Róisín Murphy Delves Into the Extended Spirit of Disco and Stylings of ‘Róisín Machine’
Róisín Murphy takes the extended spirit of disco and makes it all her own on “Róisín Machine.” With roots in Ireland and a musical evolution that took place largely in the unique environment of Sheffield, England, Murphy has absorbed a mix of influences that have informed an ever surprising musical trajectory. Her earliest work, with duo Moloko, emerged from the burgeoning ‘90s trip-hop scene, while her solo debut, 2005’s “Ruby Blue,” found her boldly venturing into uncharted territory, with the aid of avant electronic figure Matthew Herbert. Since then, her work has taken many turns, while her signature aesthetic has grown steadily more distinctive, winning her a devoted fanbase, and establishing her as a camp classic.
2007’s “Overpowered” found Murphy taking new strides with dancefloor anthems that came with a visual component all of her own. At once dark and celebratory, coy and consuming, Murphy’s music comes designed for the most indulgent nightclub adventures, and she zeroes in on this spirit with a newfound focus on “Róisín Machine.” Insistent beats pound through corridors of fog and hiss, as the walls vibrate from abrasive bass, and Murphy puts on a spellbinding show, alternating between soulful diva outpourings and husky, spoken interludes. Murphy spoke with Entertainment Voice about the sounds and spirit of her music, the concepts behind her new songs, her cultish appeal, and life at large.
You’ve kept busy in lockdown, releasing at-home performance videos for projects like #StayHomo, which is a welcome, unifying gesture, but considering the festive physicality of your music, it’s also the ultimate tease. How do these experiences impact you, and how have the recent circumstances generally influenced you?
Well, I’ve taken the idea of at least having a live element in what would be maybe more of a pop video format, in terms of the length of one song, a self-contained performance — the idea of just singing live, and on the camera, the take being one take gives you this resonance of a performance. I think that’s how I got into it, and after doing those ones for the Homoelectric stream, I got really into it and did another one for the Russian queer pride, and then I was just on to Ibiza, which had changed a bit because the camera is now moving, and I’m outside and stuff like that, with these horses and swimming pools.
Your music takes on a new focus on “Róisín Machine,” with the disparate influences that have shaped other works still present, but directed toward a unified aesthetic. Tell us about your desire to take this direction on the new record.
This is me going back to what made me. The guy that I work with on this record, Richard Barratt, is a big part of the Sheffield scene. I always looked up to him. He’s a bit older than me, been there, done that sort of thing. The original inspiration for doing it was “Overpowered,” and when it came to the end of “Overpowered,” I felt the natural place to go was deeper into that, deeper into house and disco, and the crossover and the clashes, and where I came from really specifically, more into the cellar. There was a revisionist sense at the time, and we thought, “Ok, let’s go back.” People were beginning to think, “Let’s look at what we lost here. Let’s have a little think.” If we had come out ten years earlier, when we started to talk about this, I guess we could have been locked in with Hercules and Love Affair.
We come from Sheffield, so obviously the big influence outside of that, I think, is dubbed out disco, Larry Levan, Casablanca Records. Grace Jones and all of that is there obviously too. But underneath that, you’ve got this Sheffield minimalist clang, what is in the DNA of near all Sheffield music. What was driving music when I first came to Sheffield in the ‘90s, Warp Records were huge at the time. Parrot (Richard Barratt) made one of the first records on there, and invented bleep techno (laughs). The album is kind of like a big building with all these recreational spaces. You’ve got your loft, you’ve got your back to basics, you’ve got some type of soundsystem thing going on, and then you’ve got the cellar, which is this thing that holds it all up, which is this Sheffield kind of modernism — Human League or Cabaret Voltaire, and then obviously all of that Warp stuff. It’s a bit industrial goth somehow. It’s a Sheffield thing.
Visuals have always been a major component of your work. Tell us about the inspiration behind them, and the recent turn that they have taken.
It was referencing that time, sort of ‘85, ‘86, ‘87, and soul music and dance records. Then I was really starting to look at scenes like Danceteria, and a good bit of it seems to be what I’m descended from — this clash of the disco, if you’d like, and the house, and Throbbing Gristle, and the art crowd, and the hip-hop crowd, and the dancers, and the posers, and everybody all mixed up together, you know? And then technology with records, to take a dub, and making it just an extending, crazy thing that is just amazing next to, sort of, a fucking early Chicago shithole, and all of that. So the visual of the scene really interests me as well, because I had previously been really fascinated with Paradise Garage and the Loft and all, and I do recognize myself in the Danceteria scene. Getting into music in Manchester, I was into Sonic Youth and Jesus and Mary Chain, and all of that, and I transitioned. I wanted to echo that in the imagery, so I researched that sort of era… That’s where it came from. Siouxsie Sioux was a big influence, and also Mina, the Italian singer, and her antics, and her bravery. I mean she did an album where she had a beard. Sometimes, you wonder, “Where did the balls go?” She had the most fantastically realistic fake beard. She’s very vogue, but then she’s got the fucking beard. It’s genius. But also, she did eyeshadow and the eyebrows, things like that too as well, so mine is a bit of a mix between Siouxsie Sioux and Mina.
So what else? I got really into ‘70s wrestling, for some reason, for a couple of days, not long ago, and that really influenced it as well. The looks that the wrestlers wore at that time, and where they came from as well — small towns or industrial towns across England — it’s the same people as glam rock people, the same gruff fellows in fucking spandex, and there’s this blouse and some makeup and stuff (laughs). There’s this crossover.
You have managed to encapsulate a certain dim-lit, club-centered, celebratory sensibility in a way that has won you cultish fandom. What do you think it is about your particular sound and aesthetic that has made such an impact?
I embrace mistakes, and I embrace wonkiness. Things that are cult are imperfect. They aren’t symmetrical from a distance, and they have great beauty because they have mood. I prioritize mood over everything else, and that’s where the magic is for me, in anything I love. Just go with the dissonances in everything. Along the way, when you make a big story, and find yourself a new career, many things clash in people’s minds, going from one image to another, one style of music to another, or one area to another. What I think makes me cult is that it’s weird, it’s imperfect, and it’s not symmetrical.
“Murphy’s Law” is a welcome celebration of throwing caution to the wind and letting amorous instincts play out. As an artist with a history of playing by your own rules, your career seems, in some ways, a refutation of Murphy’s Law. Tell us about the idea behind this particular song.
Well, the hook is really just there to hold the story together. The story is one of somebody going out, having to make a decision to go out and make themselves, and to stop relying on the same old mistakes, the same people, at the same time. And a real theme across the record is “Go and be curious, and make yourself, with whatever power you have to make part of yourself that wasn’t already made, or just had to do with where you were born and what you were born into that part of you that makes that choice.
On “Narcissus” you sing, “Be in love, be in love with me,” and you seem to celebrate the core idea behind the original Narcissus, in a way that speaks to a self-confident indulgence that resonates with club culture, What did you mean to express in this song?
Well, I often find myself drawn into magnetic men, and get a lot of energy from them, but they have often turned me down (laughs). What I mean is that I find plenty of unrequited love, and I’ve noticed that hugely magnetic guys can get lost in that, can’t they? That’s what I was channeling. There’s always irony. I just tell stories sometimes as well, in a Freudian way.
Disco, as a specific genre, has yet to see a full-fledged revival, but has seen a handful of resurgences. As an artist who has boldly evolved over time, and borrows from the extended spirit of disco. How do you see yourself proceeding next? Full-fledged disco?
I think [disco] has been consistently at the heart of dance culture for the 30 years that I’ve been involved. I think people think of it as the Bee Gees, “Saturday Night Fever,” and we had some really bad English ones — the Nolan Sisters and stuff like that. We also had the awful disco dance competitions that were constantly on television with greedy people that should have been medicated (laughs). But there again, it depends on what you think of as disco — what is disco? I love having a loud disco dance to Joy Division. When I started dancing to “Shadowplay” the other week, I started to do Northern Soil moves, because “Shadowplay” has got this Motown backbeat to it, and as I was dancing in Northern Soul mode, I realized that that was really similar to how those post-punk lads in the north of England dance — too sort of stiff up at the top part of the body, and the bottom part of the body is much looser. The pogo almost is really similar. And then you think, the Northern Soul, they’re really the same guys. The connections are there right across the board, right into Jamaican music and dub, right into, obviously, African drums, right into Depeche Mode and Nitzer Ebb, you know? It’s disc-o. It’s a disc you play, and go fucking mad dancing to it, and it’s deliberate. And when Joy Division put the big backbeat that was like a Northern Soul record, that’s because they meant to do that. Everyone understood the same language there and then. So now, removed from it, we think, “Oh, Joy Division is all like black and white, suicide, and stuff like that,” but it’s not all like that. It’s also the same lads dancing like fucking Kung Fu fighters, and Northern Soul then went to Joy Division concerts, so it is the same — there’s Kraftwerk and everything in there as well, (laughs), which, by the way, could also be disco.
So, are you already thinking about what’s next?
I have a lot of things on the table. An amazing amount of beautiful, incredible music flowed into my life. I’ve been working with DJ Koze on the next record, and he’s a bit more hip-hop, to be honest, but not, obviously — just super modern, the way he works, a totally different timbre, a different feel, a different texture. He has a way of sounding really modern. He does disco, he does techno. Everything he does sounds like him, but it has more resonance with American pop music. In a sense, it’s the most pop thing I’ve done because it’s the most American-sounding thing, so it’s the most global-sounding thing I’ve made, if you know what I mean.
“Róisín Machine” releases Oct. 2 on Apple Music.