Former Moloko singer Roisin Murphy talks to Paul Nolan about collaborating with an all-star team of songwriters, her unique image and clubbing in Sheffield and New York.
Released last October, Roisin Murphy’s second solo album, Overpowered, was another sparkling collection of dance-pop that showcased the charismatic singer’s vocal abilities to superb effect. Whilst Murphy’s first post-Moloko release, 2005’s Ruby Blue, was written primarily with Matthew Herbert, this time around the singer collaborated with several songwriters, including Seiji of Bugz In The Attic, Richard X, Groove Armada’s Andy Cato and veteran us producer Jimmy Douglass.
Did she enjoy working with a larger team on this album?
“I did enjoy it, although I was scared to begin with,” admits Murphy, sitting in a quiet corner of the Herbert Park Hotel on the day of her recent Dublin show. “Previously, I’ve always really known the person I’ve worked with, and obviously at the beginning of any creative process you’re in quite a vulnerable situation, or you feel that way. I don’t feel that way so much anymore; I think making this record broke the back of that a little bit for me.
“Moloko was really a private thing between me and my boyfriend, and a few years ago I probably wouldn’t have considered myself able to make a record the way I made this one. With Overpowered, it was a mixture of me approaching possible collaborators myself and other people being recommended to me. Seiji I’d already sought out before I’d even signed with the label; I played some of the backing tracks to EMI and they liked them. Then, people like Andy Cato and Richard X were introduced to me by the label, although I had a slight connection with Richard through people in Sheffield.
“Jimmy Douglass came over, touting his wares, and I went to meet him. The thing about him was that I said to the label that I wanted to work with high-end American production, which obviously means someone from the hip-hop/R’n’B arena, but I also needed someone who was comfortable making disco. Jimmy played in disco bands and produced lots of disco records, including Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’. Not only that, but he’s Timbaland’s right-hand man – he discovered Timbaland. So he had exactly the mix I needed.”
Would Roisin herself ever consider collaborating with Timbaland or The Neptunes?
“I’m not desperate to work with Timbaland, although I wouldn’t say no,” she replies. “I think those producers are a bit over-exposed. For me, even though this record is less experimental than any I’ve made before, in that I started out with an idea and followed it through to the end, I’m very used to shaping the sound of an album. I did initially think that maybe I’d just buy tracks and sing on them, which is how a lot of American stuff works. Particularly with The Neptunes, you might go and spend 50 grand on one of their tracks and when you get it, it’ll be just right.
“I think The Neptunes are totally amazing, I’ve got massive respect for anybody who can keep turning out hit after hit, and yet still keep the music quite edgy. But as it turned out, I worked from scratch with everyone on this album, and made massive compilation albums for people. I had very nailed down references and was very involved in shaping the music as well as the vocals. That’s how I like it.”
Overpowered has a striking sleeve, conceived by Scott King, which features Murphy in a rather odd red ensemble, reminiscent of David Bowie’s costume in the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video. What was the thinking behind the album artwork?
“Well, one of the first things I showed Scott was some of the footage from the Moloko live DVD,” explains Roisin. “I said, ‘What I really am is a performer, and that’s what I want this to encapsulate.’ We’re good friends, Scott and I, and I think he relates to me in the sense that he feels a bit like a fish out of water within his own world. He’s from Hull, and obviously moves in art circles, but he’s very down-to-earth. I think he sees some of that in me, in that I’ll have a pint of Guinness with him and swear like a trooper.
“So he wanted to express those two different sides to me; the realness, and also the glamour of being a performer or whatever. I thought it was a great concept, and it gave me the chance to do what I love doing, which is dressing up and contextualising in a way that makes it work as an idea; it isn’t just for the sake of it. But I’m sort of loathe to express what it means to me really, because the best sleeves to me are the ones that you have to keep picking up, and every time you look at them there’s a new story within the image.
“When you look at those classic Pink Floyd sleeves, you still kind of think, ‘What the hell is going on?’ If I was to say what is going on in my mind, it might ruin that a little bit. Some people say, ‘She’s a lonely diva’, other people say, ‘It’s showing how underrated she is’, or ‘She’s a just a bit of an oddball’. There are all these different narratives that people have when they look at the image, so I wouldn’t want to destroy that.”
Murphy, of course, is noted for her sartorial taste, and today is as sharply attired as ever. Her love for both music and fashion found an ideal outlet in the Sheffield club Trash, a regular haunt of the singer in her pre-Moloko days, where she was inspired by the Vivienne Westwood designs sported by many of the venue’s patrons. Does she attend many underground parties in Sheffield these days?
“The last time was about six months ago, and there’s a new breed of lads DJ-ing now. There’s a lad called Toddler, and I thought he was a DJ from Mars. The music he was playing was brilliant, really modern and metallic. Mental beats that you shouldn’t be able to dance to, but they’re just so funky. It’s such a soulful thing when you go to one of those do's, people really care. And you see these lads, all aged between 17 and 19, hanging around Toddler.
“Then Robert Gordon, who produced the first record on Warp, by Forgemasters, came in and the lads were all like (does Sheffield “geezer” accent), ‘Rob’s here! Rob – the system’s not working!’ Rob built Fon Studios with Mark Brydon (ex-Moloko), even though he was a lot younger than the guys who were there at the time. Rob was about 14, 15, but he used to make all the gear – he actually made samplers. He’s an absolute musical genius.
“But, anyway, he came into this party, with the system not working, and Rob’s fairly old now. He had the glasses down on his nose, and the flowing dreadlocks, but he just ignores everyone ’til he gets to the system, and he starts rewiring it. Then (claps hands), perfect! The system’s working absolutely fine.”
Roisin says that Danny Krivit’s New York club 718 Sessions inspired her to start working on Overpowered.
“Danny Krivit has been DJ-ing since the ’60s. His Dad had a jazz club, and he used to DJ there when he was 12 or 13. He DJ-ed all the way through the ’70s, and he was part of the Paradise Garage, which was Larry Levan’s club, which really invented house music culture. Well, it didn’t invent it, obviously there was house music in Detroit as well, but this was a cooler, more serious and musical club than, let’s say, Studio 54, which was around at the same time.
“I went to New York for about three months in ’96, just after I’d finished promoting the first Moloko album. There was a club called Body and Soul, an all-day club, which was the club Danny and Francois Kervorkian had together. It’s now world famous, but it’s gone. But Danny’s just started the 718 Sessions, which is all-day on a Sunday as well. You go down there, and everyone knows some dance steps.
“The best thing I ever saw was at the end of the day, when all the voguers – all the old guys – came out of nowhere, with the room lights still on and the DJ still playing. You’ve never in your life seen anything like it. There are whole theatrical stories within their dance moves. It was like watching a film. The thing was – they’re only there for the music. This is at the end of the weekend, they’ve no make-up on and they’re all in jeans and t-shirts. And they’re vogueing, and it’s the most glamorous thing you’ll ever see. It was just a joy.”
Although the musical policy is very different, Roisin sees parallels between 718 and the Northern soul scene.
“It’s similar in that the culture is still held onto. 718 is only once a month now, and it’s a bit old I suppose. Northern soul is obviously ’60s and ’70s soul, whereas this is a bit more open-minded musically. But it’s such a similar scene, ’cos it’s people holding onto something very dear to them. It’s very touching.”
Overpowered is out now on EMI
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