Dance

20 Questions With Roisin Murphy: Inside Her Disco Dance 'Machine'

Rósín Murphy
Adrian Samson

Rósín Murphy

Ten years in the sporadic making, Roísín Murphy's fifth solo album, Roísín Machine, is out this Friday (Oct. 2). This delectable disco-tinged odyssey came together gradually, with Murphy and longtime collaborator DJ Parrot drawing upon shared formative years in the '90s Sheffield scene. They didn't set out to make an album, but after toying with various pieces of club catnip over the last decade, they eventually accumulated a cohesive full-length that easily stands alongside her best.

From the insistent Bohannon disco rhythms of "Narcissus" to the chilly, sultry "Incapable" to the buttery '70s soul-funk of "Murphy's Law," Roísín Machine is loaded with shiny gems that take your hips and head on a journey. With this extraordinary Machine out in the world, the Sage of Irish Electropop chatted with Billboard about, well, a lot: everything from her Irish aunties bemoaning Freddie Mercury's sexuality to DJs obsessed with social media clout to Furbys, the bane of her home life.

1. What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?

I think it was a 7-inch single, and it was [Madonna's] "Live to Tell."

2. What was the first concert you saw?

Queen. I'd been going as far back as I can remember to my uncle's jazz sessions that lasted all day on Sundays, but the first concert-concert where we bought tickets was Queen in Slane Castle, me and my brother and my father and my cousin. It was too big; I didn't get a good look at them. It was a bit over my head being so far away. But we loved Queen as a family, all the family. All my aunties were devastated when we found out he was gay. 'Oh, God, what a waste of a man!' How could people be so surprised? He was in band called Queen and dressed as a leather man. But he was phenomenal, he was magnetic.

3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?

My dad had his own business. He fitted furniture into pubs across Ireland. From sawdust on the floor to plush interiors, he did an awful lot of pubs in that part of Ireland. He was part of the nighttime world. He would come and go at many different hours. He also did a bit of wheeling and dealing; he could be selling a lorry load of scrap lead one day and then another day he brought home the cockpit of a WWII bomber. And we had it in the house about a week. It was quite scary because obviously it had crashed, and someone had died in it. It still had the chewing gum behind the throttle. My mother was an antique dealer. I remember very important clocks and furniture and pictures, and she sold two Dutch masters in Christie's at one point. Everyone on both sides of the family seemed to be their own boss. I was definitely shown how to be the boss woman.

4. What else sticks out to you about your childhood?

The adults I was surrounded by growing up were all making themselves. They were taking on a whole new era in Ireland, in a political sense. There was a lot of violence, there was war going on, there was religion clashing up against politics, there was disintegration of the old order and a new one coming in. Even when I was growing up, we didn't have a telephone or central heating. You did the phone call next door -- this is in Arklow -- so it was quite a raw.… It was on the edge of Ireland losing its religion and taking on some more modern perspectives. The real thing that marks us out is our ability to change. We changed so much in the time that I've grown up. I was in a Catholic school obviously because that's all there was. Even though my parents were irreligious, I was raised to think I should go to mass anyway, and I would be in trouble if I didn't go. So it was imposed on you. Now, not so much. It changed so quickly. As a woman, I value my space around me of safety. It would be sometimes helpful to say to my daughter, when she says, "well why can't I do something?" it would be really helpful to me to say, "Because you'll go to hell." Because the conversation is so difficult. It's impossible to traverse without destroying some innocence in the child.

5. Did you ever go through a religious phase?

No.

6. How have you been staying centered in lockdown?

I don't know about centered, but I go into micro-detail on being creative where I forget to eat because I'm writing or editing a piece of film, just living a very creative life. The second part of my career has taken me to a place where it's like yoga – it's every day, it's practice. I'm being curious or creative all the bloody time and it's been alright, lockdown. It wasn't too bad here, we went out a little bit to the park and the supermarket, things like that. And I had my Ableton setup where I did lots of writing, and I did little performances from here, which were fun and showed another side of me. It's been alright but it's scary for everyone.

7. One of my favorites on the new album is "Narcissus." Are there any other myths you can think of that lend themselves to a disco song?

In "Indigo," a glam rock thing we did in Moloko, it had a refrain that went "Ramses, Colossus!" I like to throw a few bits of unexpected things in here and there. In "Overpowered," I was reading an article about Oxytocin and I thought, "hmm, that would be a novel thing to write a song about."

8. In "Incapable," you sing "I must be incapable of love." Is there truth to that, or is it more of a boast?

It is a bit of a boast. "Incapable" is a lyric that you don't normally hear in a pop song, from a female especially, of just saying, "I got away with it. I'm unscathed." I was certainly feeling that when I wrote this song. It can apply to my personal life at that moment, but it can also apply to my career. I'm unscathed, I got away with it.

9. What was the last song you listened to?

I was recently given a big lump of I don't know how many tracks, a couple of WeTransfers from a DJ friend of mine. It's been happening to me since I was a teenager. Lads, they go off, they get the tune for me, and then they come like a cat with a mouse in their mouth and go, "there you go." So I've been very lucky like that. So that's all really obscure borderline disco, things on the edges of the genre. And TV personalities who happen to make one amazing record. Recently, I played "Outstanding" [by the Gap Band], but a reggae version.

10. What's the craziest thing you saw during a concert? [Warning: graphic content ahead]

Well, I have been molested whilst I was crowdsurfing one day. I come out for the encore and I had changed into this huge Vivienne Westwood gown and jumped into the audience and realized I had forgot to put my knickers on. So I was molested momentarily. I found the guy that was doing it and hit him across the head with the microphone. But the boys in the band said he was outside afterwards selling smells for 15 pence apiece. [laughs] But I have to say, it was at a moment of my life where I was pretty celibate. I didn't mind it too much to have that fourth wall broken. I rather enjoyed hitting him on the head with a microphone. He was probably gay as well -- not that it excuses any of the behavior, but it was as difficult for him as for me.

11. One of the new songs is called "Murphy's Law." Have you been sitting on that song title for a long time?

No! Well, the song is quite old, but it came to us in the studio, I think it was the only one we did in the studio together, the others were more remote. When I said, 'why don’t we do one about Murphy's law?' it was like, 'Yeah, that's a really disco thing.' And then we tied it up with singing about Sheffield and leaving a small town and going and making myself. There's a lot of that on the album -- that part of your life where you make yourself, where it comes time to do your own nurturing and decisions. Especially when you're youngish and you leave home. The biggest decision I ever made was to stay in Manchester when my parents broke up, and I was 15. And that 15-year-old is definitely in this one.

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12. Did your hometown influence the record at all?

No. My story is that I lived in Ireland 'til I was 12, and then went to Manchester with my family, and my family disintegrated when I was 15 and I stayed on in Manchester, and then I went to Sheffield, which is where I first met Parrot, who is the producer. So everything has influenced everything, but this Sheffield time is where I discovered I was able to do music and found a path, accidentally or not, and got involved in a scene there where Parrot was a DJ and got into a family of creatives that propelled us all forward.

When we started talking about making this record, Parrot and I, we were being quite revisionist. We ended up with VHS footage of ravers in the Tate Gallery and looking at it thinking, "what did we lose? How do we capture the essence of it? Where did we go wrong and where do we start to rebuild?" We were beginning to get very lost with dance music 10 years ago anyway. Most of it is absolutely terrible. In a normal year in Ibiza, you can't get away from it. It's in every lobby, every shop, every restaurant, every club, it's in the car, it's absolutely everywhere and it feels like you're stabbing music, just murdering it. And the ears get very tired of it. But when it's good, it's very, very good.

13. Is the issue the music itself or the ubiquity of it?

There's too much of it for sure. But the real issue is people stepping into it with a cynical outlook and thinking that they just want to keep remaking the same formula and it'll work for them and then they can have an Instagram presence and this and that, and then they're being booked for DJ gigs at exorbitant prices. You go to clubs that are 45 DJs on one night, and people just go from room to room, and it's just trains of people standing in hallways wondering, "well what's the best DJ to see now?" In a really good party, there's a place of creation of the space. Dancing is very healthy for you, especially for your brain. It can be magical.

14. What's the first club you want to go to after lockdown?

I'd like to throw a party, if I'm honest, with all my favorite guys, get Winston [Hazel] from Sheffield and Die and Krust from Bristol, get Luke Unabomber from Manchester. Maybe I should save it for my 50th. I could have Severino, Horse Meat Disco, it could go on for days.

15. Is there an artist you're a fan of that might surprise people?

I was really surprised by Billie Eilish, I thought she was really surprising and refreshing as a pop star.

16. Which track on Roísín Machine was the most difficult to finish?

Probably "Murphy's Law." We were there writing it thinking, "it's cheesy, but it's so strong." So we kept going with it. The whole track was in a different key, I kept singing it and it never felt right, and then I said, "well, stick it in another key and transpose it and I'll re-sing it." So he transposed it and we got this gender-bent vocal sound going and we haven't replaced it because we couldn't live without it. It felt like a perfect foil against the song.

17. What's the strangest machine sitting around your house?

The children's toys are the strangest machines in the house. Those toys that they get that never shut up. They babble on in the background. You walk into a room and a pillow starts talking to you. Furbys are the worst. They don't shut up. You're supposed to give them attention. If you disturb them, they go off for an hour.

18. Would you ever incorporate a Furby into a dance record?

No, no! Throw 'em in the bin is what I do.

19. Have you learned anything about your family or being a mother during the lockdown?

I've learned the children are pretty strong. I'm not sure what kind of long-term effects it'll have on them, but they've been good. We're all really close and I think they've appreciate seeing an awful lot more of me. I would be doing so much away from the house, I'd be touring. But I'm glad they're back in school. It's small class sizes, both the schools they go to.

20. If you weren't musician, what career would you have?

I'm sure something creative. I thought I was going to be a visual artist. If you asked me at six or seven, I would have said "artist." I was always good at drawing and very expressive and I was an exhibitionist. I lived a lot in my imagination as a child.