A Candid Convo With The Unstoppable Róisín Murphy

The avant-garde pop performer returns with her fifth studio album, Róisín Machine.

“This is a simulation” is the steadfast refrain that kicks Róisín Machine, the fifth studio album by the reigning avant-garde pop queen of the underground, Róisín Murphy, into gear. The song, ‘Simulation’, originally recorded in 2012, could hardly have found a more appropriate year than 2020 to be revived and unleashed back into the world. A year so chaotic and unrelenting that indulging the simulation hypothesis, and entering the realm of the Irish artists’ wildest dreams, seems like a most welcome form of escapism.

In a year devoid of dancing, at least in the way we once knew, I ask Murphy on a call from her home in London, what it’s like to put out a record made for the dance floor when there are currently no clubs to go to? “Well, it’s kind of Murphy’s Law, right?” citing the age-old adage of “If something can go wrong, it will,” and aptly the song title of a stand-out, self-aware, straight-up disco banger from the new album, to be released on October 2.

Produced by Richard Barratt (aka DJ Parrot), whom Murphy has known since she was a teenager in Sheffield, the album’s sound is deeply rooted in the spirit of club culture, steeped in disco and throbbing house music. Murphy explains the concept came more than 10 years ago after working on 2007’s Overpowered. “After that, I asked him to go deeper into house and Proto house, kind of a Paradise Garage, Larry Levan sound. But there’s also a bit of Sheffield hardness in there as well; a sort of a cellar, warehouse feel to it in the backbeat.”

“It’s certainly not a record that everybody sat around a board table at a record company, going ‘right, we’ve got to make a proto disco-house hybrid with this pretty girl.’ It’s not like that. And I think you can hear that it comes from something very real.”

Murphy first emerged as one-half of Moloko, best known in the US for “Sing It Back,” a truly iconic 90’s dance anthem. She eventually went solo in 2005. In a two decade-plus career, the artist has collaborated with a who’s who of maverick record producers, released a prolific body of lauded work, and like all great left-field pop artists, has somewhat eschewed the mainstream in exchange for a fanatical and dedicated cult following.

Not that she seems to mind.

Authenticity and subversion have always been a part of Róisín’s story. From her beginnings in Manchester, she says, “I was obsessed with music. My life revolved around seeing bands buying records and going to clubs,” and Sheffield, during the early years of the indie and rave scenes in the UK. These formative influences are woven into the fabric of her music, even today. “I think there is an edge to this music. There is a bit of a throb at the very centre of it that comes straight out of the Sheffield that I knew. This record has come out of a longstanding relationship and friendship (with DJ Parrot), inside music, inside a certain scene. It’s nice to kind of come full circle like that”

The album’s title Róisín Machine (machine rhymes with Róisín) is more than just a cute lesson in phonetics, it’s also a cheeky reference to the artist’s unwavering work ethic. “I am a machine. I never stop,” she says. Since the release of Hairless Toys in 2015, the artist tells me, “I’ve creatively directed and done all the video direction and everything.” Though Murphy’s work has always projected the ineffable energy of an artist with complete creative agency, with a deliberate conceptualist slant to all of her projects. “Since day one, I’ve been very determined about what we should be doing, what we shouldn’t be doing, you know…I was really coming at it from a conceptual way, rather than as a songwriter or a singer”

This signature blend of conceptualism and melodrama with a dash of wry humour thrown in for good measure—that fans have come to know and love—has had a unique opportunity to shine through, even in the midst of a global lockdown. Since the start of the pandemic, we have witnessed a slew of artists and entertainers trying to navigate a new world of at-home performances and Instagram Live videos, but no one has embraced this new reality quite like Róisín. Early quarantine saw her treat us to six new performances, sung live in her living room, complete with elaborate, club-kid inspired outfits, and tripped-out visuals. “I think at the moment people might be craving a real performer, you know, up in their face type thing. You really get to see my facial expressions and I get to do a bit of screen acting with the singing,” she says of the videos.

For fans of this new style of output, the artist assures there are new performances on the way. “Just got two in the can in the summer. I did one [in our house in Ibiza] and I did one out on a rock, in the middle of the sea. They’ve kind of gone into a more cinematic realm. I like it ‘cause they operate like a pop video, but also a performance, so it’s a nice mix.”

Aesthetics represent another dimension of her presence as a performer and artist, one who has served up some eccentric, high fashion moments over the years (Viktor&Rolf, Gareth Pugh, and Margiela have featured prominently in her visual output). And as with each new record, we are being introduced to a new era from the performer. “Every time I choose a new way of working musically, I bring on a whole avalanche of new ideas for me and it’s wonderful really to be a solo artist in that sense. And to be able to make those choices is just brilliant cause you can just keep reinventing! It’s a horrible word, but, I mean truly making yourself again.”

While this album may be a disco-driven concept record, the visuals echo the artists’ melting pot of influences, touching on other pivotal UK genres of glam, punk, and goth, complete with press shots for the album showcasing Murphy sporting Siouxsie Sioux-esque inspired eye makeup. “It’s not like when it came time to do the imagery that it was like, Oh, it’s Disco Queen! There had to be more said than that. It had to have a bit of alternative underground, or a subversive flavour to it as well,” she explains. Murphy is quick to assert that the music, at the end of the day, remains the message.“It all starts with the music. If I get the music right, I’ve got two years of interesting work ahead of me, that I can develop. Getting the music right, that’s my main concern.”

Her latest single ‘Something More’, a slow-burn, groove-heavy anthem, featuring lyrics penned by NYC-based songwriter Amy Douglas, stands out as a real centerpiece on the album. The sense of longing and desire in the lyrics initially conceived as “a song about never being full or satisfied,” has certainly taken on new significance during quarantine; where the yearning for something out of reach is now a readily-accessible emotion. It feels fortuitous that this entire album—seamlessly mixed and sequenced for the dance floor, and almost a decade in the making—has been delivered to us in 2020. To serve as the reminder of how art and one hell of a good dance (even if just in our living rooms), can be harnessed as a vital tool of resilience to help us get through these uncertain times.

2020 also happens to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of her first studio album with Moloko, and while a lot of artists at a similar point in their career might take the opportunity to start to rely on the nostalgia of their back-catalog, Murphy is an artist who seems intent on creating new music for the current day. “I’m not someone who feels that they’ve reached whatever it is I’m going for. I definitely always think the next record I’m making is the best record I’ll ever make. And I think I just always feel I’ve still got something to prove.” This focus on looking forward not backward means the work is really never-ending for Murphy. So I take the opportunity to ask her, what’s next? “I’m working with DJ Koze on my next album, which is really very far along, maybe nearly finished. So, yeah, I’ve got another album coming! Fucking hell [laughs]… Róisín…MACHINE!”

Róisín Machine is out on October 2 via Skint/BMG. Pre-order the album here.

Photo by Adrian Samson.