It's 10 years since Martina Topley-Bird blessed
Tricky' explosive debut album. After taking
time out to raise their child, she's back with a
haunting collection of songs. By Dorian Lynskey
It's about time we heard from Martina Topley-Bird again. It's almost a decade now since we first heard her voice, a thing of eerie, bleary beauty, on Tricky's debut single, Aftermath. The London-born singer, only a teenager at the time, went on to record tour albums with Tricky, including the peerless Maxinquaye, before they parted ways in 1998. Since then, she's sung with DJ and soundtrack composer David Holmes and funk-rock band Primus, but mostly she's been working on her solo debut.
   Four years in the making, Quixotic is not just every bit as good as you might hope - it's probably the album of the year so far. Featuring David Holmes, Tricky, Queens Of The Stone Age and Bond composer David Arnold, it's a strange and wonderful brew, rich with emotion and intrigue, bubbling with fresh combinations of rock, soul and blues. It bears comparison with such modern classics as Bjork's Debut and, yes, Maxinquaye, and it's already attracted feverish accolades. She must be pleased that people haven't forgotten about her.
  "When I end up with too much time on my hands, my mind does tend to wander to stuff like that," she ponders. "It's nice to be reassured that there's an interest and, yeah, y'know, yeah..." Words spend a lot of time teetering on the tip of Topley-Bird's tongue before evaporating into the ether. Her sentences meander and circle and frequently peter out before they're quite finished. She wriggles away from definitive statements. Theres always a flipside.
   Topley-Bird's sitting in a corner of a noisy cafe on the King's Road, near her home in south-west London, wearing a fuzzy Kangol hat and stripey jumper. A pack of cigarettes and two pots of Earl Grey are on the go. Her phone rings and she answers it apologetically. It's about a video shoot tomorrow. "It's a full body paint thingand I'm asking, 'Do I need to shave?"' she explains. "And he's going, 'It's very hard for a man to talk to a woman about these things!"' She laughs, exposing all her teeth.
   Like her music, Topley-Bird, 26, is distinctly English and unplaceably exotic at the same time. Her two surnames are from her late biological father and her stepfather. Her mother's roots, which inspire riveting album highlight Too Tough To Die, are African-American, El Salvadorean and Seminole Indian. "Sometimes it's going to feel important, sometimes it's not," she shrugs. "Maybe it's as relevant as astrology or numerology. You take what you want from it."
   Topley-Bird moved about a lot as a child, attending a fee-paying school in Bristol in her teens. She loved languages, physics and literature (although, despite the album title, she admits she hasn't got past the introduction of Don Quixote) and says she might have been an oceanographer if it weren't for music.
   "My mum was very much  into the importance of education. It had a lot to do with our race and how we were perceived and how she'd grown up. She would have liked me to be a doctor or something like that."
   Instead, she was spotted by Tricky while sitting smoking on a wall outside school. She was a self-professed "wind-up" with a punk rock instinct for stirring things up and seeing what happens. Soon after they met, they recorded Aftermath, when she was still just 15. That was an impulsive move, I say.
   "I am fairly curious and voyeuristic," she says. "I'll go to a country on my own for a weekend where I don't speak the language and don't know anyone, just to see what happens.  Sometimes it's a good  idea, sometimes it's not." She pours some tea. "I just wanted to be out there and exist and be heard but I didn't want to put a face to it or have anyone know anything about me. And that worked for the first couple of years. It was perfect."
   Topley-Bird was Tricky's other half in every sense. His girlfriend for a while and the mother of his daughter, Mazy, now eight, but musically, too, they fitted together like lock and key. The contrasts - in background, education, gender, personality - gave the music a startling, indefinable dynamic, often flipping the lyrics 180 degrees. She could cover Public Enemy's Black Steel or deliver lines like "I'll fuck you in the arse just for a laugh" (she never asked about his lyrics and he never explained)
with a disorientating blend of cool sensuality and blank menace.
   At the same time as Maxinquaye was released, Topley-Bird gave birth to Mazy. The combination of motherhood, sudden success and unspecified family upheavals proved testing. She says she still can't put a timeline on that period.
   "I really needed to be in one place and sort my life out. You get worn down. You become more vulnerable. I wasn't fulfilling my own expectations of myself, my work and my family."
    After she and Tricky severed their musical alliance (they're still on good terms), Topley-Bird decided to focus on raising Mazy. The eight-year-old even directly influenced the shape of Quixotic.
    "I had one really dirty song called Four On The Floor, which I didn't put on the album. Her wandering around singing it would make me go, 'Lalalalalala!"' She puts her hands over her ears. "It's interesting though. The music brings all these topics up and I get to talk her through and explain things. The idea is just to understand human nature."
   Topley-Bird says she has no interest in success at any cost. She admits that Quixotic is a little too accessible for her tastes and insists she could walk away if her career started damaging her personal life again.
    "I'd sooner be aware of what I don't like and where I don't like being and who I don't like being around. Even before doing my first gig I was like, 'Well, I don't have to go up there. They can't make me go up there.' And I had a little chuckle to myself, but then I thought, 'Well, this might be quite a laugh."'
    Is that the teenage punk instinct poking through again?
    "I suppose it's something that you just don't grow out of, but then again if you're
creating things it's your job to mix things up and think, 'What would the alternative be?' Otherwise it's boring." 

Quixotic is out on July 14 on Independiente.

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