An Extraordinary Conversation with Pop Artist Róisín Murphy

Mention the name Róisín Murphy to any plugged-in fashion designer or visual artist and you’ll find yourself in a conversation that includes an intersection of film, literature, theatre and couture. Before Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, Rihanna and Beyoncé started to experiment with groundbreaking designers, it was Irish-born Murphy who dared to don pieces by Gareth Pugh and Viktor & Rolf, often mixing eccentric looks with extravagant ones in an artful way that has yet to be rivaled. Her music is just as boundary-pushing as the looks she’s known for presenting in videos and in performances and her latest disc, Take Her Up To Monto, reflects this in spades. The album showcases the electronic musician’s knack for crafting heady lyrics and hypnotic chords with vocals that colour choruses in the same way Jackson Pollock treated his canvases. Tracks such as “Thoughts Wasted” have Murphy shape-shifting personas through song, jumping from pop star to Parisian chanteuse to spoken-word poet to raging diva in less than two verses. Born out of what she calls “pure unadulterated experimentation,” Murphy says she “refuses to care about what people think I should do with pop music.” Examples of this are “Mastermind” and “Lip Service,” songs that change key and tempo at whim. Her stage performances are just as unpredictable and exciting as her songs and she often incorporates Commedia dell’arte-esque moments throughout her act. To celebrate her first Canadian performance this year on November 2nd—at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre—we sat down with Ms. Murphy to ask her about her extraordinary and exuberant life in pop.

Would you consider your latest disc, Take Her Up To Monto, the most defiant release of your career?
Well, I was a lot more risky with this one. This was all about pure unadulterated experimentation on my part. These songs refuse to care about what people thought of what I’ve done before or what they think I should do. I’ve had people want me to do a dance record, a hip hop record, a slow jam one… I just went in and forgot about what they wanted and did what I wanted.

Songs such as “Thoughts Wasted” move from genre to genre and even include a spoken word component. Can you still consider your music pop when you mix so many genres and art forms into a track?

Oh, yes. That’s the good thing about pop. You can do whatever you like… it’s a bendable medium. I’m not Britney Spears anyway. That song came together very organically but I still consider it pop. It was a mix of relationships from the past and that’s why I love being in this category because sometimes I can push it in a way that doesn’t reflect what is going on sonically with anyone else. I can also reference the present, the future and the past but I will never tell which is which. I like it weird.

What would you say is your version of having an artistic triumph?
Avoiding all the ideas of perception is my idea of a true artistic triumph!

You new track, “Sitting and Counting,” touches on the desire to escape all contact with the online world. Do you think the digital world has done a number on creativity?

Just the opposite! I met so many designers and architects on this one site that gave me millions of ideas for the “ten miles high” video. They were a community of brilliant people. Its like anywhere else in life… you’ve got to find the right places to be for the right kind of conversation.

When did you feel your career had a real turning point in terms of getting a new audience?

A while ago. My audience became gradually more Gay and fashion-y over the years. Certainly I’ve been able to attract gay people to my gigs over the years. I remember this sort of happening on [Murphy’s debut solo disc] Ruby Blue especially. For many years Moloko had an awkwardness about it as it went from being a studio act to a live act. You have to remember the 90s were a serious time in England for music and I kicked against it, not even knowing why. Back then, the only place for us to be evaluated were serious bloke-y music magazines. It wasn’t the natural place for us to be. I remember being in Paris one time and I was playing to three journalists and a couple of skateboarders scratching their chins, thinking what this was all about. It was awful. Then one day during Ruby Blue, my audience came through and my gigs were absolutely rammed—stylish, cool people were hanging from the ceiling! The places were filled with joy and hysteria and people were dressed up and screaming my name and I looked out and 90% of the audience were gay. I was so relieved! It was like coming home.

You’ve used fashion as a code for years. Is the way you style yourself an extension of what you want to say?

Yes. That’s where fashion comes into play. Designers become translators for me. That’s why I’ve gone to people like Gareth Pugh and Viktor and Rolf—they are speaking a nuanced language. Fashion says a lot for me.

How has attending parties or clubs celebrating UK’s Northern Soul Scene sharpened your ear?

To listen to those songs is good value in terms of songwriting. You can’t get a better education in what it is to write songs until you listen to American Soul Music.

Have there been moments where you think, “I’m just going to write a Katy Perry song and be done with it”?

My problem is I don’t know any different to this. The reason why I’m not a pop star is I would have hated it. I’ll stick to being an artist. I’m not trying not to be commercial, I am just doing what I do. I have finely tuned tastes and that gets prioritized above everything else. That’s just how it it is.

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