Caturday with Roisin Murphy

Words:
Gemma Lacey

Roisin Murphy is a true creative, her maverick spirit has seen her go from indie darling with Moloko to queen of the dancefloor with her ethereal vocals lending endless magic to numerous tracks. She talks to us about her new foray into directing, why fashion has lost its allure for her and how friendship is the superpower that keeps her going.

Can you talk to us about the video you made with DJ Koze?
That was a bit of a joke; he’s obsessed with cats, so I did it to rib him, he’s got one or two cats at his place in Spain. He says he’s in a homosexual relationship with this cat. They sleep together, and the cat listens to all his tunes. I was taking the mickey out of him by using cats. Though I do like a good cat myself, I have to say. There’s nowt wrong with a cat! I surreptitiously recorded our phone call, and I didn’t have a visual to go with it so cats it was. You can find anything on the internet, any emotion involving a cat that you can imagine, so it was a very easy thing to do.
Tell us more about the videos you’re making, it’s always seemed that you think of things in a very holistic way, can you elaborate more on that?
I think the way to put it is that I enjoy that side of things.  I thought I was going to be a visual artist. I had no clue I’d be a singer, it all happened accidentally because I fell in love with someone that was a producer. In the beginning, I began making music but in the sense that I was playing around with ideas and I approached it in a conceptual art type way. That was my initial approach, not as a singer. I need to make music that could be on its own, that doesn’t need anything and is brilliant without anything – that’s first and foremost for me. That has to be the seed for everything. It needs to work anyway. But, I personally enjoy doing the rest of it and I find it’s a great challenge for me, and a journey for me, to get stuck into directing videos, finding people to do the artwork and photography. Even though I don’t do those parts, I’m still really involved in who’s doing it and how it’s done, where it’s done and what way.
What’s been most fun about the two most recent videos you’ve made?
Directing is something I love doing, I feel switched on, every part of me is “on” when I’m doing it, and really alive. The act of being on set with 50 people in front of you means you have to switch every part of yourself on. It’s a physical and mental challenge to have everything going on at once. It’s enjoyable to have so much happening at once, and it’s a huge buzz! For these two videos, the first one is deeply personal, All My Dreams is based on my first rave experience, in a place in Stoke in the north of England. It was called ‘Shelly’s rave’. When I was looking around for stuff on the internet, I found all this stuff about the culture I grew up in, which I guess you’d call rave. I wasn’t that mad on raves or anything, I loved music. Anyway, I found some Shelly’s rave footage, and that was the cornerstone for what I did for this video. The second video for Plaything,  it’s like culture has moved on a bit, this one is a little bit starker, although it’s rudimentary in some ways, you start to see the notion of commerce and performance that wasn’t there in the first video or in the early days of what inspired it. It’s becoming a bit more about performance, commerce and money, men and women – bigger topics that are a bit more serious and a little darker. They’re both inspired by personal things that I know inside out, and that has been the best things about making these videos.

 

You’re a longtime collaborator of Elaine Constantine, and you both share a love of movement and the culture that is rooted in as an expression of that. How do think that’s expressed in your work?
She’s a huge influence on me, just as a person. Elaine is a person who left school and freely admits she could barely read or write. As her friend watching her closely, I’ve seen her decide to start reading literature because she wanted to learn about story and that made her think, “I can” which was really inspiring. Obviously, visuals she learned to a very, very high level and the next part of that for her was story. It was all self-driven by her. If you’d said to people 20 years ago that she would make Northern Soul – no one would have believed you. I find that really inspiring. I come up against that a lot myself, where the vision is there, I’ve got the vision but trying to get others to see that or to make the vision come true is the main hard part of it all. It has to be done, and it does separate the men from the boys. Elaine just sees things differently than other people and not only that, she has the guts to go out and do it, and do it properly.
That’s definitely something that is clear in her work, especially in the strong and playful way she documents women – it always feels really authentic.
That’s the director in her, more the director than the photographer. When she’s shooting portraits with people, it’s really about the stripping back what gets in the way of telling the narrative. She’ll say, ‘Make that stupid face. Let yourself go and be beautiful as who you are’, and she’s a great director, through and through. That’s what you’re seeing. Other photographers just shoot what’s in front of them or make a set, but they don’t get in there, the same way a great film director would with a subject. Ultimately, that’s the most important thing in portraiture. We’re both quite reactionary people, and we get a lot of power from what we don’t want to do, even if we don’t know what we do want. That gives you a massive push to do what’s left to do after all the stuff you don’t want.
In terms of other influences of what you listen to, I read that you loved bands like Nirvana and when you began to sing, you felt you sounded like Elaine Paige, was that true and can you tell us more about it?
I was really into Sonic Youth, and the lads I hung around with were into Jesus and Mary Chain, that was the era I was in – the late 80’s. In Ireland, everybody sings songs, they all have a few they know from start to finish. When they have a few drinks, they all sing theirs unaccompanied – so I grew up with people just signing songs, it was literally like living in an MGM musical.
The song I learned was ‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina’, that was the song that led everyone to discover I could sing. I remember my parents were there, my auntie, my cousins, my grandmother and from that day on, I got no peace from them all. They would all come running after me to have me sing this song, and I hated it. I don’t know that I sounded like Elaine Paige, but I definitely want to be singing that song. At that time, I didn’t want to be singing anything – I’d didn’t think I had a good voice or the attention span to do anything about it – it was a big surprise to become a singer.

 

 
That period in Manchester seems to stand out in music, are there any moments which feel really significant to you?
So many! It was a formative experience and it’s something people ask me a lot about now.  It was a very interesting time, and people want stories from the horse’s mouth, and that is me. I went to every kind of nightclub, because there was every kind of nightclub in Manchester at the time. It was a crazy time, we were all weirdos at our weirdo nightclub, and one night they were playing I Am the Resurrection, and all these lads came in that looked like football hooligans and started hugging us! So I really witnessed this thing. Obviously, they were on E, and we were a bit confused at the time, but we did see the barriers coming down, before that everyone was either a goth or a rockabilly or a punk. Things were really tribal, but after that everyone started dressing comfortably for dancing, and it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, we were all one big thing for a second and it was an incredible time. For someone who was into music, it was the best – we had it all on our doorstep.  To the point for me that I never wanted to go back to Ireland because no one had the same taste as me and I wasn’t going to be putting up with that. I didn’t want to leave my beloved Manchester and all the things on offer.
In terms of what you’re making now – what excites you the most?
This latest record with Maurice Fulton has been a big learning curve, he very much gets his own way which is fair enough. In that sense, it hasn’t felt like a Roisin Murphy album, so for distribution I made it into these four 12’’ with two tracks on each. Essentially that would have been enough music for an album, but it just seemed better that way. I’d make suggestions as we worked but he’d say there was no way it would work in a club, so there was no getting around him. I said, “OK that’s how it’s gonna be, then it’s going to be music for the club,” everything about it will be set up that way. That was a learning curve for me – that you can’t always have your own way – especially with people like Maurice Fulton – because, why would you? Why would you work with him and then tell him how to finish the tracks? I’ve also loved working with DJ Koze; he really prioritises my voice to an absurd level, fetishises it in a way.  He’ll say, “I don’t think there should be frequencies around your voice that interrupt it.” Everything should be built around your voice” That’s kind of mad for me to hear! I know I’m a proper grown woman, but I still feel like that girl who can’t sing and doesn’t know what she’s talking about, so for people to prioritise my voice the way he has is amazing. There are still people who say, “your voice…” much more now than ever before. I find it a bit embarrassing because, the voice thing, I was born with that, all I do is open my mouth and it comes out so I don’t have to try, it’s there. The other things that are hard are choosing who to work with, making sure that it gets finished and is put out in the right way. That is where I think I deserve praise, not my voice.
You’ve always had fantastic taste and worn fun and exciting things; how did your style evolve? Was it through working with stylists or something you developed yourself?
I’ve always been self-styled, even when I’ve worked with stylists, I got in their face about it. The most styled I was, there was someone I worked with for Overpowered, and she was brilliant, she got the idea immediately and had all the connections to make it happen. With that idea, we had to go to all the houses and get the maddest shit from them; it was about wearing fashion, not a costume. I wouldn’t do that now, because fashion itself is not as it was then. It’s not as free, open and exciting. It’s ostensibly that way, but underneath it’s not – trust me, it’s different. That time they wanted me to wear a wig, and literally, there was crying – I was not wearing a wig because I’d look like a tit. They were like, “You’re not going to look enough of a tit – you have to really look like one to get this idea across”. I just thought, no, to get this idea across I really have to own this, you have to see me there in it, and I’m glad I did that and didn’t wear a silly hat or lopsided undercut wig alongside the rest of it because I’d have been disappearing in it all.
Do you think you began to take more risks with your style and became more excited by fashion when you began performing?
From childhood, I was obsessed with it, now I hate it almost. The amount of stuff involved in having anything to do with fashion is huge.  Even in your house, to pack it safely, to stop moths getting at it, it’s just a lot. At the end of the last tour, I was like, “What am I doing to myself? This is ridiculous!” I’m trying to keep a handle on it now, I’ll never be a minimalist, I’m a maximalist, but I have to keep a handle on it. It’s something that’s always been part of me though. My aunt had a shop in Manchester – it was a boutique that sold new stuff, and they had second-hand stuff too. She would let me get weird shit out of there, things like Chinese dressing gowns. So, I was into that even when I was young. I remember having that Chinese dressing gown when I was nine or ten, putting on full eye makeup and sitting in the window of my house and waving at the traffic going by. In that sense, I was already a performance artist before I even knew what that meant.
Many people feel fashion has changed from celebrating art to focusing on celebrities now, do you agree?
That’s a shame, a terrible shame but the main shame is that it’s all crap.  There are two problems, even in the Chanel shop, it’s the same tat that’s in Topshop. It hasn’t got any allure, and it’s far too mass produced to have that. The other problem is, we’re coming to a point where the real thing to aspire to is to have less, so even buying shit or going out feels wrong. It’s a luxury to have less and not go shopping to buy tat. Unfortunately, people throw clothes at me, so I still end up with a ton. Shopping is interesting still though. Back in the day, I would style myself and go into dress agencies to choose stuff – that was a little weird then not to have a stylist, but I cut out the middleman, but people would let me. Nowadays, people limit what you can take, and some stuff is reserved, some restricted, in the end, it’s all so dry now. It feels political and embarrassing to do it, so I stopped.
How did you choose the outfit for the cover of Hairless Toys?
Originally, I asked a young designer I’d worked with previously, and they said no so I was done. I found the red coat which had a weird plastic smell but also had this minimalist vibe. It was a disgusting kind of minimalism though with big horrible collars and plastic material, but in one sense it was simple and unfussy. It was second hand, but it was a specific look, and it had a unique aesthetic from the way I put it together. It didn’t say, “Here’s me in fashion”, and I think that was ultimately very, very right for me at the time, so I’m glad it was rejected by that designer. I guess with that record too, it felt like I was coming out of nowhere to people which is why they did that – only I knew it was going to be alright. In that sense, I continue to be fashionable without being fashion.
You have a very strong sense of self which is hard to maintain in entertainment – how have you managed that?
I think that’s true! I don’t know, I guess I find people who are allies and friends along the way, and it’s really their love and friendship and us moving forward together that gets you through. That does it for me, and it’s why I’m still doing it.
The single Plaything is out now through the Vinyl Factory

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Roisin Murphy’s
Caturday playlist

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