To hear her tell it, Roisin Murphy never was, and never could be, a pop star. The singer fronted the offbeat '90s electronic act Moloko, and on her 2007 LP, Overpowered, perfected a sort of modern, urbane take on disco. But her music's hardly made her a household name. "It's not as if it goes straight into the top 10," she says. "So what have I got to lose?" Enter her risk-taking new album, and first in eight years: the bafflingly titled, jazz- and country-tinged Hairless Toys.
Out: Why'd it take you so long to release a new album?
Roisin Murphy: I'm the type of artist who stumbles into projects. I made Mi Senti, my EP of Italian songs, last year with Eddie Stevens, who proved to be an extremely capable producer. Then it felt right to do an album together.
You've said that recording Mi Senti was a challenge for you vocally, that it forced you to stretch your range a bit.
I think you can hear a little bit of it in my voice on this new record--maybe not so much in the gymnastics of the vocals, but the sort of close-up, personal, half-spoken feel of the vocals on Hairless Toys. But yeah, I mean, it's really hard to sing! And, you know, when you write your own songs, you write within your own range. Your general instinct would be to write within a range you real comfortable singing. So when you cover songs, you find that you are out of your depth--and that's very good for a singer.
Did you know any Italian going into Mi Senti, or did you have to learn it? Or did you learn the songs phonetically?
The producer on the project is Italian, and he's my boyfriend, and I live with him, and I'm surrounded by Italians quite a lot of the time. I don't speak Italian, but I understand a lot of Italian. I had him making sure I was getting the Italian right. He wouldn't have been able to bear it if his mate said to him, "Yeah, yeah, it's good, but her Italian sounded ridiculous."
You wrote about 30 songs but whittled the record down to just eight.
Oh, honey child, on this record, eight is a lot of songs. There's so much going on: so much content, so much emotion, so much me.
Did it occur to you that fans might find this record harder to digest?
Yeah. It's certainly not Overpowered again. But it does please me that I've made Hairless Toys indescribable. A lot of my favorite records are indescribable. How do you describe a Radiohead record? I'm a woman who's had two children. I can do what I like. And I never sell records no matter what I do!
Which is crazy. How well did Overpowered sell?
It sold OK. I gather more fans as I put out more records, you know? There's a chance that with a bit of promotion, making live shows, playing music festivals, making pop videos, doing interviews, and doing photo sessions--all those things--that this record, weird as it is, may keep me at just that level, and that's a fine enough level for me: an artist that's working away and doing quite well and gathering new friends as the years go by, with every release.
What's up with that album title Hairless Toys?
It's actually a misunderstanding. I left the studio and didn't name a track. Eddie tried to work out what I was singing and named it "Hairless Toys." I came back, looked at it, and said, "That's the album."
What were you actually singing?
"Careless talk." There's an aesthetic that goes with Hairless Toys that has nothing to do with hairlessness or toys. It's spooky, cold, dry, a memory of your childhood when there wasn't as much luxury, so things weren't quite as shiny.
I like that it's abstract but that it does evoke all these feelings. It's got this scrappy quality, it's uncomfortable, it's slightly sexual -- but it also does conjure memories from childhood. It's very much a psychological journey in two words.
It's an album title that's completely unique for a record that's completely unique. It doesn't sound like anybody else's record title, and that's the way the music is. There's nothing like it. It doesn't fit into a particular genre.
I put it on recently on a Saturday night and did a jigsaw puzzle to it.
Oh, how Hairless Toys of you to do a jigsaw puzzle. I love it! That's a thing to do it to! It's a bonding experience that will bring you closer together. I love that.
This record is jazz, dance, country, soul, gospel ... Did you want to create an eclectic record? Or did it just happen organically?
Pretty organically, yes. We'd made 30 songs--we were very prolific. My children went away with their grandparents to the Bahamas for a few weeks, and I went into the studio every day, and we just experimented and played. The first song of the day would usually be a more structured idea. Maybe we might go to the pub in the middle of the day and have a pint, and the second song would be much more free--just Eddie playing and me singing at the same time, which I had never done before with anyone. I mean, I come from a generation of people who work in a studio, where you don't do that. You make a piece of music, and you get it all going--you have drums, you have bass, you have melodies, you have bridges. But with Eddie, on a song like "Exile," I made up the lyrics while he was making up the music. And that's an old-fashioned way of writing songs: someone on the piano and a singer, making it up as they go along.
The first track, "Gone Fishing," was inspired by the drag ball documentary Paris Is Burning.
I was reading this beautiful article that was trying to redress the balance about black gay culture and its part in the creation of house music. In the U.S. and in the U.K., it seemed like very white music. To see Paris Is Burning--I feel like that's what I've been doing all these years onstage. The same thing. And [the Hairless Toys song] "House of Glass" is a completely autobiographical song. I used to live with a handful of girls, and we were deep into music. Lots of us came from broken homes and made our own family. That's a theme of the record. Youth culture--music culture--can save you.
Last time we talked, back in 2009, you'd just given birth to your first child. How do you think motherhood has changed you as a songwriter?
Do you think it's changed me? I'm too close to see.
There's seriousness to this record--a sobriety. Which isn't to say that it's gloomy or depressing in any way, because even the songs that touch on loneliness also express a certain empowerment.
Hopefully there's universality to that. You get a bit of energy from that. I'm a bit older, and I'm not the kind of artist that's going to run away from that. I'm just going to totally embrace it, you know? I'm not going to pretend I'm anything I'm not. But there's no change there either. It just happens that I'm a 41-year-old now, and eight years ago I wasn't.
Has pop music changed a lot?
Pop music has changed, fashion has changed ...
Is there something that scares you that didn't exist before?
Nothing scares me much. I'm very, very upbeat. I've been dancing down the street today, dancing on the tube. People think I'm a lunatic, because what I have inside my phone is, like, access to my favorite DJs doing sublime mixes. I just get a mix and get high off it. I'm definitely more sober, more clear-headed, more focused. The world is more focused. Everyone is more focused. I think it's a good thing. There is more work for me to do. I've got to understand the industry better than I did when I started out. I think it's good that artists have to be more plugged in these days. When I started out, there were people who did everything for me, you know? In a way, I was a spoiled child.