When she was outed last year, Alison Goldfrapp was resigned to the media fall-out. Little fazes this 44-year-old, whip-swishing disco diva
There is something so huge about Alison Goldfrapp’s public persona – filling auditoriums with her disco-diva anthems, swishing a whip or a horse tail, posing near-naked and peacock-feathered when promoting her albums – that it comes as a surprise to discover how quiet she is offstage. Indeed, the small, slight figure who slips into a corner of the restaurant at the Dean Street Townhouse speaks in such soft tones that she is drowned out by a noisy group beside us, which is annoying, given that they are braying about nothing in particular, while she is telling me something rather intriguing about the wallpaper. While I mishear her saying that the leafy design is “filled with badgers”, on closer inspection, it turns out that Goldfrapp has noticed that the apparently innocuous print (designed by the artist Jonathan Yeo) is in fact made up of intimate parts of the female anatomy.
In the ten years that Goldfrapp (the woman) has been the voice of Goldfrapp (the band), she has also been identified by her body, or more precisely, as the embodiment of female sexuality. On stage and in videos, she is, variously, a Venus in furs, a sex goddess in leather or lingerie, or a girl in a white dress surrounded by men who seem to be made of leaves dancing around her in a weirdly pagan ceremony. Little wonder that she instantly perceives the eroticism of the Dean Street Townhouse wallpaper, while I peer short-sightedly in search of woodland creatures.
But she is also wary of being defined by her stage costumes or role-playing, and in previous interviews has snapped back at journalists who ask about her private life, in particular her girlfriend Lisa Gunning (a film editor Goldfrapp met while co-composing the soundtrack for Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Nowhere Boy). The couple – described by friends as “completely devoted to one another” – were outed by The Sunday Times at the end of last year. Today, Goldfrapp seems resigned to this, rather than irritated. “I happened to fall in love with a woman,” she says. “I hadn’t planned on it, though I wasn’t averse to the idea and I’d already dabbled a bit.” She does, however, confess to having found the unexpected publicity “slightly alarming. It was the first time I’d been taken out of a musical context.”
In fact, a flip through the cuttings suggests that Goldfrapp has been taken out of this context before. A previous profile dwelled on a supposedly troubled adolescence in the English countryside when she tried glue-sniffing and dope-smoking, and four years ago she was photographed by Mario Testino for Vogue, with the caption: “She’ll suffer for the right look. On the Ooh La La video shoot she was sewn into a bell-bottomed catsuit so tight she couldn’t go to the loo. She had to pee in a cup.” But despite these brushes with the accoutrements of 21st-century fame, Goldfrapp says, “I’m not interested in celebrity. Maybe I’m rather old-fashioned, but I just find it all rather crude and dull, and I don’t know why anyone would be interested in that sort of thing.”
As she speaks, her eyes are hidden behind an extraordinary pair of green Prada sunglasses, her face is free of make-up and she is wearing Levi’s jeans with a faded denim shirt. Aside from the shades, the only unusual thing about her appearance is its unforced youthfulness – her curly blonde hair and unlined face give her the look of a cherubic 21-year-old, when she is in fact 44 – and a pair of yellowy-green embroidered Berber slippers. These, and a little rose-gold peanut worn as a pendant around her neck, a present from Gunning.
“I don’t court fame,” she says, twiddling the peanut as if for reassurance, “and I never have done. I prefer talking about music.”
And it’s true, she does light up at the mention of Goldfrapp’s latest album, Head First, the duo’s fifth in a career of musical reinvention. While previous records have incorporated disco, glam rock, folk and pastoral psychedelia, Head First is a more apparently straightforward celebration of Eighties pop, with astonishingly catchy songs that seem to contain elements of everyone from Van Halen to Olivia Newton-John, by way of Flashdance and Abba. It debuted at No 6 in the UK album chart, although sales have not yet matched the high of 2005’s Supernature. “That was a big commercial success,” Goldfrapp says. “But our last album [the more introspective Seventh Tree] also didn’t sell as much, although I still love it.”
Head First is far bouncier than its predecessor, with singalong hooks and saucy lyrics (“Oh, I’ve got a rocket/ Oh, you’re going on it”). It’s an upbeat affair, which is perhaps a reflection of Goldfrapp’s current contentment. “When I made Seventh Tree, I wasn’t a happy bunny, and albums are like little diaries made of lyrics and melodies.” She writes the lyrics for Goldfrapp, but collaborates in everything else with her musical partner, Will Gregory (a classically trained musician who tends not to accompany her on live tours, but remains a constant presence in the studio).
If Goldfrapp prefers that the public gain a glimpse of her inner life through her music, this may stem from her childhood, in which music provided a means of framing emotion. “My dad was very passionate about classical music in particular. On a weekly basis we would have to sit in the living room, and he’d put on a piece of music and we’d listen to it and then discuss how it made us feel.
“When I was about 8, he played Carmina Burana – before it had been used on the Old Spice advert – and when I heard that bit when all those voices come in together and sing the choral part, suddenly something happened and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I was so excited. It was this scary, orgasmic moment; the sound was so bombastic and epic and beautiful, like the heavens exploding. I couldn’t believe that this sound was coming out of a human being – so that was the moment when I thought, ‘I want to make that noise.’ I just thought, if that sound came out of you, you’d blow your head off.”
She found her opportunity to sing at her convent junior school in the Hampshire market town of Alton. “We had this great teacher who encouraged me. I wasn’t good at anything else, but it was incredibly enjoyable, singing in the choir. I felt so empowered.” Her mother, she says half-jokingly, was less enthusiastic about Alison’s enthusiasm for a convent education.
“I think my mum thought I might turn into a lesbian – but that didn’t work, did it? Maybe it would have happened a lot sooner if she hadn’t moved me from a school where I could pinch girls’ arses.” As it happened, she failed the entrance exam to the convent senior school, and went instead to a comprehensive, which she hated; thereafter displaying the characteristic symptoms of disaffected youth – including a home-made ink tattoo still visible on her hand – interspersed with regular visits to the museum at Jane Austen’s house. “There wasn’t anything else to do on a Sunday,” she says, “except for drink cider,” although an interest in gloomy European cinema also dates from this era. “I remember watching Repulsion by Roman Polanski and being fascinated and obsessed by that.” (The film stars Catherine Deneuve as a young Belgian manicurist who lives in London and finds the mere mention of men repulsive, eventually bludgeoning one would-be suitor to death with a candlestick.)
At 16, Goldfrapp left school and went to live in a neighbouring village with a friend. A year later she moved to a London squat. “My parents were terribly worried,” she says. “My mum was incredibly overprotective, but I was so bloody determined to get to London.” Inevitably, she encountered “a number of unsavoury characters”, but found herself a job singing with an avant-garde dance troupe in Belgium, which she did for three years. “I learnt an incredible amount about using my voice and cutting it up with sampling.” From there, she enrolled as a mature student on a fine-art degree course at Middlesex Polytechnic. “That was great,” she says, her diffidence melting into visible enthusiasm. “It was a fantastic time for me. I really appreciated the luxury of the freedom to experiment in art, and I made some good friends, whom I’m still close to.”
Legend has it that her final show involved a performance piece in which she milked a cow while yodelling – the idea being to make the mundane iconic by giving it the framework of art – and in doing so was spotted by a member of the dance band Orbital, who asked her to do some sessions with them. More work followed with Tricky (“Who was, well, Tricky”). Touring with him for several years during the Nineties was, she says, “an incredibly intense time. But having survived that, I felt I could bloody well deal with absolutely everything.”
By this point, she was determined to try making music on her own, but nothing quite gelled, until a mutual friend introduced her to Will Gregory. Having worked with Tears for Fears in the Eighties, and then film composer Michael Nyman, Gregory was producing film and TV music in a studio near Bath. A creative intimacy quickly developed, although both are swift to point out that theirs is simply a working relationship. “We don’t socialise together,” Goldfrapp says, “but I trust him implicitly when it comes to making music.”
So far, so good, although she admits that she feels at something of a crossroads in her career at the age of 44. Having been hugely influential on other musicians in the past five years (Madonna named Supernature her favourite album of 2005 and was promptly labelled “Oldfrapp” by unkind critics), she has spawned a host of young female singers that other commentators have dubbed “Goldfrappettes”, including La Roux, Little Boots, Florence and the Machine and, most spectacularly successful of all, Lady Gaga.
But imitation, although the sincerest form of flattery, can cause other problems. Since doing the promotion for Head First, Goldfrapp has found aspects of it difficult. “It’s been strange and quite hard. People bang on about my age, and Radio 1 wouldn’t play the first single because we’re not new any more.” She is sanguine about this, up to a point – “It’s natural that you’re not going to be the new kid on the block for ever. I’m not bitter about that” – but she is less comfortable about the snide questioning she receives about being 44. “I get asked about how I feel about being old when Lady Gaga and Florence are young. It reminds me of when the newspapers described Madonna as Oldfrapp. Poor woman! It’s as if the media want to get women to play off against each other, as if we are all obsessed with youth.”
Goldfrapp admits to her own fair share of “doubts and fears and insecurities” about this new record and tour. “It’s not until you’re on stage that you feel exactly what the album is, and how it has a life of its own,” she says. Goldfrapp have become famous for their fantastical stage shows, and their 2006 tour was described by Vogue as “a blend of a night out with Bianca Jagger circa 1975 and the pagan march in The Wicker Man”.
This time round, the staging is likely to be less extravagant. “The awful truth is that we have very little money these days. Promoters seem a bit less certain about this tour.”
Her sweet lips droop for an instant, but then she pushes back her leonine gold curls, and very briefly lifts up her dark glasses so I can see her eyes. They are blue-grey, moodily beautiful and unmarked by crow’s feet. As she replaces her disguise, she says, gesturing beneath her shades, “Under there is a map, and I’m proud of it – we should be proud of the maps of our lives. We’re made to feel embarrassed about getting older, but I want to embrace it, rather than hide it or go and butcher myself with plastic surgery.”
Whatever Goldfrapp produce on stage in their forthcoming round of high-profile festival appearances, you can bet Alison Goldfrapp will be looking remarkable. Just take a snoop at the video for the latest single, Alive, featuring her in a white-gold silk dress, surrounded by vampiric male dancers prancing around a pentangle, where they are joined by fresh-faced young girls in leotards who look as if they have strayed off the set of Glee. But in the kind of twist that a Polanski fan might like, it is the innocent females who turn out to be vampires, sinking their fangs into the hapless men. As a tongue-in-cheek image of Alison Goldfrapp, I’d say it reveals her to be fairly sure of herself, in the prime of life – and va-va-vooming soon to a festival stage near you.