Róisín Murphy's back - she talks colourful career, Irish identity and new album
'I've always been attracted to weirdos," confesses Wicklow-born singer Róisín Murphy, who has just released her third studio album Hairless Toys. "When I was younger, I hung out with a bunch of boys who wore black and listened to bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. I connected with this because, from the very beginning, I felt like an outcast myself."
The beginning of Murphy's own journey to pop stardom started in Arklow and brought her to Sheffield. At a party around the mid '90s, she met a producer who'd worked with Boy George called Mark Brydon.
Murphy popped him the quirky question, "Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body." A kooky pop band called Moloko was born, as Murphy and Brydon (who later became a couple) lifted its name from the word for milk used by Anthony Burgess in his classic dystopia, A Clockwork Orange.
Moloko christened their first album Do You Like My Tight Sweater? after Murphy's chat-up line. They wrote one of the stand-out songs of the '90s, 'Sing it Back', which be could be heard everywhere from Inchicore to Ibiza in the summer of '99. It made Murphy a star, although not many people realised she was Irish.
Years later, one English journalist went as far to write: "I hope Ireland doesn't get too offended if Britain comes to its senses and recognises Róisín Murphy as a national treasure."
"I don't think Ireland has really embraced me, but it is not really for me to say," Murphy laughs. "Obviously, people shouldn't embrace me just because I'm Irish, but it is where I'm from. I'm extremely proud to be Irish."
Murphy and Brydon eventually split up, although the band lived on until 2003. She now lives in London with her Italian partner and two children, but regularly pops across the Irish Sea. "When I go home, I go to my house in the countryside," she says. "I don't hang out in Dublin. I go home to be with my family and have a rest and so on. I don't know anything about the Irish music scene and I've never felt part of it."
Róisín was nominated for a Choice Music Prize in 2007 for her second solo album Overpowered, which seemed like an eventual acknowledgement by the Irish music industry that the nomadic singer and former camogie player actually was Irish. "The other thing that jarred with people was I was Irish and making electronic music," Murphy says. "People wondered, 'Can that be right?'
"Maybe I should have been doing backing vocals for the Hothouse Flowers, but unfortunately, that prospect wasn't exciting enough for me. It would be nice to have more open arms back home in Ireland. My Mammy certainly would be very pleased. She is always there on the ground and keeps fighting the good fight."
Since Moloko split, Murphy has been championed by a motley crew of fashionistas and drag queens. "Once I was embraced by gay culture, I finally started to feel I was fitting in," she says. "I was understood by those people in a way I had never predicted or courted."
Speaking of gay culture, Murphy reckons this week's Marriage Equality referendum will be passed. "It will be a cake walk," she says. "I've seen massive changes in Ireland. A friend of mine came out in the last few years. He was holding it all in for a very long time. Everyone was much more accepting than he thought possible and it was all such a pleasant relief.
"There have been massive socio-political shifts back home. Obviously, change can sometimes be too extreme, or come too fast, but there is so much to be gained from a society that is constantly shifting, changing and being willing to adapt and evolve. I think Irish people are brilliant at this.
"It's also amazing when you think of all the books, plays and works of art that were banned outright in Ireland. One of my favourite books of all time is The Borstal Boy. I love the well-educated working-class culture that Behan came from and the way he got his encyclopaedic knowledge about writing, culture and song from his grandmother. I lap all that up."
Murphy is renowned for her flamboyant and ground-breaking sense of style and outrageous outfits. But she says: "I am not in a mode right now where I'll be wearing crazy Viktor and Rolf outfits. When I first started out as a performer, I wore a little dress and used to get into a dog basket with a bone in my mouth. I'd also have a dog leash around my neck and be tottering around the place wearing sky-high stilettos.
"I walked onto a musical stage that was extremely po-faced. Everything back then was all about being super, super serious and completely rejected fashion and showmanship of any kind. I kicked against this, because I didn't like it at all. I found it very untruthful and quite dishonest."
"Subsequently, I didn't fit in for many years, so it was a bit weird to end up getting name-dropped in fashion circles as some kind of influence later on in my career. As a live act, people were left scratching their heads asking themselves, 'What is this? Is this for real? Am I supposed to think this is good?'"
Murphy will get a chance to bring it all back home this September, as she is one of the main acts at Electric Picnic in Stradbally. It will be a bit of unfinished business, as Róisín was scheduled to perform at the festival back in 2005.
"I turned up, but Eddie Stevens (her long-term collaborator since Moloko) was stuck in Poland because of a problem with his flight, so we never actually played." she says. "So, this will finally be our Electric Picnic debut.
Róisín recently broke new ground directing the video for her current single 'Exploitation', a song she says is about "sex and dangerous fun". "I had a wonderful time making it," she enthuses. "I always enjoy the visual side. I hadn't had an opportunity to anything visually in eight years, even though I'd been dipping in and out of writing music during that time. My children think mama is a songwriter, but mama is also a performer and visually a very creative person."
Murphy is delighted with the reaction to her third solo album Hairless Toys so far. "I don't think I've ever felt this close to fulfilment in any of my creative endeavours," she says.
"I feel marvellous about it. I entirely followed my own heart while making this record. People kept saying to me, 'You should be making banging house music'. I kind of answered them by saying, 'Don't tell the vision people what sort of vision they should have', and I carried on regardless.
"I feel like I did the right thing. I'm very glad I did what I did."
Hairless Toys is out now. Róisín Murphy plays Electric Picnic on Saturday, September 5.
Born in Arklow in 1973, Róisín's family moved to England when she was 12.
After three years in Manchester, her parents divorced and moved back to Ireland. Roísin stayed put to enjoy the emergent music scene.
Róisín later moved to Sheffield, where she formed Moloko with then boyfriend Mark Brydon in 1994. When they broke up as a couple, they were under contractual obligation to release two more albums, but disbanded the band after their album Statues in 2003.
"We left it (Moloko) on good terms after a very successful tour," Murphy has said. "We shook hands, said, 'See you later', and haven't spoken since. I don't know if we will or we won't reunite. Myself, I don't not want to."
Róisín released her first solo album Ruby Blue in 2005. Overpowered followed in 2007, which brought her to a new international audience.
While performing in Russia touring the album, Murphy hit her head on a chair and sustained an eye injury, forcing her to cancel several live dates.
In November 2008, Murphy travelled to Lynchburg, Tennessee to celebrate Jack Daniel's birthday. She told me during an interview for this newspaper in Nashville on the eve of the show, "Music has given me a fantastic lifestyle."
Róisín ended 2008 on another high with a sold-out concert in Dublin's Olympia, where she performed a jaw-dropping version of 'Slave to Love' by Bryan Ferry, which was recorded for a Gucci advertising campaign starring James Franco.
Murphy has a daughter called Clodagh with Simon Henwood, who has directed videos for Kanye West and was creative director for Rihanna's Rated R album campaign.
"I've a little girl, who is five, but unfortunately, I split with her father," Róisín has said. "But luckily, I fell in love all over again with a wonderful Italian called Sebastiano Properzi from Milan. I had a boy (Tadhg), who is two-and-a-half now. The four of us live all together in quite a regular way.
"Sometimes, we don't do anything apart from eat and think about food. This tends to happen quite a bit when you live with an Italian."