Earlier this week, British pop duo Goldfrapp released a new album called Head First, their fifth in 10 years. If you’ve been following the career of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory for that long, you’ll know that they have a tendency to shift musical gears with each new release.
Goldfrapp describes the album’s nine songs, which took six months to write and produce, as unabashedly optimistic and upbeat. Indeed, Head First is a shimmering, euphoric take on ’80s stadium pop, with big choruses, propulsive beats and dreamy, disco-influenced piano and string arrangements.
A few weeks ago, we rang up Alison Goldfrapp in London to chat about the positive vibes she’s sending off these days, her love of Olivia Newton-John, Prince and Chrissie Hynde, the unusual amount of press attention her personal life has received lately, and her experience songwriting with Christina Aguilera. Read the Q&A after the jump!
Why did you call the album Head First?
Well, I suppose it felt like it kind of summed up a lot of sentiment of the album. These songs are all quite optimistic and celebratory, anthemic at times. I think they’re quite unselfconscious. ‘Head First’ is a good overall feeling or sentiment for the album.
Would you say music you’ve made in the past has been more self-conscious?
Ooooh. [pauses] I think the music we’ve done in the past has maybe been more ambiguous and more thoughtful in its sentiment.
In the past your records have had a lot of animal imagery and the last album featured the clown image. Did you have an visual inspirations while recording this album?
It’s funny, you know a lot of it for me was all quite abstract. It was a lot of glowing lights. [laughs] I can’t be more clearer than that I’m afraid. No animals though funny enough. It’s the first time. I keep thinking, what animal? There isn’t one. There’s not an animal.
You recorded 13 songs but only nine are on the album. How did you decide what made the cut?
It’s pretty straight-forward really, you kind of like them or you don’t. Or you feel like they’re not good enough. They will never see the light of day, I’m sure. Pretty much at the beginning we thought “nine songs” and it was OK if we went over that. But it’s quite good to have that focus and not have any fillers or not have anything on there that we weren’t sure about. We were very, very specific about what we put on there.
Do you need constraints or limitations in order to be creative?
It’s a funny thing. I think you can start out with ideas but quite often I find that even when you have lots of little things buzzing around, as you start writing and working and playing, some of those things get thrown out the window very quickly and something completely different comes in. It’s allowing yourself to be completely open but at the same time you’re always focused so you’re allowing new things all the time. It’s being free and open and letting things happen accidentally but at the same time you’re constantly working towards something.
Were there any happy accidents on this record?
Yes, always. When we start working we jam a lot so it really is getting in a room, mucking around, turning on the machines, jamming, singing, hitting things, talking and we literally record everything we do so that if there is that happy accident, we’ve got it there, we haven’t lost it.
Are you ever into jam sessions on stage?
Uh, no. [laughs] I don’t know about that. Funny enough, when we toured last year with “Little Bird” we extended the end of that song and that was a place where we would all jam and that was really good fun and the audience seemed to really love it as well. But that was the only time where we just sort of free-formed. I like presenting the songs as they are live. We do extend things for a live purpose but generally speaking we try to present them as close as we can. For me, whenever I go and see a band that I like I want to hear what I bought, if you know what I mean. I get kind of pissed off if they start noodling about and it’s not what I…
Not what you paid for.
Well you know, I mean, it’s the song that you love and they start changing it and you think, ‘I love that chorus and I love that bit when it goes to that bit.’
Or a band will do an alternate take on one of their old hits.
Yeah and you just think ‘ugh, no!’
Or the acoustic version.
Oh god. Yeah. We’re always getting asked to do acoustic versions. We do sometimes but I have to say I do struggle with that concept. Sometimes I think they think that if you can do an acoustic version of your song, it’s like you’re taken more seriously or something. That you might be a proper musician. I do think there’s a bit of snobbery sometimes.
What were the seminal concerts you saw as a teenager that you now consider to be influential or memorable?
I did go and see Prince and that was pretty amazing. I was running down to the front of the stage hands in the air singing along to every word of the songs.
What tour was that?
I can’t even bloody remember now. Was it Lovesexy? I think it might’ve been Lovesexy. I don’t know, I can’t remember. I was really quite young and it was at Wembley [Arena] in London and it was absolutely quite amazing. I only went to that one because someone I knew worked in a magazine and they were able to get a ticket and it was like OH MY GOD!
I was totally obsessed with Prince and everything about him. I thought his songs were amazing and he looked amazing. I still play him now and think he’s amazing. I don’t really like the later stuff, the much later stuff, to be honest. Diamonds and Pearls, I think I definitely lost interest. But up until then I definitely loved everything.
People always say he’s one of those artists that reinvents himself. Do you think an artist must reinvent their image in order to be successful?
I don’t know. The Rolling Stones never reinvented themselves, have they? They’ve done pretty well. I think it depends on how you’re perceived as an artist really and what sort of music you’re doing. I think most people keep doing the same thing and probably have been very successful at it. No, I don’t think you have to do that.
When you toured Felt Mountain you covered “Let’s Get Physical”. Do you have any covers planned for this tour?
No but Xanadu is definitely an inspiration for this album.
Just the colors and I love that song “Xanadu”. It’s slightly melancholic but anthemic song and I love Olivia Newton-John. Probably because I feel like when I look at her she’s completely the opposite of me.
Well she’s kind of sweet and lovely and looks really innocent and fresh and gorgeous and she’s probably really nice and wholesome.
And you are none of those things?
[laughs] I’m the COMPLETE opposite! When I look at her I’m like wow! It’s so zingy and sumptuous somehow and kind of kitsch camp. I love it.
Have you ever met her?
No probably best not to do that. I love that kind of fantasy element to Xanadu.
“Xanadu” by Olivia Newton-John and ELO
Have you met any of your musical heroes that you adored when growing up?
Yes, I have. I met Chrissie Hynde. She was someone that I loved when I was growing up. I met her in London and she was with ⎯ oh god I can’t remember her name. Oh lots of people, my god.
What’s your favorite Pretenders song?
Ummm I think when I was in school I used go around singing “Brass In Pocket” all the time and I think I said that to Chrissie Hynde when I met her and she was like, ‘OH GOD!’ [laughs] ‘That bloody song!‘ She probably gets people saying that to her still. I think they wrote some amazing songs and I think she has got an amazing voice. Really, really distinctive voice and it still sounds really beautiful.
There has been an unusual amount of attention on your personal life leading up to this album release. A Times Online reporter asked point blank ‘Are you a lesbian?’ How have you found the press reaction to that story so far?
Yeah, well it’s funny because I’ve never talked about my private life so it’s kind of slightly odd to be talking about it now. But not as many people have asked about it as I thought they would actually because I did sort of think, after this article that was basically about me in a relationship with a woman, when that happened I was a bit like, ‘oh my god now I’m going to get asked in every interview.’ But that hasn’t happened a huge amount and I’m absolutely fine with it. It’s fine, in fact it’s kind of ⎯ yeah, no it’s fine.
I guess more people are asking about Christina Aguilera?
Yeah, writing a song for her. My god it’s over a year ago now and we didn’t finish it and we haven’t heard it so it’s a bit odd so we really don’t what’s going to happen with it.
That record has been talked about for a year or more.
Well this is it. I remember last year they were talking about oh she’s releasing a record and they were talking about ‘this March’. Really, I don’t know. I don’t think they know. And now she’s got a film coming out this March, doesn’t she? [Editor’s note: A June 7 release date for Christina Aguilera’s Bionic album was announced this week.]
That’s news to me.
But I mean, she worked with so many different artists I imagine that’s quite a huge project to undertake and I imagine there’s probably a lot of thinking about what songs are they going to choose and what fits. It’s probably a much bigger thing ⎯ trying to work out what fits with what and blah blah blah. And I imagine all the politics and legal things are quite complicated as well.
Do you have much of a window in to that world, either as a songwriter or though your own music?
No everything we do is very kind of homespun and pretty lo-fi, really. The only time we go into the studio is if we use strings or maybe to do drums. That was interesting when we worked with Christina, she was very lovely and very relaxed and it was all in her little room at the back of her garden. So it was very relaxed, much more than I thought. I thought we were going to go into this big flashy studio with her people around and wasn’t like that at all.
You’ve said that you’ve avoided labels in your music and in your life. When did you first have that feeling?
I think I’ve always been like that, since I was a kid. It’s always been an instinctive natural thing. I’ve always had that sense that anything’s possible, anything goes and that there’s no black and whites.