Alison Goldfrapp talks us through new album Tales Of Us, why she still loves to sing Lovely Head, and what happened when she swallowed a fly in mid-song
Goldfrapp stepped elegantly back into the limelight this summer. With a full orchestra and choir, they presented mesmerisingly sumptuous new album Tales Of Us at the Manchester International Festival before heading to London’s Somerset House for a set as part of the Summer Series, and then on to Victoria Park to headline the final day of Lovebox.
“A crazy week. A fantastic week! It was quite mad doing such completely different sets,” recalls Alison, reclined on a white leather couch, in sunglasses and a loose black top, her blonde curls cascading around her head. A silky grey whippet called Maus mooches about, variously snuffling food from a bowl, looking pleadingly up at the humans and responding with amiable silence to pats, strokes and ear twiddles. Maus is, Alison says, her first dog. “She’s lovely. They have such great natures, whippets. And they run like the wind.”
Goldfrapp have played orchestral shows before, but not often, and never quite on the scale of Manchester. “Whenever it’s offered to us, we’re like ‘YES’,” she enthuses. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. But also intense, my god! We were rehearsing for that, with completely new songs, and we didn’t really know what they were going to be like, how they would sound, and we had a little choir as well. And then we did another rehearsal for a completely different set and vibe. Quite crazy, but kind of wonderful that we can do that, in a way.”
The crazy continued at Lovebox, where a decision to close half of the venue space for the final day was almost as bemusing as the kerfuffle that erupted about Lil Kim’s no-show on the same day. Alison did show, but she swallowed a fly. “I had to keep coughing in between songs; fortunately it was only the last three songs or something. Then this bloody fly flew out. Well, not literally flew out – it was dead. It appeared. A bit gross, really, but there you go.” At least she didn’t swallow a spider.
Tales Of Us feels like a new chapter in the Goldfrapp story. Their label Mute’s time under the wing of the UK’s last major, EMI, has come to an end, and Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory find themselves again signed to an indie label, albeit the same one. “We’re really happy to be back with Mute, and we’re very happy that Mute is independent again,” says Alison. “It’s a marvellous thing. Good times. New wonderful management, and the record company back to what they originally were, so it feels really good.” Reports around their last studio album Head First suggested pressure for chart hits and radio play influenced its gestation, and that the band felt rushed to produce results. The singles collection which followed brought the curtain down on that part of the band’s career, which had taken flight with 2000’s lush Felt Mountain, took in the hit single Ooh La La and a smattering of smaller chart successes along the way. It could all have ended there, but the new album’s stripped back approach, lavish orchestral arrangements and beautifully atmospheric accompanying films – directed by Alison’s partner Lisa Gunning – suggest Goldfrapp have more to do.
“I’m really, really happy with this album,” says Alison. “I’m in a good place mentally and I feel very comfortable with this sound world. I’ve loved performing it live; even though it was really intense and I was really nervous, I so want to do that again. On a lot of the other albums there’s been lots of layers, and I really wanted to do something that was more stripped back. Because of that it’s much more news than previous albums. And for that reason, just before I was on stage, I was so nervous. But I thought, what about comedians, who stand in a room on their own, and they have to go out and make people laugh on their own? Jesus Christ! So what I was about to do was nothing in comparison.” She pauses. “Sorry, went off on a tangent there…”
With her new, intoxicating material to back up her performance, she need hardly have worried. “On this album I was very focused on what I wanted to do,” she says. “It’s very much in the DNA of Felt Mountain and Seventh Tree, so it’s definitely something that Will understands. He’s got a passion for that kind of orchestration, that mood. He understands it well. I wanted to strip it back more, create more tension, make things more minimal and intimate. And also narratively to take things further.”
On the subject of the narration, we get to the title of the album. In Tales Of Us, who is ‘Us’? “All the characters. It’s a collective. They are all fictional characters except for Clay, which is based on a true story,” she recounts. “Do you know Letters Of Note? It’s a wonderful, fantastic, fascinating website of letters that people have written to each other. I saw this letter on there which was written by one soldier to another soldier on the anniversary of his death. These two soldiers were lovers in the Second World War, and tragically one of them dies. It was such a beautiful letter, so visual, so moving. That’s what inspired Clay.” The album’s final track is full of memories in its lyrics but powers forth with uplifting swells of music that suggest the two lovers will meet again in another life. There’s a real emotional tug at the heartstrings; knowing the poem and the story behind it makes for a tear or two when listening to the song. It is one of Goldfrapp’s best.
While the characters across the rest of the album are fictional, there are threads of real life experience running through them, too. “Alvar was inspired by a trip to Iceland that I took,” says Alison, “and my obsession with water and lakes and myths and legends, and also the story of Philomena Lee, which is a story about a mother who is forced to give away her child to a convent. The son and the mother ended up searching for each other for years and years, and the son constantly went back to the convent to get information from the nuns, but they refused to give him any information, though they knew everything. He actually died and asked to be buried in the graveyard of that convent so that, if ever the mother managed to find him, she’d know where he was. It’s just… oh my god. It was this combination of this trip to Iceland and reading this story and they all got merged with these ideas of myths. Hence: Alvar.”
She could go on, giving back stories to the rest of the album’s songs. But, she decides, not today. “It’s probably best to just listen to them and just make your own mind up about them. I always feel slightly strange explaining songs – talking about mystery, maybe I just totally ruin the mystery of them.”
Further to talk of mystery, Alison has recently taken to Twitter. “I really like that direct conversation with the fans,” she says. “It’s really quite changed things for me. I feel much more in touch with our audience, and I don’t think I was before. It’s me talking direct to them rather than – forgive me for saying this – through a journalist.” What’s wrong with talking through journalists? “Many a journalist has taken something I’ve said and turned it into something quite negative or provocative or whatever,” she says. “This way, I get to know (the fans) and they get to know me. That can be nothing but positive. Maybe it does spoil the mystery, but I feel like there is still mystery. It’s not like I talk about my personal life – well, apart from Maus” – she laughs; the whippet is, she says, more popular on Twitter than her – “I don’t court celebrity, so I feel like it’s been a really positive thing.” And so far at least she’s not suffered trolling. “Fortunately, all our fans are lovely, intelligent people,” she says.
Those fans have taken to Tales Of Us. While the album works best as a complete work, it does have its standouts. Thea, which sits a little apart from the rest of the set, could readily lend itself to an italo remix. It is the only track on the album with a commanding beat to it, though that beat is not played on a mere drum. “I woke up in the middle of the night with that tune in my head,” recounts Alison. “I was under the duvet, recording it into my device, and I was” – she taps her chest – “doing this to keep time, and the the duvet was going” – (crunch, crunch) – “so we kept that. It’s actually the duvet, and my hand. So that’s what started the whole thing, and it just grew out of that. It was inspired by The Postman Always Rings Twice. These two lovers who plot to kill the husband so they can be together. It’s about the only one that has a defined, constant rhythm section.” With its refracted synths over the insistent groove, it is the sound of a band operating at the top of their game, who know what they want to achieve and how to go about achieving it.
The stripped-down feel of the rest of the album is, she says, down to one instrument. “The acoustic guitar provides so much rhythm; it’s a wonderful thing. You don’t really need anything else; it provides the rhythm and the melody and the momentum,” she enthuses. “On Supernature, on Black Cherry, we’ve always had a drum programmer come in and help us do stuff. It’s never been our department, as it were. I really wanted to do things that are much more sparse. The piano and the guitar were the lead instruments; in a way, they were the things that were providing all the rhythm.” She pauses. “Although Thea steps out of that, completely…”
Will Gregory no longer tours with Goldfrapp and does no press, preferring instead the studio boffin role of writer, arranger and producer and to let Alison get on with fronting the project that is named after her. But Alison involves herself in those ‘back office’ roles, too – she brings more than her vocal performance to Goldfrapp. “I compose with my voice,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll have a melody line, and sometimes that will turn into a string line or whatever. Yes it’s an instrument, and I use it with the same principles as any other instrument, to write with. And Will does all the string arrangements.”
Those string arrangements have, down the years, led fans to believe that Goldfrapp would surely be perfect for a Bond song. Will they ever do Bond? Will Gregory reportedly was in talks to provide music for Casino Royale, but it never came to pass. “It’s never gonna happen because we’re English and not very famous,” says Alison, matter-of-factly. “If you’re English you’ve got to be really super-famous,” she says, skirting around mentioning the name of an English lady who is really super-famous and who provided a song for the most recent film, Skyfall. “It’s an amazing thing, Bond, but obviously there are a lot of other widescreen sounding things. I suppose people say Bond when they’re thinking of something quite dramatic and ‘English sounding’, maybe. It’s a lovely compliment, and I will treasure it because I know we’ll never get asked to do it. It would be bloody marvellous. But it’ll never happen.”
Goldfrapp do more than widescreen sounding things, of course. The duo’s longevity is at least in part down to their ability to switch sounds between albums; from the sensuous, otherworldly lushness of Felt Mountain to the whips-and-chains electro of Black Cherry; the pop of Supernature to the hippie-ish Seventh Tree; the 1980s Hollywood musicals of Head First to the stripped-back, widescreen Tales Of Us. “We do do things quite different (from one album to the next),” Alison agrees. “I’m sure we’ve made our lives quite difficult for that reason. If we’d just carried on doing Supernatures life would be a lot simpler. But I’d be really bored. I’ve always gone with my gut instinct.”
It’s an instinct that has served the project well for over a decade now. But turning back the clock, how did Goldfrapp originate? “I’d written a little tune and this girl had made a film around it; she was an animator,” Alison recalls. “She played it to Will, thinking he’d like it, and we were introduced. We just talked about music and things we loved, and the kind of music we wanted to hear, but couldn’t hear, and the first thing we wrote together was Lovely Head. And I thought, that was fun; let’s do some more. I remember laughing our heads off when we did the vocal Korg sound that’s in the middle of Lovely Head. We hadn’t really heard anything like that before. We both really liked the combination of the orchestration and the ballady thing, and that it was a bit off as well. I love doing Lovely Head; it’s quite strenuous on the voice doing the Korg bit, but I love doing it. It still feels like it has a lot of drama. It fits really well alongside the new material and the Seventh Tree stuff. Will’s got a room full of bits and bobs; analogue synths lying about everywhere. Whenever we’re in the studio it’s always nice to try out new sounds. It’s just playing, basically; trying out different things.”
Alongside a willingness to experiment, Goldfrapp have cultivated solid roots. They recorded Felt Mountain in a bungalow in Bath and are still based in the area. “It’s not the bungalow from Felt Mountain; but it is just up the road,” says Alison. “If I’m there for long periods I get a bit homesick and I feel quite isolated when I’m up there. I spent pretty much two years up there. But it’s a wonderful place to work. I really like working in nature, in the countryside, away from the city.” She also has a place in Hackney. “I love being in the city, but I do feel like I’m constantly distracted by the energy of it. It’s such a different energy. When we’re in the countryside I feel like I can really lose myself in the writing. I’ve got a cottage there; it’s literally opposite. The studio’s on one side of a valley and I’m on the other. Will and I can blow smoke signals at each other.”
We get on to discussing music made by women, and reactions to it. One of her favourite songs is sung by Marlene Dietrich, she says. Alison’s looks have been compared with the German-born screen siren’s, and she has also been mentioned in the same sentence as another, more modern day, icon. “Some article – I think it was in the Standard? I’m not sure – said I was Madonna’s stranger sister. I think Madonna’s fantastic. I felt awful when she got called Oldfrapp. Awful. Madonna’s amazing and very much her own woman. To be called Oldfrapp is horrible.”
Quite so. Does she feel that women in music, when they are written about at all, are too often judged on their looks and age ahead of their musical output? “Yes; I think that goes across all things, sports as well.” Has she experienced it? “There’s a lot of that going round, for sure. I was in the park this morning and the local council bloke said to me: ‘Oh, you are not dressed for the summer! I want to see you next time in your shorts so I can look at your body!’ I was like, ‘I’d like to see you in some shorts so I can look at your body too’. It’s a bit early to be objectified – I haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet.”
The short films accompanying the album, directed by Alison’s partner Lisa Gunning, suggest the singer has a face for the big screen. “I’ve been working with her really closely on those,” she says. “She’s done five little films (that) culminate in a 30 minute piece.” Later, the full film is shown in the basement of London’s Soho Hotel, introduced by Mute Records boss Daniel Miller in the presence of Goldfrapp, Gunning and an invited audience. Annabel, Drew, Jo and Laurel are all given sumptuous treatment, with country houses, vast empty beaches, empty beds and Alison’s eyes all featuring, and Clay playing across the end credits. Annabel is the inspiration for a short fable about an outsider boy who discovers a sequin dress, at Alison’s behest, and uses it as a catalyst to find his true nature – one of many moments when the album’s predilections on gender identity come to the surface.
The album, along with Alison’s curation of an art exhibition at Salford’s The Lowry and Gunning’s involvement in the project, suggests Goldfrapp is not only happy with who she is, where her head is at and in her relationship but is showing every sign of being ready to take on a greater cultural role, perhaps as an icon of sorts in her own right. “I don’t have anything to prove other than to myself,” she states, not unreasonably. But whatever her next move, she’s not planning on taking the orchestra from the Manchester International Festival show on tour. “We haven’t got any money so we won’t be going out with an orchestra, unfortunately. We’d love to, though; if anyone’s got an orchestra they can lend us…”
Goldfrapp’s album Tales Of Us is out now through Mute. A box set version follows, featuring a bonus CD with a selection of remixes and live performances, a 40 page hardback book and a DVD with Tales Of Us in 5.1 surround sound. Goldfrapp’s European tour concludes at London’s Hammersmith Apollo on 1 November 2013. Alison Goldfrapp’s curation at The Lowry, Salford, runs until March 2014.