Alison Goldfrapp: High Priestess
Smiling from behind sunglasses the size of small tennis racquets, Alison Goldfrapp, is talking about some of her famous friends. "Christina Aguilera was terribly sweet," the high priestess of pervy synth pop announces. "She wasn't guarded at all. Very relaxed. We have met a few lady pop stars and, you know, they can be quite guarded in the way they present themselves."
Is this a veiled reference to Madonna, who notoriously borrowed -- many would say pilfered -- Goldfrapp's pop dominatrix sound and Wickerman chic a few years back? "We met Madonna at the MTV awards. She was very charming," Alison demurs. "She and Guy Ritchie had previously asked us do do a score for her movie. I don't think we're fans of her music, but have a lot of admiration for what she has achieved."
Surely, though, Goldfrapp was a bit piqued to see Madonna -- christened 'Oldfrapp' by the press -- cribbing her look and musical stylings? "I have to say, there were a couple of occasions where I thought 'didn't I just wear that outfit last week or something?' A couple of things like that. But fuck, you know, I don't know what Madonna listens to, I don't know what she does. She is probably someone who keeps her eye on what is going on."
It's a sleety February morning and Goldfrapp and musical partner Will Gregory -- confusingly "Goldfrapp" is also the name they trade under as a duo -- are installed in the top floor of Notting Hill private members' club The Electric House. Sitting in the club proper, you could be forgiven for feeling you had become trapped in an edition of the Observer Food Monthly: the great and good of Notting Hill are power-brunching, chugging organic lattes and twittering on their MacBooks (actor Matt Dillon and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie among them).
Upstairs, Goldfrapp and Gregory are laidback and chatty. This comes as a pleasant surprise. Having once posed for an album cover with half a dead fox hanging off her -- the image was largely digital, Alison doesn't do fur -- Goldfrapp has a reputation as fashion icon and, to be blunt, rather a diva. She says she's now in a "happier place", an emotional state which imbues Goldfrapp's new album, Head First, their fifth since they started writing songs together in 1999, with a tender afterglow. Perhaps that owes something to Alison's recent "outing" -- do we still use that word in 2010? -- as a lesbian, after it was reported she was in a relationship with film editor Lisa Gunning.
"I don't know why people would find it surprising," Goldfrapp said later. "Everything we've ever done -- the music, the looks, the shows -- has all been quite ambiguous and undefinable, and that's how I am. I don't like to be defined by my sexuality, which swings wherever I like to swing. I've had lovely, long relationships with men as well. I just happen to be in a relationship with a lady at the moment. I don't like to be pigeonholed in my life or my music either. The best policy seems to be to go with what feels right, so I do."
Today, Alison couldn't be more unassuming had she turned up for the interview in a potato sack and Birkenstocks. While the 43-year-old Londoner sports her trademark mirrorshades, she is without make-up and her normally photogenic ringlets are cropped short and hang lankly.
"I take it with a pinch of salt really," she says of her fashion maven status. "I don't think a huge amount about it. People talk about the new kid on the block. That very quickly goes away, I have noticed. If you are fashionable one week, you are probably not going to be very fashionable in a few weeks time."
She's being falsely modest, surely? For a few years, Alison's pagan princess aesthetic was all over the catwalks. To this day, you will catch glimpses of it in people like Florence and the Machine and Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan. Even Lady Gaga's s&m pop has an undeniable whiff of Goldfrapp.
"Well, I wish we had her budget," she laughs. "That's fucking true. She's young, I think she's fantastic. She's obviously making a huge effort. You know, it's all very flattering. I do have my own style, and a particular album [2005's Supernature] probably influenced a few things around at the moment. However, that was quite a time ago."
She's not wrong there. Obsessed with hyping the next hot young thing -- ie, another female singer-songwriter with nice hair -- BBC Radio One, Britain's pre-eminent 'yoof' station, has declined to playlist Goldfrapp's comeback single, Rocket. Frankly, it's a bit of a slap in the face. Particularly when you consider the rumours that the BBC judged the duo too old for the station.
"Yeah, Radio One won't play it," says Goldfrapp, who perks up slightly when told that the single is a huge airplay hit in Ireland. "We were told we don't appeal to their demographic, which is interesting. Maybe we're too old. Maybe we don't appeal to younger people. Although there are quite a lot of three-year-olds who like Rocket."
Gregory chimes in: "It's a little bizarre. They have supported us all the way through... The notion is that the maximum age group for that station is 25. We don't appeal to that age group -- that's kind of what I was told."
At least they still have a fan in Christina Aguilera. Last year, she contacted Goldfrapp and Gregory out of the blue, inviting them to hang with her in Los Angeles, and toss a few ideas around.
"She flew us out, she looked after us," says Gregory. "She was very sweet actually. She was with a very new baby. It was hard for her to do any work at all -- it was quite against her instincts at the time. But she did, you know."
One imagines Aguilera enjoying rather a bling lifestyle. "It was very un-corporate really," says Gregory. "We went in thinking, 'oh where are all the people?' It was her and an engineer. All in her little home studio. To be fair, she did have a lot of staff. She had a telephone where she had 'staff one, staff two, staff three'. She herself was relaxed and open."
So when can we expect to hear the fruits of their collaboration? Goldfrapp and Gregory glance at one another sheepishly. "We wrote her a song and that was the whole shaboodle really," says Goldfrapp. "We haven't heard it and don't know what's happening to it. That's about as far as we can comment. I think she's figuring out what she's doing. Whether it will ever see the light of day, we don't know."
They have strong opinions about the brutal manner in which their record label, EMI, has been restructured -- some might say winnowed -- following its 2007 acquisition by a firm of gimlet-eyed venture capitalists.
"We were going to foreign territories to do press and the people we'd had relationships with had all been fired," says Gregory. "There wouldn't be anyone around to meet you and introduce you and so on. It felt like the infrastructure was collapsing as we went. Everyone was shocked at how quickly it happened. It's mad, really. EMI is a successful label -- consider all the artists they have and the records they are putting out. You couldn't imagine a better situation if they weren't so in debt. It's sad. Some bankers have cocked the whole thing up."
Despite her fashionista rep, Alison wasn't friendly with the late Alexander McQueen, the British catwalk wunderkind who took his own life a few weeks ago. Nonetheless, she was deeply moved by his death and paid heartfelt tribute to him via what is now every pop star's favourite method of communication, Twitter.
"I don't normally do things like that. I was in the middle of writing a blog. We were in Berlin doing promo. It was snowing outside -- all very romantic. And then I heard about Alexander McQueen. It was like, 'oh, fuck'. Obviously he was a huge inspiration to a lot of people. He changed a lot of ideas about fashion, about what you could wear and couldn't wear. He challenged conventions. I thought it was so fucking sad. It was horrible."
The single Rocket is released today. Head First is released on March 19