The story of Roisin Murphy begins in fashion. The springboard for her ascent from small-town, working-class misfit to in-demand style icon and neo-disco queen was a snug, secondhand, torn purple pullover she wore to a bash in a Sheffield, England, basement in the mid-'90s. The U.K.-based Irish-born singer recalls flitting about the party all night, saying to guests in a silly, coquettish American accent, "Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my bo-o-ody' ' Enchanted by her flair for drama, writer-producer Mark Brydon took her to the studio hours later and subsequently enlisted her as the lead singer of electro-pop outfit Moloko. Fittingly enough, Do You Like My Tight Sweater? became the title of the group's 1997 debut.
Fast-forward 11 years and four Moloko records later, and Murphy has gone solo, having confected two of the most polished, sophisticated albums of the decade: the heady, intricate art-jazz project Ruby Blue and Overpowered, a superbly structured, atmosphere-charging dance affair inspired by old '80s disco mixes passed down to her from her New York City DJ pal Danny Krivit. In the grand tradition of shrewd, convention-shattering, versatile divas (Annie Lennox, Bj'rk, and Murphy's idol Grace Jones), she has employed her love of drama and flamboyant couture in a recent string of cinematic music videos. She twirls and kicks her way through 'Let Me Know' in a greasy spoon transformed into a club, mines photographer Cindy Sherman's 1981 Centerfolds and Louis Vuitton pastels to take on multiple guises in 'You Know Me Better,' and in the biggest shocker of them all, is violated by a giant lobster in the new John Waters'influenced oddball extravaganza 'Movie Star.'
Already a hit overseas, Overpowered finally invades the United States early next year. 'Movie Star' will soon be released as a single, along with Murphy's remake of the 1985 Bryan Ferry ballad 'Slave to Love,' which will serve as the theme song for the worldwide ad campaign for upcoming men's fragrance Gucci by Gucci. Out sat down with Murphy -- whose striking aesthetic has helped her forge relationships with Givenchy, Gareth Pugh, and Viktor & Rolf -- to chat about her infatuation with disco, her hatred of red-carpet vultures, and why she's a diva.
Out: 2008 is a big year for you. You're planning the U.S. release of your second solo album, Overpowered, along with your remake of Bryan Ferry's 'Slave to Love."
Roisin Murphy: Yes, it's a dance version of the song. I worked on it with Seiji, who produced 'Overpowered,' 'Footprints,' and 'Dear Miami' [from Overpowered]. The video is slick and beautiful, where the video for 'Movie Star' is dirty and cheap.
You were very inspired by John Waters for the 'Movie Star' video. Yes, I started re-watching his films to finalize the idea. I love his movies. Cry Baby is a masterpiece -- I even have a song on Overpowered called 'Cry Baby.' It's not meant to be a hugely commercial video; it's meant to be a cult thing. Actually, going out in London inspired me because the people embracing me reminded me of John Waters characters. It was nice to write a script with real people in mind. All the characters in the video look exactly like that when they go out. The woman who plays my mother, Jodie Harsh, is becoming quite famous. In the video she's this evil mother figure who ends up laughing after I get raped by the giant lobster. The lobster idea was pulled directly from Waters's film Multiple Maniacs.
What's the deal with the zombies at the end? That happens after the rape in Multiple Maniacs as well, where they're all running down the street infecting each other. It's very Dawn of the Dead.
The video also seems like a dark, really warped take on 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.' Yes, it's stuuupid! That's what it is!
Your songs and videos seem generally well-researched.
I like learning things, absorbing things. It doesn't feel like work. I don't read shit, watch shit films, listen to shit music.
What are reading now? I just finished [Katherine Dunn's] Geek Love. It was fantastic!
Do you consider yourself a geek? A freak. No, I don't think I'd consider myself a freak, but people used to call me a freak in school. I'd turn around, thinking I was so intelligent, and say, 'You don't even know what a freak is!' I was a naughty kid.
How so? I'd talk back to kids. I was wild. All my learning took place outside school. I spent time with people who were interested in art, music, and film. Those are the people I surrounded myself with at an early age -- the freaks and misfits. I thought I'd do an art degree. In fact, I had a place in art college, but then I got a record deal -- which was pure accident. I established a relationship with someone [Mark Brydon of Moloko], and in the same night we were in a studio, and I was saying, 'Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my bo-o-ody.' Then he put it on a track, and I became a recording artist.
He just liked your voice? He liked me. I had been saying 'Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my bo-o-ody' all night to people in an American accent. Then Mark had me to his studio because no one was there and he liked me. His studio was just an excuse to show me his 'big equipment.' We fell in love, then the next week we were at another party, and in the middle of the night we decided to go to the studio to record me saying 'Look at all these party weirdoes.' I was pretending to be L.A. and crazed -- you know, a girl disgusted with party weirdoes when she was the biggest party weirdo of them all. Then we got a deal. After four albums, we broke up.
Did you know when you were finishing your last record with Moloko that you would go solo? I knew it was the end of Moloko, but I didn't know what I was going to do. After I finished the record, I thought, This is the last time I'll ever do this. I don't make records, so I'm not gonna tour. I really threw myself into it and started to work outside my relationship with Mark, who was never a showman. Thinking it could all come to an end, I wanted it to be the best possible show it could be. I wanted to change parts of the costumes, elongate arrangements, and make it all professional. It's not that I wasn't a bonkers performer before -- for my first shows I'd come out in a dog basket with a bone in my mouth -- but with the Statues tour, I was like, 'Let's make a fucking show.' That was when I really started to feel like this is what I'm meant to do.
Then you collaborated with Matthew Herbert for your first album, Ruby Blue. We'd talked about it before, but literally, the day after we finished the Moloko tour I was in the studio with Matthew -- because I had time. We had such a good rapport that we got halfway through an album, so we just carried on -- and then I guessed I'd gone solo. It was natural and organic.
Ruby Blue is a strange album. You refer to it as 'cult.' I think I'm a bit cult, aren't I? I sang 'Ruby Blue' [the title track] the other night and the audience was fucking screaming, and I just thought to myself, Shit, it's a fucking brilliant record. There are so many great songs on it, and it's done in such a radical way. It's a record I'm extremely proud of, and I got glowing reviews when I released it. I got better reviews for Ruby Blue than I did for Moloko's Statues.
Ruby Blue is not as melodic and easy to navigate through as Overpowered. It's not a genre record, or a lifestyle record. A lot of avant-garde records fit nicely into the avant-garde lifestyle, and that makes me think it's not avant-garde at all -- you know, if it fits really neatly into your CD player and you sit back on your bloody Yves Saint Laurent sofa and you listen to it and feel real smug. It's a challenging record. I don't ever want to make music you shop to, that makes you feel stupid.
I have friends who love Overpowered, but they can't wrap their heads around Ruby Blue. I think they might like it in 15 years. And yet So You Think You Can Dance used like three songs off it. 'Ramalama (Bang Bang)' -- the weirdest song on that record -- seems so perfect on a massive mainstream U.S. TV show. It worked brilliantly. Ruby Blue is stricken with millions of ironies in that sense. It's not seen as a dance record, but you type in 'Ramalama (Bang Bang)' on YouTube and you get all these little dance troupes from all over America doing routines to it.
Also, your voice sounds more soulful and mature on Ruby Blue, while it's more 'pop' on Overpowered. I tried to channel some kind of naivet' on Overpowered like I'd never done before. I always tried to feel 16 when I was singing [on that album]. In Moloko, I wasn't doing that. I think my voice was quite annoying sometimes in Moloko because I was trying to become a singer. I was taking on these characters. This time, I wanted to put youth and joy into my voice, brashness, ballsiness, and fearlessness. On Ruby Blue, Matthew's ear tended toward the jazzier side of my voice.
Did you know you wanted to make a disco record after Ruby Blue? Yes, I actually wanted Ruby Blue to be a disco record. 'If We're In Love' was the first song Matthew and I wrote, and it's the most disco-y song on the record. But he was bringing in objects from his house to create the record, so it had to be very open and experimental. Overpowered was the first time I'd ever approached a record with a focus before I sang a note. I had like 400 songs in my iTunes, I knew the references -- this was what I'd wanted to do for a very long time.
What were your references? Not things that everybody's heard of. I was given millions of CDs from [New York City DJ] Danny Krivit when I came over here to sing for him.
Performing at the 718 Sessions party in New York City was when you interacted with Krivit. It seems like a turning point for you. Definitely. I knew I was going to make a disco record then. I was with a friend in New York and she brought me to Body & Soul, then I went every Sunday, even on my own, just to go listen to music and dance, to absorb the atmosphere. I was asked to come back years later, and 'Forever More' [the Moloko song she performed at 718 Sessions] became one of those songs that has a life of its own -- I think of Body & Soul and Danny when I hear it now. I remember asking [DJ-producer] Francois-K, [who launched the party] years before, if Moloko could perform, but he said he didn't invite just anyone. Then I ended up performing 'Forever More' there. It was the same crowd at 718 that went to Body & Soul, and they embraced me. These are the people who have created everything good about the scene.
You've said that dance music plus emotional complexity equals disco. I like things that are complex, things that shouldn't go together. You have the functionality in dance music, but you can't have disco without a layer of emotional complexity. I can't think of anything more multilayered than disco. I think there is a resurgence of disco on a more mainstream level, if you think of bands like Hercules and Love Affair and Hot Chip. It's not strictly disco, but it's certainly not dismissive of disco.
Do you think the scene is still alive? Well, the 718 is like the northern soul scene in the U.K, which is based on old soul records from the '60s and '70s. In the '70s, it was retrospective, about finding rare records. There was something really beautiful about it -- not just nerdy -- like, 'Let's find something that is forgotten and reopen it and make it relevant again." The northern soul scene in the U.K. was the first scene where you had parties all night long. People were on speed, people didn't dance together anymore -- people were dancing in their own space. It was the prototype nightclub. It still exists today, but it's very much smaller, just people holding on. You go there and it's middle-aged people there, ordinary people. You know the guy dancing next to you is a plumber or an electrician. He's a normal guy singing along to this black woman, and he's skinny and white, but he has this poise and dignity. Those are the places I wanna be, where you feel like you learn, you talk to nice people, and they don't spill drinks on the dance floor. I don't wanna be shoved around. I like nightclub etiquette.
You consider Grace Jones an icon. You've met her twice. What happened? After a show, five or six years ago in Florence, these Italian guys were like, 'Come back to our hotel.' She was getting out of the cab at the same time, and she was like, 'Where are you going?' I told her I was going to the hotel party after the after-party. She was like, 'Control! Control! Get these people out of here!' So we went off and serenaded these guys in the square under a full moon in Florence. Then I met her recently. We did a thing for Jarvis Cocker. We were all singing different Disney songs with an orchestra. She complimented me on my hat, I complimented her on her hat, and we were fine. I don't blame her for throwing people out of a bloody hotel room. She's had a massive influence on my music.
What hat were you wearing? A Stephen Jones big, black, wide-brimmed hat with horsehair sticking out of it.
Have people compared you to Kylie Minogue? No, but people say, 'Have people compared you to Kylie Minogue?' And I go, 'No, but people have asked me if I have been.'
And Alison Goldfrapp? Yes, I get that comparison.
I can hear that. 'Movie Star' has that Supernature sound. Yes, and Supernature has the feel of 'Indigo' [from Moloko's 2000 album Things to Make and Do, which came out before Supernature.] I ain't copied anyone ever, maybe to my detriment; things that are copies do very well. A female musician recently said, 'Being a woman is not a genre.' It was a great thing to say. It's so annoying the way we're compared to each other. It's bitchy, like we're schoolgirls. You know, who's popular and pretty. I've always felt confident. I was given bags of compliments from my parents.
Diva. What do you think of the word? It's powerful, isn't it?
How would you describe it? It's when you're powerful and emotional and confident and sensitive at the same time. Contradictions. I'm very sensitive, but I'm also bold and strong. I don't care if it's overused. I am a diva.
You're becoming a style icon. When it comes to fashion, have you ever gotten it wrong? I always get it wrong. Wrong is OK as long as it's you. We have these magazines dedicated to scrutinizing and breaking down what celebrities are wearing on the red carpet. It's like being back in school with perfectly ironed rich girls whom everybody loves, who are really popular and turning to the weird girl and calling her a freak. It happens to me occasionally, like 'What is she doing?' I'll tell you what I'm doing: I'm being myself, my own person. I'm not walking down a red carpet to advertise various costumes you can buy at the department store. I don't have a stylist. I don't believe in it.
You've established a good rapport with fashionistas. How? The designers love me. They want to meet me. I love fashion, especially the art involved in it. They see me in a video and contact me, asking me if I'm open to [wearing their clothes].
So fashion adds to your story? Yes, it adds to the narrative. If it becomes a mask I will turn away from it -- you know, if it overpowers me. I do embrace wholeheartedly anything that comes along to challenge me creatively, which is why this is the best job in the world for me. But the people who've meant the most to me over the years have been the musicians.
You've said you're the link between fashion and music. I think fashion copies music a lot -- mostly it's fashion that looks to music. I'm music that looks to fashion. I'm not trying to look like a musician, or convey how cool or skinny I am, how many drugs I take. You can't get all that from looking at me. Fashion is just something I enjoy -- making images. It's not about a rock-n-roll look for me -- I'd do it anyway. I'm trying to be a work of art. I'm just a little girl in a closet.
Check out Murphy's YouTube channel, featuring music videos and live performances, here. Get tickets to her October 24 concert for the Saint at Large in New York City here.