Behind the mask
Having first emerged as one half of Sheffield’s swaggering electronic duo, Moloko, in 1993 – elevating the era’s louche trip-hop trend with their artpop veneer – Róisín Murphy has never played it safe. Twenty years since Moloko’s perennial hit Sing It Back first filled dance floors across the nation, in the two decades since, Murphy’s progressive ethos has seen her realise a solo career that traverses between disparate genres, beats and influences.
And it’s this deep-rooted experimental mindset that informs the Irish musician’s sartorial choices as much as her musical output. Cultivating a repertoire of extravagant and avant-garde outfits, Murphy recognises fashion’s ability to express, adapt and elevate: using outfits to a facilitate a perpetual state of reinvention. However, the musician’s latest stylistic phase could represent both her most drastic and stripped back chapter. “There are no masks this time on the stage”, Murphy tells us, choosing to reject the extravagant accessories that have become something of a calling card for the musician in favour of a more candid approach. “I’m forty four and I’m not afraid to be the age that I am. I’m not afraid to show myself and I think it’s important that I do.”
As she prepares to play a sold-out gig at London’s Somerset House this Sunday – this really is a must-see – HERO fashion director Gro Curtis caught up with the musician to talk new material, wardrobe edits and how performing for Viktor & Rolf almost turned into death by fashion.
Gro Curtis: Hi Róisín!
Róisín Murphy: Hello!
GC: So where are you right now, are you on the road?
RM: I’ve just done my first gigs. Got back to London yesterday, finished a video this morning, got to do a photoshoot just now… Doing a billion things at once here. I’ve got twenty jobs. It’s all very modern.
GC: You’re a multi-tasker, right?
RM: Exactly, yeah. That’s what people do these days.
GC: I’ve been listening to your new music. It makes me wanna dance, and trust me that rarely happens because I don’t know how to dance. The groove is epic and Innocence is my favourite but Play Thing is also pretty amazing, so congrats on that!
RM: Thank you, dear!
GC: Regarding your super busy summer, in general, how do you prepare for these kinds of tours, because you’re going from Georgia to Estonia then the UK. So, how do you start preparing?
RM: Well I’m very lucky in that because the musical director that I work with has been with me since I was a kid. He’s been working with me throughout the long cold days and he is extremely trustworthy and you know, works really just as hard as I do – he’s actually the guy who produced and wrote Hairless Toys record with me as well.
GC: Proper partner in crime.
RM: Yeah. We have come full circle. He is the one that sort of figures out how to transfer electronic music into live and you know, who’s doing what, when, where all the gear is. All that, that’s all the hardest part.
RM: Then I personally work very close on visuals. All the content and the back screens is coming from me. I make most of it myself and then I go through it with the lighting guy and that’s a big part of it for me nowadays. And obviously styling is a big part of it for me ‘cause I’m my own stylist.
GC: How is that going?
RM: It’s my biggest headache of all actually because people just throw clothes at me. I have so many clothes, it’s getting crazy!
GC: How do you deal with that?
RM: So I got into the same situation I got into the last time with just far too many clothes on the stage. I just wanted to wear everything. So this time I’ve tried to calm that down, it’s a whole new wardrobe. Of course its a whole new era, but I’m hoping that it won’t get quite as crazy as the last time.
GC: How many clothes do you take on tour?
RM: It’s insane what we bring and, as I do the styling, I get it all myself but my friend Simon Phillips comes with me and helps me and he’s like the most un-wardrobe wardrobe mistress anyones ever had.
GC: That sounds epic!
RM: He used to be guitar tech or keyboard tech before but now he’s just transferred over to wardrobe and that makes him kinda my assistant, but he’s not your usual fashion assistant. He’s black t-shirt, black cargo shorts, long hair, and that’s it.
Róisín Murphy / photography by Nicole Nodland
GC: Regarding the All My Dreams video, I know you basically did wardrobe design!
GC: It was bunch of kids in the video. How did you decide who gets what, how was that sorted out?
RM: It was very spare of the moment. Everything was happening all at once. I shot three videos in two days, in the one session if you like. Epic.
RM: Epic job. It was a big job, the styling on that, but thankfully wardrobe was not crazy. They’re simple clothes, they’re not complicated. It wasn’t like I’m dressing everyone in Viktor & Rolf. You know what I mean? Most of the clothes were actually in my house already.
GC: So they come from you, from your wardrobe?
RM: Between my partner and me. He is Italian and a raver. Actually he had more clothes then I did for project. Also he lived in Ibiza as well for twelve years.
GC: That explains a lot.
GC: Back in your raving, clubbing days where would you find clothes?
RM: I wore a lot of sixties clothes as a teenager.
RM: My mother was an antiques dealer. When I moved from Ireland to Manchester, it was like all my birthdays had come at once, I went everywhere with my mother when she was buying antiques. There were charity shops, flee markets… Every weekend I was out doing that with my mum, so I could be dressed five pounds head to toe. Matching boots, hat, mini dress, psychedelic jump suits, cat suits… So that was my vibe.
GC: That sounds amazing.
RM: It was catsuits and eyelashes, stuff like that. But then when I got more into club culture I went bit more sporty like wearing long sleeve t-shirts. We used to go to Affleck’s Palace in Manchester, I spent half of my teenage years there. It was like what Kensington Market used to be, with lots of goth stuff, ravey stuff. The most expensive thing that I ever bought was a coat from Henry Lloyd and it cost two hundred quid. It was like a white anorak for sailing. In 1988, that was a lot of money, I worked all sorts of jobs in order to survive that.
GC: But experimenting with clothes continued?
RM: When I went to Sheffield it was all PVC trousers – I was well known for my shiny PVC trousers and my red blouse. Also I had a skinhead. I cut my hair extremely short. I had lovely long blonde hair then I went to the hairdresser and got my hair all cut off and my father was crying, like he seriously wanted to kill me.
GC: Are you a tough director to work with on set?
RM: Well, I might be. I like people to have fun working with me but we’re under so much pressure today. There is always a very small budget to go a very long way so everybody has to work extremely hard. But I think it’s a similar vibe when I had a band and we were out touring. You are like family and there should be some element of love between the people that are working together and you can feel it in the work. I’m not a evil dictator but yeah, I’m demanding in the sense of we need to get a long.
GC: You basically know what you want.
RM: It needs to be great because I need to be able to look at it and be happy with it. My standards are pretty high. It’s not easy working with me – it’s challenging but it’s rewarding.
GC: We talked about your backstage wardrobe, but I saw you changing and styling yourself so many times whilst actually performing. Do you plan to start changes in advance or do you just play around as you go whilst performing?
RM: To be honest, it’s usually the last thing I do. It hurts my brain to try and figure it out and I actually hate putting on clothes.
GC: Oh you do?
RM: You know, styling is a very physical thing. First of all carrying the luggage, the process of packing and unpacking, it’s all the boring part of it. It can get very irritating. It’s not like I’m styling someone else, it’s me. I have to deal with every single detail. I have to get in and out of all those clothes, I have to look at me in the mirror… It’s a pain in the arse but who else is going to do it? No one.
“And I’m standing there in front of the global press thinking, “If I make one step off this thing I’ll fall over and I’ll kill my unborn child.””
Róisín Murphy / photography by Nicole Nodland
GC: Are you trying to edit your outfits?
RM: Desperately! Also there are no masks this time on the stage.
GC: Really? It’s your trademark.
RM: Yeah, none. I’m starting to feel like I don’t want to hide. But then again it was never about hiding it was always about telling stories and picking props up to tell truthful stories, not to hide. I feel different now. I’m 44 and I’m not afraid to be the age that I am. I’m not afraid to show myself and I think it’s important that I do. I really do.
GC: It’s so funny that you mentioned that because you know, people in this business, they show everything when they’re young but then they start hiding when they get to a certain age. And you’re doing the reverse thing, which I love.
RM: I’m going to try and show as much of myself as I possibly can now, and that’s what I always do with masks or no masks. All these things are just there to tell stories. When they get too much, because they interfere with narratives rather than actually help tell the story, that means you have to pull it back.
GC: I agree. When somebody mentions you in the context of fashion, I automatically think about Martin Margiela and Viktor & Rolf. The situation is kind of different these days because Margiela left the fashion world in general and Viktor & Rolf are focused only on their couture line so aren’t as present as they used to be. What do you think about fashion these days?
RM: I do kind of avoid it actually. In those days I was in and out of press offices and showrooms all the time. I did my own styling then as well so people would know me, I would easily go in, borrow what I wanted and then send them back. It was lovely. But the atmosphere in those places has changed. It became corporate. There is a name on each garment already in advance saying this is right for so and so, and that’s for so and so. It’s just not so interesting for me, its very narrow. I’m certainly not interested in advertising things to people unless they deserve it in some way. The main thing I’m wearing on stage now is a graduate collection. I’ve just bought the whole collection.
GC: For this new tour?
RM: Yeah, so that’s not like wearing something thats very commercialised, you know? Thats not an advert, thats me sort of being a patron of something beautiful. By buying a collection maybe I give them chance to make another collection because I believe in them.
RM: Theres something beautiful about that, we’ve all become plastic in a way.
“I’m going to try and show as much of myself as I possibly can now, and that’s what I always do with masks or no masks.”
GC: The first time I met you was backstage at a Viktor & Rolf show in 2008. because you preformed during that show.
RM: I have to tell you something about that show: after it was done I walked out of the venue and into the park, sat down on the park bench and cried, I just sobbed.
RM: I was seven and a half months pregnant. I was standing on that huge cubicle about two and a half foot wide, wearing platform heals and a dress that weighed a ton. Remember dresses from that collection? All of them were so heavy. That material looks light but it’s really like wearing a pram on you. It’s really heavy.
GC: Oh yes.
RM: And I’m standing there in front of the global press thinking, “If I make one step off this thing I’ll fall over and I’ll kill my unborn child.” It was an insane thing to do but I’m happy I did it because it was live and it was one of the best fashion shows ever.
GC: Beautiful collection!
RM: Yeah. And I did look good up there, seven months pregnant or not.
GC: You looked epic. I can’t imagine your breakdown later…
RM: Honestly, mate, I couldn’t stop crying. Of course there’s hormones as well when you are seven and a half months pregnant. Everything builds up. Also, at fashion shows everything happens so fast. You have so many people around you giving you all the stress you could have. You have to do press, there’s hair, make-up, clothes… All this drama and then everything is done in five minutes and it feels like five seconds.
GC: And then done.
RM: And you feel used.
GC: Yeah I know.
RM: There’s another time Viktor & Rolf nearly killed me. You know that collection where each dress was actually an installation with it’s own lightning and sound inside of it?
GC: Yes, of course! It was the Fall 2007 collection.
RM: I was inside one of those walking around. I can’t remember which street it was but it was a big high street in London. I was just walking and it was a very windy day and I was in that beautiful cage of a dress.
GC: Oh my god!
RM: That was super dangerous because it was all attached to me by this steel cage around my body. So if I did fall, the cage would’ve literally gone in.
GC: In both occasions with Viktor & Rolf you could have ended up literally like a fashion victim.
GC: So you know, I live between New York and London but I’m Croatian and you are performing in Sibenik on Adriatic coast in August. I’m stopping my vacation on a boat just to come and see you!
RM: You are? Oh wow, thank you! That’s exciting.
GC: You will love Sibenik! I know you’ve never been there before but the location where you are performing is a medieval fort with an amazing view of the city.
RM: Sounds amazing. You know I’m an architecture nerd, so everywhere I go I have to see all the architecture and travel around photographing it. So that’s very interesting for me.
GC: It’s a date!
RM: Alright love. It’s a deal.
GC: Thank you for chatting and see you soon!
RM: Okay my dear, thank you!
Róisín Murphy is releasing a series of 12” singles across the summer via Vinyl Factory, Plaything / Like is out now.