British singer Alison Goldfrapp has been a pioneering presence in international art-pop for over a decade, with her namesake act’s five albums touching upon everything from trip-hop to stomping electro-glam to pastoral folk. As their signature mid-2000s chart hits “Strict Machine” and “Ooh La La” permeated the mainstream, the duo left Schaffel-style electronic beats behind and fled to the forest to produce 2008’s idyllic but uneven Seventh Tree and 2010’s dreamy, synth-spiked Head First. Now, as the duo’s first greatest hits album, The Singles, hits stores, they are already at work on their sixth album.
Goldfrapp’s visual influence has proven just as far-sighted as her music, if not more so; with titles like “Satin Chic” and “Crystalline Green” in her oeuvre, it’s obvious that sensory delights are integral to her world. Brilliantly art-directed and couture-savvy, her style has left a lasting impression in music and fashion circles. Each of her new musical eras has been heralded by a new, evocative look; at various points, Alison has embraced everything from Art Deco-meets-Disco decadence to bubblegum-pink jumpsuits to feather headdresses. She often has an animal partner-in-crime for it, too; horses, cats, dogs and owls all have played important symbolic roles in the Goldfrapp kingdom. All these aesthetic choices have made for memorable video and art while elevating the overall sensual impact of the music, especially in concert.
Rolling Stone called Miss Goldfrapp to discuss her visual identity, the new record and the naughtiness of playing hooky at the cinema.
Where are you in the world today, Alison?
I’m in London catching up with things. These days, I’m normally up in the West Country in the studio, working on the new album. It is nice to see what the world is up to again. I’m trying to achieve a balance, spending my time here, half tucked away up there…
How far into it the sixth album recording process are you?
Oh, I don’t know… It’s always hard to know early on. It could be done in two years, it could be next year.
Going into this new album with a new label situation and with a greatest hits album behind you, does this feel like a fresh start?
Oh, yes it does. I find it quite exciting, something of a rebirth; it feels like a new era. Very much so.
Will you be touring at all for the greatest hits?
I made the decision to not do any gigs this year; I really want to get into the writing and just think about that. I just need to step back a little and think about the next phase. I felt that was very important. You know, we’ve been working pretty solidly – doing this back-to-back writing, recording, touring cycle – for 10 years, really. I just want to think about what’s next.
While you’re in the throes of creativity for a new record, do you intentionally seek out outside inspiration?
Well, I try to read as much as I can, all the time really. And I absolutely love going to the cinema, especially during the day. It feels a bit naughty. I love entering the bowels of the cinema and immersing myself in another world.
What films have you enjoyed recently?
I really liked Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights – and that there was no music used in the film at all. I thought it was really bold; it really made you appreciate small sounds much more. The wind, the branch of a tree batting against the window… I really like the atmosphere it created.
Goldfrapp’s songs often possess a wonderful synaesthetic quality, and you’re known for your strong cinematic allure and art direction. Do you ever envision the visual world songs will live in before they even exist?
Oh yes, definitely. I have a color scheme in my head right now for how things are; I am composing a setting, so to speak. The two have to go hand in hand – the atmosphere and the music. I actually get rather worried if I can’t see the music first. There always needs to be a mood, a feeling, a story, even if it is abstract. There’s got to be a narrative to guide things before they’re even created. But Will [Gregory, Goldfrapp’s other half] and I also spend a lot of time jamming. So, even though I have these themes in mind, I leave myself open for it to change as we move through the process. That’s what works for us.
Is Will as visual as you?
It’s more my side, really. Will trusts my judgement, but I always ask for his opinion. He is very sensitive to that sort of thing, too. He understands how I see things. He’s pretty damn good at catching onto my brainwaves. Sometimes my ideas come from a personal place, others come from a “fantasy” place.
A good example might be the signature human/animal visual motif Goldfrapp established long ago through videos and album art. What was the genesis for that theme?
Going way back, it starts from things like fairy tales and childhood imagery. It’s always there in children’s stories, and I guess it’s a form of mythology. Humans have always used animals to depict ideas about themselves: ideas about their status, about their position in life and society and the world. So, it’s just there in my psyche – and yours, and everyone’s. I’m interested in the strangeness of that. Which I guess is why I like sci-fi, too, probably: really good sci-fi involves humans trying to figure out why they are human. What makes us human? What makes us animal? The mystery of animals, and the idea they might be superior beings, intrigues me.
Some of those human/animal themes, especially in the Black Cherry and Supernature eras, became rather sexualized, even a bit delightfully pervy.
[laughs] Yes, I remember an American lady wrote to us, telling us we were disgusting – that we were promoting beastiality.
You moved away from those themes on the last two albums. Was it a deliberate omission?
Well, we had the owls for Seventh Tree but, yes, we didn’t use animal imagery for Head First. It’s not a deliberate decision to exclude it; in fact, I’m sure we’ll do it again. It’s a big part of our world still. When it’s appropriate, I’ll bring the animals back out. But it feels less unique now, maybe.
Well, many other artists “followed your lead” with that idea…
Yes! They certainly did. Isn’t it funny?
…Along with general Goldfrapp aesthetics: the Schaffel beats, the Art Deco glamour, even down to the very fonts and visual branding you used. Does it bother you?
Well, I think it’s just the way things are. I know exactly what you mean and which artists you mean, but I don’t feel it is my place to moan about it. But, of course, I’m very aware… [sinister chuckle]
The Art Deco feel you’ve explored reminds me of the Biba myth, and you’ve mentioned the label as an influence. What do you love about it?
I love their surreal and sexy Seventies take on the Twenties and Thirties. It’s very romantic and soft; I love the shapes and lines and the extravagance of it. I think you have to look like a matchstick and be about six feet tall to wear it, though. Not really my body type, sadly!
What did you think of the attempted revival of the brand?
If I’m completely honest, I think it’s very disappointing. It has nothing to do with where Biba came from, none of its essence. It didn’t have the excitement or fun or glamour of the original label. It didn’t work at all.
Do you follow contemporary fashion avidly?
Not religiously, but I do keep my eye on it to some extent. For instance, I love to wander around London just looking at people, or going to the shops and flipping through magazines. I go to some fashion shows; I like to go to the Central Saint Martin’s shows and look at the new designers. I get a bit stumped trying to remember specific names, though!
What do you enjoy about fashion right now?
I have to say I’m enjoying people wearing color again! However, I’m slightly bored of the Palm Springs Fifties look.
What is an era of 20th century fashion you think is underexplored?
Oh my goodness. I suppose the Twenties, and I don’t mean the flapper look. There’s a whole range of looks no one has really revived, probably because they’re not very sexy. There were a lot of drop waists and straight lines, and that can be hard to wear. But I’m really into the culottes that are around now, and I think women were wearing them in the Twenties and Thirties.
Is it always important for artists to have strong visual identities?
I think it’s style that matters, more than having a strong image. Coldplay is the biggest band on the planet, but they just wear jeans and t-shirts. But that itself is a look. Charlotte Gainsbourg has a great image, but it’s very subtle. I’m more and more into having a non-look, I have to say. Maybe because everyone started to look so extravagant; it became boring. Also, it may have to do with my age. I probably won’t be wearing a mini-skirt again, which I used to do quite a lot. [laughs] I do think we’re drawn to looking at lovely things; it’s part of our musical tradition, right down to when we’d pore over beautiful album sleeves.
Are we losing some of that visual romance in the digital era?
I don’t think so, actually. I think it’s so much about the power of the idea. You don’t need to have tons of money if you have a good idea, and I think it’s actually great people are having to “make do” with less. It makes us think and work harder and be more resourceful. If you’re Lady Gaga, you probably need a big budget. I know what you’re saying, though, and there will probably be a backlash. Then we’ll all be making extravagant videos again. [laughs] Right now, I kind of like it reserved, though, maybe because I’m in that mode overall.
Goldfrapp’s video for “Yellow Halo” from The Singles:
The “Yellow Halo” clip was shot entirely on an iPhone. Was that Goldfrapp’s way of adapting to a more reserved video climate?
Lisa, my partner, filmed that. It was done for practical reasons. We were touring and didn’t want to lug a camera around. And that iPhone app is beautiful; it looks like real film. It wasn’t our intention to use it for that song, though; we just were using it to document me traveling around South America, but then liked the footage and decided to edit it to fit the track. And there it was.
Any clues on where Goldfrapp is heading on the next record?
[laughs] Well, I would love to tell you, but I feel like I can’t. I have this thing where if I’m right in the middle of it, I might break the spell if I tell someone about it. Plus, it’s changing all the time: it could be something completely different next week, so I’m scared to vocalize anything yet. But yes, I kind of think I know where we’re heading next…ask me in a few months time and I’ll definitely tell you!