She’s a pop phenomenon whose loud, flamboyant stage presence has inspired everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga. But in person, her silences speak volumes
If June 6, 1944, is the longest day, my hour in the company of Alison Goldfrapp may qualify as the second longest. It’s not the singer’s scaly silences so much (though they are bad enough), it is the grumpiness.
Example: I ask her if, when she is on the road, there is a hierarchy among her band. An innocent – even bland – question, you might suppose. A chance to share a droll anecdote about how the drummer always comes at the bottom of the pecking order, perhaps. But no. ‘That’s you saying that, not me saying that,’ she snaps. ‘Hierarchy is your word, not mine.’ I know it is, I think, mentally pinching the bridge of my nose.
Amusingly, her publicist, a friendly soul, has told me Goldfrapp is on good form today. He must be aware of her reputation, must know that almost every interviewer who has come into contact with his client has noted how frosty she is. So why put up with it, you might ask? Well, she’s hard work, but her Garbo-like mystique is intriguing. You have to tease answers out of her. Be persistent. And after a while you are rewarded. You also come to realise that, through her occasional silences, she is speaking volumes.
To be fair, Goldfrapp, which is her real name – it is German in origin, though she is British – has never pretended she likes being interviewed. Indeed, she has said she has a complex about talking to people, has nightmares about it even. She puts it down to a lack of confidence, to being shy. Yet shyness can be an excuse for rudeness, the social equivalent of wearing sunglasses indoors and not taking them off when talking to someone, which she also does.
Occasionally she will tilt back her sour face to study me – her Ray-Bans are darker at the top than the bottom – and I half glimpse the eyes which, exaggerated by false lashes, are made so much of in her videos, along with her shapely legs and her natural golden ringlets. Today her hair is half-gathered, her legs tucked up beneath her. She is wearing black, which emphasises her pale, almost transparent skin, and, though she does smile from time to time, this has the effect of lowering the room temperature even further.
But, and this is the reason it is worth having a stab at interviewing her, for all this, she makes good, hooky, interesting music and has been doing so for quite a while. She was something of a late developer musically, having turned 30 before she landed her first record deal (she is 44 now). Before that she did a fine arts degree at Middlesex Polytechnic as a mature student, and for her graduation show she milked a Jersey cow, while yodelling.
Her break came in 1999 when she teamed up with Will Gregory, a classically trained musician who had previously worked with Portishead and the composer Michael Nyman. He is articulate, well-spoken and seven years her senior. They formed Goldfrapp, her surname being more arresting than his, and developed an innovative brand of electropop. She usually writes the lyrics, he the melodies.
After a couple of albums they hit paydirt in 2005 with Supernature. It opened with Ooh La La, a T.Rex pastiche, and sold by the million. Madonna said it was her album of the year and invited Goldfrapp to her parties. Soon after this, Madge began imitating Goldfrapp’s look and sound, inspiring critics to call her Oldfrapp.
Younger acts have followed, including Florence + the Machine and Lady Gaga – who, like Goldfrapp, is 5ft 2in and bisexual. But by the time others were copying her, she had moved on. A melancholy album followed and her latest, Headfirst, is even harder to pigeonhole, with quirky shades of Van Halen and Olivia Newton-John.
The imitation is as often of Goldfrapp’s flamboyant stage persona as her music. She doesn’t dance much but she certainly has presence, and a sense of the theatrical. She designs many of her costumes herself, from the high camp of feather boas and bell-bottomed catsuits to the surreal juxtaposition of horses’ tails hanging from hot pants. Her videos are equally witty. It’s a paradox that someone so introverted in private can be such an extrovert on stage.
I guess it helps in her job to have exhibitionist tendencies. ‘I’m not sure about the exhibitionist tendencies,’ she says, emphasising the words mockingly. She chews on a strand of hair. I ride the silence. ‘Um, I think a lot of singers are shy people. I suppose singing on stage is not like talking, you are not as exposed.’ There. That wasn’t so hard.
What would she normally be doing now, on a typical afternoon, if she weren’t subjecting herself to the torture of an interview? ‘At the moment? Getting on a plane. Having some crap food. Getting off a plane. Touring. The gig bit is fine but the travelling … it’s so unglamorous. The loos at festivals, the dressing rooms, sticky, smelly. Actually, I’m enjoying it at the moment, still doing the festivals, then we have a tour in this country in November.’
When she says she is enjoying it at the moment, that suggests she wasn’t in the past. What is it she finds enjoyable now? ‘Well, we get on really well, the band.’ This is where the hierarchy question comes in. I re-phrase it. Bands often fall out on tour. The clashing of egos. The close proximity. But because she is the leader of her band, presumably her word goes. ‘I suppose I am the boss. It’s my gig but we’ve known each other a long time, so we are a team.’
We are in a private room in a West End hotel. A waiter knocks and enters with the Coke and a coffee we have ordered. When he can’t find a bottle-opener, Goldfrapp sighs loudly.
She stirs and stirs her coffee. Tap, tap, tap with the spoon on the side. Stir, stir. She doesn’t take a sip. Is Will the more musically trained? ‘The more musically trained.’ I take it from that answer that she doesn’t read music? ‘No. It’s all by ear. But I use my voice. If you’ve got a computer and an ear for melody you don’t have to be classically trained. I think it’s a bit of a myth that if you can read music you can write music. It doesn’t work like that.’ She stirs the coffee again. Tumbleweed passes through the room.
With her background in the visual arts, perhaps she is stronger on the design side of the live shows? ‘Actually, I was doing music before art school.’ I surreptitiously check my watch. The hands seem to be going backwards. I know – the Jersey cow. There must be an amusing anecdote about that. How on earth did she get hold of one and get it in her degree show? ‘I rang a company called Animal Actors and said I want a cow. They asked what colour. I said Jersey. I got it miked up and I sang while milking it.’ How did she learn the technique? ‘I took lessons.’ From?
‘A goat farmer.’
Well, top marks for being deadpan. It occurs to me that her hostility might be an act, a pop star being cool. She is very image-conscious, after all, and very controlling of it. But there may be another explanation. Her singing voice is silky and appealing but her speaking voice, well, isn’t. She has an estuary twang that reminds you of Janet Street Porter. She is self-conscious about this, not surprisingly, given that her father, a well-spoken army officer, mocked her for it.
He was an interesting character, a little eccentric by the sound of things. He used to take the family – she is the youngest of six – out into the woods at night to listen to the sounds of nature. He also took them swimming in the sea, when the moon was full. And once a week he would sit them all down to listen to classical music, and afterwards ask them to express how it made them feel.
Goldfrapp grew up in the Hampshire countryside, in what is known as ‘Jane Austen country’. Her early childhood there was happy, especially when she was at a private prep school. But then she failed the entrance exam for the senior school and had to go to a comprehensive instead. The children there seemed ‘scary’. To fit in, she dropped her received pronunciation, tried glue-sniffing and pricked herself an ink tattoo on her hand. She left school at 16 with two O-levels, one in drama, one in art, and moved in with a friend. At 17 she went to live in a London squat, where she smoked a lot of cannabis.
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, was that it? ‘I was clear that I wanted to do music and I wanted to write songs. But I wasn’t clear about how I was going to make that happen. I wrote loads of songs but didn’t want to show them to anyone.’ But she doesn’t mind showing them to Will? ‘He is very good at not making me feel self-conscious.’
I have read that she thought she must have come across as a ‘stroppy bitch’ when she first met him. This comment prompts me to ask her how would she describe herself today? ‘I’m not going to do that. I don’t think about that.’Well, OK, she mentioned shyness earlier, let’s start with that. ‘I just didn’t get the exhibitionist bit. I don’t think that just because you go on stage you are an exhibitionist.’
She chews on her hair again. Stirs her coffee. She must have had a lot of freedom growing up in the countryside, I say. ‘Yes, I did. But I think it’s difficult when you are a teenager because the countryside can seem stifling and boring. Up to the age of 13 I thought it wonderful, then I thought it small-minded and claustrophobic. Going to the woods didn’t have the same allure as it did when I was eight. There’s not a lot going on for the youth in the countryside unless you are in the Girls Guides, which I wasn’t.’
Her transition from private school to state school, was that hard? ‘I don’t think about it. It was school. Whatever. Why are you interested?’ Because personalities are often formed in the early years, that is why they are called formative years. ‘OK, there were good parts to it and shitty parts. I left school at 16 and I’ve done quite a lot since.’
If she could meet her 16-year-old self again, what advice would she give her? The 44-year-old Alison Goldfrapp lets out another long sigh. ‘God, this is like an amateur therapy session, isn’t it? I really don’t know. I think I was eager to get out of a small town and try things out. Being a teenager I found tough. And I found it hard in London, not knowing anybody.’
Was her father still alive when she left home? ‘Yeah. He died when I was 23.’What did he think of it? ‘Don’t know actually. I was probably a bit oblivious and ignored any advice.’
She says her close friends found it ‘odd’ when she became famous. Was it a bit odd for her, too? ‘Around Supernature I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of travelling I was doing and the number of interviews. It was all a bit, Whoa! A bit weird. I didn’t know how to deal with the attention. It made me uncomfortable. I love making music and performing but I don’t like the celebrity side of it. The photographs I find pretty gross, actually. No one tells you how you are supposed to react when someone shoves a camera in your face.
‘I like going home and having dinner with my friends. People sometimes have an expectation of you when your career is at a certain level. They want you to be some kind of character. It can be quite stressful. People want to meet you.’
Unexpectedly, she now laughs; an easy, room-filling laugh. ‘But I don’t get the same attention any more, so that’s quite good! It suits me fine.’ Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face, as John Updike once said. ‘I don’t know how to explain it really. I would feel guilty for not going out to dinner. Or someone would be shocked because I was out without my high heels and mini-skirt, disappointed because I was in jeans and T-shirt. It would confuse me.’
There is a palpable sadness about Goldfrapp, a weariness, and she wears it like a heavy cloak around her shoulders. We talk – well, I talk – about how music has the power to reflect and manipulate emotions, especially with the use of major and minor keys. ‘Yeah, certain chords will feel right,’ she says, nodding in agreement. ‘We spend a lot of time talking about the atmosphere and mood of our songs. Every sound has a personality.’
Has she been in love many times in her life? ‘I don’t think so. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. Sorry, how did we get on to this?’
Major and minor keys. Emotions. ‘Oh, OK. Do I fall in love easily? I don’t know. I get into people. I like discovering them. I’ve probably been infatuated with a lot of people in my life, I don’t know whether that is the same.’ She is in love at the moment? ‘Yes. It’s a good place to be. The world seems like a kinder place when you are in love.’
Her girlfriend, Lisa Gunning, is a film editor. They met a couple of years ago while co-composing the soundtrack for Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Nowhere Boy. Her previous relationships had been with men. It just happened that this time she fell in love with a woman. Even she was surprised.
I ask how her constant touring affects her relationship with Lisa. ‘She has come on the last couple of legs of the tour and documented some of it, which was nice. She gets on well with the band. I think some people find it difficult being away from the family for long periods. Adjusting to being still, and having a routine, after a tour is over is hard, whether I’m in a relationship or not.’
Does she cry easily? ‘Yes, really easily. Sometimes it’s pathetic. It can happen anywhere. In the airport the other day I was really tired and got tearful. I was watching this family who were all saying goodbye to each other, parents saying goodbye to their son, and it was a really intense moment. They couldn’t let him go. And the dad was patting the son on the back, doing the manly thing. And they all started crying. Then I started crying. F—.’
Well, if this were a therapy session, there is a lot that could be read into that reaction. The sight of a father saying goodbye to the child moves her to tears. She stirs her coffee again. Does not take a sip. It will have gone cold by now.