Alison Goldfrapp's new single, Ooh La La, entered the British pop chart last week at No. 4. Glamorous pictures of her often resplendent in peacock tail, gold platform heels and nothing else are spread across major newspapers and magazines, alongside gushing reviews for Supernature, her album released this week. So what does Britain's favorite electro-rock diva do on her day off? "I'm going to buy a wastepaper bin," says Goldfrapp, speaking by phone from her home in Bath in southwestern England. "I'm very excited about it, actually."
It's a rare break from her carefully constructed public image as a seductive songstress, but Goldfrapp insists that she relishes her local anonymity. "I don't wear any makeup, I don't brush my hair, I'm short and I'm not in thigh-length boots or tail so no one recognizes me," she says.
The gap between her public exhibitionism and her private modesty makes a certain amount of sense. After all, Goldfrapp, who is the eponymous half of a duo with Will Gregory, has long been something of a chameleon. She declines to divulge her age, but admits to a convent-school upbringing, a stint in London squats and three years singing in a Belgian dance company before starting art school back in the British capital. As the result of a performance-art piece in the early 1990s she was singing while milking a cow at a party she caught the attention of the electronic duo Orbital. She lent her voice to their recordings, then ended up collaborating with trip-hop pioneer Tricky, recording and touring with him.
After she met film-score composer Gregory, they released their 2000 debut Felt Mountain, an enchanting, cinematic progression from the trip-hop groove. The 2003 follow-up Black Cherry added a dose of glam and disco; the single Strict Machine became a synthesized surefire floor filler, as well as the theme to a Game Boy advertisement.
Supernature is even more varied. An epic in synthesizer sounds, it reveals hints of '60s movie themes, chunks of '70s Eno-era Roxy Music, Donna Summer disco, '90s trip-hop all with a knowing 21st century pop take. Like the magpie Scissor Sisters and other light-fingered musicians, Goldfrapp shamelessly borrows past pop genres, playing to an audience too enthralled to obsess about originality.
And yet there is something unique about her trips to the past: Supernature shimmers along with an electric buzz like a dangerously overloaded socket, enlivening the edge between human voice and machine. "I think that's why we love old analog synthesizers like the Mellotron, which tries to imitate a human sound, an acoustic sound that's a bit wrong somehow," says Goldfrapp. They even break their own rule and plug in a guitar for the first time on the Marc Bolan glam-rock stomp of Ooh La La and Satin Chic. Through all three records, though, it is Goldfrapp's voice that is most beguiling. At moments it recalls the whispered seduction of Marlene Dietrich, then eases up the range to Kate Bush or some operatic diva, and on occasion even morphs completely into synthesizer effect. "Ultimately the voice is an instrument, so you can use it as a texture or put it into the foreground and make it into something distinct," she says.
The Goldfrapp sound has undoubtedly inspired some contemporary pop starlets like Rachel Stevens and some of Kylie Minogue's more recent offerings, even if critics can't always agree how to classify it. "I remember everyone said, 'Oh, she sounds like Björk,'" Goldfrapp recalls, just a little caustically. "Now Björk isn't on everyone's radar as much as, say, Kylie is right now. It's just pretty random, whatever is around."
Like any good diva, Goldfrapp exudes an air of being above all the fuss, even while clearly luxuriating in it. "I think I did 175 interviews in four weeks," says the weary songstress. And does she read them? Certainly not. "You spend all day f___ing talking about yourself you don't want to then read about yourself as well." Maybe that's what the wastepaper bin is for.