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Disco diva and style maverick Róisín Murphy is bringing a much-needed dose of individuality to the pop and fashion worlds. Here she talks about stage wounds, drive-in wardrobes and ‘frightening the life out of men’
Róisín Murphy turns up for our interview in outsized burgundy patent-leather brogues. This is about as low key, it seems, as a pop singer/songwriter who once wore a suit of armour to milk a cow for an album cover is ever going
‘They’re super, aren’t they?’ she says, showing off the shoes. ‘I fell flat on my face the other day because the soles are really slippery. But then, if I got myself some nonslip soles, they wouldn’t be any good for dancing, would they?’ she adds, laughing.
There you have the essence of Róisín: unquenchable adventurousness that can become rock ‘n’ roll recklessness, as we shall see. But it attracts a legion of straight and gay fans, otherwise known as the Murphya, who glam up in the kind of dandyish pomp not seen since the days of Duran Duran. And during the past 12 months, their fearless heroine has emerged as the ultimate alternative-style icon at fashion shows in London, Paris, New York and Milan.
The County Wicklow-born former front woman of electro-pop duo Moloko, she went solo in 2005 with her debut album Ruby Blue and followed it up with Overpowered in 2007.
It was the track ‘Primitive’ on Ruby Blue* that first began to establish a buzz around Róisín as the new Grace Jones – all outrageous dressing and catchy disco-pop tunes (almost every track on that debut album was picked up by the TV show Gray’s Anatomy).
Compared to the tearaway vigour of Róisín in action, those other fashion-fixated pop queens – Björk, Alison Goldfrapp, Kylie and even Madonna – look like mere prancing show ponies.
Before we meet at a West London photographic studio,
I catch Róisín at a packed-out Brixton Academy in Southwest London, where she whips through a lightning costume change for every one of her hypnotic electro-pop songs.
And then this whirling girl, who dances as uninhibitedly as a dervish in a trance, stage-dives into the audience and crowd surfs as crazily as someone who seems to have forgotten that she nearly blinded herself in Moscow in 2007, after headbanging a chair on stage.
Later she tells me airily, ‘If you look closely, you can see a little scar over my left eye after they stitched up the flap of skin that was hanging down. But it wasn’t that bad.’
There’s nothing calculated about the way she moves, unlike her childhood idol Madonna (more of whom
later). In fact, her entire career, she explains, happened by chance.
‘I feel more like an artist than a pop star, and I accidentally fell into what I do. Everything was just an experiment. Originally I thought of being a photographer and nearly went to art school, but I got a record deal instead.
I don’t have a personal stylist because I don’t need one, I just really enjoy meeting designers and picking up clothes. I’ve been going to fashion shows for years, but recently I seem to have been on a roll.
'The way I put together a look is quite chaotic but it usually starts with a hat,’ says Róisín, who champions such left-field designers as Gareth Pugh, Martin Margiela and her current favourite, the Belgian Christophe Coppens. One of Christophe’s witty outfits that she wore at the Brixton gig makes it look as if Róisín’s head has tunnelled through the middle of a sofa on which two ‘men’ made out of chicken wire and upholstery are sitting. ’I just call it a large necklace, a piece of extreme jewellery,’ she grins.
A blue-eyed strawberry blonde with beautiful cheekbones and a cleft in her chin, Róisín is softer-featured in the flesh than in paparazzi photos and defiantly low-maintenance (‘It took me years to pluck an eyebrow‘). There’s no pomposity about the girl from Arklow who moved with her family – mother Rose, father Michael and elder brother Seán – to Manchester when she was 12, but who still retains her Wicklow accent.
Today Róisín, who’s 35, lives with her artist boyfriend Simon Henwood, 42, in a house full of his 25,000 books
and her Danish furniture in North London’s Cricklewood, just a mile up the road from Kilburn’s long-established
Fitting all her clothes into the place is the only problem, it seems. ‘I need a drive-in wardrobe,’ she jokes. ‘I’ve no room for slob-out clothes, so I have to keep throwing out jogging bottoms.’
Asked whether she still feels particularly Irish, she laughs again and replies in her frank way, ‘I always say that’s an irritating question, but I think that people in Ireland have only recently realised that I’m actually Irish. I do feel Irish everywhere I go, but it does bore me when people get far too proud of being Irish, because I don’t push it as a thing that I sell,’ she says, adding that she doesn’t relate to the way Ireland is packaged as ‘pastoral’ to the wider world.
Pastoral is the last word you would associate with such an urban animal who so gloriously sent herself up with that milking-the-cow album shot.
She first got into music on the dance floor when Manchester restyled itself ‘Madchester’ in the late 1980s, forming a short-lived group with the eccentric back-to-front title of And Turquoise Car Crash The.
Then she met her future Moloko partner Mark Brydon at a party in 1994, and her chat-up line, ‘Do you like my tight sweater?’ became the title of their debut album. She now tells me that she used the chat-up line on every man in the room, but Mark was the one who took her up on it for what turned into a professional as well as a personal partnership.
Their song ‘Sing It Back’ became a huge Ibiza club anthem in 1999, but their tempestuous relationship ended in 2001, although they continued to work together on a new record and toured until 2003. ‘I haven’t
spoken to Mark for a long time now because we got
sick of the sight of each other over those last two years,’ she admits.
‘I frighten the life out of men, really,’ she adds. ‘Because there’s a shortage of eligible men, they can pick and choose – and they want it all, don’t they? They want a woman who is good-looking, who won’t talk back, who will have her own life but not be too independent.
'So I never get chatted up, which is fine because I have
a boyfriend. But the way I started in this business was
all tied up in sex and sexuality, because of meeting
Mark who became my boyfriend as well as my collaborator. That frisson was there in the work relationship all the time. And since we’ve broken up, I’ve taken a little bit of that with me. I’m not saying I flirt with producers, but for me there is always some kind of male-female chemistry in the way that I work,’ explains Róisín, whose ‘Movie Star‘ video from the Overpowered album was produced by her boyfriend Simon.
‘Friends introduced me to Simon four years ago. The song “Overpowered” was not about him, because I feel very at home with him and very comfortable with our love.
'I can be a nightmare to live with, getting great highs and lows when I come off tour, but he understands me being obsessed with my work because he’s the same. He’s a scruff bag, always covered in paint,’ she says affectionately of the artist who specialises in portraits, especially of children, and also works in animation and video and has just won Time magazine’s Video Of The Year award. ‘But I won’t get married,’ she insists. ‘I don’t need to “have my day”, because the fashion shoot today is going to be a bit like being a bride – getting dressed up and being a princess.
'And there’s also a bit of anti-marriage feeling in me because of seeing my parents get divorced. I’ve watched people with long-standing relationships get married and then find that everything falls apart. To be honest, I would rather convert the loft than have an expensive wedding.’
For all her bravado, she does have a softer side that’s centred on her brother Sean’s two little daughters: Saoirse, six, and Laoise, five. ‘My nieces are magnificently beautiful, though you probably shouldn’t write that down because they already have huge heads,’ she laughs. They are amazing kids, though what it must be like for a five-year-old to have an aunt with two upholstered “men” strapped to her while she jumps off a stage into an audience, I don’t know.
‘I would like children myself,’ she admits, ‘though I’m not planning them right now. Simon would love some – straight away if I asked him. He’s a very patient man; he and my dog Charlie bring stability into my life.’
Always a tomboy, Róisín hung out with boys as a child, got her head shaved at nine to her father’s horror and roared around Arklow singing Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ – ‘I was too old to be into Kylie as a pop star then, though I think she’s made some great singles.
'I have got fantastic female friends now, but I used to fight a lot with girls. My mother would go up to the school with carrier bags of hair that had been pulled out of my head. Other girls picked on me because I was very noticeable, had a big personality and loads of confidence.
'In fact, my parents were a bit different as well: self-employed, not religious, a bit more glamorous and aspirational than most people. They wanted to lift themselves out of the depression that Ireland was in during the late 70s and 80s and into modernity, so my family didn’t even listen to traditional Irish music,‘ says Róisín, whose uncle Jim Tyrrell was a show-band and jazz musician.
Her love affair with clothes began with her aunt Linda’s 60s outfits. ‘She had been a beauty queen in provincial Ireland and she kept all her clothes, including the
tiaras. She had no daughters, so I used to spend
hours at her house.
'And then when I was 12 and my family moved to Manchester, I started going to antiques fairs, charity shops and car boot sales with my mother, who is an antiques dealer, and dressing myself from head to toe for six quid.‘
After her parents divorced when she was 15 and her brother Sean was 18, her mother moved back to Ireland and Róisín lived with her father in Manchester for a few months.
By her own admission she went through a wild-child phase that saw her getting arrested for shoplifting clothes and put in a cell for three hours (her excuse was that she needed something clean to wear and didn’t know how to work a washing machine).
Then she moved out to live with a friend and her mother Sheila until she was 16, when she asserted her independent streak. ‘Sheila really looked after me, but at 16 I was eligible for housing benefit so I moved into my own council flat while I was at sixth-form college.
'My parents did mind me living on my own in a flat, but I didn’t want to go back to Ireland to live with my mother because I had my friends over here,’ she admits.
Despite that early rebellion, she remains close to her parents and has a strong survival instinct that so far has ensured the recklessness doesn’t turn into self-destructiveness. Róisín, whose father once expressed his relief that at least she wasn’t behaving like Amy Winehouse, has said she would never let fame destroy her.
‘I won’t let anything destroy me,’ emphasises Róisín, whose only visible vice is chain-smoking Silk Cuts throughout the interview and photo shoot. ‘There’s a danger of thinking that drugs and walking around with blood all over you is romantic,’ she adds when asked about Amy. ‘And there were very few subjects in my family that were taboo, so there wasn’t any romance about the reality of drugs.’
So in control is she that she produces her songs as well as writing and performing them. ‘I had quite a famous female pop star crying all over my shoulder at the MTV Awards a few years ago, saying, “They tell me what to do and look at you, you seem to be doing whatever you want to do.” Obviously she’s someone who is just doing what she thinks is commercially viable, which must be soul-destroying,’ she shivers.
But by following her own artistic instincts, Róisín has become a big commercial deal entirely by accident. To her amazement, she’s been asked to take to the catwalk and open and close Alexandre Vauthier’s couture show in Paris at the end of the month, before she starts working on her next album.
‘My father thinks it’s hilarious. He said to me, “Jesus, you are some chancer,”’ she says with a grin, as our stylist for the day, Charlie Davis, arranges a rail of wild, clashing, bizarre outfits as a tribute to her magpie instincts, and a hairdresser turns her long straight hair into bubble curls. ‘Like a clown,’ says Róisín, delighted at the way it goes with the super-big brogues.
And then the tomboy is transformed into a film star with silent-movie eyes as she poses in an extraordinary dress made of long strands of recycled plastic, and nearly slides off the platform on which she’s reclining.
At last Róisín Murphy is having her bride moment. Her way.
By Maureen Paton/Pictures by Michael Labica & Sandrine Dulermo
* Primitive is on Overpowered, not Ruby Blue.