16 Oct 2005: She’s the most exciting thing in British pop, our answer to Kylie and Madonna. But what makes Alison Goldfrapp tick, and what goes on behind the scenes of her thrilling live shows? Amy Raphael joined her and the band on tour.
Brighton, Monday 3 October
She could be anyone. A tiny figure standing at the edge of the dressing room, lingering in the doorway as though getting ready for an easy escape. Blonde curls tamed, pulled back off her face. The black uniform – tight but unrevealing top, skinny jeans, ballet pumps – adding to her anonymity. Inside the hot, airless room, there is easy laughter, warm wine and a discarded pair of white platform boots. Only the eyes give a hint of who she is, framed by fake lashes and still sparkling with glitter.
Alison Goldfrapp is never recognised off stage. Which is extraordinary, because her band, Goldfrapp, are one of the most compelling and engaging Britain has produced in a long time. Having built a loyal following of critics and fans since their 2000 debut, their third album, Supernature, has seduced vast numbers of the record-buying public since its release in August.
But it’s for their live gigs that the band are most celebrated, with showgirls, weird costumes and an overtly sexual Goldfrapp teasing delighted audiences into a frenzy. In a pop climate that isn’t great for women just now – too many anodyne ‘babes’ and not enough eccentric, engaging women – Alison Goldfrapp is mysterious, dark and a little dangerous. A perfect pop star.
On stage at the Brighton Drome tonight, she wore a black catsuit, pleated pink cape and the highest gold platform boots. With two steel fans blowing her curls into a blonde halo, she was mesmerising. Against a soundscape of hard electro disco, her voice soared to operatic heights. Occasionally, she managed to move around in the boots, but mostly she allowed the fans to frame her for songs like the wittingly sexual, druggy ‘Slide in’, the brazen ‘I’m like a dog to get you/ I want it up and on’ of ‘Number 1’.
Once she leaves the stage, however, she becomes lost in the crowd. The contrast between the whip-cracking performer and the shy person, the public sex goddess and the private shrinking violet, is extraordinary – and completely unexpected. Here in Brighton, after the first gig of their biggest British tour to date, the improbably tall transvestites with blond, curly wigs and attitude who are milling about backstage look more like the Alison Goldfrapp I was expecting.
In the dressing room after the show, she looks beat. She says she sent a car to pick up her mother, who is in a wheelchair, so that she could see the first show. ‘She couldn’t hear what I was singing,’ Goldfrapp mumbles, frowning. Given that her mother is a devout Christian and her youngest child sings lyrics such as ‘Put your dirty angel face between my legs and knicker lace’ (‘Twist’, from their second, 2003 album Black Cherry), that may be no bad thing.
‘She likes coming to see me,’ she continues, with a flicker of a smile. ‘But I think she likes looking at all the people more than anything … it used to be weird knowing she was there, but not any more. Thank God.’
I tell Goldfrapp how, in the ladies’ loos, I overheard a group of excited lesbians debating whether their idol might be gay. She smiles and gives a deep, dirty laugh; suddenly, there is a glimpse of the sexy diva who earlier took to the stage. ‘Yeah, there were quite of lot of lesbians at the warm-up show in Bristol last night, too.’ Then the secretive woman who says little about her love life, who talks only of sharing her Bath home with a cat and an evening bottle of wine, is gone.
London, Thursday 6 October
The London gig is a triumph. Brixton Academy is a seething mass of loved-up fans. The show proves that the comparisons with Kylie Minogue and Madonna, which appear regularly in reviews, are just lazy. Although occasionally a little awkward on stage – those bloody platforms – Alison is neither as mannered as Kylie nor as glossy and urbane as Madonna. Like a disco version of Polly Harvey, the free-spirited provocatrice of British rock, she is quite simply the most exciting female performer around.
The after-show party, held upstairs at the Academy, is unpleasantly crowded. Supernature, its title borrowed from Cerrone’s disco anthem, is the album of the moment, sounding both knowingly retro, with its references to Marc Bolan, Kate Bush, Gary Numan and Soft Cell, and crunchingly modern. This, it seems, is the show at which everyone wants to be seen. Among the beered-up industry crowd are some familiar faces: actor Michael Sheen; Kelly Osbourne looking oddly demure.
Goldfrapp hovers by the door. She looks uncertain. Strangers approach, offer business cards, shout above the pulsating Seventies disco in her ear. She smiles sweetly but looks completely overwhelmed. Finally, an old girlfriend finds her and they find a seat in a corner and start talking and laughing. She relaxes at last.
Leeds, Monday 10 October
The day before their Leeds show, Goldfrapp meets me for lunch wearing a head scarf, black skinny jeans and T-shirt, green ballet pumps, Gucci sunglasses and a grimace. The sunglasses stay on during the two-hour lunch; the grimace comes and goes. But I like her, despite the grumpiness. ‘I feel pretty ropey. Just knackered,’ she says, slumping in her chair. ‘Where’s Will?’
She dislikes doing interviews alone, preferring to do them with Will Gregory, Goldfrapp’s co-founder and invisible man (although he writes with her, the studio wizard hasn’t appeared on stage since the first tour back in 1999).
Waiting for Gregory, we talk about Goldfrapp’s forthcoming European tour as the somewhat unlikely support act for Coldplay (Goldfrapp’s breathy electro sound is miles removed from the singalong emotion of Coldplay). ‘They invited us. I’m actually quite jealous of Chris Martin’s voice; it’s wonderful,’ she says, in her southern English drawl. ‘And he doesn’t drink or smoke and goes to bed early. I am just hoping they’ve got great catering. Some healthy food. We don’t have such luxuries. People seem to think we’re really rich and have huge budgets now but it’s just not true…’
She orders a bottle of still mineral water. I read somewhere that she was anaemic, but she says not. ‘I have strange blood sugar levels. I get very odd if I don’t eat. I either want to hit someone, cry or fall asleep. I carry my own food around; on tour, I permanently have carrier bags full of cereal and bananas. It all sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it?’
Although she loves performing, Goldfrapp sometimes struggles with touring. ‘I get cabin fever. I really miss fresh air and going for walks. I miss routine, too; I’m a bit of a routine freak.’
After leaving the family home in rural Hampshire at 17 and moving to London, then Bristol and now Bath – taking in art school and doing backing vocals for Orbital and Tricky along the way – Goldfrapp says she is no longer sure where home is. ‘I live on the edge of Bath. It’s really lovely but its very loveliness freaks me out a bit. It’s peaceful, a great antidote to the craziness of being on tour, but sometimes I feel as though I’ve retired. And when I come home off tour, my house – well, it’s more a cottage – is cold and empty. Fuck. I don’t know what home is. I’m a bit confused by the concept.’ A wry smile. ‘I crave a home. I imagine big fires and cats and people laughing. The smell of freshly baked bread. And actually… it’s not like that at all.’
Will Gregory arrives; he is tall, well-spoken, older (neither will specify an age; Goldfrapp always says, frustratingly, that she’s in her ‘thirties’; Gregory plumps for the equally imprecise ‘forties’). Goldfrapp tells Gregory that Elle magazine wants to photograph her at home. She giggles. ‘They obviously think it’s a Gigi boudoir and it’s a fucking tip!’
We talk about being on tour, finding ways to pass the time and to relax after the intensity of performing. If there’s a pool, Goldfrapp will go for a swim. She might do some knitting. Gregory pulls a face. ‘When we were making Supernature in a cottage in Somerset, we’d lay down a huge pop track and then Alison would do a bit more knitting.’ Occasionally, she goes shopping, but, although she creates outfits for herself, her band and the dancing girls who appear with her on stage with mirrored horses’ heads and tails, she is not ‘into fashion’. ‘I find shopping too stressful. I get hot and flustered and irritated and feel sick after I’ve bought something.’
Goldfrapp and Gregory both roll cigarettes. ‘No more smoking; that’s it,’ she announces. I ask what it feels like to be in the band of the moment. ‘Oh shit,’ says Goldfrapp. Then she composes herself. ‘When I was working with Tricky, I felt as though I lost myself. I didn’t enjoy singing someone else’s song. Before I met Will, there were always rules about what you could and couldn’t do in a band, what was cool and what wasn’t. Bloody hell … so boring. The whole point of music is that you can bloody well do anything.’
Will takes up the theme. ‘We did have two rules in the beginning: no samples, no guitars. We were trying to invent our palette of sounds. Putting electronic and classical instruments together. We decided to keep everything as fantastical as possible in the studio, not to worry about what the implications might be for playing live. I trust Will, so I let my imagination run riot in the studio; the birthing of ideas is so exciting. Then there’s the whole excitement of having to make it work on stage.’
Suddenly, she is agitated. ‘Shit. What time is it? I’ve got to go bloody shopping. I have to go buy shampoo for my matted, gunky hair, and I’ve run out of pants.’ I wonder whether, on these rare occasions when she goes shopping, she attracts groupies.
‘No! I’d like to see some. I’d like to enjoy the whole groupie thing.’ Gregory smiles: ‘Men are always shouting things at you; last night, it was, “What are you doing later?”‘ Goldfrapp laughs and, despite the sunglasses, I see a mischievous glint in her eye. ‘I want groupies! I suppose you have to order them?’ The sexiest women in pop pauses and looks at her band-mate. ‘Maybe we should try it one night, but we’d probably be hugely disappointed.’
· The single Number 1 is released on 31 October on Mute