Photography by KEVIN DAVIES
Styling by MERRYN LESLIE
Hair by Johnny Sapong
using L'Oreal Tecni-Art
|Finally out of Tricky's shadow, Martina Topley-Bird has a new set of famous names to live up to. Only this time they're Billie Holliday, Marlene Dietrich and Nina Simone. How's that for pressure?||I went to school
with people who wanted to be pop stars," declares Martina Topley-Bird,
as if this is the oddest idea she's ever heard. We're discussing Pop
Idol and other stuff she generally considers to be "a good thing".
Yes, you heard right. This is Martina, hitherto best known for being Tricky's
ethereal voice, muse and lover we're talking about. And she thinks 'vocal
harmony groups' are a good thing. "Oh no, not like that," she corrects.
I mean, I think it's helpful for people to have the whole process exposed.
And if it turns them off, then it's a good thing."
As Bristol legend has it, while Martina's fellow schoolgirls were dreaming of a Sylvia Young career trajectory and singing into their hairbrushes in front of the mirror, she just sat on a wall in her school uniform, smoked a fag and waited for the pop guru to come to her. Fortunately, the first musical genius to pass happened to be Tricky. It could have been worse. It could have been Pete Waterman. Martina opens her eyes wide at the thought Just imagine. And Pete, if you're there, should you ever want to know the true meaning of the words 'vocal harmony', have a listen to the intro track on Martina's new album, In fact, better still, get her to sing it live to you mid-interview and look at the reaction of the couple on the next table. "I'm really chuffed with it," Martina announces, oblivious to our fellow diners. "It's got this really old, chain gang melody thing going on, but it's also a boast - I'm taking on the world."'
For some reason, Martina Topley-Bird isn't the type of person you'd expect to burst into song in a restaurant or to make grand boasts. To say she likes to keep a low profile is something of an understatement. This is the woman, remember who still regularly gets called 'Martine' because of a printing error on the first Tricky album, released nearly ten years ago. She's not exactly someone to put her name up in lights. "Erm," she squirms, "I think what you're making is supposed to speak for itself. I don't really like being given too much information myself, it's not necessary. I like figuring it out. I like
|making music, I
like performing, I like working with other people creatively and getting
excited about ideas... that's all great, but... I dunno."
This reticence to step into the limelight seems at odds with someone who's made a name for herself through show-stopping performances. "Well, there must be quite a lot of artists who are shy in life and real extroverts on stage - don't you find that? But I am actually quite an extrovert person. Just not on a world scale, thanks very much." Besides, having come to world attention as the foil to Tricky's brooding, wheezing, cackling persona, it was almost inevitable that Martina would be miscast as the quiet, shy, sensible one in the equation. But whether or not she got enough of the credit for her creative input in the partnership, she's unconcerned. "A lot of how you are perceived is how you instruct people to perceive you. And I wasn't really going to waste a lot of energy making people see me any particular way. I've got my job. you know."
This month, that job sees Martina finally step out of the haze and the shadow that Tricky cast her in to such devastating effect and take centre stage at last. Actually, that's doing her a disservice. Tricky's recent greatest hits package, A Ruff Guide, demonstrates how many of his biggest singles were dominated by Martina's vocals: Aftermath, Ponderosa, Black Steel, Hell Is Round The Corner Christian Sands, Makes Me Wanna Die... So it will come as little surprise to know that her new album, Quixotic, provides plenty more egg-on-face moments for Pete Waterman and his ilk. Who needs vocal histnonics when you've got someone with the voice-cracking vulnerability of Billie Holliday, matched with an uncompromising attitude that saw Vibe magazine dub her "the black Dietrich of Soul"? Finally allowed to stretch her wings, Martina displays an emotional depth that was only hinted at previously, varying from the lilting, skewed tones of Lullaby, via the quirky Scandinavianisms of Sandpaper Kisses to the Dr John/Beefheart swamp blues stomp of Too Tough To Die, where she's perfectly cast in the Lisa Bonet role of voodoo temptress.
| What might surprise,
though, is the strength of the songwriting - something people might reasonably
assume she took a backseat role in where Tricky was concerned. "A-ha! Yeah,
I should think so, yeah. I didn't do any lyric writing with Tricky, really.
Nothing that made it on to the albums anyway. But I liked what I was doing.
I loved the music. I loved working with him as a person, his energy. And
as a character, I think he's just really special, so... yeah, maybe people
should be surprised. But what it is it's a progression, and that's what
makes it valid to be doing it, you know?"
It's more than a progression. While Martina has roped in some big name cameos (Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan of Queens Of The
Stone Age appear on first single Need One, while there are collaborations with David Holmes, Tricky and Bond composer David Arnold), she's established at the album's core a songwriting partnership with unknowns Steve Criftal, Alex MacGowan and her half-brother Nick Bird. The result is a collection of songs that stand up as timeless classics, all pinned together by That Voice. This isn't the sound of a schoolgirl putting slapdash tracks together in the studio anymore. It reveals the maturity and world-weariness of a single mother - remarkably still only 26 - who's been through the mill of a very public relationship and come out the other side all the better for it. In the process, she's come to embody everything that
the triumvirate of great Bristol bands of the early '90s represented: deep, dark and unfathomable. Inspired and discriminating. And, most of all, informed by a worldview that is fiercely uncompromising and uniquely feminine in its stance.
So. Time for the Tricky question. How would Martina define her relationship with him now? At this, she visibly perks up. "Classified as 'Good'," she announces, with a wide grin. "Yeah. [pause] Working. We've been fine. Rlatonic. Of course."
Professionally speaking, the sessions with Tricky proved fruitful. The tracks he's involved in on Quixotic - lIya, Ragga and, particularly, Stevie's - are as good as anything he's done in quite some time. "Yeah, it was good. We did quite a lot of tracks. I had a few different periods of time with him. The first, it was coming up to Christmas a couple of years ago, and I wanted to continue working on the album, but we tend to both want to be with Maisey [their eight-year-old daughter] over Christmas. So the best way for that to work out was for us to work together over that period. lt was a practical decision.
|Luckily. But it was a lot of
fun doing it And I think we were quite tickled by the change of emphasis
in the relationship." She certainly got the good end of the deal. Stevie's
is possibly the best song Tricky's ever been involved in. To say that David
Arnold's string arrangement is up there with Unfinished Sympathy
wouldn't be an exaggeration. If we were talking about anyone else
but these three, you'd know the result would be a terrible overblown trip
hop rip-off. But we're not.
As for the question of Martina returning the favour on future Tricky albums: "It's never obvious. I think you never know really until it's done. But in the time we've stopped working together, he's done three albums and I've done one. He's quite impulsive and instinctive when he works. The creative process is quite weird with him. I mean, I worked with Tricky for God knows how many years and I still couldn't tell you exactly what's going on in his head."
Trying to yet inside Martina Topley-Bird's head is equally frustrating. She's a difficult interviewee, not in the sense that she's rude or unforthcoming, but in the sense that she won't allow herself to fit into any neatly summarisable box. Which is, of course, exactly what makes her so interesting. She chose the title Quixotic not only because she likes "the sound of it. It feels funny in your mouth", but because it defies any simple straightforward dictionary definition. "It's got a whole variety of meanings, so you can glean what you want out of it. It implies a journey, it implies... have you read the book [Cervantes' Don Quixote, from which the word is derived]? It's such a sprawling, epic book. People can just hijack the word and make it what they mean really." The most common definition is being idealistic to the point of impracticality. A fair description of Martina's modus operandi? "Um, in a sense. I do think that way but then I tend to react and do something opposite because of it. Yeah, I think I'm happy with that as a title. I had Passive Aggressive at one stage and then I just thought, oh God..."
She could just as well have gone for Nonplussed. Don Quixote or not, Martina isn't one for tilting at windmills. Take the 'scandal' of her having been to a posh school and having a double-barelled surname, which a magazine broke with at the height of Tricky's fame.
"'She's posh!"' she laughs. "You know, you can choose anything to define me if you want to. It's just... I don't feel the need, I haven't had the energy to construct and fabricate an interesting story. So I suppose if one person finds that interesting, go for it. I think I'm a
|good singer... and I went to
public school. Deal with it. And the whole double-barelled name thing.
I think it's quite a funny name really, isn't it?" Well, exotic maybe.
Her mother's ethnic mix of "El Salvadorean, Seminole Indian and God knows
what" is explored in Too Tough To Die, a track recorded with David
Holmes which she describes as being not so much autobiographical as "prehistory.
It's background." Having been brought up in England, where "you
are for all intents and purposes black, however mixed you may look", the
song represents a journey back through her relatively untraceable African
American roots. "My mum finds it quite hard to get information out of my
grandmother, to tell you the truth. In fact I surprised her with the El
Salvadorean thing a couple of years ago. She was like, 'no-one told me!"'
The song is typical of the way Martina adopts and switches between different
characters on the album, with alter egos cropping up as disembodied backing
vocals and distorted squeals. "I'm not very good at focusing on a topic
and writing about it," she admits. "I guess it seems very prosaic to me,
and I prefer just a bunch of images, to leave a little trail you can think
about if you want to."
Quixotic, nonplussed, multifarious. Ask Martina what she's listening to at the moment and she'll admit to having recently employed an Algerian singing teacher to stop her falling into blues standard cliches, before reeling off a list of Turkish and Malian influences. And yet, at the same time, this is someone who lists one of her career highlights as going on tour with Perry Farrell's Porno For Pyros and has known Josh and Mark from Queens Of The Stone Age since their days in Kyuss and the Screaming Trees. Now that they've finally got round to recording a track, Need One, together - as they'd always promised each other - she worries that it might give the impression that she's suddenly 'gone rock'. Hence the chain gang incantation at the start of the album. "I didn't want to start the album with a big-sounding rocky song," she explains. "Even though lyrically it's quite cryptic, it's also a bit too obvious."
| Still, it has put her
in the poignant position of having maximum airplay on Xfm at a time when
the TV stations are screening 24 hour coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Poignant because the song's chorus is: 'You're gonna kill some/You're gone
free some/You're gonna lose someone'. "Yeah... I wondered how long that
would take for someone to pick up on. I did wonder if they would keep it
on there because of this whole censorship thing going on. It's a funny
old time to be coming out." So what's it really about? "I don't know really,"
she sighs, catching herself just in the nick of time before she goes all
nonplussed again. "Err, it's about... [deep breath] To summarise, it's
about being frustrated with not having direct communication, and being
frustrated with people that... are aligning themselves with moral superiority.
So the chorus means, you're gonna do all manner of fucked-up things and
great things, and it doesn't make you better or worse than anyone either
way. So don't fuck around, just do what you're gonna do. For me it's relevant
because I'm aware that I'm going to be dead someday and I'll be sorry if
I haven't done things that I wanted to do. Your soul's journey, you know..."
But surely she's left enough behind already in terms of her music to ensure a certain amount of immortality? "I don't know, I'm pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. That 'editing is everything' dictum pops into my head when you talk about things like that." But her definition of the truly immortal greats is enlightening. "I like people who carve out their own niche. I've been reading Nina Simone's autobiography. She's an interesting character because she set out to do one thing... she wanted to be a black female concert pianist. And it was only years later she found out she'd become a hero to people like the Black Panthers. But she hadn't set out to do anything like that. Being totally zeitgeisty, being held up as this star, when she was actually still caught up in and experiencing the same stuff as everyone else, so she couldn't see it."
Sound like anyone you know?
Need One is released on
Independiente on May 26.
photos: Kevin Davies
© i-D Magazine