The Irish artist’s EPs with Maurice Fulton are ambitious and inventive – she talks taking ownership of her work and shooting her own music videos
Roísin Murphy is having, in her own words, a lazy day. It’s 3pm, and she’s sat sipping a beer in a cool, pastel-hued London hotel. The fatigue she tweeted about earlier this year, she reassures me, has been and passed. “I was exhausted then, but today I just woke up and got the kids ready for school,” she laughs. “I had loads of hours before I came here! Sometimes I don’t have much to do, but sometimes it’s insane – and that’s because whenever I say I’m going to do something, then I’m in it. I’m really fucking in it. I mean, it’s got my name on it! So, if it’s shit…” She hesitates for a moment. “Well, it’s not an option for it to be shit. It just can’t be.”
This blend of passion and perfectionism permeates Murphy’s back catalogue, a fusion of DIY innovation and sonic polish that balances her experimental tendencies with major hooks. Although she says she simply “fell into” music after forming Moloko, the pioneering trip-hop duo she formed with then-lover Mark Brydon back in 1994 (they stayed active until 2003), Murphy spent the years immediately following the group’s demise carving her own niche. Versatility has been her core strength, and it’s written all over her solo discography, from the experimental jazz of Ruby Blue and the unabashed pop of Overpowered, to the unpredictability of later, more genre-defiant releases Hairless Toys and Take Her Up To Monto.
She’s also fiercely curatorial, enlisting a roll-call of collaborators including Matthew Herbert, Paul Dolby, and Eddie Stevens to help bring her visions to life. “I want to have that outside input to help move me into a new era,” she muses. “That’s what’s helpful about collaboration. I suppose that’s where I’m more pop. That’s what somebody like Kylie Minogue or Madonna does. In a band, you’re stuck with the same fucking gang of people for the rest of your life. If it’s always the same ingredients, then it’ll always be the same dish. You might have a bit of extra salt in your omelette, but it’s still an omelette.”
It’s exactly this ethos which this year drew her to Maurice Fulton, a cult icon in electronic music who’s based in Sheffield, where Murphy laid her musical foundations. Although she grew up in Ireland and religiously trekked to gigs while living in Manchester as a teen (“My mate Duncan’s mum would come and pick us up in her little white Skoda,” she laughs), Murphy explains that she met “the most important figures” in her musical development in Sheffield, a city she lived in for years, and which she credits often with strengthening her love for music. Travelling through the city to work with Fulton, she says, was like seeing “my life flash before my eyes”.
Like Murphy, Maurice Fulton is fiercely passionate about his work. “He’s like me, so there were some big dramas along the way,” she says. “There’s a real art to leaving things alone, and dance (music) is a massive case in point – if you overwork it, it loses its impact. I think he was right to point that out. Even if he was a bastard about it, which he was!”
“The level of pride I have in my work, it’s almost sinful” – Roísín Murphy
This push-and-pull of musical chemistry is written across the four double-sided singles they’ve created this year, all of which have been released digitally and on vinyl. They collectively pulse with the energy of the dance floor, whether it’s the disco-tinged euphoria of “The Rumble” and the smooth funk of “Jacuzzi Rollercoaster”, or the experimental, clanging groove of “All My Dreams” and the catchy, hook-heavy “Plaything”. The tracks all differ sonically, but they share one commonality: they were custom-built for the dance floor, which also became their testing ground. “Maurice would just go out and play it (in clubs),” Murphy says, “and he’d come back and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve played it. It works.’”
Nightclubs have been the lifeblood of Murphy’s career, so she set the four videos for this project – all of which she directed herself – in a rave. “It’s not just a case of throwing a load of cameras in there,” she says. “You have to be very much a director. Left to its own devices, it wouldn’t convince you that was a real party.” After shooting three of the four videos, she needed to hit the brakes, taking time off between gigs to spend time with her children. “Music videos are a really dynamic art form,” she explains, “but they’re really underfunded, so putting one out a month nearly killed me.”
Murphy has spoken out about the impact of dwindling budgets on music, compounded by the tendency of publications to praise her older releases without acknowledging the work and creativity being put into her more recent releases. “The level of pride I have in my work, it’s almost sinful,” she says. “There are people who say, ‘Oh, she’s so fucking proud, she’s getting in the way of herself.’ But when you’re going back to a video, changing the grade and giving everyone you’ve worked with a fucking pain in the arse, you’re aware that the more brilliant each tiny little thing is, the better the viewer will feel when they see it for the first time. I’m really acutely aware of that; ultimately, this is going to have all of our names on it forever.”
This determination underpins most of Murphy’s anecdotes. In fact, she began directing her own videos to piss off her ex-partner, who maintained she shouldn’t helm her own video for “Exploitation”. “He almost had me convinced not to do it, but then he phoned me an hour after (our initial conversation) to tell me he really didn’t think I should,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Fuck you, I am doing it!’” The result was an arthouse-style clip with references to independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, Valley of the Dolls, and even the classic game show Bullseye. “Do you remember that one?” She says, cracking up laughing and breaking into a near-perfect imitation of presenter Jim Bowen. “And here’s what you could have won!”
“Artists don’t ask me for advice, but they do rip me off” – Roísín Murphy
Moments like these reveal the sense of humour in Murphy’s work. She jokes about the “Screwfix Couture” vibe of 2016 album, Take Her Up To Monto (the cover sees her don a high-vis vest in a kind of glorious drag king moment), and light-heartedly curses social media for enabling fans to take pictures of her looking “all straggly” after shows. “I don’t resent people for it, and I obviously let people have their photos and I sign their shit, but if I had to walk down the street and have it happen to me I couldn’t deal with it,” she says. “There used to be all this mystery about stars – that’s fucking out the window now!”
Not that Murphy thinks of herself as a star. “My kids came to me and said, ‘Mummy, you’re famous!’ I said, ‘I’m not famous, I’m just well-respected.’” But there have certainly been moments when Murphy’s career looked set to be commercially stratospheric – there was the early success of Moloko’s “Sing It Back”, driven by a remix that Murphy fought for but the label pushed back on, and then there was the EMI deal that spawned Overpowered, which not only earned her critical acclaim, but anticipated a more dance-driven shift in pop music, a sound that just a few months later would lead Lady Gaga to global success. As she tweeted earlier this year: “Overpowered made Gaga as big as Gaga.”
“Artists don’t ask me for advice, but they do rip me off,” she chuckles. “I do think I’ve been very influential, but I’m not very good at the business side of it.” (More recently, she’s highlighted similarities between her music videos and Robyn’s on Twitter.) This steely belief in her own vision created an unusual dynamic when she signed to EMI: she was entirely in control. “I was the executive producer of Overpowered, and it never occurred to me that I would be anything other than that. When I walked into a boardroom, nobody would think they could tell me what to do, and I was never compliant. In fact, it’s only in retrospect that I realise that I was expected to be! Part of me thinks people are right when they say I should have listened more, but the other part of me thinks I would have had some #MeToo stories – I don’t think I would have gotten away unscathed to the degree that I have.”
By not jumping through hoops, Murphy has managed to stay passionate about her work and build a career on her own terms. She’s still able to experiment, too – the impressive ramp at the tail-end of “The Rumble” marks the first time she ad-libbed on the spot, the result coming across like Murphy’s own interpretation of gospel house music. “Maurice said to me, ‘You’ve got to preach,’” she recalls, “and I was like, ‘What do you mean?!’ Fucking hell, me? So I just had start making shit up off the top of my head and singing it. It was a massive jump for me, I’ve never done that before.”
It only takes 90 minutes in Murphy’s company to see that she’s constantly on the hunt for new information. She speaks passionately about being part of online forums for skinhead ‘clobber’ (“Most of it is lads talking about army jackets and mod clothes, obsessing about the height of a turn-up – I love that!”); she’s also part of the Brutalist society and, musically, she chats about the history of Northern Soul, about the impossible allure of Grace Jones, and the brilliance of Mim Suleiman, a Zanzibar-born, Sheffield-based performer whose own collaborations with Fulton fuse smooth melodies and Swahili lyrics with pulsing house beats. “I like to know there’s something coming next,” she shrugs. “Actually, I get a bit panicky if there isn’t.”
Needless to say, the fatigue that enveloped Murphy earlier this year is gone. “I am controlling an awful lot of everything, which is a massive buzz,” she says. “I can be the director, the creative director, and the one communicating with fans, and those things are real positives for me. On some days they are exhausting, but for the most part it’s brilliant.” She even consulted fans on her tour merch and jokingly bartered with them on Twitter, solidifying her connection with to an already loyal fanbase.
Still, Murphy states repeatedly that music is her focus; in many ways, it was her saviour. “It didn’t stop me from being bullied, but it stopped me from giving a shit about being bullied,” she says. “It stopped me from caring if somebody said I was weird, or different, or didn’t fit in. Music was the key to making me go: ‘Fuck it, good. Nice one!’” Despite the occasional bout of fatigue, it’s unlikely that Roísin Murphy will ever slow down.