Some artists talk about making music that’s art; others just effortlessly do it. Irish art-pop architect Roisin Murphy is in the latter camp, having dropped two under-the-radar, but nearly flawless, albums of sculptural electronica with flashes of downbeat disco, minimalism and even calypso in the last two years. This isn’t music for everyone, but for those with an itch for pop music that has an actual singer-songwriter perspective and interesting compositions, Roisin Murphy is a god.
Ahead of her sold-out concert at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight (Nov. 4), Billboard spoke with Murphy as she went about her day (at one point she stopped the interview to order a macchiato) about dropping two albums — Hairless Toys (2015) and Take Her Up to Monto (2016) — after an eight year hiatus, directing her own music videos, the music she’s working on now and why she thinks any vote for Donald Trump is inherently “a racist vote.”
So after an eight-year hiatus between your very dance-y Overpowered and Hairless Toys, you’re back just one year later with Take Her Up to Monto. Why so fast?
It was always meant to be two albums in this kind of era, if you get me. When I sat down to write with Eddie Stevens [a longtime collaborator] we set aside five weeks to write, and we’d written a lot of songs within a week. We realized we’d have enough songs for two albums at least. We felt that would work and we could make these ‘sibling records,’ if you will. You just dive in with Eddie and feel your way through. He hates me saying this and it’s not true really, but he’s a bit punk. He’s an expansive musician. I let him be free musically and just followed with songwriting.
How did you decide which songs would go on which album?
Instinctively — we chose the ones that came naturally to finish first. We left the rest of the songs for a good while. Put [Hairless Toys] out and came back to the rest of the songs and finished some of those for the second record. Looking at it afterward, it’s probably true we chose easier songs to finish first. [For Take Her Up to Monto] we were left with songs that were very emotional and true and quite hard to finish. Or quite complex in their arrangements, so quite hard to face as well. That’s what you got on Take Her Up to Monto.
And you directed the “Whatever” video for this album.
I directed all the videos on the last album and all the videos on this one.
It’s very social media and iPhone focused, with text bubbles and emojis popping up over images of city space.
The last couple of years I’ve been doing social media on my smartphone and got drawn in, and you get new issues that spring up that aren’t in the real world. There’s lots of lovely people online and I get an awful lot from people who are friends on Facebook that play music and show me things and keep me connected in a way I wouldn’t be otherwise. So there’s a real positive side to it as far as I’m concerned, but there’s also a sense of loneliness, which is in the footage itself. The first day, the idea was shoot the video for “Ten Miles High” across a four-day shoot in London. We took a test shoot to see how this little camera worked, what it looked like, and then that first test day I decided to just film “Whatever.” It comes out of nowhere…. The most healthy way to be creative is to work with what you have and not sit around wishing you had something different. With these visuals in particular on this album, it was right in front of me. The sleeve, the album cover, the visuals come from the first day shoot as well, freeze frames from the “Whatever” video.
The video and album cover have a focus on construction.
I’m really into architecture, I’m a member of the Brutalist Appreciation Society, I’m a member of the Postmodern Society. I write letters to save buildings. The last time I wrote a letter was to save the entrance to a very famous postmodern building and we actually got it stopped from being torn down — that was great.
That’s an interesting passion.
It’s something I loved when I was a teenager, and then being hooked up on Facebook I got back into it. I love taking pictures; I travel to a lot of cities, so it’s ideal, really. That’s what this visual came from. I don’t know how many times I’ve nearly died on the road because I’m looking up taking pictures. It’s unbelievable how much construction is going up now. And I’m trying to see the beauty in it. I really am.
That struck me about the Monto album cover. Usually you have such an otherworldly sense of fashion, but here you’re in construction garment, which is comparatively ordinary.
No, it’s camp, love, the way I do it. It’s the idea in drag culture of realness — dressing as something real. I find that an absolutely enthralling idea. When I watched Paris Is Burning, something I watched while I was writing, I directly wrote a song about it, “Gone Fishing,” watching their executive realness or college kid realness — it’s just the best ever thing. It crosses all these weird boundaries and is so subversive and interesting and intelligent. I just got really into it. That’s part of the connection with the construction chic.
Do you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race or keep up with contemporary drag?
I do, and they keep up with me, trust me. [RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars alum] Detox came all the way to Ireland to see me play. There’s a connection. Someone said to me a long time ago, “You’re a drag queen,” and at the time I was a little like… hello? But then I realized over the years that I actually am.
It’s a high compliment. What do you think about the American election?
I’m very worried. I think the whole world is worried about Donald Trump. I’m going to be in America when the election is going on for the gigs. I really hope the shit does not hit the fan in a big way, but it is quite interesting. I went to bed on the night of Brexit, of that vote for leaving the EU, and I said to everyone it will be a 70/30, nobody wants to leave the EU. I woke up on the bus in Glastonbury and everybody had their heads in their hands. They could not believe it, I could not believe it. And that was a racist vote. And I think a vote for Trump is a racist vote. Whatever anybody says about it, it’s racism.
Between Trump and Brexit it’s almost like racism is having a comeback.
Of course it’s having a comeback. There’s an economic backdrop to all of this. When men are losing their jobs, losing their place in society, losing their sense of selves, their egos have been battered constantly, they’re going to come out fighting, and it’s going to twist them up. And that’s really what’s happening.
Then they blame minorities or women, but that’s not the real culprit.
Exactly. There’s an economic reason behind it, but it gets all twisted up. I was reading about women and the feminist backlash going on since the ’90s. I remember feeling that palpable shift when we had a phenomenon here called lads’ mags [men’s magazines in the U.S.] and new TV and radio presenters who were just sexist. It was a backlash on feminism, which had been gaining ground up to that point. Since then there’s been a gradual erosion of feminist rights. I think it’s been greatly undermined in the last 10, 15 years, and Trump is part of that, too. He doesn’t think much of women either, and it’s scary honestly.
What’s next for you musically?
You have to comeback with something that surprises and changes the narrative. I feel I’ve got to surprise people and to tell a story with the records I put out. I’m in the studio tomorrow fixing up stuff I’ve already written. If anything my manager is like “slow down!” If I had my way the next record would be out in only a year.
I don’t know why not! It won’t be long.
What does it sound like? Like the last two?
No. Totally different. I’m not telling anyone anything — but it’s a new era.