“I didn’t discover music,” insists Róisín Murphy. “It discovered me. It was there, waiting to jump on me. A part of my life for as long as I can remember.”
Murphy - formerly one half of Moloko, but successfully solo for the best part of 20 years now - grew up in Arklow, a smallish town just south of Dublin. It’s perhaps a cliché to imagine that every Irish house is full of music and song, but for the Murphy family, this seems to have been the case.
“Any reason for a drink and any reason for a song, that’s what the house was like. When I look back, it feels like the singing never stopped. It sort of blends in with the way we talked to each other. If we were sad or happy, music was communication.”
Her parents moved to Manchester when she was 12 - just as house music was beginning to take hold of the UK charts - but ended up moving back just three years later. Róisín, still only 15, decided to stay, living with schoolmates until she was old enough to sign on and get a place of her own.
There was plenty happening in Manchester - Murphy watched the Madchester scene unfold - but it was a move to Sheffield in 1993 that finally nudged her into a recording studio.
One of the first people she met was Mark Brydon, former bass player with the industrial funk band, Chakk. Along with other Sheffield bands like the Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire etc, Chakk were pioneering the use of machine-driven dance music in the early-80s. They had limited success, but it was enough to allow Brydon to build the impressive FON recording studio.
“Me and Mark had started a relationship,” explains Murphy, “but we were also dicking around in the studio during down time. Just making shit up. That was the start of Moloko, really. Very amateurish. But, somehow, Mark’s manager got us a meeting at a record label in London and we suddenly had a six-album deal. It was mad! I’d hardly sung a word since I’d left Ireland, but I was now a professional singer!”
Although they were lumped-in with the trip-hop bands of the mid-’90s, there was a sinister, disjointed funkiness to their debut album, Do You Like My Tight Sweater?, that was very much their own. Imagine Funkadelic had got the gig as house band in Arkham Asylum. Singles like Sing It Back (1999) and The Time Is Now (2000) gave them hits in Europe and the US, but as Murphy and Brydon’s relationship began to fall apart, so, unfortunately for fans, did the band.
Her solo career was kicked off with 2005’s Ruby Blue and album number five, Róisín Machine, was released in October - co-produced by her long-term collaborator, Richard Barratt, aka DJ Parrot/Crooked Man and former member of All Seeing I.
The weirdness is still very much in evidence - one track is called Shellfish Mademoiselle and the scattershot vocals regularly catch you unawares - but there’s also that deep, flowing, bass-heavy vibe that aims Murphy’s music squarely at the dancefloor.
Did you have any interest in dance music as a kid back in Arklow?
“I liked disco, yeah. And I think you can hear that on the recent album. But my idea of disco is huge. It’s not just Sylvester and Chic, it’s also… Joy Division. When I first heard Joy Division at 10 or 11 years old, it sounded like disco music. It made me want to dance.
“My Uncle Jim used to be in a jazz band. He was a brilliant band leader, great singer - pitch perfect - and could play a whole ton of instruments. In the summer, they would do weekend shows at a hotel down the road and they’d play five-hour sessions. Everybody from the town would go there and the whole place would go fucking mad. There would be people dancing on tables, couples swinging each other around like whirlwinds.
“Is that dance music in the way that we understand it today? Maybe not. Does that matter? Of course not! I saw some YouTube footage recently of a little lad who was in a gospel choir and he was throwing some proper, proper moves. He could only have been about five or six, but he was totally lost in the music. It made me so happy to watch him. You can see the joy on his face.
“If a piece of music can make you feel like that, then, as far as I’m concerned, it’s dance music. And you can see that all over the world. It’s not just an Irish thing or a gospel thing. Sounds like a cliché, I know, but music is a universal language.”
Was there a point where you went from being a kid who liked music to someone who took it seriously?
“I always took music very seriously. By that, I mean that music mattered to me. Like I said before, music was a kind of communication in our family. When I think of certain relatives who are long gone, I hear the songs they used to sing. Didn’t matter who wrote the song or if a band had a hit with it, that song would become Aunt so-and-so’s song. It would become part of their identity.”
What was your showstopper?
“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. My Uncle Jim was surprised when he heard me sing because he didn’t rate me. He always refused to take me under his wing because he said I had ‘no discipline’. And he was right. I spent too much time fucking about.
“And that’s kind of how it’s always been. Even when I met up with Mark in Sheffield, it was all about having fun. We were in love and off our faces. Lying on the floor, giggling and going off into deep space. And occasionally recording the results. There was no pressure, and we didn’t expect anyone to listen to it, but maybe that was the secret. Maybe that was why we came up with something that people did want to listen to.
“Mark taught me everything I know about being in the studio. He is an amazing musician, a ridiculously inventive bass player, an incredible engineer and an off-the-scale programmer. I used to sit there watching him dig into the heart of the very early computer we had at the time. Creating pieces of music that would inspire me to write shit and do a bit of singing.”
The way you talk about your childhood makes it sound very traditional. It was all about real voices, people playing fiddles and guitars. Human beings making music. It didn’t bother you that there were machines at the heart of the Moloko sound?
“Sorry, but I disagree with you! There was nothing traditional about my childhood. Let’s take the years I was in Ireland - 1973 to 1985 - and look at what was happening. The politics, the religion. It was a fucking war! My parents, like a lot of people in Ireland, weren’t interested in looking back. They were forward-thinking, the true modernisers of their generation.
“They were actually turning away from tradition and turning away from religion. They were more interested in throwing parties and all the new stuff that was happening. They were insanely curious. There were different people and different classes coming into their world and they loved it. By osmosis, all this new stuff was being absorbed by the Irish people.
“My mum told me a story about when she was pregnant with me. She came home from work at lunch for a bit of how’s-yer-father with my dad. Anyway, she comes downstairs half-an-hour later and there’s a priest sitting at the table. He’d let himself in! He says, ‘Now, listen here, Rose. This behaviour can’t go on. If you don’t stop, we won’t be baptising the child up at the church’. My mum says, ‘She’s being baptised in Dublin. Now get out of the house and be on your way’.
“Culturally, Ireland is always in a state of flux. Everything can change overnight. And I was born right at the start of that change. Traditional childhood? No way! I thought I was living in the space age. We had electric fucking curtains, for God’s sake!”
So, going back to the original question, sounds like you didn’t mind making your music on computers!
RM: “Ha ha! No, I definitely didn’t mind making music on computers. Even though Mark was the one who looked after the tech side of things, it didn’t take me long to work out how the studio worked and what it could do for me. Back then it was samplers and outboard effects, but a lot has changed since then. And I’ve gleefully embraced every new technological development. This looks interesting, what does it make me sound like? Is it dangerous? I like dangerous! Is it a step into the future? I’ll have some of that!
“If you think about it, computers and machines have been part of the music I’ve been listening to ever since I moved to Manchester as a kid. Early house music, 808 State, all the stuff from Sheffield. All the songs I heard in clubs were made on machines. All the little labels that were appearing like Warp and Creed. It was part of the new story… a new sound. I was proud to be part of that family.”
Do you have a studio of your own?
RM: “It’s not quite a studio. I’ve got an Ableton rig at my house in London, which is purely for recording and working on vocals. In the past, I would have needed a mixing desk and all of that shit, but now I really just need a laptop, an interface and a mic. There’s a fantastic example of how much easier technology has made it for us right there.
“The way we worked on this album was that Parrot would put the music together at his place in Sheffield, send the track to me, I’d record a vocal, then send it back. There were a couple of times when he didn’t think the vocal was quite good enough, so I went up to his place… this was right in the middle of lockdown!
“It was creepy. Travelling through a deserted London to a deserted St Pancras Station, getting on an empty train and arriving in a deserted Sheffield. Walking down deserted streets and being totally freaked out. I’m sure some of that intense feeling found its way into the songs.”
How does the lyric-writing work? Do you sit and listen to Parrot’s music and write to that, or do you try and match pre-written lyrics with a particular piece of music?
“That would never work for me! Trying to force the words and music together? It’s the music that will tell me what it wants me to write. For instance, I’ve just been working on some stuff with Mad Professor. He sends me over the music, I stick it in Ableton and… the words come to me like magic. The mood and the shape of the words is already there, so I just have to follow the path. The lyric is etched into every beat and bassline. It allows me to find a lyric very quickly.
“Perhaps the only thing I do have pre-prepared is a bank of single words. If I come across a certain word and I like the sound of it, I put it in the bank. Then I pull them out during the recording process and use them as puzzles or marker posts. Just saying a word over and over can sometimes show you which door you should be going through.”
You mentioned the lockdown creeping onto the recent album? Does it matter if a lyric has a ‘message’?
“It’s not as overt as all that. I don’t feel particularly comfortable putting political statements in songs or telling people how to live their lives. I tend to find that my lyrics are a bit more Freudian. I ponder and play with words. It might lead somewhere, it might not. And if it does lead somewhere, I might end up understanding what I was thinking about, or I might not. I’m just going on a journey, trying to delve inside my mind.”
Has working on Ableton made you want to start writing your own music?
RM: “No. I’m not a musician in that sense. I’ve been lucky enough to work with amazing people like Mark Brydon, Parrot and DJ Koze - who’s on my next album. I’d like to think I am involved in the music, but it’s more of a conceptual thing, rather than working out how we’re going to shape the bassline.
“I have no desire to write music because I get all this incredible music pouring into my life. Ideas and sounds that I could never come up with. It’s probably best for everybody if I stick to what I’m good at.”
The album Róisín Machine is out now
Studio chat with DJ Parrot (AKA Crooked Man)
Murphy’s camera-shy right-hand man for this album, DJ Parrot aka Crooked Man, reveals some of the pair’s studio secrets…
Can you briefly talk us through a song on the album?
“Well, the track that started the project - and the LP - is Simulation. I took the bassline and the slightly ridiculous pea-soup hi-hat sound into the studio of my engineer and good friend, Fat Dave. Róisín refers to Dave as a Musical God, and it’s a good job he is because I’m tone deaf and can barely play a note. I can’t get my head around any kind of musical or rhythmic complexity, so rarely stray far from a straight 4/4 disco bum-crack beat.
“I have no rules about quantisation. Whatever sounds good on the track is OK as far as I’m concerned. Fat Dave was a rhythm guitarist in the ‘70s and early-’80s disco cover acts, so he can be relied upon to get his old Strat sat in the groove. He also played the little electric piano part that’s a big driver of that song. The sound’s from Kontakt V5. Most Crooked Man productions are driven forward by the b-lines, so Simulation is a little unusual in that respect.”
And what’s your main DAW?
“All of this record was done on Logic 5.5 from 1998. That’s all you need to know.”
Róisín told us that she’s got an Ableton setup at home and can get decent vocals there. But there were times when you wanted her to re-record the vocal in a ‘better’ studio. Were you just looking for a more technically perfect sound?
“To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with Róisín’s setup. Her microphone probably cost more than Fat Dave’s entire studio. However, unless you’re recording very intimate and restrained vocals, it’s difficult for any singer to record themselves at home. You’re having to piss about with a computer and thinking about levels, when all you should be doing is singing.
“Sometimes, it’s good to do stuff in a studio with a booth and an engineer. Plus, it keeps Murphy on her toes!
“Dave likes to record vocals through a TLA C1 compressor that I bought for something completely different, and after she’s given voice, there might be a bit of tuning in Melodyne… maybe some nudging around the groove if we change the music at any point for remixes and stuff. Nothing major.”
The basslines on this album sound awesome! Tell us how you did it.
“Well, the first and most important thing is to get a good line. If that’s not there, it doesn’t matter how much you fiddle about, it’s not going to do its job properly. The sound should be whatever you feel complements the fabulous b-line you’ve played and fits into the overall vibe of the track.
“We have a particular sound we originally made for a song entitled Drain. We call it - unsurprisingly - The Drain Bass. Dave cooked it up years ago in an ancient version of Spectrasonics Trilogy. With a bit of fiddling, it’s amazing how many tracks we manage to fit it into.”
You’ve been based in Sheffield for many years, the home of Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Warp Records. How did one city become so important to the development of electronic music in the UK?
“Maybe it was the clanging and banging of the steelworks? Or maybe four of five people becoming obsessed with Roxy Music and Eno in the early ‘70s? Who knows? It’s entirely possible that Sheffield wasn’t that important at all, and electronic music would have got along very well without all those grumpy buggers bleeping and blooping around.
“However, myths do have power, and the idea of my own town being a pioneer of electronics with the Cabs and Human League certainly caught my attention as a teenager. Although I have to admit that it was US dance music that really got me into it.”
What was the first bit of studio kit you ever bought?
“A GLI mixer in 1986. Almost 20 years before that, in 1967, Fat Dave was given a Hofner Sunburst that his merchant seaman uncle had won in a game of cards.”
Any bits of kit you couldn’t live without?
“I can honestly say there’s no technology I couldn’t live without. This LP was made on a 22-year-old bit of software, run on a steam-driven PC with a broken fan. Music has never been about what you use. What’s important is the attitude you use it with.
“Let’s say I go out and buy a Gretsch Falcon and a fabulous Orange amp. Fat Dave could make a guitar from a shoebox and some rubber bands and play it through a bit of string and a rusty baked bean tin. And he’d still sound a million times better than me!”