Photography by Annemarieke van Drimmelen
Less than 10 minutes into our chat in a chic Parisian hotel lobby, Alison Goldfrapp is expressing woes about her interviewing skills. “Sorry, I’m crap at talking about this,” she says, referring to the broad-church topics of sexuality and gender she’s been asked to discuss. “It kind of annoys me when I’m made to think like that. Our sexuality’s so complex that to define it in black and white just seems ludicrous, really.”
But whether she thinks it or not, the singer is slyly fantastic on these subjects, teasing their borders into intricate musical sentences. She has a keen ear for offbeat, intimate narratives, both in songs and in life. She recalls how after watching the film Elles, she was haunted by the image of Juliette Binoche reaching the outer limits of masturbatory pleasure. “I keep getting flashbacks of it and thinking, Wow, is that scene a bit over the top? They made her look quite pasty, almost as if she were going to throw up at any moment. But I love Juliette Binoche. I’ll watch anything with her in it.”
The question of sexuality and identity is all over Tales of Us, the sixth studio album from Goldfrapp, the duo she formed with keyboardist Will Gregory in 1999. The record is a third-person suite of bold, chilling stories with a cool, noir cast. A girlfriend runs from her homicidal partner through the Hollywood Hills. Two male soldiers are caught in a moving clash with love and mortality that packs its own military heat. (“Really?” she deadpans in response to the remark. “I hadn’t noticed that.”). In “Annabel,” the titular intergender child is asked the question his/her parents most need answered, but which Annabel cannot oblige. The tales become touchstones for deeper reflections on the passing of time and the deceptive nature of memory. Her take: “They’re just stories I found moving.” You can hear it.
Gregory is publicity-mute (he makes Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Lowe look like a Kardashian), so it is Goldfrapp’s job to promote the album, something she has surprised herself by enjoying this time around. Tales of Us falls somewhere in line with the pair’s 2000 debut, Felt Mountain, and 2008’s deeply personal, pagan-inspired Seventh Tree. Between these soft-focus, acoustic outings the band has teetered on the brink of commercial success with albums of digital glam-rock (Supernature, Black Cherry) and sleekly art-directed perversity. Lady Gaga owes Goldfrapp some conceptual royalty checks, and there has never been a more presciently 50 Shades of Grey chorus written than “I’m in love with a strict machine,” though Goldfrapp is sanguine when asked if the director of the book’s forthcoming film adaptation, Sam Taylor-Wood — who benefited from an instrumental score from Goldfrapp for the soundtrack to her first film, Nowhere Boy — will be calling on them again. “No,” she says. “It’s mega, her doing [50 Shades], though. She’s quite an incredible woman. She can take on anything.”
Nowhere Boy was edited by Goldfrapp’s partner, filmmaker Lisa Gunning, who also directed five beautiful shorts on a next-to-nothing budget to accompany the key tracks from Tales of Us. “It’s always a slight worry working with your partner,” Goldfrapp says. “You’re never quite sure whether that’s the right thing to do or not — it could be a bloody disaster. But it’s been fantastic.”
Tension arose only after Goldfrapp forgot to bring a key prop to the set while filming the first clip, for the murderous ode “Jo.” The crew had decamped to a forest in Essex on the outskirts of London to capture the mood, and Gunning had purchased an ax online that Goldfrapp had been temporarily stowing in her car. “I really hated the ax being in the car,” she says. “I thought, I cannot have this anymore. Something weird’s going to happen. Someone’s child will get in and knock their leg against it and that’ll be the end of their leg. So I took it out of the car and put it at the back of our shed. Of course when we came to do the video, we got there and Lisa said, ‘Can you get the ax?’ I suddenly had this ‘Oh my god, where’s the fucking ax?’ ” moment. I had to ring a taxi company and say, ‘Can you go up to my shed, get an ax I’ve left behind there, put it in a car, and bring it to these woods in the middle of the night?’ It doesn’t sound good, does it?” Considering the source, it couldn’t sound more perfect.