Frankly, Róisín Murphy ought to be bigger in the United States than she is. The former frontwoman of the noted trip-hop band Moloko, Murphy now has two nearly perfect neo-disco solo records under her belt. The second, Overpowered, is in record-label limbo here due to EMI’s ongoing self-destruction, but it’s available as an import and worth every shilling. Back home in Europe, Overpowered is a smash hit and she’s prepping for a large-scale tour. But the only things bringing her to America, for now, are Fashion Week-she’s probably one of the more fashionably provocative and trend-setting musicians extant-and the often-prescient NYC party promotion company the Saint at Large. On the eve of her first American solo show at Mansion on Friday, October 24th, Murphy spoke with Slant about country music, breaking the States the hard way and the purpose of pop in a world on the verge of a meltdown.
I heard that you were just in Tennessee?
[Affecting a Southern accent] I was in Nashville, Tennessee, honey-child! It was a great, great time-I can’t even tell you. I played with all these old guys who played on all these legendary records with legendary artists, and it was just wonderful. And then last night we went-me and my floor manager, who was with me-we went for a 10-hour drinking session ’round all the bars where they play all the music, and it was just, fuckin’, warm-your-heart.
That sounds like a lot of fun. What’s the prospect of a Róisín Murphy country record?
Not impossible. Not beyond the realm of possibility.
What kind of country music, American country music, would you say you enjoy?
I don’t know that much about it, to be honest. I know that I can sing it, because my voice is quite suited to it actually. I guess I would do something very rootsy. If I were to do something traditional, I think it would have to be very raw.
So what’s your sense of the Saint, the organization that’s bringing you to New York?
I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. I trust the people that I’m working with, and I’m extremely lucky to have these people around me who have fought tooth and nail to get me out here. It’s been pretty amazing, actually, that these people have just gathered around me and wanted to help me in the U.S.
Well, the Saint is a New York nightlife institution and they’ve had a lot of very groundbreaking artists perform for them, so you’re an interesting part of a great tradition.
Well, thank you. It’s funny, because I made this record, and just as I finished it the company went into meltdown and got sold. They fired everybody. It’s still absolute rot at the label. So this wasn’t going to happen through the normal channels that it should have happened through. And fortunately these people, the promoters of the show and the PR people who have been working for me here, they’re working for relatively nothing, just because they believed in me. It’s just been amazing, and it really is very warm. I’m very lucky to have these people around me in New York.
The music that you’ve made is so very readily accessible, but it hasn’t really broken through to the audience that it might have in America because of your label troubles it seems.
It’s simple. With EMI, they have always gone through other labels that they’ve owned. And all the satellite offices in all the territories, actually, have been in a worse state than they were in London, because no one knew if they were going to have a job, blah-de-blah, no one knew what’s going on. So there wasn’t a way for me to put the record out through EMI in the U.S. And that’s what happened. In their defense, they were a great record label for me in the sense that I made a great record with them. A&R were great, and the support I got making the record was amazing. But once the record was made, everything went into freefall. All around the world, it was difficult everywhere. But obviously territories where I’ve had a presence in the past have been easier.
I’ve read that you’re currently at work on your third record?
That’s not true. I’ve been rehearsing a lot for the next live show. When I do the show here in New York we’re going to do the show that we’ve been doing in Europe, which has worked really well. Because we’ve done it so many times, it’s slick, and we can put it together very well for an audience that’s never seen us before, and I’m sure that they’ll enjoy it. But when we go to Europe, which is right after New York, we do a completely new show; I’m doing a full production show in Europe now. So I have a set, and new, different music, and it’s a much bigger “show” show-it’s more theatrical. All my energy has been in that recently, so I haven’t been writing. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve been talking to people, but I haven’t been in the studio.
Would you expect that your next record will be another reinvention of your sound, reminiscent of the progression from your first record, Ruby Blue, to Overpowered?
I honestly don’t know. But I do know that I would like to continue to work with the kind of folk I worked with on Overpowered. I would like to work with lots of different producers, writers, directors. It gives me an awful lot of power that way, it gives me a lot of control that I really enjoy having, to be honest. And when everybody is working on a record, and they’re all in competition with each other, they’re all antsy. [On this record] it felt like I would write a song, and I could say, “Well, that’s a good song, but I don’t like the production,” and then I could go get production somewhere else. And then I could think, “Well, I want another kind of mix for that production.” And the point is that this way of working never leaves me with no options. I would like to continue with that way of working, but I’d like to do it faster, because I know more about it now. I won’t have to mix things three or four times before I get them right. I really think that I can do it in a more free-flowing way next time.
Any sense of what’s playing on your tour bus, as it were?
No, because I’ve been listening to lectures on my iPod.
Oh? Lectures by whom?
I download economics lectures, and philosophy lectures, and sociology lectures and such. There’s an American site called the Teaching Company, they have the best professors in the world making lectures for them. Y’know, downloadable audio lectures. I haven’t been listening to much music honestly.
Since you’re listening to a lot of philosophy, then, I’m curious what place you think pop music has in a world like ours that’s so full of bad news.
Well, “pop music”? I don’t really separate music out into those kind of…I mean, obviously people say what I’ve made is pop, but I would kind of disagree. I would say that I’m more fascinated with-on this record, more with disco, house, with emotional dance music, really, than just “pop.” I don’t think I’ve ever aspired to make pop music. That doesn’t interest me in any way. If it becomes popular by default that’s fine. So what can pop music do? I think, very little. I think that music is a great escape for people. And my music is obsessed with night culture, which is in turn a great escape for people. I love the notion of being in a nightclub dancing beside a plumber and an electrician who knows every word of some old soul record. And they’re the best person they could possibly be in that moment. They have that belief in a nightclub, you know? I find that very romantic.
Your cover of Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love” is featured right now in a Gucci commercial. Are there any other artists or songs you’re interested in covering?
Well, in Nashville I just did some cover versions. I did a version of a Womack & Womack song called “Baby I’m Scared of You,” and that went very well.
That’s a great song. That would have been really cool to hear.
I did a duet at the end and everything. It was like proper showbiz. I loved it. I think when you look for a cover, you’ve got to try to find something that showcases your voice as much as possible. So I try to find things that I just find comfortable singing, when I do covers. And “Slave,” oh my God, when I found it, I knew it was just the most comfortable song for me to sing. It’s so perfect for my voice. That’s what drew me to it.
What’s your take on New York?
The momentum in New York is very palpable. People are really pushing forward all the time, and I love that. When I was here for Fashion Week, I’d meet somebody and they’d say, “Look, I really want to do something for you.” And then I would see them the next day and get to meet them, and they’d actually do it for you. In London, you get more of the sort of talk when you’re having a drink or whatever, and you never see the person again. I think people in New York, when they say they’re going to do something, they really do it.
What are some of the songs that you particularly look forward to performing when you’re getting ready for a show?
“Ruby Blue,” the title track of my first album. Love doing that one, it just rocks the whole place. And then I like the sort of broken-down moments, when things are more quiet, like “Tell Everybody,” which is a sort of soothing moment in the show. I like the extreme tracks, I suppose.
Is “Ramalama (Bang Bang)” in the set?
It is, it will be. That’s the one that me and my backup singers have the bitch fight on stage.
That’s actually one of your songs that’s had the most breakthrough in the States, just because it was on TV…
Yeah, ironically, so ironically, because actually that song is considered to be something very avant-garde-something nonsensical and unusual. It’s very ironic that it’s actually found its way into some very mainstream areas.
That’s probably the one Róisín Murphy song that most So You Think You Can Dance fans could think of.
Yes, it’s amazing where music can pop up. And I’ve seen that all through my career, strange things happen to my music. I love it. The best things are, like, “Ramalama” on So You Think You Can Dance or “Pure Pleasure Seekers” as the music to a TV show about gay animals.
Speaking of unexpected things happening to your music: It seems like a lot of the critical review that you’ve gotten in the U.S. has been indie rock-oriented, and you’re now playing a concert put on by a prominent gay promoter. Do you think it’s possible to target yourself toward a particular audience, or do you just make music and see what the world does with it?
I certainly have never targeted toward a particular audience. I think I have a very wide audience. I mean, I look out at a show, I’ve got a lot of women, I have a lot of gay men, I have a lot of gay women, I have a lot of straight men, I have a lot of black people, I’ve got a lot of white people, I’ve got heads, I’ve got young lads who like electronic music, I’ve got people just out for a party. I think that’s the trend. I wouldn’t like to just tailor it to one experience. And I find that kind of thinking very cynical. It loses the point, somewhat, to put people in boxes. I couldn’t do that. Everything I do is about being outside of the box, trying to express something complex about being a human being. You know, it’s not about, “Oh, I’m the rock and roller,” or, “Oh, I’m gay.” It doesn’t even mean anything. People in one day are so many things.