Over the past decade, Roisin Murphy - singer, style icon and one half of the dance duo Moloko - has carved an image for herself that that is as barmy as it is cool. Described by one critic as looking like a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Siouxsie Sioux, the 31-year-old has become as famous for her outfits, which have been known to appropriate anything from feathers and sequins to a suit of armour, as her music. Her most prized possessions are not her albums but her vast collection of opera gloves. Today's get-up - flat loafers, neatly pressed trousers and long beige cardie - is less Marlene Dietrich than Penelope Keith; all that's missing is the headscarf. And yet somehow she pulls it off.
"Dressing up is part of me, I've done it since I was a teenager, and it doesn't negate what I do creatively," Murphy observes in her raspy smoker's voice. "When I started out the idea of wearing interesting clothes seemed to contradict the idea of being a serious artist. The first Moloko record, Do You Like My Tight Sweater?, was kind of a reaction to all that. Back then serious music was always dressed in serious clothes and lacked a sense of humour; conversely pop music was dressed up in bright clothes and lacked depth. I never felt like I fitted into either of those and, to be honest, I never really wanted to."
It's true that Moloko have always been a very visual band, creating atmospheres through their videos, stage shows and nonsense-verse lyrics. An hour in Murphy's company at her south London studio reveals that underneath the eccentric exterior is a woman who is very serious about her art. "I think my whole career has been marked - or marred - by what people presume about me," she reflects. "But even that's fed back into the creativity. I'm saying that I'm about contradiction, that you can't put me into a box."
Now, 11 years into her career, and with Moloko in a state of limbo, Murphy is releasing her first solo album Ruby Blue. Given Moloko's commercial success and her own idiosyncratic style, I remark that a solo career has always been hers for the taking. Murphy isn't so sure. "The fact that I've taken so long probably tells you that it hasn't been something that I've always wanted to do. On the last Moloko album, Mark [Brydon, her then-boyfriend and Moloko collaborator] pulled out of doing promotion so I ended up having to do all that on my own. I kicked and screamed at first, saying I wasn't confident in carrying the record on my own and going around like Geri Halliwell talking endlessly about myself. It just wasn't me."
So it was with more than a little trepidation that Murphy decided to go it alone. She started off recording a couple of songs in the studio and, to her surprise, found she enjoyed it. Happily, her record company left her to get on with it. "There were no big marketing meetings and there was no real deadline. I could do whatever I liked, which was really exciting. I've always been allowed to be quite secretive about the way I make music. It was only when I delivered the album that they went, 'Oh, well, that's a bit weird isn't it?'"
At this point, having failed to hear a sure-fire hit, the A&R department suggested she make some changes but Murphy stood her ground. "I wasn't having any of it," she states. "I think they thought that, because I was the girl in Moloko and effectively the face of the band, underneath the strange veneer was a pop star struggling to get out. Maybe they thought, 'Now she's away from this grumpy northerner, she'll blossom into Rachel Stevens.' Well, they couldn't have been more wrong. But to give them credit, once they saw how much it meant to me they just got behind it. I had this real fire in my belly about putting this record out the way I wanted. I wanted it to be as pure as possible."
Aside from their theatricality, what made Moloko one of the more interesting bands of the 1990s was their propensity to push at the boundaries of music while making user-friendly pop. Similarly, Ruby Blue, a work that has already seen Murphy compared to Kate Bush and Björk, combines genre-bending ambition with a more commercial pop sensibility. The singer attributes the album's avant-garde elements to her producer Matthew Herbert whose working practices included getting her to scrunch up pieces of paper next to the microphone and sampling the sound of a door closing. "He asked me to bring in objects that meant something to me so I could make noises with them. There's an alarm clock in there, hairspray cans, ornaments. The first day I brought it an article about Brian Eno and I thought we chat about it. He said, 'Right, go over there and rattle it next to the microphone.'"
In her teens Murphy never thought of herself as a singer. She had always hated her voice, possibly because her mother would frequently make her sing "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" in front of visiting relatives. "She'd say, 'But you've got such a lovely voice - just like Elaine Paige,'" she remembers. "I was horrified. I was listening to Sonic Youth at the time."
Her childhood was as colourful and interesting as you'd expect from a woman who doesn't think twice about donning a suit of armour. Murphy spent her early childhood in Co Wicklow, Ireland, though when she was 12 the family upped and moved to Manchester. Three years later her parents got divorced, after which the rest of the Murphys moved back home. Fifteen-year-old Roisin elected to stay in Manchester, however, having decided that her mother needed a break. "For the first year I stayed with my best friend and her mum, though when I turned 16 I was eligible for housing benefit and got myself a flat around the corner. They did carry on feeding me for a while but apart from that I was self-sufficient."
Murphy didn't go to school for a couple of years, but at 17 thought better of it and enrolled at a sixth form college. "I don't know where I got all my strength from. I didn't get into trouble, I didn't get into drugs. I didn't even lose my virginity." What, really? "Well OK, I did eventually, but when I think of what I could have been getting up to it makes my hair stand on end. I think in those few years I changed a great deal. I wanted to be different from everyone else and really I was. I started to take pride and pleasure in not fitting in. I started dressing differently, listening to different types of music and hanging about with interesting people."
By the time she met Brydon at a party aged 19 she was toying with the idea of going to art college. Their first studio rehearsal was meant to be a one-off, but something about her theatrical delivery just worked. "Then we got signed, we got money and then we got a plan. And it was such a good laugh that we thought, 'Why stop now? We're in love and we're doing something great and we're happy.'"
Upon releasing the single "Fun For Me", Moloko were immediately hailed as leading lights in the trip-hop scene alongside Lamb and Morcheeba. Their album Do You Like My Tight Sweater?, so called in honour of the chat-up line Murphy used to hook Brydon, combined funk, rock, hip-hop and dance with Murphy's feline vocals. It wasn't until their second album, 1998's I Am Not a Doctor, that Moloko hit the big time, scoring a chart hit with "Sing It Back".
Their next album, Things to Make and Do, was similarly successful, yielding the hits "Indigo" and the dance anthem "The Time Is Now". While Moloko might have been accused of surrendering to commercialism with "The Time Is Now", "Indigo" - with its primordial chorus which saw Murphy yelping "Ramses! Colossus! Indigo! Here we go!" - proved that the duo's barmy streak was intact. It was on their fourth record, 2003's Statues, that things started to unravel. Just as they were about to go into the studio, they decided the time had come to end their relationship.
"It was a really hard time," recalls Murphy. "There was no particular reason other than that the relationship had run its course. But when we broke up it became necessary to draw boundaries in the studio. Everything became a bit of a fight and it was very tiring. It's no wonder that the music we made was so dark."
As soon as the record was finished they went on tour. Afterwards Murphy says they parted on good terms, though there are clearly some unresolved issues, not least the future of Moloko. "I don't know if we'll carry on or not," she says with a shrug. "But when we said 'See you later at the end of the tour', we really said 'See you later'. I haven't spoken to him since."
Things have changed a lot for her since then. She has now moved to London and is in a new relationship. More important, she's made an album by herself, which is no mean feat for a woman who still claims to be "petrified" at the idea of a solo career.
"There'll always be a part of me that wants to remain mysterious," she says. "Obviously I want to be a success but I've no wish to go to LA and work with Dr Dre. The work is the most important part of the process for me. The rest doesn't really matter."
'Ruby Blue' is out now on Echo RecordsReuse content