Alison Goldfrapp

Alison Goldfrapp

November 2010

Golden girl

Ahead of their November UK tour, Alison Goldfrapp talked to David Hudson about chart success, life on the road and coming out to her family...

I felt a little apprehensive about meeting Alison Goldfrapp. Rumours had reached my ears beforehand that she could sometimes be prickly, and I wasn't sure how she might react to a couple of my questions.
Until 2010, everything seems to have all gone in the right direction in the Goldfrapp world - that being the band that she formed with musical partner Will Gregory at the turn of the century and who first came to attention in 2000 with the critically lauded and Mercury Prize-nominated Felt Mountain. Goldfrapp's star continued to rise throughout the decade, clocking up chart success with subsequent albums Black Cherry and Supernature while managing to retain an aura of edgy coolness. Their sound - best described on these albums as atmospheric, synth-glam disco - was widely aped, with Madonna being cattily dubbed 'Oldfrapp' by some critics when she released her own Confessions On A Dancefloor. Not ones to rest on their laurels, the duo slowed things down a bit on their fourth album, Seventh Tree (2008), which was a more pastoral exploration of folky-electro. It was hailed by some as their most mature and spellbinding piece of work.

Following such a glittery decade on the pop rollercoaster, 2010 could politely be described as the year when things didn't go quite to plan. It began, unexpectedly, with Alison being outed. The Sunday Times ran a feature on the 'The Rise of Mid-Life Lesbians', which revealed that the then 43-year-old singer was in a relationship with film editor Lisa Gunning. Alison knew nothing about the story until it appeared. Then, 'Rocket', the lead single from the duo's fifth album, Head First, failed to make the top 40. Worse still, second single 'Alive', didn't make the top 100 - despite both tracks being joyous, upbeat dancefloor stormers. The fact that radio largely overlooked both releases was more to blame than any dip in quality on the band's part. Nevertheless, bringing the matter of chart failure up with a recording artist is never easy.
When I am ushered into a gorgeously stylish suite at the St Martin's Lane hotel in central London, the first thing I notice about Alison is that she is wearing an imposing pair of sunglasses. They remain firmly rooted to her face for the entire duration of the interview. Fortunately, it is the only outward display of diva behaviour, and is probably more to do with the fact that she is suffering from horrendous jet lag following a return flight from Australia. A reputation for not suffering fools may stem largely from the fact that she won't waste time on questions to which she has no clear answer... not when a simple 'yes', 'no' or 'I don't know' will suffice. Besides this, she proved courteous, warm and good humoured, even when discussing what has clearly been a more challenging year than usual.

DH: When I first heard 'Rocket', I thought 'this is going to be a huge hit', and then it wasn't. And then 'Alive' also failed to chart. What went wrong?
AG: I don't fucking know! [laughs]
Was it a shock?
No. I think what I was surprised about was that Radio 1 wouldn't play it. I think we'd sort of been told that they probably would, in fact, that they were really into it. And then they decided not to. Their argument was that it was because it wasn't 'new' music, which is kind of obviously not the case as they're still playing Scissor Sisters and Kylie, and we're all pretty much the same age! And they're not 'new'. So, I don't know why they wouldn't play it, but they wouldn't play it. And that has a big effect. Radio are the tastemakers. It's a huge thing. Although Radio 2 have a bigger listenership, Radio 1 are playing to younger people, and it's younger people that will specifically go out and buy singles. So there's that, and then the other thing is that with a lot of people, it didn't register. It seemed liked there was a minority that thought it was really great, and a majority that... it just didn't strike a chord with them. Shame [laughs].
If radio isn't going to play you, where does that leave a band? Do you think, 'What on earth are we going to do now?'
Well, it's a funny one because we've always had a bit of a thing with radio. In the early days, they used to ask us if we could speed up the records. 'Black Cherry' - "can you make it faster, please?" They were always telling us to make the songs faster. There's always some reason why they wouldn't play the record. Jo Whiley used to say that she didn't like us, and then suddenly she did like us. I just think that radio's a funny old thing, and they've always been a bit hot and cold with us, so it's not something we're surprised about, to be honest.
You just hope the next record might be something they'll want to play?
You know, we just do our thing. We've always kind of done that.
But do you worry about commercial success? When you're recording an album, do you think "is this going to sell? Will this be played on the radio?"
I think about whether people will like it. The other stuff, I try not to think about, because I don't think you can ever predict that sort of thing, and I think that once you try to predict it, you're going down a slippery road that will be very unsatisfying in the end [laughs]. I remember when we started Seventh Tree, and I thought [mock dramatically] 'Oh my God - we're mad - no-one's going to fucking like this'. I mean, it was a crazy thing to do after Supernature, because any sensible person would have ridden on the back of that and carried on and banged out some similar tunes, but we didn't. We did completely the opposite, and we've always gone with our gut instincts, for better or worse.
That's one of the reasons I always look forward to a Goldfrapp album though - I want to know what you've done or what direction you've decided to explore. I wasn't sure about Seventh Tree at first, but it's a real grower, and the more I listened to it, the more it got under my skin. And the same with this album - you've again gone in a slightly different direction.
Yeah. I think the 80s thing has also thrown people with this album.
Again, was that intentional, when you made it? 'Let's make it sound 80s'?
No. I wanted it to be up and joyous, with big, fat, synth lines and strong melodies, and I think what I did like about that era was a sort of naïveté, in a way, a kind of simplicity. We were sort of really enjoying playing like that. However, the press have very much focused on that 80s thing, and I think for us it's been a bit of a shame, really. Although that's possibly our own fault, but because of that emphasis, a lot of people have, in a way, ignored the songs. At least, I kind of wonder if that is the case - it's something that I've thought about. But it's funny, because when we did Black Cherry and Supernature, everyone said then that it was so 80s, because they were hearing a lot of synths, which weren't really that fashionable.
It's an easy comparison to make - a male/female duo with synthesisers - people immediately compare you to Eurythmics.
Yeah, or I think that people just associate synthesisers with that era as well. Now, saying something's electronica, well, everything's called electronica now, pretty much, whereas when we did Black Cherry and Supernature, people were like 'is it dance music? What is this?' We're accustomed to causing a bit of confusion.
I was reading some fan forums, and some people were complaining about the lack of b-sides this time around - saying that they'd have bought the single if it had b-sides. Are b-sides a thing of the past these days?
I don't know, to be honest. We have done b-sides in the past, but I didn't have time to do any b-sides because we were going on tour, but I'm not sure if that's really a reason. You can never get it all right.
Fans can be the most demanding audience.
Well, we try to please our fans. We've got great fans. We've got a great fan-base, but you can't always do everything right. There's always someone who will get upset by something.
How do you go about starting work on an album? What does the song writing process involve for you and Will?
That's a really tricky one, because I don't really know. We just get in a room together and jam and play. It's a funny old process and things sort of evolve out of playing and talking. I might have some kind of lyrical idea, or melodic idea. With 'Alive', I know that I was driving in my car, and I pretty much had a lyric and a tune, and I got to the studio and said 'I've got this tune!', and that was it, it was pretty much done. And when we jam, we record absolutely everything, just in case some little moment happens that when we play it back we go 'oh, that was quite interesting, that little bit.' So, it's really playing, listening, eliminating, playing, listening and so on.
Do you write all the lyrics?
I do. That is the only thing that I do pretty much on my own. Although, the chorus of 'Rocket'... we both wrote that.
Do you ever argue?
Very rarely. If we do argue it's usually because somebody wants to go on holiday. 'No, no, you can't go on holiday, I want to finish this!', 'No, I want to go on holiday'... that sort of thing.

Alison Goldfrapp

I believe that you've played lots of festivals this summer. I wondered if you had a favourite festival, or festival memory?
I do love Glastonbury. I do think that's one of the best festivals. And we played Melt festival in Germany, and that was really great. It's by a lake, and it was a really lovely day, so straight after the show we all jumped in the lake. I quite like those festivals that are in beautiful settings, rather than a dusty field... something a bit more civilised.
Do you enjoy touring?
I absolutely love playing live. The travelling... we've just come back from Australia and the jet lag is absolutely mental torture - it really messes with your mind. So, that part is not fun, and having to get up at some crazy hour to get on a flight to go to the next venue, that I find tedious, but the actual playing live and hanging out with the band, that is all amazing. And I have to say that this is the best tour yet, we're having a really great time.
The new single, 'Believe', you describe as a song about 'rediscovering love'. Was that something personal to you at the time that you wrote it?
Yes [laughs]. I'm not going to elaborate. That said, even though things are personal, I try to think of them in the global sense as well. 'Head First' is about a friend of mine who fell in love with a boy, who was working on a working trip. I think people think it's about me but actually it's about a friend.
You were in the news earlier in the year, because of The Sunday Times article that revealed you were in a relationship with another woman...
Yeah, they keep running stuff about lezzers! What are they trying to do? Convert everyone? What's going on?
How do you feel about that now, in hindsight?
Erm. I'm fine with it. It's kind of... I'm more intrigued by The Sunday Times and their constant running of articles about lesbians. It's like they're on a bit of a mission or something. However, the woman that wrote that original article, I'm not really quite sure what she was trying to get at, but anyway... I didn't think it was that pleasant.
Although not openly hostile, coverage of gay issues can sometimes be 'snide', for want of a better word...
Yeeeaah. But hey, I was glad that they at least chose a good picture. I wasn't wearing dungarees or DMs at that point. No, I'm joking, I don't wear dungarees or DMs. But yeah, it was a good picture. I was thinking 'Oh my God, what picture have they used?'
Were you horrified when someone called you up and told you that this piece had appeared?
I was like 'Blimey!', because that stuff never happens to me. Whenever I'm in a magazine it's because of my music. I don't court celebrity... I don't get photographed by the paparazzi. That was a first, to be talked about in a completely different context, you know? I kind of knew that someone had taken that picture, so I knew that it would turn up somewhere. I was more surprised at the direction of the article. I felt more sorry for Lisa, actually, [laughs]. I thought, 'Oh God, she's been dragged into this'. I felt a sort of responsibility towards her, because she was like 'Oh my God, my picture's in The Sunday Times', you know? It was really unfamiliar territory for her.
Did you have any negative comeback to the whole episode?
No.
I take it you were already out to your friends and family?
Oh, that's the other thing. My first thought was, 'Is it a good picture?', and then 'Oh my God, what's my mum going to say?', because I hadn't told any of my family.
Oh really?
Yeah, yeah, so that was, like, 'Oh fuck', but in a way it was kinda good, because it was out there, so you can't...
Do anything about it?
No. And there was a few weeks when nobody said anything, and eventually, I think my sister said something like: 'Oh yes, so we saw that article in The Sunday Times...' and I was like [cringing] 'Oh, right, yes, OK?', and she said, 'Oh for God's sake, we knew a couple of Christmases ago; don't worry about it'.
They knew you were with Lisa or that you were that way inclined?
No, she meant 'we knew that Lisa was...'. We didn't discuss it any further than that, other than 'Lisa's really lovely, and glad that you're happy', and that was it, kind of thing. However, I don't think my mum ever knew. And she was very religious, and for her, well, gay was not something that was 'natural'!
Is she still absorbing the news?
She's not alive anymore.
Oh I'm sorry, I didn't realise.
That's alright.
She passed away this year?
Yeah, a few weeks ago, in fact. So, no, she didn't know and... yeah, she was old and she had her views. She'd ask me every week when was I going to get a boyfriend and she'd been asking me for that for the last 20 years or something.
Were you glad that she found out before she died?
No, she didn't find out. I just don't think it registered with her.
There are a lot of gay men in pop, but there seems to be a lack of women who openly admit to loving other women? Do you have any thoughts on why that is?
It's an interesting thing, isn't it? There's a lot of 'Ooh, I kissed a girl!' - there's a lot of that. But, it's interesting. I don't know if there's a reason or it's just a fluke of how things are; I don't really know.
Do you think that there are many women in pop who choose to stay in the closet?
I really don't know. I mean, it's interesting, because I have thought about it, because there's still that thing where it's considered titillating to play with the idea, but actually saying that you are is still, not really... I don't know.
A friend was talking to me the other day about trying to get a friend of hers - an openly lesbian singer - to number one, and I actually couldn't remember when someone who was openly lesbian was at number one, unless you count Lady Gaga and her bisexuality? Unless that, again, is just a pose?
Exactly. That again is playing with the titillating idea. It's odd [laughs].
What acts out there interest you at the moment?
I met Gossip the other day, and I do really like them.
Actually, Beth Ditto is probably the most high-profile lesbian in pop.
Yes, that's true! Of course! I'd completely forgotten about her. I think she's great, I think she's got a really fantastic voice. Underrated, actually. Everything's focused on her appearance and attitude, but she's a great singer, and I saw her live once and thought she was really great. I've been listening to the new Arcade Fire album, which I really like; there are a few good songs on there. Erm... Always listening to new stuff but it's funny, it's not often I listen to a whole album and think 'Oh my God, that's great'. I haven't done that for quite some time, actually.
I think a lot of people are like that now, possibly because of digital downloads making it easy to pick and choose tracks.
Yeah, I dunno. I'll like four songs and then the rest of it... I haven't listened to the Scissor Sisters album yet, which I really want to do, because I love those guys, I think they're great.
I see that the new single is remixed by Vince Clarke [Depeche Mode/Yazoo/Erasure]. Are you a long-time fan?
[A look of confusion crosses Alison's face - this is possibly news to her!]
I read it on the press release! Maybe I mean one of the mixes?
[Relieved] Maybe it's a mix. Yeah! Vince Clarke, yeah, he's great. Er, I love Vince Clarke. I can't make any more comment than that.
Is there anyone out there that you would like to remix your work?
I love LCD Soundsystem. I think they're great.
Do you choose who remixes the songs?
To be perfectly honest, I don't know much about that world at all. We do rely on this lovely guy at our record company to suggest people to us, and he always comes up with ideas, and then we listen to stuff and say whether we like it or not. If we really don't like something then it doesn't go out there, so we do listen to absolutely everything and approve it, but we don't go out searching for people to remix stuff, I have to say, it's a world that I get completely confused about.
The music business has changed greatly since you first appeared on the scene ten years ago. How has it changed the most, in your perception?
Oh, lordy lord... (pauses to think)
Apart from everyone missing Top Of The Pops...
I know! It's funny, I was talking to someone the other day and was saying 'please bring back Top Of The Pops'! Life was so simple. You could watch silly performances, and people miming into toilet roll holders, or whatever, and it was just fun. Nowadays, everyone takes it all so fucking seriously, or takes themselves incredibly seriously.
Top Of The Pops offered such a great mix of music too, whereas nowadays, shows will just want to put on the coolest bands performing live. But it was fun to watch cheesy pop alongside cool rock. It was part of its charm.
Exactly. It had a charm. We probably all got a bit bored with it, but yeah, be good to bring it back. Erm, what has changed? I guess the speed at which people listen to things. There's so much music about, so many artists. The way we consume music, the way we listen to music, and how it's regarded... in a way, that it's a shame that people don't want to pay for it. I think... it's sort of cheapened music, and yet, it's something that we all listen to and we all love, but we don't want to pay for it any longer, which I kind of think is a shame. But I guess that's happening with film as well; and the arts in general. It's kind of a bit sad because so much effort goes into making music or making a film, and people do it with absolute passion and we're sort of losing it a bit.
There doesn't seem to be any obvious answer, because it's great to have the choice...
No, exactly. When I was a kid, we used to copy things from other things, and I don't have a problem with that so much, but it's just on such a massive scale, you know? It's worrying about how that's going to go...
How it will sustain itself?
Yeah. I always feel a bit like an old fart when I get asked 'what's changed' or 'what do you think's going to happen?'
Well, you've been around ten years, which isn't a long time but has a lot has changed tremendously in the last decade.
Even in the last couple of years!
I can't imagine what it's going to be like in another five years. There seems to be such a rapid turnover...
Yeah, it's so fast.
And the media seem obsessed with just uncovering the next big thing, at the expense of some other acts that are still turning out quality music. As a music fan, that makes me despair slightly as I'm beginning to feel that some things get missed.
Yeah, yeah.
Have you ever thought what you would do is your pop career came to an end?
Yeah, a cleaning company [chuckles]. I fancy a little white van and a nice holdall full of cleaning products. And I would choose the house to be cleaned, depending on what the house was like. If I liked your house then I would clean it. And I'd kick off at one o'clock and go down to the beach and spend the rest of the day on the beach. It would have to be houses in Europe, somewhere, that have nice shiny floors so I wouldn't have to do the hoovering.
You could get one of those nice robot hoovers...
Yeah. I'd rifle through people's wardrobes and try on their clothes and stuff like that. And also, it's really hard to find a good cleaner!
You sound a bit like Sharon Osbourne - she's known for sacking domestic staff!
[laughs] No, not sacking, I just can't bloody find one!

The album, Head First, is out now. Goldfrapp tour the UK in November. They play the HMV Hammersmith Apollo on 11 November and Brighton Dome on 13 November 2010. www.goldfrapp.com

An abridged version of this interview was published in Out In The City,
November 2010 David Hudson


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