Róisín Murphy on Her New Music: “I’m in the Most Creative Time of My Life”

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Róisín MurphyPhotography by Fraser Taylor

As Irish singer-songwriter Róisín Murphy returns with new song Incapable, she tells Nick Levine about a fertile new creative era – and why she’ll never tour with Moloko again

Róisín Murphy’s 25-year recording career has been wonderfully unpredictable and quite unlike anyone else’s. Though she scored mainstream hits as one half of Moloko, and made an excellent electro-pop album, 2007’s Overpowered, recently reissued on vinyl, she’s always been more ‘cult queen’ than ‘pop star’. Along the way, she’s produced consistently transcendent dance music. From Moloko’s Balearic banger Sing It Back to last year’s hooky house throb Plaything, she’s made songs that make you think and make you want to move. Her visuals have always been dazzling, too – check out Movie Star, her drag queen-packed homage to John Waters.

Now she’s back with Incapable, a slightly twisted disco tune which hinges on the question: “Never had a broken heart / Am I incapable of love?” It’s a typically intriguing offering from the Irish singer-songwriter and all-round creative powerhouse, so I gave her a call to find out more.

Nick Levine: Your new single Incapable features the chorus “Never had a broken heart / Am I incapable of love?” Is it about someone who’s totally closed off emotionally?

Róisín Murphy: Yes. But I think there’s a bit of irony and cheekiness in there as well. And there’s a bit of mystery – am I writing about myself or someone else? I mean, obviously I have had a broken heart, so it’s not really about me. But at the same time, I do have a bit of a cheeky attitude so in a way, it is a bit about me, if you know what I mean.

NL: It’s very different from the more typical ‘dancing with tears in my eyes’ kind of disco song.

RM: Yeah, and there’s loads of me ‘don’t mess with me, I make my own money’ kind of songs as well. And this isn’t that either. You know, I think it’s quite funny because I do write those heartbreak songs and songs about being used – songs like Plaything. And nobody says anything! But then I write this and everybody’s like, “I totally feel these lyrics! She’s singing about me!” Jesus.

NL: You made Incapable with DJ Parrot, who also worked on your Overpowered album. Did working on the Overpowered reissue kind of spark the new collaboration?

RM: No, because it’s more ongoing with Parrot. A couple of years ago I made Jealousy with Parrot, which is another big disco track. And I did Simulation with him a few years before that. I go back to Parrot all the time, even with music I make with other people, just to talk to him about it. He’s quite a grounding force in my life, I guess, and a recurring guide. I just know that he knows what he’s talking about. And even though there’s something minimal and kind of brutal about his productions, much like Sheffield itself [where he comes from], he’s also like writing with the Bee Gees or something. Because he understands real songwriting; there’s a real structure to what he does even though it’s stripped back to the bone.

NL: Do you feel as though your time in Manchester and Sheffield are where you honed your core values as an artist?

RM: No, I think my core values as an artist and creative person are in Ireland. I was brought up around music as a kid, because my uncle was a multi-instrumentalist and band leader. All summer long we’d be going to these all-dayer events that he did with his jazz band. My mother was obsessed with music, and my dad was a great singer. Everyone sang songs constantly – it was like living in an MGM musical at times, honestly! And alongside that, some kind of aesthetic things went in almost by osmosis – like living with my mum, who was an antique dealer and had a fantastic eye. But if you’re going to talk about my understanding of club culture and youth culture, then I guess I had the ideal stepping stone when I moved to Manchester at the age of 12. Because then I had everything on my doorstep: any kind of music culture I wanted to sample, I could sample. But I already had the basis, the music within me, before then.

“I feel like, even though I’m a woman of a certain age, my work’s relevant and has traction in the modern world. So what more can I ask for, really?” – Róisín Murphy

NL: Is there any kind of artistic tension between making new music, which you obviously love, and working on legacy stuff like album reissues?

RM: It’s all just a massive positive to be honest. I’m in probably the most creative time of my life – I’m creative-directing everything I do, I’m directing videos for other people, I’m pumping out new music and working with all sorts of exciting people who want to work with me. And then in between, I can re-release these records that I’m really proud of. The next thing’s going to be re-releasing all the Moloko albums on vinyl, one by one. So there’s no kind of difficult tension there. I mean, I would say that the idea of doing a Moloko reunion tour or anything like that is totally off the table. Because I just don’t need to do that, and I don’t want to become some kind of heritage act all of a sudden. I feel like, even though I’m a woman of a certain age, my work’s relevant and has traction in the modern world. So what more can I ask for, really?

NL: I really can’t imagine you on some kind of Moloko 25th anniversary tour.

RM: I’d rather die. 

NL: When I interviewed you last summer, you said that in terms of running your career, you’d “really had a wobble. It’s obvious now that you’re fully energised again – how have you turned things around?

RM: The right people weren’t around me before; it’s really as simple as that. Now a very close friend of mine has come in to manage me, so I feel like the very first point of contact is someone who cares about me. That’s made me feel a lot more sane. And I’m starting to gather other people around me who appreciate what I do and want to help me. And that just makes life so much easier.

NL: I can’t imagine you want to be the person receiving all the business-related emails. 

RM: Oh my god, I was never one for that. You know, people come to my parents and say “My daughter was on a talent show, and now the record companies want to sign her, but she’s only 13, so can she speak to Róisín?” And it’s like... why? It’s a totally different business model to mine, love. I was never one to know who ran what in the record company. And what am I going to say to a 13-year-old who’s a nice singer? That she should go out and take loads of drugs for the next 10 years in every nightclub up and down the British Isles? Because that’s what I did! That’s where I’ve come from; I’m not a business person and I live outside of that; I’m in a different sub-stratum of the industry.

NL: What do you want people to think when they hear the name Róisín Murphy?

RM: Well, sometimes someone at school will have said to my children: “Your mum sang that song Sing It Back.” So they’ll come back home and say, “Mum, are you famous?” And I’ll look them straight in the eye and say: “I swear I’m not famous – you know I’m not famous, because when we’re walking down the road, no one comes up to me screaming and shouting. But I am very well thought of.” And to be able to say that to my children, as the God’s honest truth, that’s really a pleasure for me. 

Incapable by Róisín Murphy is out now.