Diva sings hot and cold on solo debut

by Suzannah Tartan

It is 11 on a Sunday morning and Roisin Murphy has just arrived back at her London flat. Another big night out in the city’s kinetic clubland?

Hardly. Though Murphy (first name pronounced “Rowsheen”) and her trip-hop dance duo Moloko have invigorated dance floors around the world, on this particular weekend, Murphy has opted for something rather less glamorous: a weekend in, watching TV with her boyfriend and his parents.

A newly found settledness is also the hallmark of Murphy’s new solo project, “Ruby Blue.” Formed with electronica maestro, Matthew Herbert, it has the same sassiness of Moloko, but without the distinctly edgy undertone. “There is no place like home,” sings Murphy on the album’s opening track, “Leaving the City,” and one senses that it took her a long time to reach that conclusion.

“I think a lot of the journey for me as a singer and lyricist is to get closer to myself,” says Murphy, chatting by telephone as she enjoys her first cup of coffee of the day.

“It sounds really crap, but . . . it’s the life journey, isn’t it — to try to find yourself. I think it would have been a lie for me at 19 to try and show myself as I was because it’s taken me quite a long time to get to know myself at all.”

It is a journey musically encapsulated in “Ruby Blue.” The dance ditty, “If We’re in Love,” one of the first songs written for the album, is a throbbing telegram from the world of one-night stands and fleeting romances.

“[It was about] someone who really wasn’t important to me in the big scheme of things, someone who flirted with me but I couldn’t have sex with him,” says Murphy. “It was where I was at the time, but maybe that is always present in my voice, that neurotic undertone.” “Ruby Blue,” the title cut, is a cautionary caberet. The music is darker, slower, almost lithe. In the lyrics, Murphy seems to be admonishing a woman whose life has gotten a little out of hand.

“I think it sums up what I do lyrically,” says Murphy, referring to the album’s title. “Ruby is fiery and passionate. Blue is melancholic.”

“So Into You,” one of the album’s last recorded songs, switches back into dance mode, yet couldn’t be further from the smoky clubby ambience of “If We’re in Love.” This is dancing as a frolic in the park. A celebration of true love, it is the album’s most exuberant and, as Murphy comments, also its healthiest track. Murphy has always been a chameleon, blessed with a voice somewhere between a less-pained Billie Holiday and a less-sheltered Doris Day.

In Moloko, she was sometimes the sultry temptress, other times the coy innocent. Producer Mark Brydon’s music was equally dichotomous: dance-floor friendly yet weird enough to appeal to esoteric electronica snobs as well as pop-music fans. Their personal history was as eccentric as their music. Murphy, originally from Ireland, initially approached Brydon at a party with one of singledom’s more original pick-up lines: “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body.” It was a winning approach in more ways than one. Murphy and Brydon embarked on both a romantic and musical partnership. Murphy’s opening salvo became the title of their first album in 1995. Though Moloko was never exactly a top-10 hitmaker, they garnered enough popularity to warrant yearlong tours and invitations to participate in last year’s Band Aid single.

After 10 years and five albums, however, the couple had, by 2003, come to an end romantically, and, at least for the time being, musically too. Murphy, a self-confessed workaholic, decided to go it alone. Herbert, who had remixed singles for Moloko since their first album, was an obvious choice for producer.

Well-respected both for his solo outings (under the Herbert and Dr. Rockit monikers), Herbert is even more renowned for the moral rigor of his music making. In an era of preset samples and midi, Herbert gets his sounds the old-fashioned way, he makes them. “The first day that we worked together he asked me to bring in an object,” says Murphy. “I didn’t know what he ment so I just brought my notebooks. They are quite big — art-sized and are quite elaborate with [collages] and drawings and all sorts of things [in them].

“He had a look at them for about half a minute and he said, “Can you just bang that on the mike?”

Alarm clocks. Helmets. Fans. Hairspray. Even a water cooler were all fodder for making the album.

“[For Matthew] the sound or the thing, the instrument that he is sampling, is very random at first. Then you end up with a sound that defines the whole song — the tempo, the key.”

Much of Herbert’s work is predicated on letting accidents happen — on using, rather then editing out, mishaps in the studio. This led the record in unexpected directions. “Night of the Dancing Flame,” is an exotic number that ended up, strangely for a pop song, being in waltz time. As the song took shape, Murphy realized that it was in fact echoed Morris dancing — the traditional English folk dance.

“We found ourselves pretending to dance around a Maypole,” says Murphy about the songs’ development. “What you get is . . . a sort of ambience [that exists] around sound no matter what you did to it,” she says. “It was always something that existed in the real world. It wasn’t just ever a voice from one computer to another or a preset on a keyboard. It is never like that, it always has air around it so you get to invent strange new music, which is what Matthew says everyone [wants] — but they buy loads of new equipment instead of just looking for it themselves.”

This doesn’t mean that “Ruby Blue,” is a particularly challenging record. Herbert has a strongly democratic streak. Though he pushes the envelope of how he makes music, the final product is most often easily digestible, a trend encouraged by his recent interest in classic, ’30s-era vocal jazz. Much of “Ruby Blue” has a jazziness right beneath the surface. Even in the most techno, beat-driven numbers, there are apt to be lush horn flourishes.

This, too, wasn’t planned. “I don’t have a natural interest in jazz, but I have a jazzy voice and the melodies that were in my head were moving toward that,” says Murphy. It is also a sort of journey, she says, to “get more musical as you go along.” Jazzy, experimental, heartfelt music isn’t, as Murphy admits, “the most fashionable kind of music in Europe at the moment,” making her transformation from dancefloor vixen to mature jazz diva even tougher.

“The obvious thing would have been for me to make even more commercial music,” says Murphy. “Maybe I had been hanging out with this gruff northerner for 10 years and now I was going to show my true colors as a rival to Dido or something. Really, I think that may have been the perception in my record company.

“All those years, they thought it was Mark that was the strange one. Actually, it was me.”