When is a disco album not a disco album? When it’s made at the helm of a master of precision and true eccentric like Róisín Murphy. Like many artists working at the intersection of pop and dance music today, the Irish singer-songwriter-producer has created a body of work that owes most obviously to disco: her just-released fifth-full length, Róisín Machine. But unlike the vague retroism populating the marketplace—a string section’s flight of fancy here, a Chic wah-wah guitar there, an album cover with the word Disco plastered on it—her reference points are unique and uncommonly specific.
Róisín Machine, a collaboration with dance music veteran Richard Barratt (aka DJ Parrot aka Crooked Man), was chiefly inspired by the dubbed-out, spacious, bottom-heavy symphonies that Larry Levan crafted for Gwen Guthrie, which became club staples in the mid-‘80s like “Padlock” and “Seventh Heaven.” Murphy’s pointing to an era in which a novice would assume disco had not lived to see is a flex in itself.
“At the bottom of it all with Parrot is this kind of Sheffield-darkened throb,” Murphy said of her album’s sound, Zooming into our interview from her London apartment. “At the bottom of the building, if you like, is this cellar and in it is this dark throb, this industrial Sheffield rigorousness. That holds the rest of it up. In this record there is a dirty cellar, and there is a beautiful Studio 54 space, and there is a Loft space. And you go into it in that way.”
“To me disco is a very wide genre,” she added. “It can be easily Depeche Mode, it can be Nitzer Ebb, or it can be Sylvester. It can be Earth Wind & Fire or it can be Barbra Streisand. It’s so many things.”
Murphy spoke of her music with such clarity, it made me wonder if any critic could possibly be a match.
“There’s a lot of uncanny frequencies on it, isn’t there?” she asked of her work. “And there’s a lot of, ‘This shouldn’t work on paper.’ Like in ‘Simulation,’ all the high hats. That shouldn’t really work, but it’s actually very euphoric and gives a lot of space. It’s full but with space.”
The album-long collaboration with Parrot has been years in the making. As if to warn you upfront that “we do things a little differently around here,” it kicks off with the aforementioned “Simulation,” a hypnotically chugging track first released in 2012. Singles that appeared to be one-off dalliances at the time of their debuts (2015's “Jealousy,” 2019's “Incapable” and “Narcissus”) are collected and integrated on what is, at last, a fully realized album. Particularly attractive to my ears is how tailored the low-end is—the production is EQ’ed in such a way that Murphy’s voice takes up the treble range while the tracks gurgle below her. Machine is a salute to their club roots—Murphy says she was a club kid, and Barat was one of the originators of bleep techno. The debut album of his Sweet Exorcist project with Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H. Kirk, Clonk’s Coming, was the first full-length released on the legendary electronic label Warp.
“You need to know the soul of the thing before you can rebuild it,” said Murphy on her approach to recontextualizing music’s past through her current project. “These records come out of a life that I lived. They’re not out of a planned board meeting: ‘We have to do a proto-house, dubbed-out thing with Róisín Murphy. She’s still got it.’ It’s not like that.”
As we chatted, Murphy sat slung on a chair in a faded denim shirt with several of its top buttons undone. Her regularly swung blonde hair fluttered like cornsilk. At one point, our discussion was interrupted by her doorbell, and after she got up to answer it, I heard her exclaim, “Oh gee!” off camera. She returned to tell me with a melodramatic flair that they’d almost certainly label “camp” in her homeland.: “It’s a fashion catastrophe! You oughta see the boxes of stuff that just arrived! It’s a caravan’s worth of stuff in there.” A shipment had arrived from her regular collaborator, designer Christophe Coppens, who has previously decked her in a mask that made it look like her face was being consumed by a gingerbread man and a blazer with a stuffed dog attached to its back (as if to approximate the images of Jesus Christ carrying a lamb over his shoulders).
An exaggerated, “‘What’s she wearing now?,’” is how Murphy recalled the press’s response to her time in the spotlight, when the act she performed in with her ex, Moloko, first started charting high in the U.K. The commercial success arrived after the release of Moloko’s second album, 1998's I Am Not a Doctor, thanks to a house remix by Boris Dlugosch of the Doctor track “Sing it Back.” “There’s still a bit of that: ‘What’s she fuckin’ got on now?,’” Murphy continued, clearly delighting in her ability to confound.
Murphy told me that she never quite got used to mainstream success she tasted with Moloko.
“It never felt solid,” she recalled. “It never felt real. It always felt ephemeral. It didn’t feel like it was fully me inhabiting it. ‘Sing It Back’ and ‘The Time Is Now’ were sublime, the videos and all that, but they were one-dimensional They were a beautiful twirling disco dolly. And ‘Sing it Back’ was a remix, it wasn’t Moloko as such. We felt like it was happening over there.”
And besides, it wasn’t like success ever impeded her ability to walk down the street. She and her bandmate/ex Mark Brydon were signed to the now-defunct Echo for their four Moloko albums. She says creative control was implicit, owing to the intimidating front both she and Brydon put out.
“There was never a question of anyone pulling strings,” she said. “I never thought a label could think about putting out something I didn’t agree on, or make an image that I didn’t like of myself. It didn’t cross my agenda. Creatively, I was just diving in deeper to all sorts of little avenues. Things I had no clue about that I just decided to try. We were very privileged to be given that time.”
She and Brydon split, as somewhat documented on their final album together, 2003's Statues. Murphy got to work with part-microhouse-producer-part-mad-scientist Matthew Herbert on what would become her solo debut, 2005's Ruby Blue. It was the first time she received pushback from her company. “I remember being a bit shocked that they said, ‘You’ve made the wrong record.’ I was like, ‘Well, it’s too late,’” she recalled. “They didn’t put a lot behind it and then the relationship seemed to disintegrate, but then so did the label.”
“These people had been enabling my silliness for years and I never questioned it, stupidly and naively,” she added. “It hurt me to fall out with them, but I moved on pretty quickly and I did the EMI record.”
That was 2007's Overpowered, which, while packed with producers, was primarily a collaboration with Bugz in the Attic’s Seiji. While she released several singles in the intervening years, it wasn’t until 2015 that Murphy released her third album, the truly beguiling and unclassifiable Hairless Toys. Both that and its follow-up, 2016's Take Her Up to Monto were collaborations with Eddie Stevens, who played with Murphy live and did sequencing on Ruby Blue. In 2018, she released a series of 12"s with Maurice Fulton that yielded enough tracks to fill an album, if only she had felt like the songs warranted the format. (She didn’t.) Her next project will be a full-length collaboration with Germany’s DJ Koze that’s been five years in the making.
“It’s totally different, closer to hip-hop in a way,” she says of the upcoming album. “He’s more American-sounding than anybody else that I work with. It’s a very modern way of working. It’s more pop than anything else. It’s so modern-sounding. It’s not big bangers or anything, but the timbre of it, it’s the same sort of sounds you hear on the radio in modern hip-hop. He can go there with the disco as well, but still it has something about it that’s got a bit of hip-hop in it.”
You may have noticed that Murphy’s musical serial monogamy has been with male producers. She does work with women—New York’s Amy Douglas wrote Machine’s “Something More,” which like all of its singles was given the Crooked Mixes treatment of supplemental mixes by Parrot that Murphy says are just as crucial as the album versions of the tracks. But the person she has alongside her for the crafting of a complete project and helping with the production of practically all of its songs has always been a man.
When I asked her if that was just a matter of circumstance and whether she’d work with a woman in such a capacity, she laughed and called herself selfish.
“I’ll say this: I do love men,” she continued. “That’s what I’ve got in common with gay men. Love men. I love a bit of man.”
Murphy says that her music comes as a result of her free spirit and sense of playfulness. “I thoroughly enjoy what I do and I really get sucked in.” She said that she does not consider charts or commercial success as she works, but that she does want to reach people.
“I’ve always been so optimistic in making something from the heart and the gut and the soul and to be a perfectionist and a modernist and to be experimental and to be all these things—I always thought that the best pop music was the incidental result of these things,” she said. “I’m hedging my bets that it is a kind of pop music that I make and I’m trying to make the best possible popular music that I can make. I’m certainly not averse to doing well.”
“I let the heart and soul of it do the talking for me,” she added. “It’s not like I’ve got a political message or anything like that. It’s a journey that I’m going on. You can come with me. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m trying to find out. It’s about being curious. This record’s about individualism. It’s about making yourself be curious.”