In a desperately fashionable pub garden in Hackney (“it’s like fucking New York round here now, isn’t it?”), Róisín Murphy is swearily and majestically holding court.
“Me making music happened not even from a desire to make records,” she begins, as we go over the 25 years since Murphy emerged as one half of Sheffield-based ravers, Moloko.
After dazzling at the turn of the century with smash dance hits Sing It Back and The Time Is Now, they imploded in 2003, with Murphy going on to build a wonderfully unruly and rich solo career, following her own path. "I've always done things that way because of the life that I lived, you know?"
Where Is the What if the What Is in Why? Moloko (1995)
Murphy’s musical education began early with her wayward Irish family. “They were wheeler-dealers, always only working for themselves, laying roads, collecting antiques, whatever – that gave me a kind of freedom.” Her dad was a fantastic singer who loved playing with words (“a character – a bollix! – but I love him”), while her uncle was a jazz bandleader who commanded a crowd (“pitch-perfect – when people drank, everything revolved around him”).
Her parents moved the family to England when she was 12, only to return to Ireland when they divorced – but Murphy, in her mid-teens, chose to stay in Manchester, alone. This coincided with the vibrant music scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s – she would be at the Haçienda one night, at PSV enjoying hip-hop the next, falling in love with Sonic Youth at Manchester University the night after.
She followed a boyfriend to Sheffield where everyone was starting labels or clubs – this was when Pulp and electronic label Warp were building momentum – and where she formed Moloko by accident after approaching future boyfriend and bandmate Mark Brydon in a club, asking him: "Do you like my tight sweater?" That question became their debut album's title. Where is the What if the What Is in Why? was the first of its songs that they unleashed.
“It was a pretty sort of out-there thing for our first,” says Murphy, proudly. Its drum programming foreshadowed early jungle, she says, and its lyrics – about reincarnation, blind men filling up with light and birds with nowhere to fly – are psychedelic and strange.
“I was aware that I wasn’t experienced enough to write a soul song at that point, and even said it in interviews: I would be bullshitting you if I wrote about how painful my last breakup was, because it wasn’t. So I went somewhere else – into my head, my imagination, to a place where I was acting, playing parts, like performance art.” She has felt happy in that place ever since.
Forever More, Moloko (2003)
By Moloko's last album, Murphy could write soul songs. 2003's Statues was made after she broke up with Brydon, the only person with whom she had ever made music.
“It felt like maybe I’m destroying everything. Maybe I’m not going to be able to make records without him. What the fuck have I done with the last eight years? I was 29. Worried, to say the least.”
Forever More is a "fucking masterpiece," she gushes – the arrangement by producer and long-term associate Eddie Stevens remains one of her favourites. It begins darkly with squelchy sub-bass, before disco brass turns Murphy's lovelorn lyrics ("Gotta find me somebody/But there's nobody to love me") into prime Salsoul material.
Do her and Brydon ever talk now? “No, not much, no. Very rarely, something comes up where I have to ring him, and he goes: ‘Ugh. It’s not you, is it?’”
Through Time, Róisín Murphy (2005)
Murphy's first solo album, 2005's Ruby Blue , was made after she moved nervously from Sheffield to London. "London seemed like an alien landscape. My world was a tiny bubble before – even the band were slightly outside me and Mark, and then everything else totally outside of that."
Producer Matthew Herbert had been pushing Murphy to work with him, and when she finally agreed, he said to bring something to facilitate their first session.
"I thought he meant something inspiring, so I brought this Brian Eno article about a project called the Long Now, about him putting a clock into a cliff that counts for 700 years – I thought maybe it could inspire a song. And Matthew, says: 'OK, hit it across the microphone.'" She laughs. "That was the start! And then I was bringing hairspray, hairdryers, shoes ..."
Through Time is like a 21st-century Dusty Springfield song, all soft melodies and featherlight electronic backing. Herbert taught Murphy the benefits of structure in the studio, too: he did an 11am – 6pm working day, which she still sticks to ("and I always come out with something").
He also taught Murphy about her voice being just a thing in her music. “He uses found sound. He made me realise I was a found sound too.”
Murphy loved Ruby Blue, but her record company didn't. "I delivered it, and they went: 'It's the wrong record.' I was like: 'What do you mean? That's the record!'" She'd never experienced A&R interference with Moloko before. Not long after, she was dropped after saying she hated a remix that her label had commissioned ("and I'm not going to say who remixed it, but I guarantee they'll tell you it was a shit remix as well").
EMI signed Murphy soon after and she made the brilliant, full-throttle pop album Overpowered – before disaster struck again. Murphy's boss at EMI took the record straight to someone he knew at the top of BBC Radio 1, who took it on holiday with his wife; on his return, he said they both loved it, then added they weren't going to play it at the station.
"So the whole thing about these men running the industry, blah-blah, it can be counterproductive. If we'd promoted Overpowered from the ground up, a different thing might have happened. Because someone knew the right guy, it destroyed my chance."
The fantastically dark, gloopy R&B of Primitive is Murphy's favourite track from the album, written in Miami with Ill Factor and Jimmy Douglass, Timbaland's mentor. Its tale of animalistic instincts reflects a regular theme in Murphy's work.
“I mean, who gets to put primordial soup in the first line of a song? That idea of not always being in control of the primitive parts of yourself, the bits that fall in love or the bits that dance or lose the plot or drink too much, and putting that across … that’s pop for me. It’s playing with all the different colours of the rainbow of life.”
Three years after making Overpowered, Murphy had a daughter, then three years later, a son. "People were all: 'Pregnancy, this, pregnancy that.' Then I had the babby. 'Well, Jesus Christ, nobody told me about this bit!'"
She made more money DJing in early motherhood than she did with Overpowered, which suited her then. “But it didn’t suit for too long. I had to get creative again.”
Featuring lyrics such as "Never underestimate creative people/And the depths that they will go", the nine-minute, percussive Exploitation was a bold statement. "It really was – 'Don't fucking underestimate me, because this is going to be murder.' At the time, I was meeting people who thought I should be doing dance music, people who thought I should be poppier ..."
She sighs. “And I feel very strongly about this: I feel like I should really say this to all artists, especially new artists: don’t look to the people who don’t have vision. Don’t listen to them! They’re not there for that. They’re only there to help you along the way.”
Thoughts Wasted (2016)
2015's Take Her Up to Monto continued the theme of Murphy making complex, ornate pop songs with playful cover art to the fore – she's a workman in a hi-vis jacket on this album cover, a nod to some of her family's background laying roads, she says, with a wink.
"But certain images are stuck in people's minds about me. Like the Time Is Now video, God forbid, which is like a fucking Timotei ad. They forget the strength in it, and just think: 'A lovely blondie girl with her hair flowing.' It's difficult to overcome what that leaves in people's minds, but I try!"
Murphy hates how record companies retreat from more intellectual songs these days. She talks gushingly about Cole Porter's Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love.
“There’s irony in it, subtlety, reading, education, knowledge and understanding in spades. But if you gave it to a record company now, they’d be like: ‘It’s too clever. Too urbane. It’s referencing Darwin, dear.’ She blasts “idiots” coming into music studios since the 1990s saying things such as: “Keep it simple, stupid.”
"I mean, what's the point in saying the same thing over and over again? I can write a pop song – I wrote Sing It Back, I wrote Time Is Now, for fuck's sake. It's a bloody brick wall that we're running into today. I've worked all my life not to be a simpleton. I'm not starting now."
Illumination, DJ Koze feat Róisín Murphy (2018)
Until recently, Murphy didn’t really realise she had a great voice. “I’m very throwaway about it because I just opened my gob one day and it came out. It wasn’t like something I had to work at like writing lyrics, or styling myself, or directing videos.”
Nevertheless, she had never enjoyed hearing her speaking voice, finding it difficult to speak on stage. “But I’m doing things on Instagram now, where I’ll be able to bring myself to say: ‘Hello, I’m Róisín Murphy’ and it feels OK at last. It feels like me too.”
Stefan Kozalla – DJ Koze – approached Murphy to do a track because he loved her voice; she wrote this song over his beats in a studio with an engineer. Her original draft had a chorus that Kozalla took off completely, replacing it with a bit of her studio chat: “Me literally telling the engineer, ‘I need a bit of light here’. And he repeats it, ends it back, and I’m all like, ‘Brilliant’, and he’s all like, ‘Really?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah’, and he was like: ‘I love you.’” She laughs. “But that’s me! That’s really me.”
Murphy’s all for the layers of gloss being stripped from pop culture. “I’d say no to fans asking for a photo a few years ago, because I wanted to control my image. I knew it’d mean them posting me looking hammered with my arm round somebody.” She felt bad about it, she says. “So now I always say yes. This is how it is now. People want the raw thing. You can’t hide. And that’s OK.”
All My Dreams, Róisín Murphy (2018)
Murphy’s latest project is four 12-inches with Baltimore-born house producer Maurice Fulton, who now lives and works in Sheffield. “I’ve always loved him,” she says. Murphy goes up from London to see him by train. “And he’s a gentleman, always waiting for me at the platform in a suit.”
Despite that courtesy, he has been Murphy’s hardest taskmaster yet. “If it was down to me, the arrangements would have been more more fannied around with. But he’s literally: ‘Listen, I played it this weekend so don’t try telling me it needs changing because the whole fucking place went off.’ Or: ‘Shut up, or I’m going to delete it all.’ And I’m like: ‘Well, OK, let’s not delete it, it’s really rather marvellous, dear.’”
Murphy grimaces. “I had to pull me horns in, as my mother would say.”
It’s been funny going full circle and returning to Sheffield, she says. “It’s weird in a way – it’s like I’ve bypassed my past. But Sheffield gave me the sense of where all music came from, and it’s good to remember that. It was the perfect size of city, where I worked out the connection between electro into house into hip-hop into soul music and back again. And it saved me, you know, music: being something just to immerse yourself into and be obsessed with, which leads you to be interested in other things.”
She smiles. “Do you know what I mean? It all started with music for me. Everything still does.” - Guardian Service