Roisin Murphy: “You have to go out every night of the week”

Róisín Murph, live in Los Angeles, October 2023 

When Róisín Murphy released the Moloko debut album “Do You Like My Tight Sweater?” with Mark Brydon in 1995, the Irishwoman was just 22 years old. The two had met shortly beforehand in a smoky club in Sheffield; it was love at first dance, so to speak. Over eight years and four albums (including the hit singles “Sing It Back” and “The Time Is Now”), they went on to mix up the international clubs in the best Bonnie and Clyde style.

Since the end of Moloko, Róisín Murphy has released solo albums with various producers (including Matthew Herbert and Maurice Fulton), each of which has been an exciting pop moment in itself; most recently the psychedelic pop-dance spectacle “Hit Parade” together with DJ Koze.

Róisín, where do I find you?

Roisin Murphy: In Ibiza.

I saw you in Los Angeles on your last US tour and as I told you after the show: it was simply fantastic. To me you and your band are just getting better and better – from early on Melt! solo gigs to Dekmantel to Cologne to La. 
What really gets me is this feeling of freedom on stage even though everything is choreographed. How hard is it to bring such an easiness to the stage?

I am definitely not choreographed. Even the clothes themselves are something that developed over time. I often get asked about the clothing: “How do you put the costumes together?” That is something that comes together on the very last minute at the beginning of every tour. On the first days of a tour I am still trying things out, during which song to wear what, when to take it off – and that changes as well during the tour, not significantly but it evolves. The movements are not choreographed. Usually the set is pretty nailed down, this song comes first, this song comes second. We change the length of the sets for specific festivals. But if you see me in a venue, we pretty much play the same set. We have to. We just don’t have the option, cause each we decide to do has like two weeks preproduction, rehearsals.

It is kind of a miracle that we can translate these records to the live setting, and I am very grateful for the band that I have and particularly the musical director that I have, Eddie Stevens, they enable me to do that – that is not that usual, there are not that many acts that can translate electronic music / dance music / hysteric studio music into something that is truly live, that is a band interacting with each other. Which is what I always want, the highest level of what is possible to present these records. That is not easy, no.

Just for the record, I did not mean it is all scripted, I was more talking about like for example that significant start with the band and you being filmed backstage and walking out and then again being filmed at the end.

Even those things evolve as we go on.

As I just mentioned the Dekmantel performance. This was in 2019 and you were if I am not totally wrong with my interpretation of what I experience: totally stoned for the first half of the set. Totally. Your band took it with a graceful laid back attitude and let you drift – before you “came back” and smashed an absolute fantastic second half. Do you remember the show like this?

I don’t know if I was any more stoned than I ever am (laughs) I wasn’t hiiiiiigh. 
I remember a hectic time – we had a gig the night before in another country and were flying in with the whole gear and needed to get it to the festival –, and that the stage set up was all different like it would usually be, the screens were completely different, they were all a very long way around the stage. So I think it was one of those ones that was not easy for us to do.
I mean were listening to (imitates with her voice her music) before we went on – and you were listening to (imitates with her voice her music) before we went off. And if we came on and played sexi-funky danceable music that might have given you the feeling of we are all stoned.

Not all, it was just you, the others were not stoned.

(we both laugh)

Róisín Murph, live in Los Angeles, October 2023 

Why I bring this up – these days artist are expected to act like “the people” think they should. Of course there are many types of people, but all are kinda united in this expectation of the artist’s behaviour. You know what I mean? But you seem to me like not caring at all?

No! I don’t care, actually. No, I don’t care, I never cared.
You know, Moloko, which is my beginnings, was a duo that was based in Sheffield in the North of England, had their own studio, that made its own records, that produced a record from A to Z – it was done in Sheffield by us. And for the most part we delivered a finished record. We were people who didn’t like even playing their record to friends until it was finished, it takes the mystery away, it takes something really special away actually when you start playing demos to everybody. You understand what I am saying?

I come from that background. I accidentally became a singer, I accidentally became who I am. I will wait for the right story to appear in my life. I don’t sit and think at a bar table with a big record company rat what must Roisin Murphy do next, you know? That has never been like that. Its in the case of “Hit Parade” the case, that Stefan [Kozalla aka Dj Koze] magically appeared in my life. In fact the way that I live brought Stefan to me.

Do you understand me? Nobody would plan to get DJ Koze to do their solo album for them, because you would not get him. Nobody would assume to sit at a bar table: “We need to get that guy in Hamburg – and take over the world after that.” (laughs)

Obviously all the way through Moloko and the first with my first solo album, which was with Matthew Herbert, who happened to be in my life anyway. I was very scared of moving forward with my solo career, did not know if I should even have one. But it turned out he was the absolute perfect producer for my first solo record. He was my friend. And then and then and then … always the same. And even “Overpowered” which of course is unusual in the catalogue because it is many producers (Dan Carey, Andy Cato, Jimmy Douglass Ill, Factor, Parrot & Dean, Richard X, Seiji; the Author) and mixers and arrangers and so on. It came to me because the A&R man, who signed me and who was never able to work in the music industry again (laughs) was my friend. I talked to him in the pub, “what should I do next, mate? I feel like I want to this sort of a record, I want to make my record, but in the way they make Kylie records, the way major labels make pop records, I wanna have the choice of producers, the choice of this and the choice of that and make pop music, but this kind of pop music inspired by this this and this” (I had already really strong direction) – and he in the pub was like: “Okay, I’m gonna sign it!” It was very bad for him and very good for me. (laughs)

Maybe in the long run he is happy with the decision?

Hmm, I don’t know. But anyway, it wasn’t all my fault he lost his job in he music industry, obviously EMI defaulted straight after “Overpowered” was going around. Anyway. But he did let me spend a lot of money doing exactly and precisely and only what I wanted to do.

I wanted to come back to how you ended up working with DJ Koze. I phoned lately with a mutual friend and he pointed out that Stefan never calls him back when he wants to, but then suddenly calls unexpectedly. What younger artists often do not understand is: you can’t plan everything, you should not plan everything. Because often the best things come out of jokes, fun projects and so on. But one has to allow them to happen.

You think it is no one left like that?

Not so many younger ones feel free to risk it. Because they get told to do this and that, follow a rule book.

It wasn’t that many in our time, you know. There were not many who took the path that I have taken.

You think the more conservative tendencies were always there and are not a result of the current zeitgeist?

Always. Either conservative or … I never expected to be constrained. I don’t expect the worst in people either. I don’t expect the worst from the man in the music industry. And I am not sitting there waiting to complain about messaging me every five minutes or so. I let it happen. And I am in control – I don’t know why? I made the decision to be alone at 15 in Manchester. So I had a lot of balls even before I even found myself in the music business.

But you would also never expect to get “that, that and that”, just because someone is telling you so, right?

I would not believe it. I just don’t believe that someone could come and plan a career like I had from the outside. Its not possible. And I never believed it. I only believe my own gut feeling. And I never had problems with it, you know. I always stepped over boundaries if they were there. Like when I was 19 and walked into a music company. The boundaries were already there – and they were scared of me. Seriously.

We were powerful together in that way, Mark Brydon (her partner in Moloko, the author) and me – we were full of ideas, I supposed we had both charisma. I mean, I was a 19 year old, I must have had. And he was already solid, he was somebody who was in the industry for a long time, he was 13 years older than me; he worked with all these other people, he knew the business inside out already. All in Sheffield came from a background of DIY – do it yourself: get on with this, make this culture work for you. Build a studio! Put on a party! Pay the DJ! Make records – make the record company even, Warp was founded in Sheffield. There was no moment I would have thought there was any other way to be for me.

On top, you were mixing up his world.

We presented a strong front. We were a totally united front for eight years and four great albums. That was lucky and that was the way I expected it to go for me. I mean, when I made the first solo album, I did the same thing. I went with Matthew Herbert into the studio without talking to the label and it did not take very long and we had an album. And then I went to the label and said: “Lets put this out!” – And they said: “It’s the wrong album!” I was so shocked, because they would have never dreamt to say anything like that to me when I was in Moloko. Maybe it was because I did not have anymore this quite scary man beside me. Maybe it was like that .. especially when you were a bit more softy music industry person … he was from the North of England [shows with her hands that Mark Brydon is a huge man] and he was older than everyone and he was tough, you know, he didn’t take the piss –and maybe they thought in that moment they can take the piss with me. But I was like, “sorry, there isn’t another album – there is just this one, so you better get on with it and get it out!” And they did – and they dropped me after that record, but then they collapsed as well as a label, they were panicking, there was no future anyway.

Róisín Murph, live in Los Angeles, October 2023 

You talked before about “Hit Parade” in depth. Stefan Kozalla and you produced something magic there. What I am interested in is the way you did it. One always thinks that magic only happens in rooms under certain condition and in the interaction of people. But you two worked in separated cities in separate studios on different schedules. How easy or difficult was this?

I did enjoy this actually. Because what happened was: I did the two tracks for his album “Knock Knock” remotely for him [“Illumination” and “Scratch it”], but I went therefore in a little studio with an engineer that I always use for that very kind of job that I do. Usually when people say give us a vocal or a track for our album I go in and record and then they pay for the studio time and the fellow helps me recording. So that’s how we did the two first tracks I did with him. I was the last contributor to his album I think, and I honestly just think he had some tracks left over and did not use that much imagination, just thought, “lets give it to Róisín”, you know.

So he gave me these amazing, amazing tracks that nobody else makes and I said to him: “Could this possibly turn into a Róisín record?” – and he said: “Yes. But listen, don’t expect me to do it in any time. It will take as long as it takes. Because we gonna do it in our own time. And in our own way.” He asked me to use the exactly same music software, so that we could share the files very easily. I was: okay, I mean its Dj Koze – whatever he says is fine by me. As long as we get on with it. I also didn’t have any pressure to put out a record in that period – it took five years –, because I had “Róisín Machine” to put out, I had “Crooked Machine” to put out, and everything around those records. So it just came in exactly in the right time in the end. There wasn’t anytime that I was thinking “shit, why isn’t it finished? I need it to be finished.” 
The thing that I am good at, I just wanted to say that only thing that I am good that – but one of the most important things that I am good at is patience, working with right producer. I feel like I chose the right producers, I treat them well, I respect them enough to be patient and allow their process to show me. Because you think you know how Koze makes his records, you think you know how Matthew Herbert makes his records – but you never do know. It’s about not being shocked, not being afraid, trusting them, trusting your own judgment that you are there in the first place. I am ideal for these people to work with in this sense.

Are you in general an easy going artist that trusts well the other artists you work with?

I am only nice to producers, everybody else is a bitch. (laughs)
But I say: it definitely with Stefan a little more than usual. A little bit more patience and understanding and ability to relax when you are in the eye of the storm or the eye of the chaos. Maybe it takes a bit more with Koze. Although, in a different way, you know, I could have freaked out about things with Maurice Fulton – but I didn’t, because it is Maurice Fulton for fuck’s sake.

How do I have to imagine the closing of the chapter, does someone have the final word or was the idea that both have to be pleased with everything? Were there negotiations?

There was some negotiation, yes. And there were plenty of times that he was convinced that a track could not be saved and was going to the bin. And then I would be like: “No!” – and I negotiated things back out of the bin.

You are a good motivator?

A hit, not that. It’s just, if I really feel strongly about something … I am patient, but if I am really feeling strong about something I am like a dog with the bone, I carry on and say: “Can we talk about that song again?” And in the end they… there is a reason the negotiation goes on.
But he is one of the greatest DJs ever as well. Koze thinks like a DJ and produces like a DJ. I let most of the producers I worked with do the sequencing of the albums. I let them decide what’s 1,2,3,4,5… let them build the world of the record.

When we talked after your show in Los Angeles, I mentioned that I was just back from “Making Time” festival in Philadelphia, where Koze played an incredibly great set. Seeing you just a few days later, I felt like, “oh, I want to see them both sharing a stage too”, like you did once in Australia, but in a rather glamorous set-up – somehow I feel like more you two at Panorama Bar, you know what I mean.

We did it in Australia, we did it at Print Works in London as well. But I mean, I don’t need to do that, I’ve got my exceptional band. There was a minute that he thought, there was some touring together for this thing – but I had to tell him: “Why would I? Look at the exceptional live entity I have!” That’s the thing to do for Roisin Murphy. Maybe we could go to Japan with Stefan, somewhere where I normally do not go with my band and where he goes a lot. That could work.

Was it his idea to jam together or…?

It was mentioned only one time. Look, we are talking about six years working together on this album. It just came up one time, after that thing in Australia. I had to tell him, these are one offs. This is great, but my thing is my thing, and my band is my band. It is as said before, extremely unusual to do electronic music albums and transfer them into great live shows. There are not many artists like that.

Well, I get it. As said in the beginning of our conversation: the band and you are getting better and better. And as much as you are of course in the centre the band is also in the centre of attention here. The whole band has this special charisma.

That’s cause we have honesty a sense of family in this unit. I work with Eddie Stevens as a MD since Moloko days and he never lets me down. He always brings the best musicians that we possibly could get to the game. I believe I have the best band that I ever had right now. Here and there you change one and get another one, but now the set of people is the best set ever. That’s a thing that needs oxygen and time to develop as well. This band I couldn’t have planned five years ago, you know. It’s has been all these years of development.

Talking about the live shows. In a Guardian questionnaire you talked about the “trait” you deplore most in you: “My problem with clothes”, like “the whole drama of what I’m going to wear, the hair, the makeup…”
Come on, that was all on coquettish, right? You love it, right?

I hate the clothes. I hate them.

Come on.

Oh F off!

But why do you wear them then?

It is a love / hate relationship. You have to do what you feel you are good at. So it forces me to do it. I would hate it a lot more if someone else were dressing me. It would be awful.

Roisin Murphy (Photo: Nik Pate)

Let’s talk about undressing: in Los Angeles you did wear, like always, those pretty lavishly designed clothes on stage – but when we met backstage just a few minutes later, I have no idea how you did, you were shower and all fresh in jeans with sweater, total tomboy look, as glamorous as the stage outfits.

(laughs) Come on. You must have been high! 

Maybe I was. 

I def did not shower. I had the same make-up on. Luckily I don’t sweat much, that is a very lucky thing for me. I am very dry, not a lot of moisture. And the make-up stays on, the hair stays okay.
I sadly did not make it to one of your Panorama Bar shows of the past. Did you also dress up there or did you perform rather casual there?

You can’t change outfits there. I stand on top of a DJ booth. 
The first time I wore a mask, like a hat thing an artists made out of rubber for me, that has a huge penis coming out of it – and all this rubbery stuff that looks like spunk dripping down your face. This was perfect for Panorama Bar.
The last time I wore a white rubber kinda of space age cat suit thing that looks like drawn, which worked very well there as well.

What was the last job you did before making a living from music?

I never had another machine to live from except music. From the age of 15 till 19 I was helped by the government, they paid for my flat, my apartment and gave me some money to live. I had some bits and pieces jobs, working in a restaurant, in a sandwich spot, in a vegetable shop. Only part time shops. Then I went to college and thank god the UK back then had a very good way of dealing with teenagers that needed support.

That’s something getting harder and harder.

That is impossible now, you couldn’t get housing benefit now in this position, that means you couldn’t get your rent paid for an apartment that you found for yourself. They wouldn’t give you that now, not until you are 21. I received it when I was 15 –that is a big difference. Now 15 year old ones have to go to a foster home; or they have these little boarding houses full of children and maybe one or two adults going in and out. Totally different from what I had. I was able to find a little place to live in that was close to where my friends lived, that was close to the place where I was doing the rest of my education. I was giving this independence, this strength. The government believed in me. They don’t believe in kids now.

That’s also why we see such a shift in the socio-graphics of the arts, like nowadays bands and artists are coming more from the upper class than working class.

Is that really so? Is it all posh people making music? When I walked into Sony a few years ago, when I was playing this record to people, outside were young guys rapping and their managers beside, and that were the ones getting signed, you know. I doubt it is really true it is all rich people.

I think with hiphop and electronic it’s different from like bands.

I think there are still a lot of real people in music.
You need to have a lot of dedication. It is wrong if you think it will be enough to get a laptop and some plug-ins and call yourself a DJ and producer … and they don’t move out from their mums, and they don’t get out anymore. Dance music – and you don’t go out? You have to go out every night of the week, like I did and all the people I know.

True, culture happens in the streets, in the clubs. That’s what I meant in the beginning of our conversation. The zeitgeist tells the kids to be disciplined, to do this and that – but music, art is often the result of stupidness, of challenging yourself in life, if you are not open for that than you are closing the box of creativity.

There is not much coming out of a laptop and some plug-ins. You gonna have to get out there. Go to a million parties, hear the sets of the DJs, become part of a family connected to music. This is the mindset, this is where it all starts. You build your own network and don’t wait for people to just give you a chance – you have to make your own chances.

Are lot of young artists come to you and ask for advice?

No. I am surrounded by old people, you know.

Would you be up for this?

I have not much to say.

Ah, come on.

(Connection breaks down. A few minutes later Roisin Murphy calls back)

Thanks for calling again. But I think we have to come to an end soon sadly. 
Maybe one last question: I am interested how do you write songs? I imagine like you have ideas and work on them right on rather than sitting down for a whole day of writing.

That’s what I do: “Today I’m gonna write”. I can tell you the sort of things I write down in my daily life. [turns the phone around and opens a file with notes]
When I am reading and when I am listening to things, these are the things that I kind of collect: “Locust of Control. Volte face. Nebulous body. Fifth column. Ancient culture. Modus vivendi. Radical shake. Bad optics…” I collect things. And then they are there when I am writing. I used to be much better. It used to be much nicer what I did. Before I read a lot of things on the internet, I wrote my ideas on paper. So I would create these big sketch books with things that I cut out of newspapers and magazines. I created like collages of words and phrases and things. I wouldn’t do that thing where you make a song like that, but I did put these images all around the studio, and when I was stuck with something in the middle of something I look around and see: “Oxytoxin“ – “what was that all about?”
And then I made a whole song that is called “Overpowered” out of that. I am never lost because I am either inputting or outputting, I am either reading, absorbing, listening, taking bits and pieces from what I am doing – and when it comes to outputting, I got something there, I got things that I could look at.

I like these kind of landscape ideas on walls. My friend John Stanier once told me that even his band Battles, who work primarily instrumental, have like a whole world of narrative and characters and scenarios for their tracks.

They are actually quite beautiful things, the collages. It’s sad but I am not reading things on paper anymore.

Last song that made Roisin Murphy dance?

It is from a band called The Jellies: “Jive Baby on a Saturday Night”.
It is so so good, a real rarity.


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