Róisin Murphy on Escaping the "Culture of the Imbecile" and the Joy of Long Songs
By Chris Steffen
May 20, 2015
Irish pop music omnivore Róisin Murphy has been anything but idle since the release of her 2007 album, Overpowered. In addition to releasing a string of singles, EPs and one-off collaborations, including working with David Byrne and Fatboy Slim on their Here Lies Love album, Murphy found time to have two kids. Her new album, Hairless Toys, is her first in eight years, and she hasn't missed a step. In her four-and-a-half star review of the new album, editor Heather Phares praised Murphy's updates to her sound, citing "a more personal approach that is so powerful in part because it's so quiet," and calls the record "a welcome return and Murphy's most satisfying album yet."
We talked to Murphy in the lead-up to Hairless Toys for a conversation touching on taking full control over her output and presentation, how she managed to unintentionally anticipate current fashion, and how her children are gradually beginning to understand what their mother does for a living.
AllMusic: You've been through the writing, recording and touring cycle several times now. Do you have a favorite part of that whole process at this point?
Róisin Murphy: I love all of it, and this time, I’m more appreciative of it than ever before, because I've been away from it for so long and so much has happened to me personally in between, that to be back doing it, and especially the way things are at the moment, the way I can have more control over it than ever before, it makes me appreciate it even more than I ever did. For sure, I love making records, I love making images, live performances, it’s the ideal job for me, it really is.
AllMusic: What's an example of the control you have now that you didn't have before?
Murphy: First off, we didn't have a record deal or try to get a record deal before I made the record. I made the record knowing that in this day and age, there’s always a way to put a record out. So I finished the record before I then licensed it, so that was the first thing that makes it new, you’re in total control. Not that a record company has ever told me what kind of record to make, but there was absolutely no one looking over our shoulder, we were totally in a kind of bubble of our own making. We did exactly what we wanted to and we finished it precisely how we wanted to and didn't have to argue with anyone or convince anyone. I’m in contact with my fans through social media, so with that, you can control a lot of the aspects of your own marketing, too. I just directed a video, which is a whole other thing of controlling the way that I’m sort of perceived.
When I came into the industry in the 90s, there was sort of a "culture of the imbecile," as far as the musician was concerned. They’d call me and say, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about any of that, all you have to do is write your little music, do your little stage thing, and we’ll worry about the rest of it.” We didn't worry about what the record company was taking, the splits, the way the things worked in the industry, and that was very nice, to be in a bubble and all you have to do is be very creative. Looking back on it, I think that is the worst way to be for the artist, I think the artist should be more switched on, it doesn't take away from your creativity to know who’s doing what where for you and what they’re charging you for, it doesn't hurt at all to be a bit more clued up about these things. If you’re coming into the industry now you absolutely have to be smart about these things, and I think it’s quite good.
You need to be not an idiot, you need to be not cushioned and in a bubble and bullshitted to, that’s the way to look at it. There’s a clarity about it now, you can look at how everything works, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I prefer that, I think it’s a much more healthy way of living, and it requires maybe a little more discipline than in the 90s, when I came into this industry. Nobody used the word “discipline,” nobody was interested in discipline, especially people who worked at record companies who were high out of their minds and had limousines outside the door, at the expense of the artists, even when they weren't going anywhere. That’s not right, that’s really wrong.
AllMusic: In the time between albums, did you always know that you'd make another?
Murphy: I’m surprised how long it took me to make another album, and it did take a while for all those pieces to go into place, but I didn't think that I never would.
AllMusic: Were you paying attention to what was going on in popular music at the time?
Murphy: My partner right now and for the last few years is a producer, who mainly produces house music, so I definitely got a sense of house music coming back to the fore, and I definitely was able to see a certain amount of appreciation for tasteful music, which kind of gets on my nerves sometimes, and I know I've made quite a tasteful record, but it’s annoying when everybody’s so tasteful. I’m the kind of person who feels what’s going on even without having to really try that hard, or even when I’m trying not to do what’s going on, I end up doing what’s going on.
When I was styling the sleeves in the photograph, the first visual thing I did for this record, I didn't want to do fashion, so I had an anti-fashion attitude for how I went about styling it, so I looked for vintage things, the things I picked up were quite ugly, big, ugly collars and things made of nylon and sort of horrendous, in a way, the things I was drawn to for Hairless Toys to wear, and I thought, “Right, I’m really out here on my own, this is me starting from zero, nobody’s going to have any association, this is all just me,” and then actually, fashion pretty much is using the big horrible collars and the brutalist minimalism, it’s really hot right now, and I can’t help myself, even when I try to not be part of the zeitgeist or when I’m trying to not have something to do with what’s going on right now, I end up being a bloody hipster no matter what I do. So that’s how it is, and I’m definitely not a hipster hater, I have no time for hipster hating, that would be hating myself.
AllMusic: Hairless Toys has some of the longest songs you've put out at this point. The album version of "Exploitation" is well over nine minutes long. Did you know from the start that you wanted some longer tracks on the album?
Murphy: For “Exploitation,” no, everything else, yes. I knew that we’d need some instrumental something on this record, because there was so much bloody Róisin going on that even when you’re Róisin it kind of gets on your nerves, so I thought with "Exploitation," “That will be the song to do it,” and that was the only one where we deliberately, as an afterthought, did that big long outro. When you’re working with a virtuoso musician like Eddie, the arrangements tend to flow in a more landscape way, and things don’t come back around, it’s not very repetitive. When I work with electronic producers, which can be absolutely fascinating in its own way, and Eddie is a great producer in the electronic mold, but originally he’s a brilliant and virtuoso musician, so that goes into the way he writes. It meant that we wrote and tended to write longer things and went more places, it was more like a journey. For me as a lyric-writer, I wrote in a more deeply poetic way on this record, because I had these landscapes to write to, and I didn't have to keep returning to the same sing it back, bring it back, I could go off. When you see the lyrics written on the page, they’re quite enjoyable, it’s not even necessary for them to be songs. It opened up a different chapter in my lyric writing, I think.
AllMusic: Have you always been a fan of longer songs?
Murphy: Nearly all my favorite songs are longer than three and a half minutes. “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell is an amazing three-and-a-half minute song, but there aren't that many in the modern world. I’m a big fan of the Northern Soul scene and stuff like that, but that’s from an older generation, a time gone by. All the house and dance music I loved, even disco, big, long stretches of music, I think 90 percent of the music I love is longer than three and a half minutes, and that small 10 percent is an amazing three and a half minute pop song.
AllMusic: What's your favorite thing to see when you look in the crowd during a live show?
Murphy: The performances definitely go places, so some of it is really full-on, and so that’s when I like to see them dancing, and then some of it is more intimate and quiet, and I like to see them listening or crying. I like to see them cry, if you can get them all crying, that’s fine. Crying, laughing, dancing, whatever, the gamut, all the emotions. Certainly, when I jump into the crowd I want to see hands going up to catch me, I don’t want to fall on the ground.
AllMusic: You had kids since your last album. Are they starting to become aware of "what mommy does"?
Murphy: They do, they really do. I didn't play this record at all in the house, my partner has a studio in the house, so he’s always in there working, so that’s where the sound system is, so I don’t play music in there very much. I haven’t had a copy of the record until very recently, so my partner put that into the car and he’s been playing it to the kids, I haven’t been there, but yesterday we got into the car and they said, “Play mama’s music, play mama’s music!” I was really surprised. He put my record on and it was kind of odd. My youngest is only two and a half, he was kind of quiet, it doesn't matter to him, but my daughter was really listening, I could see her sort of putting her head back and reading her eyes as it was all going in and she was trying to process it, and she’s quite fascinated by it.
The thing my daughter thinks I do is write songs, that’s what she thinks I do, which is kind of cool, because some people, like the nanny or whatever might say, “Oh, your mama’s famous,” which I’m not, and is kind of a crap idea to tell her, as well. She thinks that I’m famous for writing songs, which I think is a good thing, she thinks that’s what it’s all about. “Mama writes songs, mama’s famous for writing songs, and I’d like to write songs,” so she does, she’s like Eminem when she gets going, she just goes along and makes up songs start to finish, it takes about 10 minutes. That’s it, basically, that’s how it is so far. They haven’t seen me play live, they just think I write songs, they think that’s what being famous is all about. Because I’m not famous.