Long-term fans will already know that there are two Goldfrapps, and you’re never sure which one you’re going to get the first time you press play – the sexy, glittery dance duo with a ticket to the moon, or the smouldering gloom-gatherers who have left the party far behind. It would be a mistake to judge their overall mood on the basis of the musical personality they present, however. Alison Goldfrapp, singer and face of the band, says she loves Tales of Us, their latest despatch from the depths, so much that she’s never been happier.
“It was the best time I’ve had,” she tells me. In fact, such is her enthusiasm for these 10 hushed, delicately structured tales that she’s made five of them into a short film to be shown in cinemas across the country at the start of next month, to be followed by a live gig beamed onto the silver screens.
Admittedly she’s not the best salesperson for the concept. Always a shy, wary interviewee, the 47-year-old also doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so ours is never a relaxed conversation. She’s also endlessly exasperated by the noise in the members’ restaurant where we meet, whether it’s the hissing coffee machine or the lively soundsystem, at one point getting up to ask the staff to turn the music down. Still, as she sips a hot chocolate with extra sugar, it’s clear that she found her latest project to be a sweet experience.
“It was the best thing ever, making these. I loved it,” she says. The collaboration with her partner, filmmaker Lisa Gunning, resulted in five of the songs being brought to life with arty, ghostly, mostly black-and-white visuals. They would have liked to do all 10 but a shoestring budget and the exhaustion of favours put paid to that. “We had hardly any money, we had to borrow equipment, so it was a miracle we got it done at all. But these films are the closest I’ve ever got to a visual representation of our songs, which is great.”
Notice that she calls them films, not videos, to distinguish them from the fast-cut, attention-grabbing clips that bands including hers are ordinarily obliged to make to promote their latest singles. “I have to say I didn’t really like that process at all,” she says of her years making conventional pop promos. “With these, we didn’t know what would be a single. We weren’t even sure whether they’d get released, so it was very liberating making them for that reason.”
Nevertheless, the five segments that make up the half-hour film can each stand alone, with different plotlines and characters, though of course Goldfrapp’s familiar blonde curls pop up frequently. She’s pursuing herself with an axe in Jo, with its purred declaration, “Run, you’d better run, you’d better run for your life.” In Drew, which can aready be seen on YouTube, she’s wandering around an empty stately home, haunted by sexually charged memories of three naked friends. “It was this big house in Wiltshire, an amazing place. It had the most incredible rooms, totally falling apart. This stunning ballroom that was crumbling away. It’s quite sad really.”
It’s a saucy clip, slapped with an age restriction on the web due to all the rear-view nudity. It’s also sexually ambiguous, with a clothed Goldfrapp slow-dancing with a naked woman, and the woman and two men all tangled up in bed together.
Goldfrapp has roamed wide in that regard herself. Having had relationships with men in the past, in 2009 she was outed as Gunning’s partner by a newspaper. “I don’t know why people would find it surprising. Everything we’ve ever done — the music, the looks, the shows — has all been quite ambiguous and undefinable, and that’s how I am,” she said at the time. “I don’t like to be defined by my sexuality, which swings wherever I like to swing.”
Continuing the indefinable theme in the new film, there’s Annabel, the story of an intersex child raised as a boy that takes its story from Kathleen Winter’s novel of that name. In the film, also on YouTube, a teenage boy, played by Daniel Woolfenden, finds a hiding place in back-and-white, puts on a sparkling dress and the world becomes glorious colour. “It’s a great moment, an emotional gear change,” says Goldfrapp. It wasn’t easy to find a boy willing to do it. “More than half of the boys dropped out as soon as they knew they were going to have to wear something dress-like. He was totally comfortable with it. His dad was there the whole time. Boys are normally quite fidgety and hyperactive, but he had this stillness to him, a slowness to his movements. And amazing eyes.”
Goldfrapp was involved much more intimately with the creative process than she has been on earlier videos, and loved broadening her artistic horizons. She’s also recently curated an art exhibition, still running at the Lowry in Salford, featuring works by artists including Henry Darger and Francesca Woodman. It’s film that fires her up, though. She can often be seen at the Curzon in Soho or the Barbican, frequently alone, even watching films that she’s already seen on DVD. “It’s such a different experience, isn’t it? And it’s a joy to see this film on the big screen.”
The Tales of Us film even turned her home life into a work environment, which wasn’t as disastrous as it could have been. “At home Lisa and I talked about it bloody non-stop,” she says. Gunning, a first-time director here, has previously worked as an editor on the films Seven Psychopaths, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Nowhere Boy. “I was a bit nervous about it, but it was actually really enjoyable. We had a great time. She’d been listening to the music as we were writing it so she already knew what the aesthetic was.”
Goldfrapp’s musical partner, Will Gregory, gets off very lightly in all this. Not only is he not in any of the films, he doesn’t play in the live band either. He’ll be behind the sound desk when Goldfrapp, her band and a string quartet broadcast their 50-minute live set to the cinema audiences. But his sonic touch is all over the music, which is rich and sumptuous, a deeply beautiful showcase for Goldfrapp’s decadent voice.
“It’s subtle and that subtlety can sometimes get lost depending on your environment,” says the singer. She mentions that she was tweeted recently by a fan who wanted her to know that she didn’t like the new album AT ALL, preferring the wizz-bang dance pop of earlier works such as Supernature and Head First. She replied telling her not to apologise, well aware that Goldfrapp fans fall into “two camps”, as she puts it. I tell her that while it didn’t really work for me as I went about my day of emails and child-rearing, on a recent plane journey at three in the morning in the pitch dark it sounded utterly perfect. Apparently I’m the fourth person to say it sounds good on a plane.
If you’re into the dancey stuff, however, don’t hold your breath for more. It sounds like the band were rushed and harried towards pop froth on their previous album, 2010’s Head First, and are still smarting from the experience. It was their last for EMI. “I can’t blame it on anyone else, unfortunately,” she says. “It’s fine, everything’s an experiment really. You don’t know how you’re going to feel about something til you’ve done it. But if you don’t believe in it when you’re singing it, that’s tragic.”
Now they’re back on an indie label, Mute, and following their muse again. “This feels in another world from everything else going on in music,” says Goldfrapp. It’s a world they seem intent on staying in for a good while longer. Join them.
The Goldfrapp Experience is in cinemas across London on March 4. For venues and tickets visit goldfrapp.com/film