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The Scotsman (August 2005)

About a year and a half ago, Alison Goldfrapp finally snapped. She’d been living in a shabby one bedroom flat in Finsbury Park in north London for fifteen years, putting up with the constant turmoil of the neighbours from hell because the cheap rent allowed her to go to art school, dabble in music, follow her dreams. But one Sunday she got home from touring at 7pm and decided to push the hoover around and clean up a little, only for her neighbours to go utterly berserk, screaming and threatening to kill her. And it was just too much. She packed a single suitcase, went to the police station to file a report, and walked out, never to return.

“It was a great feeling,” she says, sitting in a private room in a central London restaurant, toying with a roll-up, “I’ve always fantasised about disappearing and being a hermit. My brothers live quite isolated existences and I think there’s something inherent in our family. My father was always travelling everywhere and going off on mad journeys on his own, so maybe there’s some sort of gene.”

Settle down with “Supernature”, the sleek and rather sophisticated follow up to 2003’s libidinous “Black Cherry”, and you’ll encounter the notion of escape again and again. Once past the electro Marc Bolan throb of single “Ooh La La”, the predominant theme is the sheer bliss of breaking free. “Fly Me Away” is all vapour trails and jet-set sighs of relief. “Time Out From The World” sets its sights beyond the horizon, booking a holiday in a galaxy far, far away. “Ride A White Horse” is motion finding an emotion (and vice versa), the chorus sighing “Lend me a whole new world all night” as the momentum pulses ever onwards.

“When I listened back to the album as a whole, I was like ‘fucking hell, there’s a lot of songs on there about going somewhere else’. Or being in another reality,” nods Goldfrapp. “I think I was questioning a lot of things about where I wanted to be. I get very itchy feet if I’m anywhere for too long. I crave other things. So maybe I was figuring out a lot of personal things. Relationships. A lust for freedom.”

As a child, Goldfrapp spent a lot of time watching the mentally ill patients in the hospital where her mother worked, thinking “What goes on in people’s heads? What makes someone mad?” As she grew up, her interest in dreams and alternate states of mind found a natural home in science fiction, usually the books and films that asked: What is it to be human? “All great sci-fi films are about the patheticness of being human,” she says. “Machines wanting to be human and humans wanting to be machines.” And from “Utopia” on debut “Felt Mountain” to “Strict Machine” on “Black Cherry” right up to the robotic, on-demand sexuality of “Ooh La La”, you can hear her exploring these themes, literally stepping out of her skin.

But then where else can you go when you can’t stand the sight of yourself? Or the sound. “I hate my speaking voice,” she groans. “If I hear my speaking voice back, I just want to kill myself. I sound absolutely revolting. Like a blocked up drainpipe, really horrible, monotone, nasal. I wouldn’t want to talk to me. My dad was very well spoken and he hated the way I spoke. He’d ignore me or mimic me. It’s only in recent years that I can bring myself to talk to people when I go to a party. I’m not kidding. So singing is where I feel most comfortable. I feel a lot more articulate and sound how I imagine I am.”

Onstage and in videos, she’s every atom an ice-cool fashion icon, a sublimely untouchable goddess with the voice of a dying diva. In real life, Goldfrapp moans about her “small and gappy teeth” and reckons she sounds like Sybil Fawlty. “I disappoint people quite often when they meet me,” she laughs. “I’m really short and I sound like that woman out of Fawlty Towers. I’ve got bad teeth. When I’m not working I don’t wear any make up and I don’t brush my hair. I’m one of those people I can melt into the background completely, or I can choose to jump into the foreground. I went into a clothes shop recently and the shop assistant was looking me up and down, going “who’s that pikey woman over there?’ I finally bought something and handed my credit card over and he went [camp amazement] ‘oh my god, is it really you?’ I was like [bored deadpan] ‘yes’. And then I got a free this and a free that. But he looked at me like shit for all the time I was in the shop.”

Goldfrapp’s always lived most of her life in her head. Creatively, it’s served her well: conjuring up vivid fantasies of mountains and huskies, bordellos and strippers, robots and discos. And it will possibly turn out to be her saviour when, as expected, “Supernature” propels her to a Kylie-like level of superstardom. When fame threatens to engulf her, she’ll just pretend it doesn’t exist.

“I have the ability to go where I want in my mind. Maybe that’s a bit like putting a bag over your head. You’re in denial,” she says. “Also I’ve been on the dole and lived in housing trust flats for long enough to know that it could all go to pot any second. Kylie has been doing it since she’s 14, being in that kind of strata, so it must be odd. Because then you really are living a different existence. Whereas I don’t think I am.”

The question of how long she’s been working up to her success is a thorny one for Goldfrapp. Apart from making up nonsense to satisfy trivial TV interviewers (“’Big Brother or Celebrity Love Island?’ - Is this what it all boils down to?”), she’s only ever lied about her age. “I remember somebody who’s very very famous saying ‘what have you been doing all this time?’ And I said ‘I’ve been fucking living a life’. If you’re female and in the public eye, somehow you have to be this ever youthful person. And so I’ve always avoided saying my age just for preconceptions about who you are and what you should be doing. I’ve lied about my age before and I’ll lie about it again.”

When you choose to live in a fantasy world, this kind of logic makes perfect sense. A few days before we meet, Goldfrapp dreamed about driving to a monk festival, passing by the monks on their bicycles. Once there, a Chinese monk was showing off, telling her he could throw a beer bottle through a window and it wouldn’t shatter the glass, leaving just a perfect circle. And he did it, true to his word. “I love that,” she grins. “The way you remember things in a weird abstract way. Like Edward Lear’s nonsense poems. They were nonsense but they said a lot about how he felt at the time and helped him with whatever he was going through. Most things in life are really hard to process. So you make them into these big, stupid, beautiful things.”

Deep down, “Supernature” was Goldfrapp processing her “disappointment in relationships. How wonderful they are but how confusing they are.” Although she declines to go into detail about her partner, she admits that part of her interest in machines and humans is the idea of control, specifically about controlling love. “It’s a contradiction because you can’t control love. The whole concept of love is this thing that just happens. You don’t have any control over it and that’s what’s wonderful about it, and yet we always want to control everything.” But as much as she’s an obsessive, controlling person in life, she also finds herself craving the opposite - getting itchy feet all over again.

What is Goldfrapp like to go out with? “I’m demanding and undemanding. I’m not conventional. My normality is probably someone else’s ‘fucking hell’. I think I’m quite good, free, open. I like to be extremely open in a relationship. Maybe I demand to be open too much.” She ended up swapping Finsbury Park for a house in Bath. Is she any good at just sitting on the sofa and watching TV? “Oh yeah, I love it. I had Sunday off and it was just fantastically heaven. Getting up, making a cup of tea, getting the Sunday papers and sitting in bed with my partner, sex, lawnmowers going off in the distance, lovely suburban heaven. And then cutting the hedge. And then making more tea. Cutting a bit more of the hedge. And then falling asleep. Oh, it was fantastic.”

Somehow you imagine that Goldfrapp is rather a stern, unforgiving gardener. “I’m really crap at it,” she hoots. “Because I look at things and think ‘grow! Why don’t you hurry up and grow?’ And I hate indoor plants. I’ve got quite a phobia about indoor plants. And snails. I asked the local gardener what I should do about the snails and he said the best thing is to get out there at dawn and stamp on them. So I did that a couple of times and then felt a bit weird, so I went out the other night and put a load of snails in my dustpan and brush and took them all the way down the road and put them down the drain.” Isn’t that more cruel? “I don’t know. I was trying to figure that out.”

For a moment, Goldfrapp sounds like a regular, settled human being. But as you imagine her cutting her hedge and stamping on snails, the scene takes on a blurred, almost David Lynch-esque sense of unreality. It’s the same trick she pulled on herself, transforming the roughly spoken pikey woman with the dodgy teeth into the creature that appears on the inner sleeve of “Supernature”: a serene goddess replete with a peacock’s tail, obsessed with dreams and escape. Someone who admits that she often fantasises about going into space and says “apparently Buddhist monks think that melancholy is the truest state of mind you can be in” like she’s only just waking up.

Where would she say she is in her life at the moment?

“Fucking hell,” Goldfrapp says, sounding suddenly panicked. “What do you mean? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

What stage of life has she reached?

“I’m constantly in limbo, that’s how I feel. I’m always thinking something else is going to happen any moment.”

If she’s always in freefall, doesn’t that get unsettling?

“Yeah, I’m totally unsettled. All the time. I’m not settled. I crave it and at the same time I’m not settled. I have moments of feeling settled but they’re very lucid moments and then I’m not settled. I’m never settled.”

Brace yourself world. A supernova’s headed this way.


Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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