In the wake of her 2016 album Take Her Up to Monto, the Irish singer and ‘situationist’ auteur talks roleplay, realness and schooling your kids in obscure house music
In the YouTube comments for Róisín Murphy’s self-directed video for “Evil Eyes”, someone writes, “You are something else girl, love you.” Another fan adds, “She’s unstoppable, a gem among pearls.” A few users have picked up on the clip’s homage to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona at one minute 40 seconds.
It’s often been written that Murphy is too weird for the mainstream. That’s a loaded badge of honour, implying both a kind of horror and abject failure by whoever’s holding the pen. In fact, there’s something quite devastatingly graceful in someone not begging to be liked. Someone who, as a result, goes further into being a fabulous oddball – and takes her loyal tribe with her. If there is failure, it’s on the part of institutions – she doesn’t fit into the industry circle-jerk of daytime radio playlists, and she’s been dropped by two big labels, who didn’t know what to do with her.
Famously, her group Moloko came about when she walked up to Mark Brydon at a Sheffield party in 1994, uttering the line, “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body.” It’s a phrase that Murphy notes “freaked him out a bit and turned him on... I guess that’s the effect I’ve tried to have on people through the rest of my career.” Moloko, famous for the anthemic “Sing it Back”, disbanded in 2003, and Murphy made her solo bow soon after. After 2007’s Overpowered, an era that saw her throwing Margiela capes off in greasy spoons and wearing Gareth Pugh on the nightbus, Murphy retreated from the public eye. In the years away, she’s had two children. What brought her back? An EP of covers, Mi Senti, sung in Italian and described as “very adult-orientated disco – Piaf in Studio 54.” A love-letter to her partner, Sebastiano Properzi, the set was recorded with longtime collaborator Eddie Stevens. Energised by the experience, Murphy spent five weeks at Stevens’ Putney studio working on new music, recording two albums in 2015’s Hairless Toys and this summer’s Take Her Up to Monto.
Living inside a cast of characters that she conjures with ferocious imagination, Murphy is as much performance artist as musician, drawing on visual and thespian elements to create a huge sense of narrative around her songs which stay with you long after a first listen. Here, Murphy weighs in on independence, drag, and her unusual upbringing in 70s Ireland – which she’s continued by being unlike any other Irish singer.
Your music sounds like nothing else around. What’s behind it?
Róisín Murphy: Well, I’m a situationist when it comes to anything creative, and that stands with the visual part of anything I do as well. I deal with the concrete things I have in front of me and I think that’s a wise way to be. The sound of Take Her Up to Monto and Hairless Toys is the sound of me and the producer in the studio doing whatever we like. There is no reference. It’s too easy to be referential now, I’m trying to find something else.
“I’m a situationist when it comes to anything creative... I deal with the concrete things I have in front of me and I think that’s a wise way to be” – Róisín Murphy
The visuals for last year’s comeback album Hairless Toys feature vintage clothes instead of flamboyant designer looks. Why?
Róisín Murphy: I picked up this red plastic blouse that was disgusting and stank, and I just thought, ‘That is a hairless toy.’ In my mind, hairless was a specific kind of time, or un-time thing: a no-time place. The best place for that was vintage, I didn’t want the burden of bringing fashion into it. I was watching lots of cinema. It was more like (the character I was portraying) was an actress, someone who was lost in time. She was stuck somewhere on the outskirts of the city – and there was a resonance from me coming out of my past as well.
Did your background give you a fascination with grandeur?
Róisín Murphy: We were wheelers and dealers – my dad would pick me up in an articulated truck, drive to Dublin, put the truck on a weighing scale, then empty it of scrap lead. My parents also sold two Dutch masters at Christies. So it was really extreme. Because my mum was an antique dealer, we’d have all this weird shit in the house, like elephant-feet umbrella stands and weird 50s hairdryers that you sat under and dentist chairs. My father brought home the cockpit of a World War II bomber plane one day and put it in the spare room. I remember the smell of it and the chewing gum stuck behind the yoke, and thinking the man that chewed that was dead because it was found on a mountain. We never knew when Dad was going to come home. One time I was fast asleep, got this jab on the shoulder, and he said, ‘Come downstairs and see what’s in the car.’ So I went down, and he’d brought a pony home in the back of the car, on its side. (laughs) My mother was standing in the street crying, ‘What are we going to do with this fucking pony?’ He must have bought it in the pub.
You’ve just directed your sixth music video. What took you behind the lens?
Róisín Murphy: I was reading treatments by 22-year-olds going, ‘That’s not possible.’ I’d made a memo of the references I wanted for the first video, ‘Exploitation’, which was in an all-black space, like a play. I had references like Macbeth, the Catherine Deneuve Chanel adverts and Cassavetes. No one was interpreting it as I wanted them to, so I said to my ex-boyfriend Simon Henwood, ‘Do you think I should direct?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s a nightmare, you should look at it like it’s an advert and get the right people to make it.’ Then he rang again and said, ‘I really don’t think you should make that video.’ I thought, ‘Fuck you! Now you’ve really made me decide to do it! I’m gonna fucking show you.’ So it was all down to him. (laughs)
“(My ex-boyfriend rang) and said, ‘I really don’t think you should make that video.’ I thought, ‘Fuck you! Now you’ve really made me decide to do it!” – Róisín Murphy
Have you encountered a lot of resistance over your career?
Róisín Murphy: I mean, it’s not been an issue for me because I’m a very strong person, my background explains why. I’ve felt like I could fight things with a sense of humour. I never spewed out anything in my life, everything’s been really considered and everyone else has had to follow along with it – and if you don’t like it then, yeah, drop me. Move on. It’s not an option for me to compromise. I accidentally became a singer just by being experimental, by (bringing) a visual artist’s attitude to experimentation. I couldn’t even sing when I started. When I signed a six-album deal (with Moloko) all I’d done was pretend to be a valley girl on a song called ‘Party Weirdo’ and say, ‘Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body’ on another one. And that was it.
Playing a builder in the video for your recent single, ‘Whatever’, is arguably your most genius move yet.
Róisín Murphy: I was seeing a world in constant construction. I started taking pictures of guys in hard hats and hi-vis, looking at how each one wore them differently. I’m fascinated by the way hi-vis is invisible. I watched Paris Is Burning and learned about ‘realness’ – drag that pretends not to be anything to do with drag. There’s ‘executive realness’ and ‘college-kid realness’, it’s very subversive. I took it to the extreme with the construction thing.
Are you a cool parent? Do you blast out rare Italo tracks when you’re getting the kids ready for school?
Róisín Murphy: Well, yeah. (laughs) They wanted a disco last night, so I gave them the Danny Tenaglia Tribal mix and they had a little 40-minute disco in their room. I’m like, (shouts) ‘That’s Danny Tenaglia, he’s a very important DJ,’ and they’re like, ‘Yes, mama.’ In the car they always ask for John Martyn’s ‘Big Muff’. It’s about a hairy fanny, but they don’t know that.
Tell me about your sense of humour.
Róisín Murphy: I really do prioritise humour in people, it’s a sign of intelligence. One of the most important things I heard that moulded me was Derek and Clive. That sense of release when I heard them for the first time, crying and laughing, was akin to seeing Sonic Youth for the first time.
Would you like to see someone cover you on The X Factor?
Róisín Murphy: Somebody did me on Stars in Their Eyes years ago, doing ‘Sing It Back’. It was great! Fantastic.
Hair Cyndia Harvey at Streeters using Kiehl’s, make-up Thomas de Kluyver at Art Partner using Chanel, set design Polly Philp, photographic assistants Thomas Skinner, Pani Paul, styling assistants Louise Ford, Raul Castilla, hair assistant Cat Wyman, make-up assistant Joel Babicci, set design assistants Esther Theaker, Viktor Jakubcyk, production Artistry London, digital operator and retoucher Frederik Heide