In 2003, as Goldfrapp released their second album, Tony Barrell begged an audience with the band’s charismatic singer, Alison Goldfrapp
One of the oddest moments of television was broadcast on BBC2 in the summer of 2002, on Gardeners’ World. You won’t ever see it on one of those infernal list programmes – I Love the 100 Most Unhinged Horticultural Archive Clips of All Time, or whatever – because it was just too darn weird. There was a feature about a couple who took pleasure in growing gillyflowers, as you do, and as the camera panned over their borders, you suddenly heard a majestic fizz of synthesiser and a spine-tingling female voice intoning: “Fascist baby… utopia, utopia…”
The voice was Alison Goldfrapp’s, and so far it’s the only instance when a science-fiction song about eugenics and superhuman-breeding has soundtracked a doc about dianthus fanciers. “That’s hilarious,” Alison tells me when we meet. “I love things like that. The song obviously went straight over their heads.”
It looked as if their debut album would win an award as the CD Played Most Often in Chichi Shops and Eateries
Mystifying though it was, it was confirmation that Goldfrapp – the woman herself, and the band named after her curious surname – had entered the public domain. Since their first album, Felt Mountain, appeared in September 2000, Goldfrapp’s music has steadily percolated into the mainstream of our lives. Even those people who still say “Gold-who?” know the music from mobile-phone advertisements or travel programmes, or from hearing it as they shop for designer clothes and bric-a-brac or sit in smart gastropubs. Felt Mountain was nominated for the 2001 Technics Mercury Music Prize, losing out in the end to P J Harvey, but at one time it looked as if it would win an award as the CD Played Most Often in Chichi Shops and Eateries.
Critics loved it just as much as shopkeepers, calling it magnificent, epic, gorgeous, mesmerising, seductive, sumptuous, beguiling, awesome, ground-breaking, magnifique, wunderbar, as if they were just typing from a thesaurus instead of doing their jobs. On that record, Goldfrapp – officially consisting of Alison and the composer Will Gregory – seemed to mix torch songs for unmade James Bond films with krautrock, Weimar cabaret, gothic harpsichord, yodelling and The Clangers. And if that sounds crazy, hundreds of thousands of record-buyers should now be consulting their therapists.
The exotic music, the Germanic-sounding band name, and the mountain and forest scenes on the album sleeve conned many listeners that the music was an export from somewhere deep in the Alps. Alison’s lyrics – “I am deliciously wired, I am falling in a cloud, Shoot a thousand stars over me” – hinted at a past life as a songwriting apprentice to Serge Gainsbourg. And her diminutive, woman-child appearance and scarcely tamed, multi-octave vocal suggested she was some kind of feral sprite raised by wolves in Bavaria. So it came as a shock when she was first interviewed in the press, and she turned out to be more New Forest than Black Forest, having grown up in the market town of Alton in Hampshire, near the giant beer vats of the Bass brewery.
“Worrrrr! Champagne cocktails!” she exclaims, like a semi-tutored Eliza Doolittle, on reading the drinks menu at the Gore Hotel in Kensington. “I’ll have a Bellini.” But the hotel is fresh out of peach juice, so she settles for a Cosmopolitan – vodka and Cointreau with cranberry juice. I ask her about her colourful, cosmopolitan name. “Goldfrapp is German,” she says, “My dad tried to find out the history of it and could only go back so far.” To me it looks more like franglais: the English word “gold”, plus “frapp” from the French “frapper”, to strike – to strike gold, which she certainly has.
When we were thinking up a band name, it just seemed really futile when I already had this absurd name
Isn’t using a surname as a band name – like Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Argent, Santana – a bit of an old-school male rock thing to do? She laughs. “Well, when me and Will were thinking up a band name, it just seemed really futile when I already had this absurd name. It just fitted in with all that Germanic mountain scenery, and when we started playing around with it, I wrote it in this gothic writing and it just worked. And ‘Goldfrapp & Gregory’ would’ve sounded too much like a firm of solicitors.” Raising the profile of her name also seems an act of revenge. “I always got the piss taken out of me when I was at school. No one called me Alison, they just said, ‘Goldfrapp!’ And I hated it. I got called Gold Trap, Gold Flaps, Gold Crap… Oh, don’t say ‘Gold Crap’ because that’ll be it now!”
The daughter of a charity worker and a nurse, Alison was introduced to classical music as a child by her father, who would play oratorios such as Carmina Burana by Carl Orff and initiate discussions afterwards. She struggled to find a suitable instrument to play, graduating from the recorder to the trombone – “It was too big and I could never find the bloody notes on it” – and then to the clarinet. “And that was equally boring, because the only person who played the clarinet was Acker Bilk, which was hardly inspiring.”
But a pivotal moment in her life was going to a convent school in Hampshire, where she discovered the joy of singing. “And when I sang a high note I could feel the top of my head buzzing. It was a great feeling.” Although she has never been a Catholic – “My mum just sent me there because she thought it would be good for me, give me a bit of discipline” – she adored the convent. “I thought the nuns were f***ing cool,” she says with blithe sacrilege. “I remember walking down these dark wooden-panelled corridors with glittery floors, and looking at these women with black polo-necks and big shiny crosses and thinking, ‘Wow! Serious ladies!’ Also it was multicultural, and I really liked that about it as well: there were Indian nuns, Chinese nuns, Spanish nuns… I loved the imagery and the drama and the smell. I thought I was in a film – a fantastic, surreal, Vaseline-lensed film. I was very upset when I left, because I knew it was the end of an era and everything was going to be harder. But I suppose I would’ve gone right up my own arse if I’d stayed there. Then I discovered boys and fags, and that was all very dramatic and exciting as well!”
You know the little windows that the prostitutes sit in? I sat in one of those, on a revolving stool, and I revolved and sang
There are dark passages in her CV where she lived in squats and bedsits, “bummed around” and did tedious, unglamorous jobs. “I probably took too many drugs at one point.” What sorts? “I don’t want to talk about that. But hey, it’s all experience, and it’s cool.” For three years she sang for an “artsy-fartsy” dance company on the Continent, and somewhere along the way she attended art school, and began a short career in the questionable field of performance art. One “piece”, entitled This Week I’m Alice, required her to spend a day in Antwerp’s red-light district. “You know the little windows that the prostitutes sit in? I sat in one of those, on a revolving stool, and I revolved and sang, and there were speakers outside so you could hear it in the street. Which was very irritating for the punters, but the prostitutes liked it.” For another performance piece, in Britain this time – and you can’t make this stuff up – she milked a cow while yodelling. On that occasion, she – Alison, not the cow – was spotted by members of the band Orbital, who invited her to collaborate in the studio. She went on to work with the edgy trip-hopper Tricky, lending her unique vocal tones to his 1995 album, Maxinquaye, and touring with him for two years.
By chance, Will Gregory heard a recording of her singing, and soon they were exchanging tapes of their favourite music: a kind of professional foreplay that led to their first, fruitful collaboration. In 1999 they were signed to Mute Records, the home of top electro acts like Moby and Depeche Mode, and spent five months in the English countryside recording Felt Mountain. Will, born in 1959, is the lower-profile older half of Goldfrapp: Ike to her Tina, Mutt to her Shania, though they are not an item – “It’s purely professional and we have our own very, very private lives,” says Alison.
For their second album, Black Cherry, released in 2003, they could have repeated the Felt Mountain formula or headed off in another direction. Well, the cheeky mavericks have taken the third way: they’ve done both. While songs like the title track and ‘Deep Honey’ hark back to that first album, several others – including ‘Train’, ‘Twist’, and ‘Strict Machine’ – are in-your-face pop songs with thumping beats behind them. The net result is a sonic treat that surpasses their debut. “After a year and a half of touring the first album, I was like, ‘Oh… give… me… a… beat!’” explains Alison, doing a convincing impression of severe withdrawal symptoms. “Whereas on Felt Mountain we’d started with the melody, this time we started much more with the rhythm and the bass. It was a conscious decision.” The song ‘Train’ grew out of “a jam” between Alison and Will, and sounds like an electronic update of 1970s glam rock. “Yeah, I’ve always been into that period from a vocal point of view; I love that thick-sounding slap-back vocal, and the glitter and fantasy and humour you get in glam. Slade wrote some fantastic songs, and Marc Bolan looked so f***ing cool.”
The song ‘Strict Machine’ sounds like an hommage to Donna Summer’s disco classic ‘I Feel Love’. “Yeah, that’s what everyone says, and yet I’ve never thought about that at all. And the subject is quite far away from that.” What is the subject? “I read this article about these scientists who were doing these experiments with rats, where they sent pulses to their brains so that they could control them. Some of the pulses would tell them to go left or right, but they connected to the sex/love bit of the brain, so when they go right, they go right with deep joy – they do whatever they’re told to do, with love.”
If Felt Mountain was their rural album, recorded in a pest-infested bungalow in the small Wiltshire village of Colerne – and even, in the case of the track ‘Deer Stop’, outside under the stars – then Black Cherry is its urban antithesis, recorded in a proper studio in Bath. Conditions were far from ideal, however. “It was brown and dingy, and we always had the idea we were going to go somewhere else, a bit more scenic, to finish the album.” Various picturesque places were mooted, including the Alps and Lisbon. “But it was quite hard work getting started on the album, so when we did get started and got into a flow, we were so paranoid that if we stopped it would all fall apart, that we just stayed there and carried on.”
I had sardine oil on my knees so the wolves would lick me furiously, and they licked so furiously I ended up with bright red knees
During the recording, as if to compensate for the lack of visual stimulus, Alison became a prolific collagist. “I was buying felt-tipped pens from the local corner shop, and paper and magazines, and cutting things up and sticking things down – having fun, really, just scribbling and gluing. The whole thing just suited the way that me and Will were working, because we were jamming and just mucking about a bit more than we have done.” Alison and Will share a love of films and their soundtracks – “We’d love to write the music for a film at some point,” she says – and her working methods appear to involve a touch of synaesthesia, the condition whereby senses such as sight and hearing get mixed up. “I always have a book where I collect words and ideas and images,” she says. “For me they all run parallel, together, you know?”
Also intriguing is the Goldfrapp fixation with animals. For the Black Cherry artwork, Alison posed with a pack of hybrid wolves. “I had sardine oil put on my knees so that they’d lick me furiously, and they licked so furiously I ended up with bright red knees.” She also confesses to a literally off-the-wall collection of antlers. “They’re really useful, because you can hang things on them, and they’re nice sculptural objects. I’ve got a good few pairs. But they keep falling off the bloody plaques, and then they become quite dangerous objects. They fall off the wall and hit you on the head, or you walk through the door and trip over them.”
The recurring animal themes make sense when you realise that Alison Goldfrapp is herself a bit wild. It’s not that she trashes hotel rooms or brawls in bars – there’s no evidence of that – but that as a writer and performer she is a creature of instinct, continually acting on aesthetic impulses that she is reluctant to analyse later. Take a song like ‘Hairy Trees’ from the Black Cherry album: that sounds like a rough working title she didn’t bother to change. “Yeah, that’s right. You have the idea and it just sort of stays there. ‘Hairy Trees’ was the original idea, then I changed it a few times and then it was like, ‘No, no, let’s just call it Hairy Trees.’” Some of her lyrics, too, while sounding appropriate and meaningful in their musical settings, are a bit Bolanesquely stream-of-consciousness. The song ‘Train’ glories in what sounds like a perfect pop chorus, but what exactly does “Can’t stop… arrrhhhhhh… off the train” mean? “I just started singing and that chorus just sort of came out,” she explains. “Sometimes I think if it sounds good and the mood’s right, why change it, really? My brother finds it really irritating that I sing gobbledygook sometimes. But often with improvised stuff you capture something, and you can never recapture it, so I like to keep it.”
She still bears the scar of a moment of teenage artistic impulsiveness: on one of the fingers of her left hand is a self-made tattoo, vaguely resembling two aeroplanes, end to end, pursuing a round object. “I did that with a bottle of ink and a needle when I was about 13 and I was bored. It’s just a doodle. It doesn’t mean anything. Or maybe it does – I don’t f***ing know.”
Her instinctual nature is undoubtedly the reason that she finds interviews like this hard work. “I think talking about what you do creatively is quite difficult – having to justify why and how – and sometimes that can be intrusive. Or not even intrusive, just difficult to bloody answer, you know, because I don’t think you always know why you’ve done something; it’s a subconscious thing.” At another point in the conversation, unwilling to discuss her old home town of Alton, she appears to close down, giving mouse-quiet monosyllabic replies. “I hate the sound of my voice when I talk,” she confesses later. “I hate talking; I feel very inadequate when I talk.” Would she rather sing the rest of the interview? “No.”
She stalked the stage in a lacy miniskirt, with bunches of curly blonde hair flanking a hat that might have been pinched from one of the pilots in Thunderbirds
When she sings, of course, it is another matter. Two nights before, I had seen her enrapture a packed hall at the University of London. She had stalked the stage in a lacy miniskirt and a CND T-shirt, with weird bunches of curly blonde hair flanking a hat that might have been pinched from one of the pilots in Thunderbirds. Where most singers are content with one microphone, she used three – the central one for “normal” vocals, the others laden with electronic trickery to produce some of the band’s most unearthly and beautiful sounds, like mermaid wailing or space-crooning. A critic once called her the Jimi Hendrix of the microphone, which she loves, but others have carped about musical cheating. It’s an accusation that makes her come over all Liam Gallagher. “I just think that’s absolutely f***ing stupid, because f***ing hell, what are they f***ing talking about? I’m singing live, for f***’s sake. It’s an effect, and it’s very obvious that I’m using an effect, because I go to a different mike. It’s like playing with an instrument much more than it’s like doing a lead vocal.”
I’m surprised to hear that she doesn’t feel totally at home on stage. “I always think playing live is like being in a car accident,” she says. “Everything just goes ‘Choong, choong, choong, choong.’ It’s like double time; I don’t know why. And occasionally I get this kind of Zen moment, where I go completely blank and go, ‘F***! Where am I, what am I doing, who the f*** am I and what’s going on?’”
During the gig there was a male plea of “Marry me!” from the back of the hall, certainly not the first such proposal she has received. Asked if she currently has a boyfriend, she clams up again, saying only: “Bluhhh… I’m just having fun at the moment.” She has an endearing way of using weird, inchoate speech to answer the more intrusive questions. It happens when I ask her age, a question she has often evaded in the press. I guess that she is about 32 now. “Thurheeee… ummm,” she replies, and giggles. A few minutes later she inadvertently gives the game away completely when we discuss Chinese astrology. “I’m a fire horse,” she says. The statement is followed by a loud intake of breath. “I’ve just given my age away! Shit!” Fire horses are only born every 60 years – so, unless she was born in 1906, or is a time-traveller from the future, it nails down her birth year to 1966. And as a Taurus (something she also revealed) it means that when we met, she was about to reach the age of 37. “Oh no, no, please don’t tell anyone,” she says in a piteous voice that demonstrates her emotional vocal range as brilliantly as her latest album. “No one will buy my records any more.” Of course they will, Alison. She tries another tack. “I’m lying – I’m not a fire horse at all! I’m a f***ing… I’m a pea.” She laughs. “I’m a lamb.” Uproarious laughter.
Alison Goldfrapp can be whatever she wants to be. She’s a star. ♦
Here is another article about Goldfrapp.
Tony Barrell’s acclaimed new book, Beatlemania, is available across the world.
© 2014 Tony Barrell