Róisín Murphy: 'Music's an insatiable machine – you’ve got to keep feeding it'
Summer weekends are anarchic occasions for Róisín Murphy.
Earlier this month, the co-founder of adventurous Sheffield pop duo Moloko – now a highly-respected solo performer who continues to create finely-crafted club records in the city – could be found in front of a big crowd in Barcelona on a Sunday at 3am, hurling a silver-painted stuffed mannequin around the stage at the Primavera Sound festival as her band played a frenetic drum interlude.
This was her noisy segue into 'Exploitation' - a woozy piece of electronica, delivered in front of a backdrop video depicting Murphy made up as a refined but neurotic actress, unnervingly peeling and toying with a hard-boiled egg.
"It's been going on for years and years without a break, it's been brilliant," she says of her annual tour of Europe's best musical gatherings, which she pinpoints as starting in 2015 following the release of the Mercury Prize-nominated Hairless Toys, the third LP in her own name. "Since that album I've been busy every summer. I'm singing at a party in Paris tomorrow... I've got all sorts going on. Who'd have thought it, a woman of my age, still at it?"
Murphy is on the phone from London; she relocated to the capital around 15 years ago after Moloko, who had Top 10 hits with the likes of 'Sing It Back' and 'The Time Is Now', broke up. Born in Arklow, County Wicklow, her accent is a brilliant Irish-Yorkshire blend, and she's entertaining to talk to - good-humoured, forthcoming, and argumentative in a friendly way.
She has just put out the latest in a string of one-off singles. 'Incapable', made with Sheffield's DJ Parrot, follows four excellent 12" collaborations with city-based house producer Maurice Fulton that came out in 2018. The new track has been playlisted by BBC Radio 6 Music and, she thinks, justifies the idea of offering up standalone tracks every few months.
"You just get a bit of a burst every now and again," she says. "It's an insatiable machine, now, isn't it - content, and music. You've just got to keep feeding it and it's just about manageable with one-off singles. And the thing about singles and dance music is they suit one another - that's why I did it in the first place, the Maurice Fulton project."
'Incapable' is an upbeat offering despite the lyric's theme of emotional detachment, centring on the refrain: "Never had a broken heart/Am I incapable of love?"
The song's character – an icy diva with a mountainous curly perm, judging by the single’s sleeve – isn't sad, Murphy insists; it's more complicated than that.
"There's a few feelings in there. There's frustration, and a bit of irony, longing and big-headedness," she says, laughing at this exhausting list of emotions. "She's not even capable of being sad, is she. It's funny, I've put out tracks that are really sad and no-one says anything about the lyrics. Then I put out this one and people are like 'I really feel this, this is really me'. The world's full of selfish, detached b*****ds!"
Murphy recorded her contributions for 'Incapable' in London but the Fulton singles were made entirely in Sheffield.
"I was up and down a lot last year on the train," she says. "Parrot I've known since I was a kid, but Maurice has no connection to me, my history in Sheffield or the friends I have there. I'd get off the train and go straight up to his house in a taxi and it'd feel almost like I was walking backwards through time. And then I would just end up in this bubble with him. Then I'd walk back through time down to the train again and go back to London. It was weird but kind of nice."
Murphy, 45, moved from Ireland to Manchester with her parents aged 12. She chose to stay in the North West after her mother and father divorced, getting her own council flat the day she turned 16 and immersing herself in the vibrant Manchester music scene of the late 80s and early 90s.
She followed a boyfriend to Sheffield, where she formed Moloko in 1994 with future romantic partner Mark Brydon, who played bass for funk group Chakk and built the renowned FON Studios off the Wicker. Her first words to Brydon at a party - "Do you like my tight sweater?" - became the title of Moloko's debut album, while the band's break-up roughly coincided with the end of their relationship.
"It was very good to me, Sheffield," she says. "It's where I became truly independent and where I found my way. I didn't go to Sheffield to get into music, I assumed I would go for a couple of years and then go to university and study art. I fell into making music in Sheffield but you couldn't wish for a better place, and I think that's still true today. It's a cradle of creativity, really, for people like me."
In the 90s, she says, everything was on the doorstep for aspiring local musicians, from artwork specialists The Designers Republic to record companies such as Warp. "It was like a village of music idiots."
Allied to her jazzy, purring voice, Murphy's career has been defined by a strong visual image; seeing her live is akin to watching someone rummaging through a dressing-up box. She attributes this to ‘good-looking, different and modern’ parents - her mother was an antique dealer and her father worked for himself in various capacities.
"My mum sold two Dutch masters to Christie's in London at one point but then my dad could be selling a lorryload of scrap lead the next day," she says. "We had all this weird stuff coming in and out of the house all the time. My dad brought home the cockpit, including the nose, of a World War Two bomber - we had that in the spare room for a while. He had a business where he fitted bar furniture, which meant he was in the pub all the time, but basically a quarter of Ireland's pubs have my dad's furniture in it. We weren't religious... in Ireland everybody was at that time."
Sign up to our daily newsletter
Her mother, she says, had ‘great taste’. "When you're brought up around stuff like that, you sort of think anything is possible for yourself. It's a great way to start off, because life just takes the confidence away from you as the years go by. When I came to Manchester my mum got really into antique dealing and I spent loads of time with her sourcing stuff, so I'd go to charity shops and jumble sales and and flea markets. I used to dress completely in 60s clothes as a teenager, top to bottom. I was always an exhibitionist from a young age, always into dressing up, always into clothes. Not into them that much any more, to be honest – I've tried to shop in the last couple of days and just can't bring myself to do it."
Singer Grace Jones, and the photographer Cindy Sherman, were both big influences. Sherman, she says, gave her a 'sense of relief of not having to play everything so serious, not having to be so naturalistic in order to be a strong woman'.
"Certainly coming out of the 70s and 80s, the idea of feminism was one where you didn't have nice clothes and have your hair done," she says. "That was subconsciously maybe a little bit frustrating for a girl like me."
Primavera made waves as the first major festival to assemble a bill split 50/50 between male and female artists. How important was this to Murphy?
"It's a trap, trying to talk about that," she responds quickly. "I'm not interested in it, not one bit. That it happened is lovely, great. I walk like a farmer around the town, you know, I don't delicately trot down the street thinking 'I'm a woman, I'm a female artist', or anything like that. It doesn't even come into my head. Do I sound dead moody?"
The suggestion Primavera might have to match 2019's achievement is, she thinks, 'ridiculous'.
"I can't see why. I hope people don't go around thinking they've got to constantly be putting that before other things, like 'Is it any good'. It wouldn't feel like I deserved to be there if that was the case. I'd maybe have the tendency to start thinking 'F***, am I only here because I'm a woman?' That would be annoying."
Murphy's first solo album, 2005's Ruby Blue, was an avant-garde effort, but her second, 2007's Overpowered, was a full-on synthpop record with major label EMI who stumped up hundreds of thousands of pounds. The sleeves for the LP and accompanying singles, which depicted her wearing outlandish garments by Gareth Pugh, Givenchy and Viktor & Rolf, cost a reported £125,000 alone.
"Creatively it was a one-off for me," she admits. "I was totally put into the driver's seat across a massive project, involving lots of people. I was really the boss. You could afford to be because I was paying everyone so much money, so they had to do what they were told!"
Is it essential to be a self-starter these days, given how much things have changed in the industry?
"I don't know, have they, really? I'm wondering if they have," she ponders. "I've been knocking on the door for a while for the last few years, so it's starting to get a little bit looser, but also 'Incapable' is on Skint Records which is part of BMG. So I'm wondering if you're p***ing in the wind trying to be totally independent. It's not easy."
Last year Murphy used Twitter to vent about the 'indifference' she felt people showed towards her. "I’m crying a lot, tiredness," she wrote. "I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall."
She took a break to see more of her daughter and son, aged nine and six, at the home she shares with music producer Sebastiano Properzi.
"I'll tell you what it was," Murphy says, looking back on the trials of 2018. "I was trying to make a video to come out once a month and it was for very little money. I walked into that one, I should have known better. I managed it, in the end, but it was very hard. Super hard."
In December Brydon was asked about a potential Moloko reunion. He expressed doubt, fretting that it would be 'like Men Without Hats doing a tour of city halls around the country on a Back to the 80s Night'.
Murphy is similarly disinclined. "It's not that I don't want to do that, it's just I don't want to look back," she says. "I like looking forward. I think my career relies on that sense of reinvention."
She's been hosting an occasional Heineken-sponsored podcast series called Sync Sessions, and in March she directed a chaotic video for 'Tastes Good With The Money', a track by off-beam rock band Fat White Family who made their latest album in Attercliffe. Several future ventures are in the works too, she says. "I'm at the beginning stages of a couple of projects that I can't talk about... because it could all go t**s up."
Incapable is out now on Skint Records. Sync Sessions is available on Spotify and other streaming services.