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Roísín Murphy: Sing it back again

Roísín Murphy made her name with a string of club classics in the Nineties trip-hop duo Moloko. The singer tells Nick Duerden why she has been away for seven years and why a disco queen chose to make her comeback by covering Italian torch songs

Nick Duerden
Tuesday 13 May 2014 22:25 BST

There is a certain wariness in the blue-eyed squint of Roísín Murphy on this early spring day in west London, as she requests a coffee and swiftly misplaces it, then requests another. We repair to a small room, sit opposite each other on armchairs that strive towards comfort, and she says to me, "Feel free to describe me as beautiful and radiant, won't you? "

The former Moloko singer is making something of a belated return to music this month, a full seven years after her last album. "I went away and had me babbies," she says by way of explanation. In her time away from the limelight, she deliberately forgot about the necessary rigours of promotion, which she hasn't always been entirely comfortable with. When the interview's over, an hour later, her coffee mostly undrunk and now cold, she sighs. "Christ, that was a bit deep, wasn't it? I thought we'd be done after 20 minutes of questions about my music. But you ended up asking all sorts…"

Radiant and beautiful, Murphy, now 40, is dressed in a billowy blue blouse and a pair of jeans so thoroughly stonewashed they look like they've been lifted from a 1983 Bananarama video. It's a new look on her, but then she is coming back with a new sound too, a six-track limited-edition EP called Mi Senti, in which she faithfully covers a selection of Sixties and Seventies Italian torch songs by artists like Mina ("Ancora Ancora Ancora", "Non Credere") and Patty Pravo ("Pensiero Stupendo"), and sings them very competently in their native language. Each is given a coolly electronic sheen by her partner, Sebastiano Properzi, a music producer from Milan, and the father of her 18-month-old son, Tadhg.

It's all very mellow, and hypnotic, decidedly morning-after, and is something of a curveball for Murphy; Sixties and Seventies Italian torch songs hardly an obvious source of material for a 21st-century dance queen. She regards me quizzically, almost suspiciously. "Well, you should have come to expect the unexpected from me by now, no?" she says.

After her last album, 2007's Overpowered, Murphy's deal with EMI came to an end, which she took as an opportunity to do something she hadn't done yet: pursue a normal life.

"I'd signed a record deal when I was 18 or 19 years old," she says. "It was very simple for me. I didn't go in search of it; it just sort of happened. Then I entered into this kind of institutional world: record companies, albums, touring. That lasted throughout my twenties and into my thirties, but then I had me babbies, and everything changed. Parenthood always takes you by surprise, doesn't it? At first, I was very, you know –" Here she makes a long noise that, phonetically, seems to comprise exclusively of s's and z's. "Anxious about it all. I wanted to control it, and you can't, can you? It took a while to – well, to relax into it."

Originally from Ireland, Murphy's family settled in Manchester when she was 12 years old. "But they disintegrated by the time I reached 15, and I refused to go back with them. I stayed in Manchester, and got myself a flat as soon as I turned 16." She laughs the ghost of a thousand cigarettes smoked. "I don't know why I didn't get into more trouble, really."

Why trouble, I ask? That laugh again. "All my friends were oddballs: singers, artists, creative types. My mum always thought I was on drugs, but we didn't go anywhere near drugs until I was about 17, 18."

By which time, she'd moved to Sheffield in pursuit of one boyfriend, and quickly met another, musician and producer Mark Brydon, to whom her opening gambit was: "Do you like my tight sweater?" He clearly did. They formed a band together, Moloko, and titled their 1995 debut album after her winning chat-up line.

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Moloko was essentially Murphy in aural form: hyperactive, kinetic, full of voluble character and baffling weirdness. They made lissom dance music that oozed irreverence and experimentation, but while certain songs – "Pure Pleasure Seeker", "Indigo", "Fun for Me" – were essentially sonic exclamation marks, tracks like "Sing It Back" and "The Time Is Now" possessed irresistible liquid rhythms, and became Ibiza classics.

But then she and Brydon split, and the band soon followed. Never mind, she says, she was ready for a new challenge. "Though I was absolutely petrified! What would I do now? I loved being in Moloko. I'd been ecstatically in love, and everything was a big adventure, parties all the time: in warehouses, caves. It was a fantastic time."

When I ask whether she ever lost her mind during this period – because people do – she looks momentarily furious, but quickly mellows. "No, because I was always with my Uncle Dad, with Mark, who was my rock. After we split up, I definitely lost that [stability], and it did take me some time to regain my ground, but like I said, it was time to do something new, even if I didn't know quite what…"

She went on to release two solo albums, 2005's Ruby Blue, and 2007's Overpowered. The former unexpectedly introduced her to a new audience. "That album is a stone-cold classic in America! I'm serious! They dance to it on TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, brilliant choreography by some bloke over there [Wade Robson]. It's not easy to dance to – it's not Britney Spears – but the Americans love it. They do! I still get letters from people in places like Wisconsin telling me how much they love me."

In 2009, she met the artist Simon Henwood, and quickly fell pregnant. Nine months after the birth of their daughter, Clodagh, they split. She's been with Sebastiano Properzi for 18 months now, and they live together in north London, but spend much of the year in Properzi's villa on Ibiza. She tells me of a recent holiday there with the whole extended clan: both her children, both fathers, Henwood bringing his new partner, with whom he has a baby.

"Oh, we're like a Woody Allen movie, honestly," she laughs pithily. "That's the way it should be, right? All very modern."

Sounds admirably utopian, I say. "I wouldn't go that far," is her reply.

The plan now, she says, is to get back into music full time. The Mi Senti EP will serve as a reminder to fans of her continued presence – not that they need it, she insists, because they remain "very engaged" – after which will come a new album in the summer. She's written 35 songs for it already.

"The aim is to write a masterpiece. But if I've learned anything it's that writing a masterpiece is not easy. I've been feeling out of my depth a lot, but then that's probably no bad thing. Keeps me focused, right? Right?"

The 'Mi Senti' EP is released on 28 May

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