Friday 24 January 2020

'Ireland is a great place to be odd' - pop star Roisin Murphy

International alt.pop star Roisin Murphy, who inspired Lady Gaga, tells Barry Egan about her "oddness", her "wheeler dealer parents", how she had chunks of her hair pulled out at school in Wicklow by bullies, and how dreams came true when she met Sebastiano Properzi and fell in love and had a family

PIC: Roisin Murphy
PIC: Roisin Murphy
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Roisin Murphy's childhood, like the outfits she wears on stage at her sold-out concerts around the world, was often surreal, rarely dull. One of the greatest artists ever to emerge out of these islands, she can recall her father Michael waking her up to "come downstairs and see what's in the car". Roisin went down to find that her dad had "brought a pony home in the back of the car, on its side. My mother was standing in the street crying, 'What are we going to do with this f**king pony?' He must have bought it in the pub. The madness she had to put up with. But looking back, it was amazing," says Roisin, now 45 years of age, of her childhood.

How long did the pony last?

"Three days max."

The big old house in Arklow, Co Wicklow, that Roisin lived in with her "wheeler dealer" parents and her big brother Sean, was a house of fun as well as love. Because Roisin's mum was an antique dealer, "weird s**t" like "elephant-feet umbrella stands and 1950s hair-dryers that you sat under and dentist chairs" were normal. One afternoon Roisin's dad brought home the cockpit of a World War II bomber plane found on a mountain. Roisin's eye was caught by the chewing gum stuck behind one of the doomed plane's controls. Her young mind immediately thought that the man who chewed the gum died horribly in the cockpit now in her spare room.

Roisin Murphy arrives for the 2008 British Fashion Awards
Roisin Murphy arrives for the 2008 British Fashion Awards

"The cockpit smelled of death," Roisin says. "I wasn't a huge fan, to be honest, and was glad when they sold it.

"My parents also sold two Dutch Masters at Christie's [the British auction house]."

Where did they find two Dutch Masters?

"My dad found them in the back of a yard," Roisin says in an Irish accent that she hasn't lost, despite being in England since the age of 12. Three years later, her parents split up and moved back to Ireland from Manchester - leaving their 15-year-old daughter, by her own insistence, in Manchester on her own. Ever resourceful, Roisin secured housing benefit and got her own flat in an old woman's house that Roisin soon filled with eclectic furniture and friends of similar tastes.

On another night of fitful sleep for young Roisin, her father woke her up. "You're not going to school tomorrow," he told his 10-year-old-daughter. "I'm taking you to Dublin..."

The following morning, good to his word, he turned up in a massive lorry full of scrap lead "and off we go to a place in Dublin where he weighed the lorry full and then emptied it. He must have made a fortune, cos then we drove into town and he takes me to Brown Thomas and says, 'Pick anything you want'. I promptly went on an epic shopping spree. The next week we were probably borrowing money for coal."

Her father gave Roisin more than the run of BTs on Grafton Street. He introduced Roisin to feminism in his own way. "If I said I wanted to be an air hostess, he'd say, 'Why not become a pilot?' If I said I wanted to be a nurse, he'd say , 'Why not be a doctor?' He would say things to me like, 'Why would you ever want to be ordinary. Why?'" That indifference to the ordinary is evident in the ever-changing visual and musical styles of the internationally feted Ms Murphy. She has said that she despises permanency, and that she would rather slip and slide. "In identity, I think that's a very feminine artist's point of view. There's a great deal of tension between so many distinctive and restrictive female archetypes and images in the world. And when you play with the archetypes, you get free."

Hers was - and remains - a life less ordinary. When she was nine years of age, Roisin saw that her brother Sean had posters on his wall of a female singer with a bleached-blonde skinhead haircut. So one afternoon she used her pocket money to go into town and get the same 'do'. Her mother was, she says, bemused; while her father simply started crying. Roisin, she recalls, didn't realise how full-on the haircut actually was until she saw her father's tears. "My Confirmation was shortly after, so I had to do the ceremony with this really hard marine's haircut teamed with a soft peach dress and silk scarf. My mum plonked this old lady's hat on top of it to try and hide it. I liked the hat. It was incongruous to say the least." Roisin recalls that her "total genius" of a father "would get into the bath once a week - that's why he still looks so young, all the essential oils preserved! - fill it to the brim, then get in for two hours, drink a bottle of wine and sing at the top of his voice winding up the whole neighbourhood. Like me da, I don't like to bathe too much myself if I'm honest. . ."

Roisin Murphy performs on stage
Roisin Murphy performs on stage

"My father ruined me for men. Not many can live up to him," Roisin says.

What about her Italian boyfriend of eight years, Sebastiano Properzi? Does he remind Roisin of her father?

"Well - he's handsome," she says. "Me da looks like an Italian and is often mistaken for one. Some serious cross over of the culture and passion." They live together with their children; five-year-old Tadgh Properzi, and eight-year-old Clodagh Henwood (by Roisin's ex Simon Henwood), in Cricklewood. Roisin also has a house in Menorca. She, Sebastiano, the kids and her parents are going over there next month.

I am curious what Roisin said to Milanese producer Sebastiano when she met him for the first time given her famous chat-up line to her ex Mark Brydon in 1994 - who she famously formed globe-dominating alt.electronic duo Moloko with in 1995 - in a nightclub in Sheffield was: "Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body." (Do You Like My Tight Sweater? was to become the title of Moloko's debut and global smash hit album in 1995. The rest is hysteria as the innovative electronica duo became huge across the world until their break up in 2003.)

"I didn't say anything to him," Roisin says of any famous chat-up lines to Mr Properzi. "When I left the studio, he said to people: 'I want to marry that beautiful Irish woman!'" He hasn't, as yet, married that beautiful Irish woman. "Having children is as much of a commitment as marriage," says the maverick singer who once said she would "rather convert the loft than have an expensive wedding".

I want to marry Roisin Murphy after spending three hours with her last week in Quo Vadis restaurant in London's Dean Street for lunch. She appears in a blue dress, looking as only Roisin Murphy can. "She's basically London's Grace Jones," wrote Time Out magazine in 2016. Across the Atlantic in New York, fashion bible W magazine recently described her as a European Pop Goddess - who is returning to America, it said, "to blow everyone's mind again". She soon blows everyone's mind in the restaurant, taking over the room with her edgy, out-of-kilter story-telling, her theatrical va-va-voom and her general sense of gobbiness. The polite diners in the restaurant are pretending not to listen, even when 'situationist' auteur Ms Murphy is rhapsodising about playing Big Muff by John Martyn for her daughter - "she doesn't know it is a song about a big muff!" - and putting on discos at night at home for her kids before bedtime. She says how she admires outsiders like her who reach out beyond the class system that they were born into - "to live a life of beauty."

Roisin began that search for beauty at a young age. She used to dress up in her aunt's vintage Chinese rigouts and sit in the upstairs windows of the house in Arklow looking like one of Macbeth's witches and wave at the traffic on the road. Did Roisin feel she would never fit in in Ireland because she was so different? "Who wants to fit in? Feck that. Having said that," Roisin adds, "Ireland is a great place to be odd."

I ask Roisin to define her oddness.

"Timeless and unclassifiable - that's the goal," she says. "My oddness is the pursuit of this above all else." As a child in Ireland, Roisin was perhaps not so much odd, as different, in lots of ways. She acted differently. She dressed differently. She felt different. (She was also dyslexic.) She stood out. She was glad to stand out. What she was not glad of, however, was being badly bullied at school. "My mother would go up to the school with carrier bags of hair that had been pulled out of my head," Roisin says.

She also remembers being followed home one day from school where a gang of 20 kids were out for her life. "I remember one of them picking up a shard of ice from a pool of water in the snow and hitting me with it over the head. My head was cut," she says pointing out the spot on her head where she was attacked. "I was bullied badly in school but I wasn't a victim."

Despite making her Confirmation, rebel Roisin didn't go to Mass. Her parents weren't religious. When the teachers at school asked if she went to church on Sunday she would lie and say yes; then the teachers would ask her what the sermon was about on Sunday and Roisin would admit that she didn't have a clue and, in fact, she didn't go to Mass at all because her parents didn't go. When the nuns told her that she had to go to Mass, whether her parents went or not, Roisin merely ignored them. It was a pattern that continued to this day. Roisin has the inner strength to follow her own path.

Where did her love of fashion come from? "Me Ma is so elegant," says Roisin, who has been on the catwalk at various international fashion shows over the years (she opened and closed Alexandre Vauthier's couture show in Paris once upon a time and has had her cover of Bryan Ferry's Slave To Love used in a Gucci ad.) "My aunt Linda was a beauty queen in provincial Ireland and she kept all her clothes, including the tiaras. She had no daughters. So I used to spend hours at her house. Me Nanna always with the full-length mink gloves and red lipstick. And my father's sisters are also gorgeous, both having boutiques in Manchester at one time, or another. Nanna was a total queen," she says.

"And they all knew the names of fabrics and cuts and colours. My mum and my aunt participated in pageants, they were both beauty queens. My auntie Linda was also kind of a hoarder and had kept all of her clothes from when she was a teenager."

Roisin has obviously inherited this trait from Linda, because she says, her house in north London is full of clothes from years ago that she can't quite bring herself to throw out. You can understand the reluctance to sling out some of her famous outfits gathering mothballs at home when you realise some of the effect on modern culture that this idiosyncratic and ground-breaking icon has had on everyone from Lady Gaga to St Vincent. To her credit, last year when Aidin Vaziri of The San Francisco Chronicle tried to draw Roisin out in an interview, she kept her counsel...

Q: Lady Gaga pretty much copied your style when she first came out. Were you flattered, or not so much?

A: Look, it is too petty for me to talk about. I can't go there. I'm going to Coachella [music festival] as well, so it's going to be really awkward.

Q: But how do you really feel?

A: You're not going to get a quote from me - it's really too small. I'm a serious artist.

Roisin Murphy is also a serious romantic. She says that being pregnant with her second child Tadhg Properzi - who was born October 19, 2012 - was the happiest moment of her life, primarily because the family unit, she so desperately wanted, was now going to happen with Sebastiano.

I was intrigued by what Roisin told Hunger TV in an interview in 2015: "When I had my first child, I went back to Ireland to live with my mother. So, a typical day there was me being a mother, with my mum showing me how to do things. Then I came back to the UK and broke up with the father of my first child. At that time, a typical day was spent crying for a while and not knowing what happened. And then I fell in love again and couldn't believe my luck. And then I got pregnant again and floated around in love for a few years, to be honest. I created this special family [with Sebastiano] and so on."

"Well - I didn't spend my days crying," Roisin says now. "My ma was the other parent for as long as I needed her. We travelled a lot actually. I was DJ-ing for oligarchs and stuff then and making easy money. We went on lots of holidays, the three of us. New York, Caribbean, Spain, Greece. It was not really an unhappy time. I was surrounded by family on all sides, Murphys and Kavanaghs," she says (adding that her mother's brother Matt Kavanagh, a photographer at The Irish Times, "was also a huge inspiration to me".)

"I've had a house in Co Wicklow for many years and that's where I based myself when Clodagh was born. But I wanted a family of my own, a unit. And as the song says, all my dreams come true. Having a child with someone you have only recently fallen in love with," neo-disco deity Roisin says of Sebastiano, "is really incredible. All kinds of hormones make you high. We all knew immediately that my son Tadhg is just a massive love bomb and he always will be. Clodagh is so lucky to have him. We all are. He's magic."

So is the one-time wearer of a certain tight sweater.

Roisin Murphy plays All Together Now Festival 3-5 August, Curraghmore Estate, Co Waterford, Ireland’s largest private estate featuring 16 stages of music, theatre, comedy, spoken word, food theatre and more.  Featuring artists including Fleet Foxes, Underworld, Mura Masa, Villagers, First Aid Kit, Mogwai, Chaka Khan, Nils Frahm, Thundercat, Yasiin Bey, The New Power Generation, Jimmy Cliff, Groove Armada and many more.  Food & Feasts include Carousel, Kevin Thornton, Paul Flynn, Richard Corrigan and lots more. Spoken Word from Reggie Watts, Will Self, Suggs and more!  Also features dedicated Kids Together Area, Arcadia Spectacular, boutique camping tickets and more information head to www.alltogethernow.ie

Call of the disco siren

Roisin has been described as "this adolescent century's true art-pop queen". The first record she can remember hearing and going, 'Wow' to was Ticket to Ride by The Beatles.

"It was in my ma's collection of 45s," she says. In her grandad's collection of old 78s, she listened to songs like "The Last Rose of Summer and Toselli's Serenade," says Roisin whose uncle, Jim Tyrrell, was a show-band and jazz musician, whom she adored.

When her parents split up and moved back to Ireland, Roisin found her own "tribe" of like-minded people who shared her tastes in the music of Sonic Youth, Jesus & Mary Chain and The Velvet Underground. When Roisin was 14 and saw Sonic Youth in concert in Manchester, the next day she went down to the record exchange in Stockport and put down all of her U2 records and bought Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth with the proceeds.

Formed in mid 1990s by Roisin and her then boyfriend Mark Brydon, Moloko were soon taking over the dance nation with tracks like Sing It Back and The Time Is Now before, as The Guardian put it, they "imploded" in 2003.

Statues, Moloko's last album, was produced after the break-up with Brydon. "It felt like, maybe I'm destroying everything. Maybe I'm not going to be able to make records without him," she said at the time. Roisin needn't have worried.

In 2005, Murphy's first solo album Ruby Blue was flawed but intriguing; 2007's Overpowered was even better. 2015's Exploitation (with lyrics like "Never underestimate creative people/And the depths that they will go") was the beauty in life she always sought.

Prior to that, Mi Senti in 2014 was an EP of covers sung in Italian, a love letter to boyfriend Seb; then there was 2015's Hairless Toys, 2016's Take Her Up To Monto. More recently, Roisin has released a series of self-directed videos for tracks like All My Dreams and Plaything.

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