Alison Goldfrapp: The glamorous gold chameleon
Alison Goldfrapp, who has just revealed she is gay, has performed a stylistic U-turn on her band's latest album. The style-conscious star tells James McNair what inspired it
Friday 16 April 2010
Saucy; pervy; subversively debauched – call it what you will, Goldfrapp's music has long had a sexual charge. The problem with the horn, though, is that it can be a huge distraction. That being the case, perhaps the waning libido that sometimes marks early middle age is something that Alison Goldfrapp, 43, and her writing partner Will Gregory, 50, might find themselves actually welcoming? "No thanks – I'm just going to get randier and randier", says Goldfrapp, with an irreverent cackle. "I'll be one of those old ladies who flashes at the dinner table, much to everyone's horror."
The hirsute, supremely relaxed Gregory sits opposite her, idly doodling in a notebook. "I remember Gore Vidal saying that you should have sex whenever you have the opportunity", he says, smiling. "I worry about that."
Gregory has just announced another collaboration – he and Portishead musician Adrian Utley's new score for Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc – but today, Goldfrapp are in Soho, London to discuss their latest album Head First. Reviews have been mixed, but the record reached a healthy No 6 in the UK charts.
The perky, diminutive Ms Goldfrapp is in leather trousers, and her Ray-Bans aren't coming off. When I mention another recent interview, she responds, 'Oh God... here we go..." Recently outed as a "midlife lesbian", she's currently dating Lisa Gunning, editor of the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. The pair have been an item ever since Goldfrapp (the duo) collaborated on the film's orchestral score.
Head First, meanwhile, is another stylistic U-turn. Gone is the psychedelic-pastoral sound of 2008's paganism-influenced Seventh Tree, supplanted by bouncy Eighties synthesisers and the kind of strident, Hi-NRG pop that helps gym devotees conquer the burn.
Critics have referenced everything from Van Halen's "Jump" to Irene Cara's 1984 hit "Flashdance...What A Feeling", so I wonder if there is a guilty pleasures element to Goldfrapp's new sound, "Guilty Pleasures" being the umbrella concept that informs DJ Sean Rowley's celebrated rehabilitation of slightly shameful pop songs via dedicated club nights and compilation albums.
"I have no guilt about any of my pleasures", laughs Alison Goldfrapp. She does, however, express new-found love for Sailor's 1974 hit "Glass Of Champagne", so it's unsurprising that Head First finds her in frivolous mood, this especially audible on "Alive", a song about the pleasure of pulling on a pair of freshly-washed jeans.
"We didn't want to do something as harsh and cold as [2005 album] Supernature", says the singer. "We wanted something that was unselfconscious, brazen and fun. When we came up with the keyboard riff for "Rocket", I started fantasising about doing star jumps off the drum riser."
And what of the accompanying stage attire – might Pineapple Dance Studios or the 1980's TV drama Fame come to prove inspirational?
"I don't think I can do leg warmers any more, far less Lycra", says Goldfrapp. Our stage outfits will be much more inventive than that."
The youngest of six children, Alison Goldfrapp was born in Enfield, Middlesex, but grew up in Hampshire. At 18 she went to Middlesex University's school of art, where her degree show saw her milking a Jersey cow.
Her guest spot on Tricky's 1995 album Maxinquaye kickstarted her session-singer career, but the work was frustratingly sporadic, and soon came more day jobs. These included counter sales at the lingerie retailer Agent Provocateur ("lots of guys wanted stockings for the longer, fuller leg"), and a stint filling shampoo bottles on a production line.
Just prior to forming Goldfrapp with Gregory in 1999, an especially skint Alison was tempted by the offer of four days session work in Italy, but the trip proved a fiasco.
"The guy who was producing the songs asked me to marry him about three times a day, and we didn't do any work. I spent the whole time on the phone bawling my eyes to my then-boyfriend."
Back in Blighty, a mutual friend introduced her to Will Gregory. A session saxophonist and "moderately successful composer for TV", Gregory was a slightly posh boffin who had also worked with film-score bigwig, Michael Nyman. On the face of it, he and Alison Goldfrapp had little in common, but they found they shared a sense of humour and a deep fascination with outré sounds.
Goldfrapp tells me: "The first thing Will and I wrote together was "Lovely Head" (from 2000's Mercury Prize-nominated Felt Mountain), so that was incredibly exciting, singing into a Korg synthesiser and making crazy noises. We were both very keen to get away from the confining, stifling music that we were hearing elsewhere."
Her German-extraction surname having a certain ring to it, naming the new duo was something of a no-brainer – or so one might have thought.
"Well, you say that, but to be honest I've always found my surname slightly weird and slightly ugly", says the singer. "It just happened to look good in the font we had. At school I was called every name under the sun. Even when I was at the airport recently, the driver picking me up held up a sign that said "Goldflap".
So, why, then did the twosome name themselves thus?
"I told Tricky that Will and I were going to call ourselves Goldfrapp, and he said, 'No, you can't – that's shit'," says Alison. "I thought, 'OK, that's it. Goldfrapp it is...'"
Felt Mountain's eerie and erotic mix of cabaret, sci-fi, folk and electronica was rapturously received by critics, but it was the more dance-orientated albums Black Cherry (2003) and Supernature (2005) that brought Goldfrapp major commercial success. The latter record alone spawned three US Dance Chart No 1s, and saw the band nominated in the Best Electronic/Dance Album category at the 49th Grammy Awards – not bad for a pair of decidedly late starters.
"It's true that we've been round the block a bit", says Gregory, "but maybe that's why we're still here. Both of us were in other people's bands before Goldfrapp, and that meant that we could walk the walk without having to talk it."
"If we'd started this when I was in my twenties I'd be some horrible drug addict by now", adds Goldfrapp. "I'd be madly posting nonsense on Twitter." Still, late start or not, after five successful albums in 10 years she must now be fairly wealthy? At this the singer turns over in her mind a few specimen replies, and then says nothing. The one thing that would improve the quality of her life right now, she offers a little later, is time.
It's perhaps some measure of Goldfrapp's increasing visibility that A-list pop diva Christina Aguilera approached them last year with a view to co-writing material for her upcoming album. Gregory relates that Aguilera flew he and Goldfrapp over to the States to work on the idea.
"There was no industry machine or entourage around her", he says. "She's a lovely girl who's obviously taken complete control of her career. We did write something together with Christina producing, but unfortunately we don't yet know if it will be released."
Another contemporary chanteuse who could hardly fail to be on Goldfrapp's radar is Lady Gaga, a woman who clearly shares Alison Goldfrapp's liking for outlandish stage-wear. Did Alison catch the "living dress" that Gaga wore on TV show Friday Night With Jonathan Ross a few weeks back? "No," she admits, "but a friend texted me about it to say she looked like Big Bird off of Sesame Street."
Gregory interjects to say he thought the outfit was great, but compares Gaga's "Telephone" to "a lobotomised Madonna song."
"A lobotomised Madonna!" repeats Goldfrapp, laughing. "Oh dear, Will. That sounds like a quote to me."
Whether or not Goldfrapp the band will go on for another ten years neither Gregory nor Goldfrapp can say.
"We don't really think about the next record", says Goldfrapp. "I'll be a different person next year." One thing she and Gregory do want to do more of, however, is scoring for film. "I'd love us to write the music for a horror movie", says Goldfrapp. "It could be about the music business."
'Head First' is out on Mute. Will Gregory and Adrian Utley premiere their score for 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' at Colston Hall, Bristol, on 7 May
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