“I have always been attracted to weirdoes. It starts in Manchester in the late 80s. First it was Sonic Youth, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Spaceman 3, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Butthole Surfers, and then going back to The Stooges, The Velvets, and The Angry Young Them. “Derek & Clive” changed my life. Then it was Dub Reggae and R’n`B clubs in Moss Side, where I learned to dance. Then it was Acid House and the Hacienda, and finding a Grace Jones record at a car boot sale.
When I got my first decent sound system it was “Astral Weeks” and Minnie Riperton. Then Sheffield and DJs Parrott and Pipes and Winston Hazel, and it was all back rooms and parties in basements and fucking brilliant music and dancing and true, true camaraderie. And then I was in a band and a relationship and I poured all I was “for” and all I was “against” into that first record and it magically came together without having to try. And that magic went on for years, and it got deeper and deeper until London and the pressure got too much and it was time to grow up and start all over again.”
Róisín Murphy is an odd one, never predictable, her twenty year career from the outside could seem a little unfocused. “I happened upon this “job” quite by chance and I have always thought it was because of my wayward creativity it happened at all, so I’ll always put the madness first, the open-ness, because that’s how it all started.”
When she walked up to Mark Brydon and uttered the line “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body,” a band was born. “I met Mark at a dirty basement party in Sheffield and I freaked him out a bit and turned him on a bit, and I guess that`s the effect I’ve tried to have on people throughout the rest of my career.”
Many years of blissful synergy followed that “chat up line” as Murphy “felt” her way through. So from 1995 until 2000 Moloko steadily became more and more established. The huge success of ‘Sing It Back’ brought them to much larger stages around the world, but it also put new pressures on the duo. They broke up romantically but managed to make one last record together, the beautiful and heart-broken ‘Statues’. “Francois Kevorkian told me ‘Statues’ was great, and likened it to ‘Here My Dear’ by Marvin Gaye”.
It was time to move on. “I wasn’t at all sure that I could do any of this without Mark. Moloko was all I knew and I was afraid.” Matthew Herbert asked if Róisín would like to try working with him. ‘Around The House’ was absolutely one of my favourite records of the time so I was more than up for it, yet it took ages for me to finally agree and organise the start date because I was petrified of failure.”
When they did start it all flowed well and they progressed through the writing of ‘Ruby Blue’ in a few months. “On the first day we wrote ‘If We’re In Love’ and on and on we went sampling my belongings, using the sounds of my life and making a album like that, inside-out and all the time, Matt holding me up and making me feel protected by all the inherent authenticity of his “method”.” Then it was onward again to EMI and a promised Pop record.
“With ‘Overpowered’ I controlled everything. I brought the many people I needed together and held tight to guiding principles that I, myself, had designed. In short I was the boss, which I enjoyed greatly. But I didn’t become a Pop star and nobody knows exactly why.”
The album, ‘Overpowered’, brought with it intensive touring. “We took the live show to a whole other level on ‘Overpowered’ and that show has to be one of the most creatively rewarding things I’ve ever been involved in.”
With more complex staging and choreography than ever before and some pretty astonishing costumes being changed at lightning speed for every song, Murphy pushed her performance to its limits. “I was knackered by the end of it and really needed to decompress.” She became pregnant in 2008 and took time out, only releasing a handful of tracks between her first child and her second who came along in 2012.
Then last year a curve ball. An EP mainly of covers, all sung in Italian. ‘Mi Senti’ was a collaboration between Róisín, her partner Sebastiano Properzi, and Eddie Stevens. It could be described as “very adult-orientated Disco”. Edith Piaf in Studio 54. The covers were sympathetic to the originals, yet wrapped in a warm womb of modern electronics. Giving them a close-miked intimacy, as if Róisín were there in the room. The remixes illustrated Murphy’s nous and knowledge of dance music’s underground by recruiting originators of both Balearic and Cosmic, in the form of Leo Mas and Daniele Baldelli.
Following the completion of ‘Mi Senti’ the time felt right to continue onto a full length album with Eddie Stevens in the producer’s chair. Stevens has been Musical Director for all Róisín’s live work since 1997. Joining Moloko for the tour of their second album ‘I Am Not A Doctor’, Eddie also played keyboards and contributed string and brass arrangements on many of the band’s recordings.
He had been their right-hand man in many respects and Murphy describes their long- standing relationship as “sibling like” and “Derek to my Clive”. She credits him with a kind of awakening “It’s Eddie who made me feel that I could really own this job. He helped me come to terms with who I was and what I was doing up there on stage, and I kinda feel that it’s only out of our strange but perfect chemistry that I became a live performer at all”.
The two spent five weeks last winter holed up in Eddie’s studio, a session resulting in some thirty songs, eight of which were selected for ‘Hairless Toys.’ Five intense yet liberating weeks of writing. Róisín zooming through the thinking / scribbling / singing / break / thinking / scribbling / singing / break routine for hour upon hour with Eddie adding more synths, some percussion, a bit of guitar, and editing on the fly. Both adapting and changing to each other’s input as it went down. Progress, according to Eddie “akin to weeding at one end of the garden, working our way down only to find the dandelions growing back at the start.”
The title, ‘Hairless Toys’, came from Eddie, transcribed, misheard, like a Chinese whisper, or careless talk, from a late night guide vocal. Born without denotation, referent, or idea, it is left open to imagination, and still grows as an adjective. The last decision for Murphy to make was the choosing of a title.
“I saw the words ‘Hairless Toys and realised that the decision was already made. It’s funny but for a title that has no meaning whatsoever it sure soaks up meaning as time goes by. It means almost everything. It has even obtained its own visual aesthetic that has informed the mood and style of the sleeve completely, although it has zero to do with hairlessness or toys.” So it has become a descriptor, a code, for anything from a blouse to a building, in the singer and producer’s world. If it had no meaning, it has plenty now.
According to Murphy the choice of which songs to put where was straightforward. “To select just eight songs from the vast batch written last year required some pretty vigorous editing. The record could have been much longer but this seemed like just the right combination, and in fact the sequencing fell into place with more ease than any other album I’ve made.”
It begins with ‘Gone Fishing’ that chimes like the bells of a buoy bullied by tide, everything hanging from a two-note octave. The lyric written after watching Jennie Livingston’s ‘Paris Is Burning’, a study of race, class, gender and sexuality in America. A walk of ‘Realness’ with Pepper LaBeija, Angie Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja, and their Houses. Surviving the slap of love and the weight of what media would have us believe are beauty and success.
‘Evil Eyes’ pits an elastic thunder of ruff punk bass against explosions of mirrorball glamour. Prophet 5 cloud busters. Groovy incantations. It’s 21st century boogie, smart, clever. Funk abstract. Chic guitar discos-up ‘Mi Senti’s’ thoughtful, reflective diva, “Away from a place of hopelessness”, as she pays homage to the falsetto of Curtis & Sly. Music formed in collision. Melody built from an ever-changing flux of molecules, rather than a tune per se.
‘Exploitation’ could be a lost NYC after hours. Jazz solos with the robots, and Róisín a world worn Marianne (Faithfull) in the spot. Róisín says “It’s about sex. Dangerous fun.”
‘Uninvited Guest’ joins trippy notes and thoughts of alienation. The day spent on nothing, just waiting, unfulfilled. Where is the what if the what is in why? Eddie calls it “A kicking-a-can- down-an-alleyway song. A hands-in-pockets, sooty-faced naughty kid with no place to go”, when mid-way a dream window opens like love to the rescue. Love might be within, but still it ain’t so easy to find. Scott Walker whistles. Or is that Morrissey? Or Otis? Or that wicked wicked Pickett? Sung at the crossroads of that alleyway and escape.
‘Exile’ has the keys from Ian McLagan’s smoky Hammond & Wurlitzer. Desert, country tremolo. Our heroine is Cindy Sherman dressed as Dusty in Memphis. Muscle Shoals on those blues. Lee Hazlewood sore-headed on some non-velvet morning, still stoned. Coming down from that most powerful of drugs. “Classic gilded cage complex”, says Róisín. I know why the caged bird sings.
‘House Of Glass’ is autobiographical. A strength drawn from necessity, recounted with hindsight’s fragility. Eddie gave the piece six different chord progressions, maybe more, designed to make its floor unstable, breakable.
‘Hairless Toys’ itself has ‘Gotta Hurt’ in parentheses, and when Róisín sings that she’s hurting she sounds like she’s hurting, but big girls (and boys) don`t cry. Accompanied by the clockwork turning of a music box ballerina pirouetting on painful toes (pirouetting all the same), it might make you wonder if ‘Hairless is a reference to youth.
‘Unputdownable’ is a ballad, a closer. Rich and sophisticated. Strong and defiant. A story within a story framed by a story. Love`s fascination conquers its disappointment. Its surprises and bruises make us who we are. What’s life without guilt anyway?
No, it’s not Pop, but it raises one final question, “Will Murphy ever make a bad record?”