Topley Birdís father has a taste for quotations, and one of his favourites
is the Cyril Connolly chestnut about "the pram in the hall" being the enemy
of creativity. His daughter wonders about that a lot. "I think thatís really
sad and fatalistic," she says, "but I have to balance what I say with the
fact that I have responsibility."
Specifically, Topley Bird's responsibility is Maisey, her eight-year-old daughter, the result of a relationship with the rapper and producer Tricky. Topley Bird, you may remember, was the teenager who sang with such sleepy and bewitching purity on Tricky's 1995 debut, Maxinquaye. She was the voice who provided a calming influence to his hoarse and paranoid raps, the siren who helped establish the muzzy Bristolian culture of trip-hop as an authentic musical phenomenon.
Since she stopped working with Tricky in 1998, however, it seemed as if Topley Bird had more or less abandoned music to concentrate on motherhood. Every other year or so, the music business would be titillated with the idea of a solo project, only for nothing to come of it. Occasionally, she'd steal back into the spotlight - providing the odd vocal for producer and soundtrack composer David Holmes, for instance - then disappear again. After the uncomfortable experiences she endured in the media alongside Tricky, perhaps it wasn't worth the hassle. In fact, Topley Bird spent the best part of five years working on a debut album, Quixotic, that is finally ready for release this summer. Bluesy, graceful and appealingly varied (the first single, Need One, features bits of Queens of the Stone Age), it's also a good deal more accessible than anything Tricky has done since Maxinquaye.
"I had to make an album that was obviously not a Tricky album," she says, sat in an Italian restaurant near her flat in Chelsea, West London. "It's a different voice, a different aspect. A lot of it is quite mellow."
Nevertheless, Tricky makes a couple of appearances on Quixotic, and it is Tricky who continues to hover over Martina Topley Bird's career. It's a curious situation: a woman being judged by a partnership which dissolved five years ago musically and eight years ago emotionally, around the time their daughter Maisey was born. There is something odd about fixating on such ancient history, as if her life has been emotionally bereft ever since.
"No-one ever asks me about any other relationships," she laughs, then becomes typically cautious. "I'll just say that it would be stupid to think I haven't had a relationship since Tricky. It would be inaccurate to assume the songs are about him," she continues. "I put a lot of time and energy into the album in the hope that it was enough."
is it? For a start, Quixotic is packed with songs which portray relationships
in an unusually positive light, far different to the twisted incantations
written for her by Tricky. And then, more pressingly, there's the fact
that her collaborations with Tricky provided some of the most powerful
and profound music of the last decade. With Tricky fronting the operation
at the time - Topley Bird was an even more reluctant interviewee in the
mid-1990s than she is now - this is the first chance to hear her side of
It begins in the early 1990s, in Bristol. Martina Topley Bird - half-English, half-American and with a little Seminole Indian blood on her mother's side - is 15 and at boarding school. The legend of her meeting with Tricky is, it turns out, actually true.
"He walked past me," she remembers. "I was sitting on a wall at the end of the street having a cigarette." Drawn into the circle of Bristol musicians, she found herself singing for him a week or two later, and beginning the artistic partnership which would result in the psychodramas of Maxinquaye.
"I thought I'd met someone I had an affinity with in regard to music. I just thought he was incredibly talented, it was amazing. It didn't sound like anything that was out there, so I was fully prepared for it to get slated. Part of the idea was not sounding pretty. The idea was to be more real, more natural, more conversational. There was one stage when I was pregnant and I was singing, 'I'll f*** you up the ass just for a laugh' (on Abbaon Fat Tracks), and I thought, 'My mum's not going to like that.' But it's art, isn't it?" She grins wryly.
"I don't think it would have bothered me if I wasn't pregnant at the time, but just then it was hormones ... I'm not supposed to be talking about the personal aspects of it all." She lights a cigarette, pauses to rationalise. "But it's kind of inevitable. Everybody knows, don't they? F*** it, there you go. I was more sensitive."
When Maxinquaye came out,
Tricky usually denied that the two were having an
"We were both very wary," she says, and little seems to have changed there. "You feel vulnerable when people know about your business. A lot was happening at once: having a kid, a record being out, things panning out not exactly the way I thought they were going to. It was a lot to get used to."
How do you think you coped?
|"I think I did
amazingly well. It was really difficult and it was possible there'd be
really horrible, painful repercussions. It's partly why I've made this
album quite accessible. I don't want to have to do a lot of press for it:
it's all there, it doesn't need explaining.
"I thought I was pretty punky and laissez-faire, and then decided that I needed a little more structure and stability. My responsibilities changed. I've got a really high threshold for a stuff, but that whole situation was very testing, because it wasn't just about two people, everyone else wanted to be involved too."
Understandably, perhaps. Tricky and Topley Bird made for a great story: the dark and twisted street kid and his middle-class muse, split up but still working together, sharing the parenting of their daughter in the media glare. Here, after all, was a man who dressed up as the devil and said, in 1995, "In my relationships I change people's personalities. That's why I don't have long relationships. My personality's stronger and they just break, their will breaks."
"He does have a very strong personality," says Topley Bird now. "I don't know, I think I was very young and open and curious. But he is a very strong character and he is a" she tails off. "I can't speak for him, it's bad territory."
By 1998, they ended their working relationship after a third Tricky album, Angels With Dirty Faces. Ill with candida and terrifyingly stressed, Tricky had been accused of being a bad father in a couple of wildly extrapolating pieces, and had even attacked one of the journalists. An end to working with Topley Bird, he reasoned, would move his zealously-guarded family life out of focus.
"Things did become uncomfortable
for both of us about the way we were perceived," remembers Topley Bird.
"We were touring together, and it was too
Tricky continued to release
an album every few years, each one comparing unfavourably to the still-exceptional
millstone of Maxinquaye. Topley Bird,
|notes how heartening
it is when people fulfil their potential. "It's really horribly heartbreaking
when they don't."
Do you think people thought that about you?
"Potentially. When I was a kid I was always being told how much potential I had. I do have a programmed pressure to achieve, but I know what it is. Being a musician isn't something public schoolgirls are meant to aspire to."
So why did it take so long?
"I had lots to learn and I worked with a lot of different people. I think I lost interest a couple of times, and I was a bit disheartened, but that's a natural part of the process. You have to invest quite a lot of energy into it. I didn't doubt I was capable of making something that I loved, but I wondered if I would."
Are you naturally cautious?
"I'm selectively cautious. I've made a decision to take a lot of responsibility and so everything's pretty simple: I know what I need to do, and I try to do it. I'm clear-headed, but I have to be. I've already been through the whole thing of being uncomfortable and being upset by what is written in the press. You have to be careful, you have to respect who you work with. I don't know how people justify writing things that are damaging, that compromise the right to people's privacy."
The irony is, of course, that the press are only really interested in old news - the Tricky situation - and seem content to leave Topley Bird's contemporary intimacies unexplored. Ask her about what lies behind the new songs and she'll either claim they're self-explanatory or resort to vague expediencies like, "I think I've experienced the feelings at some point, if not the autobiographical details. When I write, I'm just trying to get an emotional truth across."
In fact, Topley Bird is in an enviable position as an artist with a debut album and a fascinating back story. She can give the occasional insight into her old affair, while keeping private almost all the details of her adult life. "I concentrate on the music part and I'm wary of the rest," she says, like thousands before her, but with more steel and conviction than most. How clever. How responsible. How mysterious. And how utterly, frustratingly human.
The single Need One is released on 2 June. Quixotic follows in the summer
© The Scotsman (http://news.scotsman.com/archive.cfm?id=592002003)