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BLACK ROCK, SILVER EYE, GOLDFRAPP


On the black volcanic sands of Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands, a good hike from the Atlantic water that already is a striking enough contrast, a redhead in a loose white skirt and a voluminous black top, struck poses against this background.

The scattered rocks behind her were haphazard, having tumbled down the side of the nominally extinct volcano, but there was nothing casual about the redhead. In her right hand she held a digital shutter release: she was not just the subject but the director of this shoot.

Alison Goldfrapp, the redhead (who has been blonde, brown and platinum at other times) with the camera clicker, has said that "I think you can lose yourself in another landscape much more easily than your own [world]”. This landscape was offering more than most.

"That's why they are such amazing canvases for film and literature: your imagination can go there. It's like an empty stage that you can fill in all the parts," Goldfrapp says of Fueteventura, whose yellow sand beaches she would visit soon for another shoot and a filmclip.

"It's so inspiring these kinds of landscapes because they look so otherworldly and conjure up so much.”

The photos being taken here would end up in the sleeve to Silver Eye, the new album from the group named after Goldfrapp but involving former film composer Will Gregory.

Although Gregory never speaks or appears in the band’s images, happy to leave all public presence to his partner, Goldfrapp has always been distinguished by its visuals which have changed with every album, just as the music has changed at each release.

Nothing produced by them has ever arrived casually attired. That is, the marriage of visuals and sound has been close and careful, their message calibrated.

Even if the message was not always apparent there was no mistaking that there was something extra at play, on stage or on their records.

So it comes as a surprise then to find Silver Eye, is the first time that Alison Goldfrapp has taken control of the visuals. All the photos which adorn the cover, the inside sleeve and the promotional shots, and the video concept, are hers.

"I have [previously been involved with the visuals] to a degree but of course as much as I was instigating ideas, I was still giving into someone else's vision if you like," she says.

"You can only control it to a certain degree and with videos I would say I would come up with some ideas but with someone else directing it very much that idea runs away from you."

The former convent school girl from a small town in Hampshire studied design in her early 20s at Middlesex University, while not so secretly pining for a career as a singer. She took photos, painted, but never really explored it further, keener on contributing vocals to the recordings of dance producers when her bands petered out.

“I think going to art school was really useful for meeting loads of people but also as learning a way of working,” was her explanation. “It helped me work out how to sort out ideas, how to carry an idea through.”

Now though, with a strong following for her impressive and regularly captivating photos on Instagram, Goldfrapp, at 51, wasn't interested in the direction of others, and with Gregory as always happy to leave everything apart from the music to her, control came surprisingly easy.

"I'd been to art school, I've been taking photographs for a long time and it just made sense that I would do it myself," she says.

"It was probably a degree of confidence that I didn't have before when I didn't think it was an option. But this time I was visualising it from start to finish. It was lovely, a lovely opportunity."

If she was slow to develop the confidence to take control, conceptualising a project, as she had learnt at art school, was always the kind of opportunity which Goldfrapp had taken up.

On their debut album in 2000, Felt Mountain, the music was exotic and dreamy but also laced with the kind of intense feeling of classic torch songs.

The photos, which didn't feature Gregory (and of course never have), were of alpine scenes of clean stands of trees and pristine snow, while Goldfrapp appeared seemingly consisting of nothing but fur stoles and large eyes.

When they switched to a shiny, disco-flavoured sound on 2003's Black Cherry, there was a high concept '80s design aesthetic and Goldfrapp mixing Marlene Deitrich and Cyndi Lauper.

Later would come white dress and horse tails, oversized lashes and military uniforms, and with their most recent album, the quietly dramatic and sometimes distressing Tales Of Us, the imagery was black and white, shadows and rain, Goldfrapp semi-lit and in profile.

As Goldfrapp, who spent almost a decade making music alone and being a guest vocalist, before at 33 meeting Gregory, told me at the time of Black Cherry, "When I'm writing I make images and when I make images I'm writing. It's all part of it."

If the art and music are inseparable, it doesn’t necessarily mean explainable.

From the Silver Eye cover image, of Goldfrapp holding a rough bush in front of her face, flame hair gusting up behind her, to one publicity photo of her, pale, naked, her eyes ringed with black and her fingers tipped in silver, Goldfrapp is not one for making anything obvious.

Her images are striking but enigmatic, not overburdened with elements and a viewer would not really be certain what she is saying. "Neither would I," she laughs.

“I love how in David Lynch films you get space and the camera moving around it when nothing is actually happening but you are going crazy thinking, well what the fuck’s going to happen,” Goldfrapp once told me.

“The tension of that I love in an image. I used to find that very dull but now I find it very exciting, same with the music that hangs there and isn’t explained. You want the atmosphere to tell the story really."

The two settings for the album's images though are stark, the desert-like beach and a volcanic backdrop. two places which might initially be thought of as empty but come alive in her photos. There's plenty to be drawn from such harsh landscapes.

"There's something about that vastness as well,” Goldfrapp says “There's something so good for the eye to be able to look out that far."

The new album is already being talked about as a bridge connecting the urban with natural, a hybrid for a band which can swing between indulging in technology and revelling in the natural, as much as between pastoral folk and high gloss dance music.

It's likely no one would have objected if Goldfrapp had chosen to go with some scene of bounteous nature or lush life instead of what some might erroneously describe as barren settings.

"But these places are not barren, they are dramatic and there is a drama there that is also in the music," she says. "I had taken some flowers and made them black but I still felt like it didn't have the same kind of grandeur. The thing is there are so many metaphors here: there are things literally bubbling under the surface, about to burst out, which I think said more."

As with the imagery, the new album is neither lush and pastoral nor hard surfaced and industrial, and likewise the lyrics are not easily categorised.

In the song Tigerman for example, in a series of staccato lines Goldfrapp sings "Illuminating immortalise/magnificent/alone ascending the moonlit hills/primordial/Tigerman/forever".

"I always like things to be a little ambiguous, but not always deliberately. When I'm thinking about music and sound and narrative, there are so many different things coming in together and it's never about one thing."

Well, maybe occasionally it is about one thing, as in Anymore, the opening song on the album.

"It is about lust and it's quite straightforward in its arrangement and formula," she says. "You do get what it's about."

No need for pictures.

Goldfrapp will perform at Carriageworks on June 2 as part of Vivid Sydney.

Silver Eye is out now.

#Goldfrapp

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