Interview: Róisín Murphy

The pop vanguard on her new album and making club music during isolation

Cult favorite Róisín Murphy has been entrenched in dance music for 20 years, but avoids labels like “disco queen,” “electro-pop icon” and even “singer-songwriter.” The Irish artist is indeed all of the above, but those categories are also too simple. Known for conceptual looks, off-kilter shows and an almost performance art approach to pop, she has been known to call herself a “conceptor.” No matter where (whether that’s in a recording studio in Sheffield, on stage in Moscow or at home in London), Murphy seems to have a compulsion to create—something she credits to her Irish heritage and her time spent in some of the UK’s most musical cities, during their most pivotal eras.

After moving from Ireland to England with her family, Murphy remained in Manchester on her own in her teens, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, before moving to Sheffield—whose equally dynamic music culture is widely credited with building the foundation of the country’s electronic tradition. Murphy infamously (almost accidentally) embarked on her musical career when, in 1994, she approached Mark Brydon at a party with the pick-up line, “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body?” He wanted to record her remark, and the two immediately began making what would became Moloko’s debut album, Do You Like My Tight Sweater? The duo went on to release three more LPs until breaking up in 2003 and, while Murphy had dabbled in music outside Moloko, it was in 2004 that she recorded her first official solo material. She released left-field pop masterpieces, Ruby Blue (2005) and Overpowered (2007), before taking an eight-year hiatus. Then came Mi Senti, Hairless Toys and Take Her Up to Monto.

Working again with longtime collaborator and friend DJ Parrot (aka Crooked Man, born Richard Garratt), Murphy is now poised to release her fifth solo record, aptly named Róisín Machine. The album exudes the industrial throb of Sheffield. As Muprhy explains, “There’s a sort of rigorousness, a minimalism. Kind of machine-like because Sheffield itself was a machine and a machine for making steel and it ran the world. So if there was that sort of pride instilled in Sheffield people—certainly when I was there, even though those big spaces were lying black and dormant and those huge machines were silent, it still kind of rumbled on in the music. And it’s still rumbling today in this music.”

Unsurprisingly, Murphy and Parrot (a legend of early house music in ’80s Sheffield) pulled inspiration from countless other genres for the album—which they began working on several years ago. “Right from the beginning, we were talking about dubbed-out disco and proto-house,” she says. “And clashing with all sorts of other types of music, which is more of the DNA that we come from—more than a straightforward disco DNA.” While there’s plenty of four-to-the-floor disco percussion on the record, those more esoteric influences were possible because the duo is immersed and invested in the culture they reference.

Working with Parrot creates an ideal creative partnership for Murphy, as their two personality types play with and against each other perfectly. “He’s a very focused visionary,” she says. “And I knew this when I went to him more than 10 years ago after making Overpowered, I knew that the only person to go to if I really wanted to go deeper into this world… First off, I’ve known him since I was a teenager, but he’s the most steeped in the music.” Murphy, on the other hand, works more loosely. “I’m more of a wild card,” she tells us. “You know, when I wrote ‘Incapable,’ he had a hard time with that. He was saying, ‘How can you make people dance when you’re saying, ‘I’m incapable?’ But he allows me to throw a few wild cards in!”

Some of the album was recorded during lockdown, which made the process, “Different,” she tells us. “Just in little incrementational ways, in that sense I spent time on certain things I wouldn’t have spent time on.” It was the process, mostly, that was altered—perhaps resulting in just atmospheric changes—by the worldwide pandemic. “I went to Sheffield to complete a few vocals (to record them without having to engineer them myself here) and I went in the middle of it all,” she says. “I went through a sort of desolate London, onto a desolate St Pancras—glorious St Pancras Station. Nobody there got on the train. Nobody on the train. Went up to Sheffield, got out and walked through Sheffield. Nobody in Sheffield. Honestly, like End of Days stuff. So I don’t know if that affected it.” She also had a several sessions at her London home that “brought out some of the different tones and different things in the record… I’m sure it’s slightly different than it would have been.”

It’s at home that, like so many artists, Murphy has been developing and sharing her creative endeavors; from making a new album with DJ Koze to performing shows in her living room. And it’s also at home that she released this record into the world—a feeling that she says also feels different. “It’s hard to separate all the phases that I’ve been through,” she says. “You know, 27 years I’ve been doing this, so to identify why something feels different is very difficult. It feels different for a lot of different things—some of them very positive, like the fact that I’m still here and the story is starting to tell itself and that the confusion is beginning to die down a bit over the context of what I do.”

The world wasn’t ready… People didn’t know where the music came from

Confusion has followed Murphy throughout her career. While a cult favorite, she was perceived as somewhat of an enigma by many—her and the genre as a whole. “When I came to Sheffield, both Parrot and Mark Brydon had had house music hits, top 10 hits and Top of the Pops. And they’d hit a brick wall,” she explains. “The world wasn’t ready. No matter what happened, it was seen as a novelty, a novelty record. People didn’t know where the music came from—whether it was just generated by people at the BBC or Frankfurt or Mars.” But it’s that very confusion that also makes Murphy so alluring. So describing her as an art-pop vanguard, dance icon, disco queen—any and all those terms don’t quite encapsulate her properly. But she wouldn’t say that. “Well,” she laughs. “You could say that.”

Images courtesy of Adrian Samson