Roisin Murphy is in the sea. As you’d expect, she’s soaked to the skin, mostly from the water, but also from the two pints of lager she’s carrying, which spill as she splashes about. Her hair is all over the place, and she’s pouting like Elvis. She is, to sum up, drunk as a skunk.
This is the cover of Moloko’s new album Statues and Mark Brydon, Moloko’s other half, thinks it’s fantastic. The photo represents, he says, the start of a "burst of change" in Murphy’s life, having been taken soon after the singer broke up with her long-term boyfriend. This split happened shortly before the duo began making Statues, an album that sees Murphy conspicuously abandoning the cryptic, playful lyrics of Moloko’s past to write direct, honest songs about love, loss and new starts. "There’ll be nothing after you," she sings on its most-touching song, Blow X Blow. "It’s over, all over," she adds, full of brave positivity, on stirring closing track Over and Over. It’s all a far cry from the daft "Ramases! Colossus!" chanting of their last album Things To Make and Do. "I always thought it was a powerful picture," says Brydon of the cover. "It represents the start of making this record in a way cos it’s a bird on the lash on the beach, experiencing a new-found moment of selfness, being her own entity, being a single woman."
The thing is, though, that the former boyfriend, the one Murphy had been seeing for six years, is Mark Brydon. "Yeah ..." he says, with the resigned air of a man who knows this is not the last time he will be asked this question. "It just adds another dimension to a very weird situation."
To understand how this happened, you have to go back to what is still the most frequently told Moloko story, the one about how a 19-year-old girl marched up to a boy at a party in Sheffield and said: "Do you like my tight sweater?" Much later this became the title of Moloko’s first album, but the relationship came first. "I knew he made music but that really wasn’t very important to me," Murphy says now. "He was ridiculously handsome and very manly, which is what I go for."
Back then Brydon was a struggling record producer. Murphy had just dropped out of school and was flitting between jobs in restaurants ("I was always getting fired after three days") and the dole, and vaguely thinking about studying art or photography. She had never sung in public before. "People used to say to my mum, ‘You’ve got to take her to auditions’. I was a really vivacious child, pretty ridiculously clever and a bit mental. But I didn’t have the confidence to do it. I didn’t sing to Mark for ages." Then an American A&R man told her, amazed, that she sounded "like f***ing Nina Simone".
Much of the rest is history. The endearingly eccentric Do You Like My Tight Sweater sold 250,000 copies, but it was the third album, Things To Make And Do, that was the major breakthrough. Both of their biggest hits - The Time is Now and the hugely popular remix of an old track, Sing It Back - are on it, and the album sent Moloko on the tour that would both seal their stardom and finish their relationship.
"Being a couple and touring ain’t easy," explains Brydon. "In a nutshell we’d been living in hotel rooms for a couple of years and at the end of it all I wanted to go home and Roisin wanted to carry on."
Moloko were left with a dilemma. Things To Make And Do was not just their biggest hit, it had seen them hit their creative stride, fusing their leftfield sensibility with a newfound pop edge. "The success of Sing It Back made us realise that we could make and were making songs that could mainline directly into people’s emotions," says Murphy. "We had a strong fanbase before that but with The Time Is Now (a hit shortly afterwards) we’d get people coming up saying: ‘We played that song at our wedding.’ It’s quite moreish, that."
"It took a while to decide whether to carry on," says Brydon. "It seemed like a real shame to throw the working relationship out with the other one." In the end, they were back in the studio in six months, the start of what was, for Brydon, a "weird" and "difficult" process. "We’ve always had arguments in the studio but they had a slightly different dimension this time."
Murphy’s lyrics didn’t help. She puts their directness down to age - "when you get older you feel more capable of saying what’s on your mind; you perhaps get less playful but you get more honest" - but that didn’t make it easier for Brydon to hear lines such as "Somebody new would make it easier for me to let you go" again and again. Are they about him? "I didn’t ask," he says quietly. "It would do something very strange to your psyche. There were a lot of times where I had a reality crunch and couldn’t really get my head around it. At the end of the day that’s what Roisin wanted to write about. There have been subsequent relationships so I couldn’t really say who the songs are about, but yeah, it was pretty weird."
Understandably, perhaps, Murphy tells it differently when we talk two days later. "From my end it was exactly the same as it’s always been. It’s always a bloody pain in the arse making a record with him because he’s a f***ing miserable f***er and a perfectionist." Blow X Blow, she says emphatically, is not about Brydon. As for the photo, she says simply: "I’ve always been a lunatic."
There is, undoubtedly, much more to this than Moloko are prepared to say today. But then they make such an odd couple, together or apart, that you’d expect conflict somewhere along the way. While Brydon jokes that he is a "hermit" who spends all his time in dark studios, the famously gregarious Murphy, when we speak, is living up to her party-girl reputation, having just woken up from a night of "shouting and laughing and joking and smiling and flirting" in a fashionable London club.
Both relocated from Sheffield to London after the last album, but Murphy seems far happier with the move. "London is the worst place in the entire universe," Brydon says grumpily. "It’s a complete rip-off for not much." So why live there? "We both had different ideas about where we wanted to be so it was a kind of common denominator place that we could at least compromise on. I think Roisin probably did want to live in London." So he followed her there? "I didn’t follow her," he says, a bit tetchily. "I decided to move myself."
Careerwise, it’s probably a sound decision. Moloko’s days as a cult act are long behind them; Statues cost 1 million, an investment which Murphy says has left their record company, Echo, "cacking themselves". "I just keep saying to them, don’t f***ing worry. In a year’s time you’ll have sold buckets of f***ing records." She’s probably right. If Moloko set out to make a record that would "mainline directly into people’s emotions", they have succeeded triumphantly. Statues is energetic, emotional and full of tunes that you will hum. You can dance to it; it will also break your heart. A perfect pop record, in other words.
The worry, she explains, is that despite all this, Moloko fit awkwardly into the pop landscape. "We’re too leftfield for an immediate A-listing on Radio One, we’re too f***ing mainstream to be A-listed on (London radio station) XFM. We don’t look right in the Face, the NME or on CD:UK. No-one knows quite where to put us. So every time we put out a record we have to prove ourselves. But it doesn’t matter ultimately, because as soon as people start to hear it it’ll happen. I know this because I am always right. I keep telling people," she laughs, warming to her subject, "to print up some kind of memo pad with ‘Roisin is always right’ written on it."
But there must be other worries too. These days, Moloko don’t even fit together the way they used to. Will music keep them going when love didn’t? It may depend on the next year. "She’s not always right," Brydon told me pointedly two days before Murphy’s memo speech. He was talking about arguing over songs. But in relationships, as in songs, words find all kinds of meanings.
The single Familiar Feeling is released on Monday on Echo. Statues follows on 3 March