Continuing to stay relevant after 20 years in the industry isn’t something that singer, songwriter and dance music icon Róisín Murphy takes for granted.
“I don’t think that my story’s typical,” she says. “I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve lived very nicely on music all my life, not had to worry about much else, and I’ve done exactly what I’ve wanted to do at every turn… I’ve only got myself to blame if it goes wrong!”
The surprising thing about Murphy’s career – an unusually lengthy one for someone working so heavily within the context of electronic music – is that it’s had relatively few moments of “going wrong.” From her beginnings as the fresh-faced imp who gave Moloko their identity, to her acclaimed solo recordings and frequent collaborations, Murphy has never let critics or listeners settle her into pre-established boxes of genre convenience. She has also earned a reputation as a seasoned and highly entertaining live performer, and as she tours this year’s triumphant Hairless Toys album, here are 10 highlights of Murphy’s recording career. Speaking to FACT earlier this year, she stated: “I don’t have a sense of exactly where I fit.” Honestly, she’s all the better for it.
‘Fun For Me’
(from Do You Like My Tight Sweater?, Echo, 1995)
The first sounds you hear on Moloko’s debut album are the dreamy coos of Róisín’s voice, but what follows is a complete bait and switch, as her introductory harmonies give way to full-bellied, robust swagger. Sounding something like Mae West fronting a G-Funk battalion, Murphy’s vocal on ‘Fun For Me’ laid down the foundations for her persona during the early years of her career – an elusive, boisterous spitfire who balanced the sensual with the nonsensical like it was a game.
Moloko emerged at the height of trip-hop, but ‘Fun For Me’ made it clear that the group weren’t your run-of-the-mill spliffheads. To quote Murphy herself, “Moloko was just me saying ‘Do you like my tight sweater?’ You know, just me saying some shit… and then I got a deal! I started singing after that.” Her commanding presence in the group what was what drew listeners in, and her experimental “fuck it” attitude was what kept them coming back for more.
Handsome Boy Modeling School
(from So… How’s Your Girl, Tommy Boy, 1999)
Prince Paul and Dan The Automator’s debut as Handsome Boy Modeling School remains a classic rogues’ gallery of unexpected hip-hop experiments, but some of the album’s most successful collabs were those that strayed from the rap aesthetic into more stoned soul picnic fare. Among the album’s numerous highlights is ‘The Truth,’ essentially a showcase for Murphy to slip into slinky jazz singer mode over tweaked loops cribbed from Galt MacDermot’s ‘Coffee Cold,’ with a solid breakdown verse by NYC rapper J-Live. ‘The Truth’ showcased Murphy for the first time away from the shenanigans of Moloko’s quirkiness, bringing a straightforward sultriness heretofore unheard from the singer on disc…
‘Sing It Back’ (Herbert’s Tasteful Dub)
…but which Murphy would channel for Moloko’s biggest hit. An inescapable Ibiza anthem in 1999, ‘Sing It Back’ catapulted the group from cult party weirdos to club heavyweights, mostly thanks to Boris Dlugosch’s remix. It’s Matthew Herbert’s ‘Tasteful Dub’ mix of the track that really stands out though: it’s still one of Herbert’s most iconic productions, a classic example of his verité house grooves. It also holds historical importance in Murphy’s career arc, as it foreshadows the Herbert/Murphy pairing that would reach fruition later on in their careers.
(‘Bad Cover Version’, Island, 2002)
Murphy’s always had a winning way with cover versions – her brilliant rework of Grace Jones’s ‘Feel Up’, recorded with All Seeing I and Salt City Orchestra, is a slept-on deep house classic – and she’s versioned some unlikely artists during her career, from Brian Ferry to Lucio Battisti. One of the most surprising and transformative, though, is her recontextualization of Pulp’s britpop anthem ‘Sorted For E’s And Wizz,’ originally from their 1995 album Different Class album. Released as the b-side to Pulp’s ‘Bad Cover Version’ (which also included Nick Cave doing ‘Disco 2000’), Murphy shifts the song from its original ballad arrangement, describing the perks and pits of tripping balls at a rave, into a warehouse techno throbber. It’s virtually unrecognizable as a Pulp tune, save for a handful of Jarvis Cocker’s original lyrics chanted and filtered into oblivion, and it also winks at Murphy’s newly acquired status as a deep house diva.
(from Statues, Echo, 2002)
According to Murphy, Moloko was never intended to be a proper band: “originally we were just going to be [represented in public by] three dolls. We had a photo shoot with the dolls… and we didn’t like the photo shoot. Then we had another photo shoot, and somehow, we were a band, and then we were on stage. It wasn’t ever supposed to be that way!”.
Charting the course of Moloko’s albums, the group’s sound progresses away from more loop and sample-based confections into a more live-room full band production, and on Statues – the group’s swan song – that transformation reaches its peak both in the emotional maturity of the songs and the strength of the band’s chops as a proper ensemble. Murphy in particular really shines here, flexing her muscles as a commanding performer and weaving her vocals into a broader tapestry of emotional color throughout.
The percolating ‘Forever More’ serves as the album’s centerpiece, and fuses the classic Chicago house sounds of Fingers Inc with the vibrant horns of a live soul revue. Murphy rides the rhythm with absolute command as the track builds into a dense, multilayered tapestry of vocals, synth squelch, and brass fanfares. It’s the most successful bridge between the group’s club bangers and the more ambitious arrangements that hinted a new direction. Sadly, though, they split following the album’s tour; Murphy and Moloko producer Mark Brydon had actually parted ways romantically prior to the recording of Statues, but were contractually obligated to deliver one last album. The emotional bloodletting of Statues‘ lyrics would flourish in Murphy’s solo work with newfound intensity, as she began fusing her freaky and tender dualities together more seamlessly.
(from Ruby Blue, Echo, 2005)
With Moloko now a thing of the past, Murphy began work on her first solo music. To assist with production, she turned to longtime Moloko remixer Matthew Herbert, who encouraged Murphy to bring an assortment of her belongings into the studio so that this album of deeply personal songs was made with the very personal sounds and objects that were a part of her daily life. That experimental impulse was carried out throughout Ruby Blue, an album that stands as a high water mark for both Murphy and Herbert.
Herbert surrounds the singer at her most vulnerable with some of his most simultaneously eccentric and yet highly tuneful arrangements to date, and Murphy shows for the first time the full extent of her vocal range. Together, they explore the sounds of New Orleans swing, quiet storm soul, disco funk, and piano balladry, but with each style filtered through a cupboard of radiophonic kitchen sink clatter. While both artists would produce further work of high quality, neither has balanced the dichotomy of the experimental and the personal so successfully since.
‘Let Me Know’
(from Overpowered, EMI, 2007)
After Ruby Blue failed to deliver a hit on par with Moloko’s peak successes, Echo unceremoniously dropped Murphy, and she found herself courted by one of the biggest majors in the industry. “I ended up suddenly being signed to EMI,” says Murphy. “I made a pop record. Well, I promised them I’d make a pop record… I tried to make a pop record, at least.”
2007’s Overpowered was perhaps the most unusual of Murphy’s releases to date, as it truly was blessed with straightforward pop production, recorded with assorted producers (including a few numbers recorded with a then-fledgling Calvin Harris that didn’t make the cut, much to the chagrin of the EDM big shot) and a lavish promo campaign. It’s scattered, but offers playful throwback updates of 1980s Garage disco and freestyle, as well as a few mutations of Timbaland and Justin Timberlake’s neon R&B sound circa Futuresex/Lovesounds. Single ‘Let Me Know’ delivers the greatest returns; an interpolation of the 1981 Paradise Garage classic ‘Sure Shot’ by Tracy Weber (with a bit of D Train’s ‘Keep On’ thrown in for good measure), it stands as Murphy’s most confident pop single to date. It also proved to be her most successful solo hit, and remains a highlight of her tenure on the majors.
(Permanent Vacation, 2012)
When her time in EMI’s ranks ended in 2008, Murphy took a sabbatical to focus on starting a family; while pregnant, she recorded and self-released a handful of delightful digital singles and popped in for occasional appearances on tracks by Toddla T, David Byrne, and Crookers. It was a 2012 single for Permanent Vacation, though, that announced her triumphant return.
‘Simulation’ is arguably Murphy’s finest single track, an eleven-minute behemoth that thumps with authority to a rhythm that is literally steamy – its hi-hats sound like like hot pressurized vapor escaping from industrial pipes while Murphy moans and murmurs in the background behind a latticework of laser-guided synthesizers. Her powerful lead vocal cheekily references Arthur Russell, whose lengthy, intimate disco meditations seem to be an obvious influence here. The track is a late-night monster, and its sensual power and elemental momentum haven’t diminished an ounce in the years since. ‘Simulation’ showed that Murphy was back and better than ever, and her next move would prove to be the most unexpected curveball in a career built on nothing but left-turns.
‘Non Credere’ (2014)
(from Mi Senti, Vinyl Factory, 2014)
Few could have predicted that Róisín Murphy’s first release of substantial length in years would end up being a double-EP of covers of 60s and 70s Italian pop hits. With Mi Senti, that is precisely what we got, and the biggest surprise is how perfectly it synthesizes multiple generations of Itallian popular song. Murphy was inspired to record the EP by her partner, an Italian who’d exposed her to many of the songs tackled here. These aren’t the Italo disco or synth pop bangers one would perhaps expect to hear, but rather heavily orchestrated ballads, reframed by Murphy as minimal pop with electronic textures and vintage synth aesthetics, fusing the more classically-oriented Italian pop of the 60s with that of the future-minded 1980s.
Murphy herself has never sounded better, stretching beyond her comfort zone into areas she’d never before reached on record. She said of the recording: “I had to be more ‘real’ in my vocals seeing as no one knew what the fuck I was singing about! Doing that project did a lot for my voice; it somehow deepened my singing. Covering other artists does that anyway, as you find yourself out of your range. It definitely pushed me to the limit.”
There’s a razor’s edge tension in her delivery, yet she somehow simultaneously sounds cozy and confident even singing in a relatively foreign tongue. It doesn’t hurt that her choices are top-shelf, including numbers by beloved heavyweights like Lucio Battisti, Patty Pravo, and Gino Paoli. It’s her two hair-raising covers of powerhouse balladeer Mina that deliver the highlights, though, as Murphy pushes to the brink to attempt to match the bloodletting intensity of Mina’s original vocal takes. The challenges of making Mi Senti proved to be pivotal in the development of Murphy’s most recent release, one which sees her tap into that same inspiration and foreign exploration, but recasts her own personal language.
‘Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)’
(from Hairless Toys, PIAS, 2015)
2015 brought forth Hairless Toys, the first full-length album by Murphy in eight years, and one which takes the quiet synthetic sentimentality of Mi Senti and reconfigures its mechanics into the most eclectic and subtle album of Murphy’s career. She follows these hushed grooves down rabbit holes that lead to great rewards; her increased vocal range is on full display throughout, and the arrangements by longtime collaborator Eddie Stevens (with whom Murphy had worked as far back as the end of the Moloko days) conceal a complexity that isn’t perhaps obvious at first listen.
At times sounding like the Compass Point All-Stars gigging in a perpetually rainy after-hours lounge, Hairless Toys proves to be laser-focused and perhaps (Mi Senti aside) Murphy’s most unified sonic statement to date, Moloko included. Some of the album’s most surprising moments come in the form of a duo of ballads that conjure a dreamy neon mist, equal parts Vangelis and Angelo Badalamenti, Blade Runner and Twin Peaks. They’re completely new territory for Murphy, and they map out places that she hopefully will be visiting more in the future. More than anything, though, Hairless Toys shows that despite the chart hits and iconic peaks of her early years, Murphy’s ongoing second act – which has already been a thrilling, surprising, and unpredictable ride – may prove to be her most creatively rewarding, surprising, and fulfilling.