Searching For Utopia: Alison Goldfrapp

As her collaboration with Röyksopp is released, we speak to the electro-pop pioneer about working on ‘Profound Mysteries’, the current pop landscape, and what the future may hold for Goldfrapp.

According to Alison Goldfrapp, all artistry stems from an inherent idealism.

“Being creative is a quest to create Utopia somehow,” the electro-pop pioneer explains matter-of-factly, speaking from her home studio in north London, where she’s thoughtfully nursing a cup of tea beneath a candyfloss-coloured acoustic cloud. Grinning, she adds – what would be for many – the damning blow, “and Utopia will always be the thing you haven’t quite reached.”

As motivation for a career that’s so far spanned the best part of three decades and traversed the worlds of music, film, photography and art, it’s pretty compelling. But as admirable as Alison’s continued drive is, much more impressive is the calibre of the material she continues to create. Because, as difficult as it must be to stay hungry in the face of continued success, it’s surely even harder to stay relevant.

In the 22 years since Goldfrapp’s exquisite debut ‘Felt Mountain’, she and songwriting partner Will Gregory have managed to do precisely that. There have been BRIT nominations and Top Ten singles, iconic festival performances (just google Glastonbury 2004) and eye-watering streaming numbers (2003-single ‘Ooh La La’ currently sits at 40 million Spotify streams). And they’ve done all of that while blurring the lines between art and pop; steadily amassing a deliriously eclectic catalogue that encompasses everything from glittering glam-rock and BDSM-ready electro to pastoral folk and sweeping, Morricone-inspired soundscapes.

Boasting more bangers than Bonfire Night by this point, it’s little wonder the duo were presented with the prestigious Ivor Novello Inspiration Award last September. Tributes on the night came from Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, as well as Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry, who described Alison as “a bolt of lightning, unafraid to play with ideas of gender and of genre.”

“It was a lovely evening,” Alison smiles. “There’s something really special about having young kids come up and say, ‘Oh god, I loved this.’ Because the music that inspires you when you’re young, that stays with you forever, I think.”

That love is reciprocated because at the moment Alison is feeling particularly inspired by the current state of commercial pop. “Genres of music are blurred so much now, and I think there’s something really great about that variety,” she enthuses. “I think it’s so great that [as an artist] you can be extremely fantastical and really over the top, but simultaneously you can sit there playing acoustic guitar. There’s something about the extremities of everything which I think is very healthy.”

“Genres of music are blurred so much now, and I think there’s something really great about that variety.”

You can certainly hear Goldfrapp’s influence in the current crop of electro-pop acts - from La Roux to Let’s Eat Grandma - all of whom are building upon the foundations that Alison laid with smashes like ‘Strict Machine’ and ‘Ooh La La’. The flipside of being a trailblazer, of course, is that the process of shifting other peoples’ attitudes is never comfortable. For example, today’s artists will - hopefully, at least - never have to contend with the sexism Alison faced in the early years of her career, a prejudice perhaps best exemplified in a prominent 2001 appraisal of ‘Felt Mountain’ which saw the reviewer unapologetically slavering over the frontwoman for a full seven paragraphs.

“Oh I’m aware of a zillion really sexist pieces,” she laughs, when asked whether she knows of the article. “I think [those attitudes were] exacerbated by me working alongside a man, and us doing interviews together. It kind of cracks me up just thinking about how interviewers would talk to Will about the music and then 15 minutes later turn to me and go, ‘What a lovely dress you have on today Alison.’

“There was always this idea that I was supposed to be this smiling, pretty little thing, while [male artists] could be very serious, and a bit moody… I remember, when I was 40, this one guy telling me he thought I was too old to be wearing a short skirt, and I was so aghast that I couldn’t even answer. And I remember doing an interview with this woman in Paris who asked me why hadn’t I hadn’t had children. That was really uncomfortable.”

While it’s almost unimaginable that an interviewer would ask such a question these days, the advent of social media does mean musicians now find themselves directly answerable to fans, and often in a largely unregulated environment. As a pretty active Instagram user herself, it’s easy to wonder what Alison makes of the shift in the power dynamic since she first started out.

“I love social media!” she exclaims. “I mean, obviously it can have its negative side and it gets a little bit tiresome and shallow, but I also think it has many positives. I love having a little chat via Instagram, and having that direct connection [with fans]. It gives them an insight to you and vice versa, which I think is really great. And I’ve met some great people via Instagram, and I feel like it’s opened up a lot of things musically.”

“Lockdown forced me to think a bit more independently, in a way that I don’t think I have done for a very, very long time.”

As has been the case for millions, having the ability to form connections at a distance has proved a revelation for Alison, particularly during lockdown. It was during this period that she reached out to Röyksopp to express her admiration, an interaction that resulted in ‘Impossible’, a slice of panoramic electronic-pop which makes up a key part of the Norwegian dance duo’s conceptual project, ‘Profound Mysteries’.

“The lyrics came about while sitting on a beach during lockdown,” Alison says of the song’s creation. “It’s a fantasy about translocation: trying to find a series of tangible connections to a feeling or a person that aren’t obviously clear.”

As a collaboration, it feels such a natural fit you’re almost left wondering why they hadn’t worked together sooner. “I’ve been a fan of [Röyksopp’s] for a long time,” she confirms. “But lockdown forced me to think a bit more independently, in a way that I don’t think I have done for a very, very long time - since I was probably in my 20s. And that’s been absolutely amazing, actually. It’s been a real learning curve for me, and given me a degree of confidence that I think I was missing in terms of just being able to do things on my own, here in my studio.

“But also, that experience made me realise how much I actually really love working with people. To be in the same space as someone and create something together is an incredible thing. I mean, it’s very doable to make work on Zoom, but nothing can replicate the spontaneity of being in the same room and feeling that energy as you bounce ideas around.”

Which brings us back to her long-standing partnership with Will Gregory. Can we expect a follow-up to 2017’s ‘Silver Eye’ any time soon? “Will and I don’t have any plans to release anything as yet,” she replies, somewhat elusively, “But I’ve been doing all sorts of things on my own, writing and noodling about. And at the moment I’m finding myself very drawn to colour, probably because we’ve been in quite a strange situation for a good couple of years now. I’m like, bring on the colour! Bring on the euphoria!”

Whatever the future holds for Goldfrapp, you get a sense Alison’s enthusiasm for creating art will never waver. And it’s good news for us listeners, because we get to witness her continued quest for Utopia.


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