The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
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Roísín Murphy

When we speak of identity in the arts, in the world of dance music in particular, the very idea of an auteur is currently a very sparsely deployed one indeed. There was a time – maybe 20, 30 years ago, maybe longer – when stars were continually recontextualising the boundaries of popular culture. Think Grace Jones morphing from Jean-Paul Goude superhuman to James Bond supervillain in the blink of an eye, or Italian siren Mina wearing a beard on the cover of her breakthrough album “Salome”, or Rafaella Carra donning capes and heels and high kicking her way onto primetime television. Back then, there was a sense of recklessness and flagrant disregard for convention in music which gloriously persisted.

But that is not necessarily the world that Roisin Murphy is emerging from. Over the years the musical goalposts have shifted irrevocably, with the result being that the music landscape is either populated mostly by earnest guitar heroes or industrialised pop, chasing trends rather than set them. Enter: Murphy, stage left.

When she was a teenager, Roisin Murphy moved from the east coast of Ireland to Manchester and the rest, as they say, is history. Except it isn’t. Rather, Murphy’s ascent can be framed as a classic, Alice in Wonderland story: curious, preternaturally cool rapscallion enters the warehouses, clubs, and gritty side streets of northern
England, falls in with producer at a party, forms a band and snags a multi-album record deal, burns up the charts and wins award nominations, becomes a mainstay of the art world and receives obsessive attention for her unique fashion sense, tours the globe several times over, goes solo and further consolidates her status as an ever evolving, constantly surprising Proper Pop Star, and comes to represent the outsider spirit of an entire generation. But that is not the quintessential Alice in Wonderland story, it is, rather, the singular exception. It is Murphy’s story, and one that could only ever belong to her.

Murphy has managed to cut a singular path for herself as an icon defiantly outside of mainstream convention. She’s worked with some of the greatest producers of our time – Matthew Herbert, Maurice Fulton, David Byrne, Boris Dlugosch, DJ Koze and DJ Parrot, among many others. She’s hopscotched from performing on a plinth in shirred and sheared Viktor and Rolf at their runway show to jumpstarting young designer’s careers by buying entire graduate collections and wearing them onstage.

She also transitioned effortlessly to being her own video / creative director, executing all her own visuals and referencing everyone from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to John Waters and Cindy Sherman in the process. And she has consistently challenged both her fans and herself with the music, which has run the gamut from airy,
R+B inflected jazz to throbbing, arms-in-the-air rave anthems to unabashed pop bangers to soaring, emotive Italian ballads. It’s hard to think of another musician who has morphed through so many genres, languages, time zones and costume changes, and done so mostly without the crutch of major label financing and while
entirely retaining her own vision. Murphy is a shining example of how ploughing your own furrow, keeping your cool and staying the course, can pay off in rich dividends.

It also shows a restlessly searching, ever evolving, experimentalist mind at work, keen to spend hours perfecting her craft while also happy (and canny enough) to let it take whatever form it chooses to take. “Roisin Machine” epitomises this mindset perfectly. Not so much an album as the astonishing payoff from a years-long, extremely fruitful collaboration with her trusted producer DJ Parrot, it collates singles released over a 10-year period as well as barnstorming brand new tracks in one seamlessly edited record that nonetheless not only hangs together perfectly, but is also perhaps her most autobiographical to date.

Is it a new album? Is it a collection of singles? Ha! This may sound idiosyncratic to say the least, but self-analysis seems not to be a skill of Murphy’s. And why should it? Her preoccupation with the wholly visual and visceral experience of music as opposed to tired old semiotics makes her gloriously flippant where particulars are concerned. Like any artist worth their salt, Murphy makes good use of her willful obliviousness to the current state of musical affairs, with all its fleeting movements and sub genres, and has a miraculous way of passing off the atmosphere and tension around her as incandescent music and making it seem purely accidental. She zigs when she should zag, turns left when she should veer right, absorbs a diverse range
of influences and celebrates them fully and without cliché. Like some of the legendary stars that came before her, she is looking at the chaos and disorder in the world right now with resourceful, refined eyes, and she sees the glorious opportunity and enormous responsibility that affords. “Roisin Machine” is the end result; listen on in wonder. - Keong Woo 2020