Tripping Out on Róisín Murphy

Cards on the table – I am a big fan of Róisín Murphy, and have always been. First bursting into the scene in the 1990s as one-half of trip-hop duo Moloko, Ms. Murphy has since grown to a superstar of her own right, nothing less than a one-woman show and a true force of nature. Known for her solo works and unique sound as much as for her eccentric style and personality, Murphy is an artist which captures the imagination and praise of the music and fashion communities alike. A singer-songwriter and producer, she is a fascinating artist who continues to explore new sounds and creative approaches, innovating at every turn of her 25-year long and wonderfully unpredictable career. More a cult queen than a popstar, Murphy also seems to be in the middle of a creative period that keeps delivering great and funky tunes, which will culminate with her latest record, Róisín Machine, scheduled for release in early October – in other words, now is the perfect time to look back at some of the disco legend’s best works over the years, in the shape of the ultimate Róisín Murphy playlist.

Born Róisín Marie Murphy in Ireland in 1973, Murphy’s family switched the motherland for Manchester when she was 12. By the age of 16, a young Murphy found herself living on her own, after refusing to move back to Ireland after the break-up of her parents. While in Manchester, she started dipping her toes in the bursting music pool, becoming a regular of the psychedelic club scene and briefly fronting a noise band called A Turquoise Car Crash The. But her musical career didn’t truly kick off until she was 21, when in Sheffield she met Mark Brydon at a party. Legend has it that Ms. Murphy picked up Mr. Brydon with the line “do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body”, and the rest is history. The two began dating and thus a romantic and creative partnership was formed, giving birth to Moloko.

For those of you familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, you might recognise the name from the narcotic-filled milk drink that Alex and his “droogs” consume. Much in line with Moloko’s overall quirky and fun identity, the pick up line Murphy used on Brydon ended up becoming the name of the duo’s debut album, released in 1995. The album opens with Fun for Me, which also kicks off our playlist – elements of Funk and Trip-hop elegantly mash with Electronic and House, but in a much more approachable fashion than their moody contemporaries, Portishead and Massive Attack. Day for Night is another example of the duo’s fresh and quirky approach to electronic music, which explains the album’s critical success – as a Billboard review at the time put it, “once in a great while, a dance / pop act comes along whose music is so infectious it transcends the genre’s club base and touches a broad spectrum of fans”. Ladies and gentleman, Moloko was there to take the scene by storm.

A young Róisín Murphy and Mark Brydon announce themselves to the world

Despite the curiosity surrounding the newly formed Moloko and the critical hype of their debut record, the album did not live up to its expectations commercially, nor did their sophomore album, I Am Not a Doctor, released in 1998. For that, Murphy and Brydon had to wait one more year, and for Boris Duglosh to come to their aid, with his worldwide known remix of Sing It Back. His arrangement would go on to be featured in over 100 dance compilations and became an all-time favourite anthem across the dance scene in Europe, catapulting Moloko to fame. In all honesty, it seems odd that a remix would be required for the song to pick up some traction, considering that the original release is already phenomenal on his own, introducing Ms. Murphy as a sensual dance floor diva. On I Am Not a Doctor, Moloko explored a whole new array of electronic textures and sounds that were becoming increasingly available to producers working outside of the rave scene – The Flipside is a great example of this, where a drum ‘n’ bass beat flows side by side with a guitar riff and Murphy’s fantastic vocals.

For the follow up record, Things to Make and Do, the duo wanted to take things one step further and employed much more live instruments and arrangements. The album’s first single, The Time is Now, peaked at #2 on the British Pop Chart, and became the band’s most successful British single. The song was nominated to both Best British Single and Best British Video at the 2001 BRIT Awards, but lost both awards to Robbie Williams’ Rock DJ – not really sure what to think of that, given that Robbie Williams’ party anthem is one of my guilty pleasures. In any case, Things to Make and Do signalled a new era for the UK duo, a quirky experimental style more reliant on live music than in the traditional electronic sound that characterized Moloko until then. Pure Pleasure Seeker is perhaps the best example of this new musical approach, a fun and sassy track which showcased new vocal techniques and a much more lyrically-honest Roisin Murphy. But personally, the underrated Indigo is another standout of the album and the true personification of Moloko’s unconventional sound, being a worthy inclusion in our playlist – a nonsensical, but unforgettable tune where Murphy shouts “Ramses! Colossus! Indigo, here we go!” to the backdrop of funky and woozy beat, diametrically opposed to the more successful but traditional sound of The Time is Now or Sing It Back.

Music and fashion icon alike

By the time Murphy and Brydon released their last-ever collaboration in 2003, Statues, Moloko were already a success and legitimate stars in Europe. But despite the creative juices flowing out of their relationship, the love fountain had pretty much dried up. After eight years together, Murphy and Brydon split up, leaving Murphy with the difficult task of handling the promotion of the album by herself. “I broke up with him before we made the album … I suppose I got the seven-year itch. So he pulled out from a lot of the responsibility of promotion of the album, and I went around Europe alone, doing promo. He toured with us, but I’d go off after gigs alone and do interviews and stuff.”

Despite the personal struggles, Statues is the pair’s best work and the definitive Moloko record, a perfectly balanced combination of the various elements and sounds the duo had been developing for years. Influenced as much by their original electronic base as by the more organic style explored in Things to Make and Do, the record ultimately is about the end of a romantic relationship, in this case Murphy and Brydon’s – one has to assume those must have been some awkward recording sessions. It is impossible to choose just a few songs from Statues to join our playlist, but I have tried my hardest to select the best and more meaningful ones. The records kicks off with Familiar Feeling, one of Moloko’s most famous anthems and with a clear Latin and Irish-folk influence, but the definite standout is Forever More, one of the greatest electronic songs ever made [Author’s note: you have probably noticed I say this a lot], which remains one of Murphy’s own personal favourites – it is a “fucking masterpiece”, as she put it to The Guardian in 2018. Blow x Blow and I Want You are also great examples of how Murphy’s voice transports you across a rollercoaster of emotions and expressive range.

Following the disbandment of Moloko, and for the first time since deciding to stay in Manchester without her family, Roisin found herself alone and without knowing what to do with the rest of her life, as the only person with who she had ever made music was no longer in the picture. As she puts it herself, she was “worried, to say the least.”

“It felt like maybe I’m destroying everything. Maybe I’m not going to be able to make records without him.”

It was in the midst of this state of mind that Murphy became pals with dance producer Matthew Herbert, a relationship which sowed the seeds to Ruby Blue, her first solo album released in 2005. While recording, Murphy and Herbert sampled sounds from everyday objects, including cosmetics, alarm clocks or a water cooler, and mixed Moloko’s sound with jazz, soul and pop influences. The result is a much more complex record or, as Pitchfork put it at the time, “the ultimate combination of human warmth and technological know-how”. It is from Ruby Blue that the following two tracks of our playlist come from, Through Time and Dear Diary. Working with Herbert also taught Murphy how to work in a structured fashion inside the recording studio, and the results that brings – by doing an 11AM to 6PM schedule, Murphy found out that an artist “always comes out with something” from any working day, a practice she carries on doing to this day.

Róisín Murphy, female powerhouse

Despite the vastly positive reviews received, Ruby Blue failed to deliver commercially, and Murphy was dropped from her record label, the independent Echo Records – clearly the wrong decision as her second solo work, Overpowered, was a massive critical and commercial success, selling nearly 10,000 copies in its first week.

Released by EMI in 2007, Overpowered elegantly combines pop and disco, and smartly explores to the fullest Murphy’s seductive voice, with its maximum expression in Overpowered, arguably her most famous song, and in the electro-pop-disco gem You Know Me Better. Dear Miami also deserves a shoutout, being one of the first of Murphy’s solo works that I listened to. But it would take 2 kids, a long 8-year hiatus (in which a few hidden and obscure collaborations were released, such as phenomenally nostalgic Alternate State), and a six-track Italian-language EP for Murphy to really explode as a solo act with the release of Hairless Toys in 2015.

Receiving widespread critical acclaim and a nomination for the Mercury Prize, Hairless Toys is a deeply personal and emotional record, a multi-layered and refined piece of work that goes to places where her more commercial music cannot go. It is also my favourite of her albums, and so selecting a few songs from this wonderfully dark record for our playlist proved to be a herculean task. I ended up settling for Gone Fishing, Exploitation, House of Glass and Unputdownable, all of which have their own irresistible groove and appeal, but the competition was fierce – do yourself a favour and listen to the whole album when you have a chance.

Since Hairless Toys, Murphy has kept herself busy, with the release of Take Her Up to Monto in 2017 and pushing out several disco bangers in the midst of the genre’s revival, on the back of new music by Jessie Ware, Kylie Minogue or Purple Disco Machine – it is from this creative period that the final songs of our playlists are taken from. Starting with the phenomenally dark All My Dreams, Murphy’s honey-sweet voice is the perfect complement to the disco and deep-house groove of these recent works, most remarkably in Incapable or Narcissus, both of which elegantly mash powerful beats and orchestral strings, as well as elements of euphoria with paranoia, courtesy of Ms. Murphy’s enviable expressive range and exquisite production from long time collaborators such as Richard Barratt. Her superstar status was adequately emphasised this year, when she released and decreed 2020 as the year of Murphy’s Law, the last song in our playlist.

Murphy herself has always been a hot commodity amongst the media, not just due to her theatrics and fabulous performances on stage (the likes of which I was lucky enough to see several times, last of which during our review of Primavera Sound 2019), but also to her witty and blunt answers on interviews.

Loved by music and the fashion industry alike, Murphy’s wacky and wonky style continues to break barriers and stereotypes – it come as no surprise that she became an icon to the LGBTQ community, a responsibility she accepts proudly and very naturally. As she explained in 2018, “realising I’d become a gay icon felt like home”.

Murphy is one of those rare examples of an artist that transcends the musical filed – her vision, personality and drive have rightly placed her as one of the most talented and unique performers of her generation, a true female powerhouse and innovator, to the likes of Grace Jones or Björk. But despite this, she does not consider herself to be famous – “fame is walking down the street and people that don’t care about what you do want a picture with you. If somebody comes up to me, it’s because they love my music”. And that is what music should be all about.

2020, the year of Murphy’s Law