The vast majority of the world was cooped up inside for most of 2020, and yet nobody thought to pass the memo along to our pop divas. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve been inundated with a stream of pulsating, hedonistic pop-club records, each referencing and re-forming different eras of disco and house in order to evoke nostalgia, futurism, or both. The high water mark for this micro-trend, though, was set in early October, when Irish pop star-turned-avant-garde legend Róisín Murphy released Róisín Machine, her fifth — and best — solo album.
A grimy and glamorous pastiche of self-mythologising disco, nostalgic British club music, post-punk iconography and Murphy’s ever-sharp hooks, Róisín Machine — which was started over a decade ago, after the release of 2007’s Gaga blueprint Overpowered, but was pre-empted by the torch-singer techno of 2015’s Hairless Toys and 2016’s Take Her Up To Monto — is relentless and brilliant, serving as both a document of Murphy’s youth exploring the underground clubs of Manchester and Sheffield and a love letter to the transformative power of a dancefloor.
Made largely in collaboration with Murphy’s long-time friend and collaborator Richard Barratt, aka DJ Parrot, Róisín Machine feels like the defining document of Murphy’s solo career so far, casting the 47-year-old as a mysterious, magnetic club denizen, the kind of person you might whisper about obsessively over the course of a lifetime without ever meeting. She switches guises constantly, and yet the record is in thrall of her, obsessed with Murphy as both a musician and a mythological figure almost to a fault. Occasionally an underappreciated or overlooked figure, Róisín Machine fits 20-plus years of overdue idol worship into an hour of tight, bone-rattling club music.
Speaking to her over Zoom one morning in late October, it feels like the days of Murphy being undervalued as a pop force are over. Buzzing ahead of a full-band live-stream performance, it feels as if Murphy’s coming years are set to be her busiest since her time as part of Moloko, with most of a new album with the German producer DJ Koze, whose impeccable 2018 album Pick Up she contributed to, done — “We’ve got the worst part of it left, the last 15%” — and a fanbase hankering for more Róisín Machine content. It’s another left turn in a career made up of them; but that’s part of the fun. “You’ve got to be slightly athletic, intellectually, to follow me at times,” Murphy tells me. “I’m not saying I’m intellectual, but I’m curious and I’m willful. It takes a bit of jumping around to follow it.”
“There’s constraints, and there’s freedoms, and somewhere in-between, you can make something of yourself.” — Róisín Murphy
The FADER: There’s a refrain that recurs on the album: I feel my story is still untold. What’s the significance of that lyric?
Róisín Murphy: I think the album is really about individualism. I’m referring to the time in my life when I was able to make parts of myself — after I’d left home and I’d gone into night culture and music culture. In that, I found space to create me. There was still some space left, after what I’d been given by my upbringing and my culture and my class, and my family even. I was able to make something extra of myself at that point. [I mean] individualism in the best possible way, in the way of… about freedom. And about making decisions, and being decisive, and living by the decisions that you make.
The idea that you determine your own path — do you still live by it now, as much as you did when you were young?
Maybe more. Since Hairless Toys, I’ve kinda surprised myself, in terms of what I’m capable of. I’ve done everything. I’ve discovered that I can direct [videos], and creatively direct, and really be the boss of all of this. And I like being the boss. I can’t be the boss with these music producers, people like Maurice Fulton, DJ Koze, Parrot, Matthew Herbert — I’m not the boss in that situation, in a situation where I’m 50/50, making a piece of music with a guy; I have to be malleable, I have to be open. With the rest, I’m starting to really take over, and I quite surprised myself. But you can’t make all of yourself; it’s only a small part, but it’s an important part. You are stuck with the way you were brought up as well. But if there’s anything you can claw for yourself, do it. It’s right through all my songs, all my music, all the albums — that sense that there’s constraints, and there’s freedoms, and somewhere in-between, you can make something of yourself. Make your own story.
What changed to allow you to surprise yourself?
Firstly, the structures weren’t in place. I wasn’t on a label that was cushioned by a major label; for a time, I wasn’t even published, the music that I was putting out. In the beginning, after Overpowered, when “Simulation” and “Jealousy,” I was going from label to label, project to project, and putting out singular items. When it came to making a bigger project like an album, there wasn’t really a system in place. Even when we signed to make Hairless Toys and Take Her Up To Monto with Play It Again Sam, there was hardly any money. There used to be systems — a video commissioner, video directors, video producers, there used to be a job for everything. Now the whole thing has been cut down, when you’re in my sphere. I can’t talk for people who are getting 80 million streams or anything like that, but when you’re in my position, everything is cut to the bone. In order to continue to deliver the level of imagery and [quality], I had to do it myself. Otherwise you would have had great music, but pretty shit visuals, honestly.
When I first wanted to make the first video — or didn’t want to make it, actually, I put it out to tender — for “Exploitation” — and I had creatively directed the sleeve, before that, so I was already on a little bit of a roll — but I still went the normal route, and I put it out to tender, and for that kind of money, a 15,000 pound budget, I was getting, like, 23-year-olds writing treatments. I was reading the treatments, and going ‘Yes, it’s a good treatment, but I know we won’t be able to shoot that in a day, I know we can’t afford this, I know we’ll be going down a dark alley if we tried.’ After reading a few treatments, I thought, ‘Geez, I know more than these guys know, I better do it.’ My friend, who’s a producer, Phil Tidy, talked me into it, and he believed I could do it, which was good. My ex, who had made a couple of videos for me, the artist Simon Henwood, who’s also been creative director for Kanye West and Rihanna, and is the father of my first child — he had come ‘round one Saturday to pick up my daughter, to take her to a museum, and I said ‘Simon, I’m thinking of directing a video, what do you think?’ and he said ‘The thing is Roísín, a video is a very specialist thing. It’s an advert for your music, and you really need someone who knows how to advertise your music. I don’t think it’s a really good idea.’ So I went ‘Right, okay.’ He went off with my daughter, and he rang me about 45 minutes after he left, and he said ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said’; and I said ‘Yeah,’ and he goes ‘I really don’t think you should do it. I think it won’t be a good thing at all. Don’t do it.’ So I put the fuckin’ phone down, and I said to myself, ‘Now I know I have to fuckin’ do this, because your man really is worried about me doing it — how bad could it be?’ Next thing I do, I pick up the phone to Phil, and go ‘Right, we’re on. Let’s do it.’ So that was that, and I never turned back. For that kind of money, I’m pretty proud of myself, and made videos that, whatever you want to say about them, didn’t look like anybody else’s fuckin’ videos, at all. Because there was a purity of vision there. But I kill myself doing all of this stuff, though: this [livestream] I’m doing tomorrow requires me to think about the music, the arrangement of the music, the setups, where and how it’s lit, the screen, what’s on the screen — because it’s in a big warehouse as well as a stadium setup stage — and where I’m singing, what the band’s doing, what I’m wearing, what I’m dancing, who I’m singing to. It doesn’t get more fuckin’ complicated. My visualisation muscles are hurting big time.
There’s a lot of talk about how the music industry has changed since the 90s and 2000s, but I feel like you more than anyone are more equipped to talk about the material realities of what’s changed. What do you think the biggest differences are for you?
I always get asked this question and it’s really hard for me to answer, because it’s been so incremental and I’ve continued throughout. Much less has changed for me than has not changed, believe it or not. I continue to make music within bubbles of total artistic control. That’s where everything starts, anyway; that’s why I have to be so modest and humble with these fuckin’ mavericks that I work with, because if I get good music, I can throw any image at it, I can throw any visual at it, and it’ll sing. I can go on tour for two years and it’ll be fuckin’ brilliant, because I’m on the back of a great record. So none of that’s changed, and you know, I make music and visuals from the same place I’ve always made them from, which is a place of curiosity and natural will. I just really want to have a go at things. What’s more important is what’s been the same, always. People always assume, perhaps when you’re a girl and you’re a singer, and you’ve worn the odd tight skirt and that, that she’s not had her own way completely. But I’ve had my own way, and I can’t complain.
“More than anyone, DJ Koze makes my voice an icon. It wouldn’t matter if I sold two records in my whole career or 200 million, he wants me, he wants the sound of my voice.” — Roísín Murphy
I wanted to ask you about DJ Koze, and what your working process with him is like.
I just love him! I love the man. He works completely differently to Parrot. He’s hands on, Parrot’s hands off. They’re both very pragmatic about what they can’t do; they’ll never promise you something they can’t do, which is a really good way to be as a producer, or anything. Just make it clear, ‘Okay, these are the things we can’t do, and this is what we will be doing, and what we’ll do well,’ and sticking to it, sticking to the focus. But he works totally differently; he turns the songs inside out. I’ll do a track on my Ableton, send it to his Ableton, and overnight he’s got two completely different songs out of one song I’ve made. Anything can happen with a Koze production, whereas with Parrot, you more or less set your goal, and you reach it. He’s like, ‘I’ve got to make this work pragmatically, I’ve got to reach this space.’ I keep saying this — Parrot builds rooms and buildings that you can walk into, whereas Koze is much more experimental. He can turn things inside out. But on the other hand, he’s got really amazing ears — if he’s worked on something for 10 hours, doesn’t mean it’ll stay. He’s really pragmatic like that; like, does it sound good? Yes? Okay. No? Then it’s gone. Sometimes that’s very hard for me, because I can write a song and he’ll just lacerate it, and I’ll be like, ‘Didn’t you like that bit?’ and he’ll be like ‘Nope. Got rid of it.’
More than anyone, he makes my voice an icon. It wouldn’t matter if I sold two records in my whole career or 200 million, he wants me — he wants the sound of my voice. It’s all about his ears; if he doesn’t like it, he has to get out of the room. If he’s in a club, and another DJ comes on and he starts playing ordinary dance music, Koze’s gotta get out of there, he can’t. I really appreciate how much he loves my voice, he really does love it. And he prioritises it in the mix — everything has to be built around it, like a couture dress.
I think the music that I’m doing with Koze now, for the next album… there are bangers on it, but even when they’re bangers, when they’re up at 120 BPM, they have something about hip-hop in them. Everything I’ve done with him does. He comes from hip-hop; he was a DMC champion when he was 16, he was a prodigy. Everything he does, all the music he makes, is made with a mentality that’s much closer to the hip hop mentality than anyone else I’ve ever worked with, honestly. But he’s also like, fuckin’, Beethoven or something. He’s mad, mad brilliant. And then I’m a bit of a wild card. But becasue of that, it’s the most pop music I’ve ever made, ever. But it doesn’t mean that it’s at all compromised by that; it’s lifeblood. It’s got the soul and the timbre of hip-hop; you can play it next to it. It’s right up there, but it’s still got this logic and this clarity.
You’ve spoken about growing up in Manchester in this time when socialism was very in vogue, and there was this strong working class political movement. Do you think that’s affected your art and your politics now?
The thing is, where I’ve spoken about that is where I saw the tail end of it, and where I saw it being submerged, and disappear. We all started taking E and hugging each other, and a different kind of revolution went on. Our minds were off of politics for a very long time, my generation — sorry, young people, we fucked it up. We took a lot of things for granted. That’s the under-side of the rave culture; it was so revolutionary to be among British working class people all hugging each other, even. Just touching each other was a massive internal revolution for so many people. That took up all the time, and then the political side of it… we didn’t really give a fuck. [And then] feminists… I didn’t feel like I needed to fight for that, either, really; I lived in a bubble where it wasn’t affecting me. Much of our generation were very fuckin’ apathetic about politics, and then Blair got voted in, and we all thought ‘Fine, we’ve got a Labor government, everything’s tickety boo, everybody’s got a job and it’s not too bad and we can go raving every weekend.’
In fairness, there were different kinds of revolutions going on within us. There’s a lot of good to be said for Generation X, but it’s not political. We weren’t part of any movements that way, deliberately. Things were very apathetic for many years, and now we’re in the position we’re in, and I think many of us feel a little guilty about that.
Do you see parallels between the political climate when you were a child and the state of politics in the U.K. now?
I was brought up in a very highly politicised environment, in Ireland in the 70s and 80s. It was like, everybody had someone connected to them that was in the IRA. You used to go to the shop to buy sweets and there would be photographs in frames of hunger strikers all around the shop. I came from a family that really was a little bit skeptical of revolutionary ideas. My father always said that the IRA men always had their hair done, and liked to stand in the wind and sort of stand really strong like that and talk about Ireland, and he didn’t fuckin’ buy it, just like he doesn’t buy religion. When I came home from Manchester, the city centre, one day with a socialist worker paper, that was the closest I ever got to being thrown out, to being disowned. My father is very individualistic, in the best possible sense, and he believed in the power of the man himself. And he was very far ahead of his time in terms of — well, he was a terrible man for the women, but he loved women. He loved to tell me that I could do absolutely anything that I wanted to do. That was political in and of itself; he was irreligious, against religion, and my mother had no care for religion either, which made them quite unusual in their peer group. I’m not prepared to talk any more about politics than that.