IN A NUTSHELL
Róisín Murphy grew up in Arklow, a small town on the east coast of Ireland but moved with her family to Stockport, Greater Manchester, when she was 12. When her parents separated she elected to live on her own from the age of 15. This example of a headstrong, independent streak can be read as a precursor to the attitude she would adopt towards being a musician - a role she’s fulfilled for the last 25 years, exhibiting no small amount of artistry and eccentricity alongside a way with forging pop hooks.
After meeting former Chakk/Krush musician, Mark Brydon, at a Sheffield house party in the early ‘90s, the pair became romantically and creatively involved; her chat up line to him (“Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body!”) inspired the title of their debut album as Moloko in 1995. The duo were always something of a square peg in a round hole during the late ‘90s, with most critics of the day not knowing quite what to make of their mix of pop, trip hop, jazz-influenced disco not disco and electronica.
But then that single was released.
Sing It Back initially only reached number 45 in the charts in 1999 but then a remix by German DJ Boris Dlugosch made it a global concern. This was essentially the sound of Summer 1999 and remains cemented in the popular consciousness two decades on. Moloko sidestepped the so-called ‘Brimful Of Asha curse’ caused by having a remix as a breakthrough single. In fact their follow up single, The Time Is Now, was an even bigger hit in the UK and they repeated the success with Familiar Feeling in 2003. But cracks were appearing in Róisín’s relationship with Mark, and while they managed to produce a final album Statues, and even tour it, Moloko disbanded soon afterwards, never to reform.
Her solo career since has provided evidence of a restless, creative mind, and she has released music ranging from the leftfield pop of Ruby Blue, made with tech jazz producer Matthew Herbert, to a recent series of sumptuous deep house EPs (made in conjunction with Maurice Fulton). Róisín has also recently moved into film making, producing promo videos for herself and Fat White Family (Tastes Good With The Money). She has a new single due out this Spring, made with Parrot from Sheffield electronic mainstays, All Seeing I.
I can’t figure out if it was all part of some Machiavellian plan or if it was ‘just one of those things’ but when she recorded Overpowered (what I’d consider to be her finest album, for whatever that’s worth), Róisín Murphy played an absolute blinder. Using something tantamount to chaos magic, she turned previous bad experiences in the music industry (certainly concerning her work as a solo artist) to her own advantage and produced a superlative inducing modern pop album.
After slaving over Ruby Blue in 2003 with Matthew Herbert - an excellent and idiosyncratic rather than frighteningly uncommercial record - she saw Echo, her label of the previous eight years, turn on her. Róisín maintains to this day that the album only failed to connect with an audience immediately because of lack of interest and support from her label.
But instead of seeking out a much smaller indie for a greater deal of creative control she took the counterintuitive move of signing to EMI. The label, apparently, saw in her the potential for a “new Robbie Williams”. So using the financial clout of this behemoth who were expecting a huge payday in return, she enlisted the help of multiple songwriters (from Cathy Dennis all the way to Parrot and Dean Hohner of All Seeing I), she hired studios in London, Miami and Barcelona and enlisted a huge cast list of producers (Seiji of Bugz In The Attic, Dan Carey of Speedy Wunderground, Andy Cato, Jimmy Douglass, Ill Factor, Mike Ward...) and whether intentionally or not, set these people against one another, working on 30 separate songs for an LP that would only contain 11 tracks. As she explained later, everyone involved wanted to write ‘the single’ and went into creative overdrive - but some songs wouldn’t even make the final cut.
In the short term this alienated many involved. Calvin Harris, then still very much in the ascendency, was working with her on what he felt were excellent songs, just to have them rejected. He also complained afterwards that her working method had cost him a lot of money. (One of these offcuts, Off And On, was eventually recorded and released by Sophie Ellis Bextor.) But creatively it produced an album that was genuinely all killer and no filler.
To be fair, it’s not like Overpowered wasn’t a hit among critics, it enjoys an enviable 82 rating on Metacritic and Pitchfork gave it a glowing 8.0. (The score is fully warranted but it should be pointed out their reviewer claimed: “She's funny, clever, heartbreaking, and strident, the kind of disco singer Dusty Springfield never quite had the abandon to become.” Right. That’ll be the Dusty Springfield who recorded this then. Oh, and this.)
So critics loved it, but what about the general public? The lead eponymous single is absolute dancefloor dynamite - it’s the equivalent of Kylie at her imperial best - and yet, somehow, it still tanked. When the reckoning happens at the end of days, questions will be asked as to how this was allowed to happen. It stands as yet more proof that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. In fact Let Me Know (which interpolates the chorus of Tracy Webber’s Sure Shot) was the only hit the album produced out of the four singles released.
But something strange has happened to cultural time this century and records simply don’t disappear or age like they used to. An album first released in 1975 would have sounded horrendously out of date on getting reissued in 1987; yet this 2007 long player doesn’t sound any less fresh today than when it first came out. Due to major label disinterest in vinyl as a format a decade or so ago, it was only released as a hyper-limited double LP at the time. The fine reissue label Be With has decided to remedy that and has just put out a luxurious new version on pink and orange vinyl, so there is still plenty of time yet for a reassessment.
FIVE EASY PIECES: WHERE TO START WITH ROISIN MURPHY
Fun For Me by Indigo (All Seeing I Glamoloko mix) by Moloko (2000)
So you already know ‘that’ song and the two hits that Moloko followed it up with, The Time Is Now and Pure Pleasure seeker but what came next? The answer is an unhinged electro glam stomper called Indigo, which was the last single to be taken from the Things To Make And Do album. This mix by Sheffield’s All Seeing I, beefs up the original without losing the crackers opening chant: “Rameses! Colossus! Rameses! Colossus!”
Forever More by Moloko (from Statues, 2003)
By the end of their relatively short career, Moloko had only just settled into a very satisfying groove of making classic sounding bittersweet disco cuts. This sense of world weariness bordering on balefulness, married to the utopian pulse of disco, mirrored a classic dichotomy - you can dance the entire night or even weekend away but the party always eventually ends. A masterclass in how to build a pop song, from low slung party starter to neo-big band stomper in just seven minutes and twenty seconds.
Bankrupt Emotionally by Moloko (from Catalogue, 2006)
So it seems Moloko had tunes to spare. When their hits anthology Catalogue came out in 2006, three years after they split, it contained all of the tracks that you’d expect and a second disc containing a live show, recorded during the Brixton Academy leg of their farewell tour in 2003. But nestled in there, on disc one, was this previously unheard Balearic gem. A baleful look at the power imbalance in a romantic relationship recounted over warm Spanish guitars, fat acid squelches and brass fanfares. The greatest hit they never had? Quite possibly.
Cry Baby (from Overpowered, 2007)
Murphy instigated an ingenious creative strategy for her second solo album, Overpowered, which came out in 2007, and it saw her score a much more substantial hit with the album than she did with her debut solo effort, Ruby Blue at least. Let Me Know may have been the hit single but the album bristles with other tracks that could equally have done the business if we actually inhabited a less messed up, more meritocratic timeline of reality. My first piece of evidence for this would be, Cry Baby. An absolutely pulverising pink pounder that summons the thrusting spirit of Giorgio Moroder, Divine and Bolognese rosco marauders, Macho.
Róisín has been busy of late, not only shooting videos for Brixton sleaze rock outfit Fat White Family but also for her own material. These films have been connected to her last four releases: a series of very satisfying deep house-influenced, club facing EPs made with producer Maurice Fulton. Jacuzzi Rollercoaster is a mid-paced, slow-burning Balearic banger with a vibe that lands somewhere between Money by The O’Jays and Taana Gardner’s Larry Levan-produced slammer, Work That Body.
ROISIN MURPHY IN QUOTES:
"I lived in Manchester from the age of 12 and I was picked on at school for being different so I switched to this Northern accent overnight. Then when I went home I spoke in an Irish accent. I had to be a good little actress between the ages of 12 and 18. After that I'd dropped my Irish accent altogether but then I felt like a real little traitor to my roots so I sort of half readopted it. What you hear today is me trying to stay Irish. Not that Moloko are one of those bands who try to be very, very Irish. That sort of music's about the only thing I have no interest in whatsoever. All my adolescent influences were mainland ones. Big Black. Sonic Youth. Butthole Surfers."
To David Stubbs, Melody Maker, 1996
“I’m crying a lot, tiredness. I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall. I make good and surprising records, I kill myself to make visual [work], in which I prove it’s about ideas and soul because god forbid anyone should give me a budget. But I get indifference in the industry.”
On Twitter, 2018
John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus website. He published the acclaimed memoir about alcoholism, habitual drug use and mental illness, Jolly Lad for Strange Attractor in 2015. He recently wrote and presented a documentary on Aphex Twin for BBC Radio 4 and has a series called New Weird Britain, about underground DIY music in the UK, currently in production for the same station, due to air this year.