The notoriously fickle business of breaking America is a pop star's holy grail, not to mention a potentially lucrative meal ticket. A few years ago, a disillusioned Robbie Williams famously packed in the Transatlantic slogs to hawk his wares.
Meanwhile, people who couldn't get arrested on this side of the pond, such as London pomp-rockers Bush, inexplicably became enormous. A recent jaunt by Arctic Monkeys was said to have “bounced off rather than broke” the United States. Even gargantuan rock behemoths like U2 and David Bowie struggled for years on loss-making tours before hitting the jackpot with a vengeance.
It's impossible to say if Arklow-born pop chanteuse Roísín Murphy is going to crack the States, but you can be sure that she's going to have fun trying. By all accounts, she comprehensively stole the show from under the noses of every generic guitar band in town at this year's CMJ Music Marathon in New York, as her eye-popping pantomime of sound and vision enthralled the music, style and popular press alike.
The week before she took Manhattan, Roisín was a part of a unique once-in-alifetime collaboration with the New Silver Cornet Band in Tennessee – a blues-rock troupe formed by the whiskey creator Jack Daniels himself. In recent years, the tipple beloved by tattooed rockers everywhere has hosted exclusive performances by the likes of Elbow and the Flaming Lips to celebrate Jack's birthday.
This year, Ash's Tim Wheeler, former Stranglers man Hugh Cornwall and Young Knives geek rocker Thomas Dartnall are all onboard alongside Roísín, making for a curious meeting of musical minds on a hill overlooking the famous distillery in Lynchburg, a so-called official ‘city' in a dry county that has one set of traffic lights. Nobody really knows what to expect, least of all the artists who've rehearsed for a grand total of an hour and half. “It'll be seat of our pants stuff, but we're all old pros by now,” Roísín laughs.
Seasoned pro that she is, Roísín croons her way through the theme song from The Wire, Down in the Hole, and a slick version of Bryan Ferry's Slave to Love, soon to be featured on a advert for Gucci starring James Franco. A frankly bizarre but brilliant version of Baby I'm Scared of You by gospel pop vets Womack & Womack also features.
She dedicates Scarlet Ribbons, a song from her most recent album Overpowered, to her father Micky Murphy. Then, Tim Wheeler plays Running Back by Thin Lizzy and the night climaxes with a mass sing-along on Gloria by Them. Even in this famous backwater of Tennessee, the heart and soul of the party is most definitely Irish.
Roísín is far from being a nobody in America. “But I'm certainly not a household name,” she reflects. “I think I'm swimming out there somewhere in the ether. Strangely, my song Ramalama, which I always thought was just a totally weird song, is the one that people are making up funny dances to and posting on YouTube.”
Of course, Roísín is as revered for her sense of style as she is for her music. Kanye West is a big fan of her outlandish outfits and Irish Independent fashion blogger Angela Scanlon recently revealed, “She's been my girl crush forever.” ( read Angela's fashion blog here )
Murphy is a firm believer in having as much fun with her look as possible. “All the fashion stuff is a performance,” she says. “It shouldn't be taken too seriously even though it is an art form in itself. It's quite a big job to style myself as richly as I do, but it's a story and it's a story I'm just beginning to tell.”
Once somewhat derogatorily dubbed a “fashion junkie”, it's an accusation she laughs off. “OK, I've done interviews where I've got dressed up because that's what I like to do,” she counters. “So they'll start their write up saying, ‘Roísín Murphy is looking me and up and down’. Look, I couldn't care less! I'm certainly not judgmental. I don't show up looking like a rock ‘n' roll cliché because that doesn't interest me.”
When Roísín released Overpowered last year, it was hailed in America as the finest European pop dance album of the year. In the UK, one enthusiast claimed it was the best grown-up pop record since Madonna's Ray of Light, remarking: “I hope Ireland doesn't get too offended if Britain comes to its senses and recognises Roísín Murphy as a National Treasure.”
“I wasn't embraced as an Irish artist back in the Moloko days,” Murphy muses. “Modern electronica isn't what you think of when you think of Irish music. Now, they see the name Roísín Murphy and there isn't much more I can be! I like people to use the fadas, but sure I can't sue them if they don't! People always say to me, “Do you feel Irish?” Are you out of your mind? It's like saying does this chair feel green! It's not a question for me. It's exactly what I am and I'm not anything else.”
The former camogie player who “put out a few teeth in my time” tries to keep tabs on what's happening in her homeland. “In the last year I've been a bit more like my Mum and Dad, watching the news and reading the paper all the time,” she says, “but I can't claim to know much about Irish politics. Actually, I met Bertie Ahern the other day at an awards ceremony in London. When I come to Ireland, I go straight down to where I'm from. Arklow is very different now. It's three times the size and behind where I was brought up there is a huge shopping mall. I feel blessed as a child that I could go wherever I liked. It's not like that anymore.”
Murphy is looking forward to her Irish tour kicking off next Monday. “When you do have a great gig at home it's amazing,” she enthuses. “But it's complicated because home is many places – Dublin, Manchester, Sheffield and London are all hometowns for me in that they're all nightmare guestlists.”
After concluding the tour, she'll resume work on her third album in 2009, intending to work with nu-jazz innovator Seiji again who gave Overpowered its “sleepy, synthesized feel”. Murphy can see more narrative creeping into her work, from the songs themselves to the theatrical stage shows. The bottom line is that like this peculiar weekend in Tennessee, it's going to be a lot of fun.
“Music has given me a fantastic lifestyle,” she concludes. “I work extremely hard, but I love every minute of it. Although I couldn't work as hard if I felt there was a ceiling on anything. I spent £125,000 on four pictures for the sleeves for Overpowered and I loved spending it! It was like making a little movie. Ambition can get you freedom.
“While I'm obsessed with my work, I've kept myself far away from the machinations of the industry. I find it weird when artists know the name of the accountant in the record company – I haven't got time for any of that! I loved it when Morrissey said that he knows record labels rip you off, but he's an artist who likes to be institutionalised! I'm not sure if I'm that dogmatic about it, but I think I could find all sorts of ways of funding my fantasies.”