Sing It Back by Moloko is one of the iconic Ibiza choons, but to dismiss their vocalist as a rent-a-voice 90s superclub singer would be to miss the point entirely. Before there was Gaga, before there was Sia, there was Roisin Murphy, the Irish queen of avant-garde art-pop.
Her work with Mark Brydon under the banner of electro outsiders Moloko is how I first encountered her stunning vocal range and curious jazz phrasing. I was drawn to lyrics that were about more than just love and lust. Their album Things to Make and Do, released in 2000, features songs about Murphy’s parents divorce, her fraught relationship with her mother and the collective post acid-house cultural come-down of ‘Absent Minded Friends’, showing a self-awareness not seen in dance music up to that point.
Shall we drink a toast to
Absent minded friends
To all who turn the corner and
To those who went round the bend
Everybody raise your glasses
Drink and drown
Melancholy for the masses
Love come down.
While never conforming to the stereotypes of how women in the music industry should look or behave (she milked a cow wearing a full suit of armour on the cover of Moloko’s second album) it is through her solo work that Murphy emerges as a unique force in fashion, music and performance. She is equally at home being interviewed by Vogue as MixMag. When her 2007 album Overpowered was a released, a male journalist asked her if she saw herself as the new Kylie. It is hard to imagine Kylie wearing the baggy hi-vis jacket and hardhat Murphy sports in the videos from her Take Her Up To Monto album, or sitting on the loo brushing her teeth, as seen in the Overpowered video.
She lets it slide at first but is obviously stewing on it, coming back to the idea half an hour later with obvious irritation. “How was I trying to be Kylie Minogue? If I was a man no one would say I was trying to be Kylie Minogue.”
And there’s the rub. No matter how hard female artists try, no matter how innovative and creative they are, they will always be lumped together because of their defining feature i.e. they are women. I have never read an interview with Frank Ocean asking him if he’s the new Justin Timberlake (an equally banal comparison).
As Tammy Wynette sang, and Roisin Murphy quotes in the liner notes to Overpowered, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.