Róisín Murphy, the Irish singer-songwriter, is currently touring Europe with her Mercury Prize-shortlisted new album, Hairless Toys. The album, with its odd disco-grooves, dub rhythms and dark, loopy synth sounds, combines pop futurism with a retrospective 1970s edge. The album is tinged with an autumnal sense of loss and the self-examination of an older woman looking back on her life. ‘The things I’ve seen’, the 42-year-old Murphy sings, in a mournful whisper.
Why ‘the Irish Grace Jones’ (as Vanity Fair called Murphy) is not better known outside her native Ireland is a mystery. On stage Murphy is supremely powerful because she knows how to keep still. She thinks about the slightest raising of her arms or silent snapping of her fingers. This amused sense of theatre is rare in the music industry today. She can look both fabulous and quite street-ordinary: her big-screen flamboyance – a hybrid of the girl next door and noir pin-up – is a self-created Pop-art glory.
Faye Dunaway had it; Tippi Hedren had it. Lady Gaga is too brash and metallic to have it. Is it merely romantic to suggest that Murphy is a sort of female Oscar Wilde? With her faux ermine stoles, mishmatched tweed jackets, Italian sling-backs and Hermès berets, Murphy presents a celebrity-conscious image of style and self-adornment that is thoroughly Wildean.
For fifteen years, Murphy was one half of the Sheffield electrop duo Moloko (responsible for the club-friendly hit ‘Sing it Back’). Born in County Wicklow in 1973, she moved with her family to Manchester. The city’s tatterdemalion outskirts resonated with bass-heavy reggae, soul, indie and turntable mash-ups. Murphy absorbed the music but made it her own. Her wry pop is not (as some have observed) an expression of frivolity; rather, they are part of a Roxy Music-like art project in curious flux.
Above all, I love Murphy for her 2014 Italian language EP Mi Senti (‘Do you hear me’), made up of five covers of classic Italian pop songs by, among others, Lucio Battisti, Mina and Patty Pravo. Murphy’s love of Italian music is thanks in part to her partner Sebastiano Properzi, the Milanese producer best known as part of the electronic duo Luca C and Brigante. Properzi insisted that Murphy learn the Italian lyrics phonetically. Her nicotine-raspy voice lags tantalisingly behind the beat in Pravo’s disconcerting ‘Pensiero Stupendo’.
But the high point is her version of Mina’s 1978 hit, ‘Ancora Ancora Ancora’, sung in a seductively breathy, hushed Italian. By her own admission, Murphy sees common ground in Mina’s songs of extramarital love, heartbreak and divorce. A dyed blonde diva in the Dusty Springfield mould, Mina dominated the Italian charts in the 1960s and 1970s; she was a woman in complete control of her image.
Roísín Murphy may yet become an immense star. For the moment, oddly exiled from the centre of things in Italy and Ireland, she plows her own furrow. Unfortunately, the more original you are, the less the mainstream are likely to love you; such is Murphy’s Law.
The Mercury Prize is announced on 20 November. Róisín Murphy is performing in London on 27 Nov.