17/03/2008

"They still haven't a clue who I am"

On the eve of her St Patrick's Day performance, Roisin was interviewed by UK newspaper The Times.


It's not every day that a pop star in killer heels - “Balenciaga, and they weren't f***ing cheap either” - walks through the doors of the Corrib Rest. And yet, of the half-a-dozen drinkers watching the horse racing on TV on Tuesday afternoon, none of them bats an eyelid at Róisín Murphy. It's as though, unable to compute her presence in an old Irish boozer, it's far easier to ignore her.

Come Monday, she may be back - if not here, then to a place very much like it - to continue a St Patrick's Day celebration that will begin at Trafalgar Square on Sunday, when she headlines the capital's annual celebration of all things Irish. The timing couldn't be better, she says. The purring disco synths of her new single You Know Me Better - along with its acclaimed parent album, Overpowered - may lie closer to Detroit than Dublin, but the full benefits of going solo with an Irish name are just beginning to reveal themselves. “In Ireland, people who wouldn't necessarily have guessed it from my time in Moloko have twigged that I'm one of them - so I'm all over the radio.”

The era of Amy, in which the strong female singer rules, rather suits the 34-year-old Murphy - so much so that it's easy to forget how long she has been doing this. Few would have tipped her for the long haul in 1996, when her voice graced the half-spoken quirk-pop of Moloko's debut hit Fun For Me.

Noticing that the duo - Murphy and Mark Brydon, then her boyfriend - didn't have a Britpop bone in their bodies, critics decided that Murphy and Brydon were trying to ape the West Country trip-hop scene spearheaded by Massive Attack and Portishead. The criticisms she could take, but when the bands started joining in, the barbs got to her. “We played a gig in Bristol,” she says, “and the geezer from Portishead [Geoff Barrow] turned up wearing a T-shirt that said: ‘Accept no imitations'! Six months later, when Morcheeba appeared, they started slagging us off. They said we were hairdresser music! We were like, 'Hello?'”

To say Murphy that was unprepared for such “bitchiness” is an understatement. She says that Moloko weren't a band so much as “a by-product of our relationship”. Even their debut album, Do You Like My Tight Sweater?, was named after Murphy's chat-up line when they first met.

When they cut their first demos Murphy didn't even know whether she could sing. To a certain extent the two huge hit singles they scored - Sing it Back (1999) and The Time is Now (2000) - obscured the fact that Moloko were more of an inspired mismatch than a pop-minded enterprise. Brydon had cut his teeth with the industrial funk of Sheffield's Chakk, while Murphy's musical awakening took place on the dancefloors of a loved-up Madchester, to which her family had moved, from Arklow, Co Wicklow, in 1986.

Perhaps because of Brydon's left-field pedigree, chart success exerted a strain on both Moloko and their relationship. “Any notion within Moloko of me being the star would have been unacceptable,” she remembers.

But, of course, a star was exactly what she became. “Mark used to joke about it. There's two of you - a bloke and a girl - and whenever you see a photo the bloke's in the background, blurred out.”

But just because Brydon was able to joke about Murphy's transformation from singer to fashion icon, it didn't make it any easier to manage the changes that came with fame, such as the magazine covers that did away with Brydon altogether.

As if to fill that space there came a new entourage, eager to make themselves indispensable to Murphy. “A stylist is a case in point. I've never ever needed a f***ing stylist, really. And yet here I was with one borrowing boxes of stuff from Christian Dior for me to wear. And for her to not send it back - and then I see holiday snaps of her wearing the Dior - it's just, like ... you're making me look a t**t.” The fallout from this period is laid beautifully bare on Statues (2003), the swansong that chronicled their separation. “Is this me breaking free/Or just breaking down?” she sang on Come On, while, over nine minutes, the sad, shivering strings of Over and Over shaded a poignant picture of the gulf between them. “The songs were mostly autobiographical,” Murphy says, “so it was bound to be emotional.”

More so, it seems, for Brydon's declaration that, if the album was to be made at all, he needed to take charge. “All along it had been 50/50 - the production and the writing - and all of a sudden it was like, 'I'm going to be the sole producer of this record'. You can imagine the d-raamas we had in the studio.”

It seems that Brydon was compelled to take it over because he knew he was losing her. Maybe he felt that this amounted to his last chance to make a record that really mattered - an admission that he would probably never find another singer like Murphy.

“I think he thought it was the last record he was ever going to make,” she says. “Which would have been a shame if it was true, because he's a proper genius. Everything I am, he taught me.”

There's a recurring theme to Murphy's life that - even if she isn't aware of it - is unavoidable over the course of an afternoon. In periods of flux she takes matters into her own hands. It's always been like this. At the age of 15, with her parents breaking up, she was caught shoplifting clothes - not as a cry for help, but in an attempt to address the fact that “there was no washing done in the house and I couldn't work the washing machine”. When her mother returned to Arklow, Murphy, still not yet 16, moved into a flat on her own.

What surprises you now, talking to her, is that she stuck not being a solo entity for so long. Though she continues to work with collaborators, she makes no bones about the shift in pecking order as a result of going solo. After the deck-clearing art-pop of Ruby Blue (2005), Overpowered came of a resolution to make a modern disco album.

Any question of record company intervention was swiftly nipped in the bud when her A&R man arrived in the studio and announced his intention to stay a while. The episode inspired the pulsing paranoia of Checkin' On Me. Latterly, the nascent Scots popsmith Calvin Harris has gone public with his indignation that she omitted their collaboration Off and On from the track listing. “The problem with it,” she laughs, “was that it sounded like the theme to Grandstand.” The only thing that annoys her more than other people not meeting her standards is her failure to meet her own. Talking about the serious eye injury she suffered in October when playing a small club in Moscow, the main source of her annoyance is that she should have been more focused on the space around her. “I was sort of headbanging and I hit a chair. The skin was flapping from my eye.”

Arriving at Moscow A&E, she was told by staff there that the wound needed to be stitched within four hours if it could be repaired at all. “I said, ‘Look, I'm not madly vain, but I'm in the public eye - and it's my face.' So then they got scared and didn't want to do it.” Within a few hours she was on a plane to London, where an Italian cosmetic surgeon set to work on her. “He was completely in love with me at that point,” says Murphy. “I told him, 'I don't mind having a scar. I just don't want the expression in my eyes to change. So if it's a choice between having a scar and a possible change in the way that my eyes express themselves, then I'll take the scar.'”

Four months after that encounter,the doctor's handiwork means that Irish eyes are smiling. Murphy has just heard that her father - about whom she sings “I'll always be your little girl” on Scarlet Ribbons, the final song on Overpowered - is coming to see her St Patrick's Day show. Also there will be her current boyfriend, the artist Mark Henwood*, who painted her picture for the sleeve of Ruby Blue.

Looking ahead, she says that she wants to do a “proper” Irish folk album - “Not folky-wolky-doo, but really rough-sounding”. If so, this weekend should give her plenty of opportunities to put in some practice. “Last year, we found ourselves in an Irish pub in Cricklewood. I went up to the guy who was playing guitar and said I wanted to sing [the Irish famine ballad] The Fields of Athenry. And he wouldn't let me. So I said: 'Listen, I'm well-known, me! I'm a proper singer!'

“But he was having none of it, so I had to find the landlord. In the end, he went up to the guy and said: 'Listen, if she can sing anything like she can talk, you should let her.' There wasn't a dry eye in the house. I left the bar and they still hadn't a clue who I was.”

She downs the rest of her pint, then plonks the glass firmly on the table. “And they still haven't a clue who I am right now, I'm sure.”

*This should be Simon Henwood.

3 comments:

Pipo said...

Thanks for posting this! It actually gives some new information rather than regurgitate what we have all read in the past 6 months! And she is so funny: I'm well-known, me! A proper singer! lol

Btw I checked the Grandstand theme on you tube and Roisin was totally right" Calvin Harris really gets too much credit...

Anonymous said...

thank you. what a stunning photograph. i wonder if this is available anywhere in a higher quality and less cropped?

Benjivolt said...

waow i love this pictures! so folky!