Róisín Murphy is hard to pin down. Certain adjectives have attached themselves to her over the years – ‘strong’, ‘striking’, ‘eccentric’, ‘experimental’ – but none quite sum up her style, which has shifted and changed shape in the two decades she has been making music. The image conjured up by the phrase ‘Do you like my tight sweater?’ – both the first thing she ever said to Moloko band mate Mark Brydon and the title of the duo’s first album, released in 1995 – of a cocky, straight-talking young woman feels hard to marry with the witty but barmy imagery that accompanied her solo album Overpowered in 2007, or that of this year’s Hairless Toys, where Murphy sports a somewhat hunted look on the cover.
In her recent stage show for Hairless Toys, the contradictions continue. Murphy changes outfits for almost every song, opening the show in a look reminiscent of a character from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, before swapping to a three-headed mask, and later a kind of disco yeti suit, with countless other costume changes in between. And when Murphy chats to the audience between songs, she transforms again, with her broad Irish accent and dry wit serving to undercut all the theatrics.
It turns out that all this shape shifting is intentional. “I play with all sorts of imagery,” she says, when we meet to discuss the part that visuals play in her work. “I play literally with masks on stage. I often think ‘what is that all about?’ It’s like I’m running, I’m running all the time from being fucking labelled. Which a female artist has twice as much trouble with, I think, than a male. You can’t really see who I am because I’m not really laying it on the line but there’s a truth to that, you know. There’d be a lack of creative freedom in being understood completely.”
Murphy has had a triumphant year. In the eight years since Overpowered, she had made guest appearances on other people’s work, and released an EP, titled Mi Senti (which she describes as “a kind of love letter to my partner, who’s an Italian producer”) via The Vinyl Factory, but Hairless Toys marks a more significant return. She has received wide critical acclaim for the album, alongside a nomination for the Mercury Prize.
“I had a kid and then you take a break, and the break gets longer and longer and longer,” she says of the hiatus between albums. “There is that, but there also wasn’t really an organic plan presented to me in order to make an album. I think that’s the way I always make records.”
Hairless Toys was eventually prompted by working with Eddie Stevens, a long-term collaborator, on the Mi Senti EP. “I had worked with him in live music for many, many years but hadn’t written a record with him before,” she continues. “I felt like that was a lovely full circle, and wouldn’t it be nice to go in the studio with him? All those pre-requisites have to be there for me – wouldn’t it be good, wouldn’t it be nice, isn’t it healthy, doesn’t it feel right. And I didn’t, for one reason or another, in those years – which seemed long but went by very, very quickly – didn’t have a reason to make a record like that, not all the reasons in place.”
For Murphy, the music comes before the visual imagery. “It’s not in mind when I’m making the album,” she says. “The album title is not in mind. The only album title I had upfront was the very first album we ever made, which was the first thing I said to Mark. The rest of them, the album title comes first, then you start to think, what I am I going to do? On Overpowered it was an interesting visual campaign.”
This seems something of an understatement when looking at the Overpowered imagery. Designed by artist and art director Scott King, it features Murphy dressed in wild and weird high fashion outfits and then placed, like an alien, in deeply ordinary settings. The resulting photos are hilarious and brilliant. “Looking at me as a performer, as a flamboyant performer, he came up with this [concept] – ‘The Man Who Fell To Wimpy’, that was his plan,” says Murphy.
“Something absolutely extraordinary in a very real and ordinary environment, that was the idea behind it all. Which was an utterly brilliant idea and gave steam to almost everything that came out of that album. I really rolled with it, it was a fantastic way to go.
“This one was a more personal and private evolution,” she continues. “It started with the name, Hairless Toys – first of all, you’ve got a really bizarre album title you’ve got to live up to. I somehow followed this idea of hairlessness on this one.”
The odd title emerged from a case of mis-hearing, when Stevens heard Murphy singing the phrase “careless talk” as “hairless toys”. “So it’s just an absurdity,” says Murphy. “But when it came to doing the styling and the photography for the sleeve, it was very much something that came from me, the direction of that. I was concerned not to wear high fashion at this stage,” she continues. “I didn’t want to have any labels on me or be seen to be in cahoots with fashion. It wouldn’t have suited the record, it doesn’t suit the time…. I did that on Overpowered, they were couture pieces – Viktor & Rolf, Gareth Pugh – in that time it felt right to be picking things out of the zeitgeist and playing with them. It felt right then but it didn’t feel right now. The whole of the brand thing within fashion has expanded to such a level that it didn’t feel right on this one, or interesting.”
So Murphy returned to her early fashion roots, of vintage clothes. “That was what I loved when I was a teenager,” she says. “That’s how I got into clothes. So I started to look around and I found the red plastic blouse I’m wearing on the sleeve. It’s the first thing I picked up and I just looked at it and it’s red, disgusting plastic with round collars – I just looked at it and thought ‘that is Hairless Toys’. And then everything else came from that, all the rest of the styling came from that.
“I researched a lot of classic portraiture and decided to go with this nearly black background,” she continues, “because it really made everything look very super-real, but in a very fresh way. Much more fresh than shooting it against white, say, for example. It was a different kind of image than we’re used to looking at, it certainly doesn’t look like an advertising image, which I was very happy about.”
As well as art directing the album photography, Murphy has also directed the promos for the first three songs to be released from the album, with a fourth video for a remix on the way too. The videos show Murphy to have a confident directing style, though initially she decided to invite others to pitch on the work. “I wanted to do the directing but I was unsure whether I should, so I tendered out the first one,” she says. “I didn’t really get any treatments I was 100% happy with.”
To be fair to those pitching, this may in part be due to Murphy having a very clear idea of what she wanted for the video, with references to Faye Dunaway and a Macbeth teleplay all laid out in a document sent to the directors. “I put all those big visual clues in there and I was getting a lot more images thrown in, and I was thinking ‘I don’t need your images, I don’t need a pair of lips mouthing the lyrics’. Every time I’d read somebody’s treatment I’d become more clear about what it is I would want to do.”
Murphy also felt ready for some creative control, in part as a result of seeing some of the videos for tracks she guest featured on in the years since Overpowered. “That was really frustrating,” she says. “I was putting out things with people here and there and I had no control over the visual side. I was seeing tracks with videos like soft porn. Awful, dreadful, horrendous videos.
“I’ve felt like much more than a performer in a video in the past, very much more,” she continues. “And I’ve often felt that I’ve done my own styling. I have felt, in a 20-year career, that I’ve put an awful lot into the visual side that I don’t really get proper credit for. So it was time to step up and take it.”
“It’s easier than you’d think to direct when you’re actually performing in the video,” she says of the experience. “It’s not that difficult to perform and then know you’ve finished and then go ‘OK, stop’.”
It is clear that Murphy has now been bitten by the directing bug. “Yeah, totally,” she agrees. “Now I’ve got it, I wouldn’t want to let it go, and I’m just beginning to develop. These videos really represent a film school for me. I studied Cassavetes on the first one, I studied Bergman on the second, and then I studied Fassbender on the third. It’s really like, learn from the best.”
Murphy expresses a joy in general in the opportunities she has found to express herself creatively of late, talking of the photographs she has been taking around cities, which sometimes feed into her live show imagery and also turn up on online forums devoted to Brutalism and post-modernism. She also cites the ongoing influence of long-term collaborators including Elaine Constantine, Simon Henwood and Dawn Shadforth – whom she shared a flat with in Sheffield in the early 90s – on her work, as well as a recent fascination with 1960s Italian singer Mina, and the ongoing inspiration of Cindy Sherman – “I first saw her work when I was a teenager,” she says of Sherman. “It was a relief to find her work, so full of imagination and fantasy.”
Murphy compares her creative output today to that of the period she lived with Shadforth. “It was a wonderful creative time,” she says. “These last couple of years have been almost like that again…. It’s really a similar time in a way in my head, which is weird that that should be happening to me again.”
There is a compendium album to Hairless Toys in the works, which, Murphy says “will probably be a more raw and revealing piece of work”. And she is already thinking about what other avenues her directing and wider creative work may take her down.
“You’ve got to be so flexible in the world today,” she says. “For me, the question is what does a sort-of pop star, sort-of director, sort-of artist [do] … where does that lead me in the future? The answer is it could lead me anywhere that I wanted it to, anywhere at all. It could lead me to a gallery, it could lead me to being a director … whilst continuing to make music throughout that.
“But I think just relying solely on my music is not that exciting to me actually,” she concludes. “I think I’ve always wanted these different levels of creativity going on at the same time. When I have a positive outlook, I think that maybe the world is more ready for that than it was years ago. Maybe I’m in a good time in history to be that kind of artist.”
This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of Creative Review, which is a Music special. More info on the issue is here.
Róisín Murphy will appear on BBC Radio 6 Music’s ‘Wise Women’ series tonight, where she will curate a night of her favourite music, documentaries and BBC sessions. Listen in from 7pm at bbc.co.uk/6music.