Róisín Murphy: If I want to be famous I can just go to a gay club

The accidental pop star on lockdown, her aesthetic and ‘horrific’ modern pop

After almost three decades in the game, Róisín Murphy still doesn’t consider herself a pop star. How does she measure this? Well for starters, one of the most innovative musicians of her generation can still go to the supermarket without being bothered.

“There’s been dissonances along the way that I’ve had to fight – even being Irish, at the start. You know, being ‘Róisín Murphy’ – and then you listen to my music,” she cackles when we chat via Zoom, looking as cool and collected in an oversized jumper in her sitting room as she does on stage in an elaborate costume.

“But then I’m like that anyway, me; I’m the most ungainly elegant person you’ve ever met.”

We put out Simulation, and it was one of the best things I felt I'd ever done but nobody cared

She pauses. “And maybe the ‘pop star’ is not me; it’s the whole story, my catalogue. If I wanted to be famous – which I don’t, really, I don’t enjoy it – well, I can,” she says, catching herself with a smile. “I can go to a gay club and they’ll be ‘Arghhh! Róisín’s here, arrrghhhh!’ But then I can go to Tesco. And that’s what I want to project – so who can I blame but myself?”

She may be a mass of contradictions, inconsistencies and incongruities, but Murphy somehow makes it all work. Her latest album pulls from similarly dissonant aspects of her career so far. Róisín Machine was produced by Sheffield producer Richard Barratt (aka DJ Parrot aka Crooked Man), whom Murphy has known since she was a teenager.

Parrot, as she refers to him, is a stalwart of that city’s house music scene. The starting point for this album can be traced back to 2012, when the pair collaborated on Simulation, the opening song of the new album.

“He’s a bit of a kingpin. Even when I was a teenager, people spoke in hushed tones about Parrot, really,” she says. “Everybody respected him when I arrived in Sheffield, and I only heard him DJ a handful of times, because he gave up when somebody stole his box of seven-inches from the DJ booth, and he lost all belief in everything to do with it, for a while.

“I went to him after Overpowered, because he’d worked with me a little bit on that album, and I said, ‘Look – let’s dive straight back in, but let’s go deeper into club music, into house and proto-house and the Paradise Garage thing that we were into.’ So we really had a strong idea of what we wanted to do when we did Simulation, but it was a case of having to kick him into that, because he had been burned.

“We put out Simulation, and it was one of the best things I felt I’d ever done,” she adds, “but nobody cared.”

Several years later they joined forces again to release the track Jealousy, but a collision of events and projects, including 2014's Italian pop covers EP Mi Senti and her work with Eddie Stevens on 2015's Hairless Toys and 2016's Take Her Up to Monto, further delayed their collaboration until last year's Incapable got things back on track.

“Initially, [Parrot] didn’t know how people would dance to somebody singing ‘I’m incapable’; he was a bit worried about that one for a while,” she chuckles. “And then he found this amazing groove for it and put it out on his own label last year, and it all went off – everybody went mad for it. So as soon as there was that spark, it was just a matter of a few short months before it was done.”

Lockdown songs

Having secured a new deal, finishing the album during a pandemic has been an interesting process, although she admits that it provided a welcome break from the touring and festival merry-go-round she had been on since Hairless Toys. That said, she has been keeping fans happy with several live performance videos from home (with more planned).

“There is a bit of lockdown in the new songs – especially the one where I’m going on about ‘Don’t try to stop me dancing’ and all that. What a cliche,” she laughs.

“I’m writing differently than I used to. With [older tracks] Simulation, Jealousy and Incapable, I would hire a studio here in London with a Parrot track, go in with an engineer, make a very high-quality vocal recording and send it to him. But in the last couple of years, I’ve started to use Ableton at home. So it was great to be on Ableton when the lockdown came, to be able to continue working.”

I didn't want to just be a disco queen; I wanted the character to be a bit more complex

She was encouraged to learn to use that recording software by DJ Koze, with whom she has already started working on her next album.

“He works totally different to Parrot,” she says. “He’s a very modern kind of producer and he wanted me to be on the same software as him, so he made me do it. So by the time we had to start doing stuff for this album, I was up and running on Ableton. I wrote a lot of the new stuff here at home, and I put down vocals here. But the thing with this album is the songwriting; the vocal recording has to be very slick to carry it, I think, [because] the record has to work at different volumes.”

As a result there were several trips to Parrot’s studio in Sheffield, despite her home set-up. “I think we went up three times and they were miserable days in the studio with the masks on,” she recalls, shaking her head.

“Going up on the train where there’s no one around, and going into this post-apocalyptic Sheffield . . . It’s bad enough in Sheffield without a f**king pandemic,” she laughs. “And you had to go down an alleyway through a Chinese restaurant to get into their studio . . . God, it was really something.”

Get the look

As always, Murphy's visual aesthetic is an intrinsic part of her music. This time around, her influences for Róisín Machine were drawn largely from women in the punk and post-punk scenes, as well as the eclectic club scenes in New York and on the Continent during the 1970s and 1980s. A Cosey Fanni Tutti photography exhibition also played a part.

“It was so beautiful, and they’re so subversive, the imagery,” she says. “I just stood in front of it and thought, Where are these women now, that don’t give a f**k? So it was very inspiring. Then I was reading about Danceteria in New York, and the mix of music, goth music and house music . . . and Sheffield was very much like that.

“So I didn’t want to just be a disco queen; I wanted the character to be a bit more complex. I wanted to explain really where I’ve come from, this mix of music and cultural styles clashing together.”

At 47, Murphy has been around long enough to have wielded her own influence on a generation of new stars. She arches an eyebrow when I bring up the oft-repeated theory of Lady Gaga pilfering from her style and aesthetic over the years.

“Well, she certainly didn’t steal my musical style,” she sighs, shrugging. “It’s a whole other thing now, another world – another business, even.”

She says she doesn't keep up with contemporary pop music. "My daughter and son do, and it's horrific, mostly. They rub my nose in it: 'Why don't you make music like this?' " she says, laughing. "I say, 'You'll understand when you're older'. But I like Billie Eilish, she's a super amazing pop star; very surprising and probably the best pop star of the last 15, 20 years. I liked Rihanna, too. I sound really old saying that, don't I? 'I liked Rihanna.'"

Next phase

This accidental pop star already has plans for the next phase of her career, and that involves documenting her own story. And when you've had a life as interesting as Murphy's – transplanted from Arklow, Co Wicklow, to Manchester aged 12, later moving to Sheffield, meeting Mark Brydon and forming Moloko before embarking on her solo career – you know it's going to be worth tuning in to. But she shuns the idea of writing a memoir.

“I’m more fascinated with making a visual story out of it ... Maybe it’d be a biopic, or maybe I’d twist it a bit and make it fictional,” she says. “Depending on who comes into my planetary orbit to help me make this happen, and how it happens and on what budget. But really, by the time I’m 50 I want to start to concentrate on film, and leave the music a little bit more in the background. It will never be forgotten, but I do want to concentrate more on film in my 50s.”

Considering her doggedness and endurance to date, you’d be a fool to bet against her making a success of it, too.

“I’ve been put on the scrapheap a few times over 27 years, and had to kind of somehow get back out,” she says, smiling. “And the only way I’ve done it is just following my gut, and working with the people and the entities that are naturally in my planetary orbit – and not be too massively overarching, or make some ambitious plan. It was really moment to moment; everything I’ve done, every record I’ve made, I’ve tried to do the best. And I feel that way now about this next one, too.

“So I don’t like complaining, because f**k . . . it’s just been amazing. And it’s amazing to be still here.”

Róisín Machine is out now on Skint, BMG

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times