would take a bullet for me, they’re the best.” With the events industry in stasis, she feels not enough has been done to safeguard livelihoods. “So many people are falling through cracks, really skilled people. Also, companies that are very specialised in sound and lighting and stuff like that, not big companies you know? That’s why we shot the Mixcloud Livestream in a place that holds all this sound, light and filming equipment. They have guys they send out to film shows and festivals – all of them out of work! So we used all that in our stream. It looks a bit like I’m in Ikea, but it’s all gear that’s around me!”

When the time eventually comes to resume communal dancing, Murphy feels that starting small will be key to rebuilding. “I think the best hope for us is to start small and build it incrementally instead of just running in and exploding – like 3000 people raving it off. I couldn’t. I honestly think, once we can have 6 people, we’ll have a rave. It’s enough. We’ve got a big system here, amazing system, like a fucking Spiral Tribe artefact!”

Turning to recently released music that’s moved her personally, she very nearly explodes with delight while discussing the irrepressible Kenny Dixon Jr. “The last thing was Moodymann. His album. I just love him! I’m like a psycho woman about him,” she chuckles, before sharing a latent desire to one day record with him. “I could handle him,” she says assuredly.

Finally, the delightfully effervescent songstress once again bursts into a glorious show of colour when recapping on the new music she teased with at the top of the conversation. “It’s gonna blow your mind,” she purrs. “It’s a whole other world. It’s fuckin’ tops down, LA… bouncing up and down on the cars. Hold tight!”

Patrizio Cavaliere