Róisín Murphy is most imaginative Pop's star
The singer appears as a vampy disco queen in photographs accompanying Róisín Murphy's new album Róisín Machine, striking poses in shibari-esque bondage ropes, blue latex pants, and torn fishnets. She stares through dirty blond bangs, eyebrows lined with enough kohl to make Siouxsie Sioux jealous. The result is both delightful and odd. "I believe there's a rather conservative approach to imagery and elegance for musicians today," Murphy says of Zoom from her north London home. "I wanted to kick it up a little bit."
For Murphy, kicking the status quo of pop music is nothing new. Placed in County Wicklow, Ireland, the singer moved to Sheffield at 19 and immersed herself in the city's colorful underground club scene, from which she emerged as half of Moloko's electro-pop duo in the late 1990s. Following the breakup of the group, Murphy's critically acclaimed 2003 solo release Ruby Blue was followed by 2007's major-label release Overpowered, whose artwork saw her pose in the most outrageously over-the-top fashions of the moment, courtesy of Gareth Pugh and Viktor & Rolf — a year before Lady Gaga hit the world stage and brought Murphy's avant-garde mold into the mainstream.
Then, after taking a backseat while raising her two children, Murphy returned with her Hairless Toys, a Mercury Prize-nominated, deep-house masterpiece. "I came out of this dark space mentally as an artist who took time off to bring up my children in the suburbs, and the suburbs are like a vacuum, or at least a vacuum of fashion," Murphy describes the moody aesthetics of the album, in which she paid homage to the chosen families of the Paris Is Burning ballrooms, while also spinning a more intimate yarn about her household outside the mu. "I didn't want to do fashion when I came back with Hairless Toys, so I went for clothes that were hideous and minimalist and smelled awful," she continues. "When it came to fashion and music, I noticed something had changed so I didn't want to do that."
Her latest album, Róisín Machine (for those unclear about how to pronounce her name, the two words rhyme), starts with a spoken word bit from Murphy, in a husky near-whisper: "I feel my story is still untold, but I'll make my own happy ending." It makes sense, then, that the album sounds like Murphy's most unabashedly cheerful yet; a trip to the illicit pleasure core of her late-night excitement. Co-produced with one of Sheffield's first partners, DJ Parrot, it's a winking, carnivalesque homage to Murphy 's enduring dancefloor order. "We wanted all the tracks to come together and sound like a dubbed version of a proper album in a Larry Levan fashion — proto-punk, proto-house, proto-disco all mashing up. At the same time, I read a lot about Danceteria and the Valencia scene, and it was all about that crazy mix of people.
Apart from Murphy 's evil, self-effacing humor, it's this encyclopedic awareness of countercultural history and club culture — her references from Frankie Knuckles to Soulwax, The Cure to Laurie Anderson — that makes her new album sound like the purest distillation of her diverse sonic universe. "I've been going to clubs since I was 16, every club you might imagine I've been in," says Murphy. "I've had some great experiences, but the Sheffield experience feels incredible because it's like home. They weren't big parties, but they were illegal or free — parties in caves, barns, lofts, or cellars — we'd throw a party anywhere we could find. I love clubs, because there's a door behind you, and the rest of the world just goes.
Tumbling down Róisín Machine's rabbit hole, the entire world also appears to melt away — thanks to the outrageous fashions she wears around the artwork, many of which she styled herself, and most of which were taken from her own archives. Murphy 's passion for the fashion world is mutual — from her unforgettable appearance at Viktor & Rolf's spring 2010 Swiss cheese cut-out tulle show, to playing for Balenciaga and Valentino at parties — but her styling style has changed dramatically. "High fashion is fast-paced," she says. "A piece becomes redundant, because it's not timeless; something comes out and it's last season. With an album sleeve and a design, the idea will last forever at the end of the day because you have to really worry about what you'll put on it because you have to deal with it. I'm going to have to deal with it, my children's dealing with it. It must come from a personal location.
For Murphy, this means anything from old items banging around her wardrobe 's back to an entire final range of eye-popping neons she purchased from RCA graduate Camilla Damkjaer of 2017. "Any record I don't work with the same producers, so I don't work with the same fashion designers either," she says. Although in the past Murphy has teamed up with several fashion stylists, these days she tends to do the legwork herself. "When I performed at home during lockdown, I pulled outfits from under beds, out of bags that hadn't been opened in years, and the place is a fucking mess," she says. "The styling part of my work is the most physical because it's so many bags, suitcases, dragging, opening, closing, caring, putting on. It really keeps me fit! "And what's that heavy lifting she wears? "Screwfix couture, of course," Murphy responds, before a full-throated laugh.
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the energy that gives Róisín Machine's deliciously seedy artwork and singles comes from Murphy. "Before I set, I get in the mood," she says. "'Go, let's be fighting! 'That's quite northern. I'm on the floor, and you've got this fucking awesome Vogue photographer who's not used to seeing it. 'This middle-aged lady, she keeps popping out for another spliff,' he'll say." Murphy pauses to laugh again, before adding: 'But that's the dissonance. There's the singer, but this situation's also boss. They're used to working differently. It can be really difficult, and when making the visuals, the most machine-like I have to be.
Which returns us to Róisín Computer. A joke it may be, but it's also a nod to Murphy's tireless work over the past decade as brands have come and gone. Learning to balance her relentless curiosity and desire to explore with her tenacity as an entrepreneur was no easy feat. Fortunately, her intensely loyal fanbase has always been on hand to help keep the cogs whirling, even when — as she nods, albeit tacitly — many people's racist and ageist attitudes throughout the music industry have often felt stacked. But while the irony that Murphy kickstarted many of the movements that characterized music over the past two decades is not lost on her, she is now relaxed as a beloved art-pop outsider. The trick for Murphy is just concentrating on the work; even enjoying the never-ending, machine-like lifestyle of becoming a pop musician in 2020. "Before I deliver," she says, strongly.
Still, as she does with wild abandon on the dance tracks that populate the album, Murphy becomes the powerhouse her fans have always known to be. "I'm heartfelt exhibitionist," she says. "As a child, for as long as I can recall. It's mistaken concern. People think exhibitionism is about being looked at, but for me it's a pleasure to put together the item, the ingenuity of creating the exhibition, even if it's a self-exhibition. "Murphy's produced her most exciting exhibition with Róisín Computer.