The bird takes to the air
Jonathan Trew

DIFFICULT though it would be to forget, you might just remember the name Martina Topley-Bird. Nearly a decade ago, Topley-Bird made her singing debut on Trickyís Maxinquaye album. Back then, Tricky was the fêted king of what was known as trip hop. The music was the brooding sound of hot city nights and Trickyís face glowered out from the cover of every magazine that wanted a piece of his often bleak, urban cool. 

While Topley-Birdís contribution to Maxinquaye and its three successors was widely recognised, Tricky was still very much the main man, rightly credited as the driving force behind the sound. Step forward 10 years and the roles have been somewhat reversed. Trickyís sixth album was released this month, and compared with his early career it barely caused a ripple as it sank. 

In contrast, Topley-Birdís debut solo album, Quixotic, is due to be released next month and has been causing a stir long before her record company have decided on a release date. In some places raw and in others smoothly sophisticated, it combines updated blues and gospel tinges to make a startling, powerful record. 

Tricky, with whom Topley-Bird had a daughter eight years ago, is too much of a maverick ever to be written off, and he has contributed significantly to Quixotic. However, and at least for the time being, it is his former partnerís mojo that is waxing while his appears to be on the wane. 

Since last collaborating with Tricky on Angels With Dirty Faces, Topley-Birdís profile has been as low as a limbo-dancing snake, but she has not been twiddling her thumbs. As well as doing live vocals for Perry Farrellís band Porno For Pyros, Topley-Bird did some work on a Primus album and hung out in San Francisco with Tom Waites and Stewart Copeland, who were producing a couple of other tracks from the album. 

So far so good, but starting work on her own album proved less easy. "After Angels [With Dirty Faces] I took a year off to set up being at home," she explains. "I didnít really ever have any of that settled up until that point. Before that I would go on tour and people would be missing their homes and their beds and I just didnít understand that. Iíd been talking about making my own album for ages and was waiting a bit passively for the right situation to arise so that I would be comfortable to do it. Iíd always planned to do it." 

With her domestic arrangements in place, work started on Quixotic four years ago with Topley-Bird collaborating with her stepbrother Nick Bird and their friends Steve Crittal and Alex MacGowan. Tricky and David Holmes also feature in the co-production credits, while Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and Mark Lanegan, formerly of grunge act The Screaming Trees, feature in ĎNeed Oneí, the recently released single from the album. Given this multi-hands on approach it is no surprise that Quixotic has many moods. 

"Iím curious and I like the idea of trying to fuse different sounds," says Topley-Bird. "Iíll get bored and turned off if I think I know the structure of a song within a couple of seconds. I just donít like being predictable. Itís less diverse

than it could have been at one point but we ended up with an album that seems to flow as a whole, even if it is diverse." 

For research, Topley-Bird listens to "everything I can get my hands on", but her tastes range just as far and wide when listening for pleasure. "At home Iím working my way through lots of things I havenít listened to at the moment, and thereís not a lot thatís really blowing my mind," she says. "If I want to relax at home then I listen to Toots and the Maytals. I like listening to Cesarea Avora a lot. Itís beautiful and relaxing and melancholy, and she has a very androgynous voice. Most of the time people turn up and go, ĎIs that a man or a woman singing?í I really like that. 

"I also like listening to Umu Sangare, a Malian singer, to get a sense of how lyric writing can be a different thought process. Thereís a different tradition there in how songs are sung and performed, and how they interact with their audience and introduce themselves and their musicians." 

Topley-Bird was born and bred in London, before moving to Somerset and Bristol, but her roots are much more diverse. "My mother is El Salvadorean, Seminole Indian and the rest is African American," she says. Inevitably her background has had some bearing on her music, if not directly. "I didnít source material directly from my own personal heritage but Iím mixed. Iím a mixed race person," she says. "Iíve always loved being mixed and thought it was the best thing ever. I think that kind of thing does inform everything Iím interested in. When I was a kid I liked alternative music, which was all about fusion at the time." 

She calls her album "a very personal development". Not just in terms of writing, singing and performing the songs but also in terms of learning to work with other people to get it done. In her previous work she had only been responsible for her own contributions. 

"Working with Tricky before, it was his name that was on the album and ultimately it was his responsibility for both the good and the bad on any given album," she confides. "That was a pressure that I understood in theory but couldnít really grasp, couldnít understand. It wasnít my thing. I was in a comfortable position with Tricky for years, where all I had to do was turn up and sing and everybody was like, ĎWhay! Great!í But I felt that my brain was atrophying a bit. 

"Now that itís my album, I make the decisions and then have to live with them. Fortunately I can tell that if I donít like something now then I probably wonít like it in two hours or two weeksí time either. Itís all about dealing with people and allowing them to have their creativity at the same time as getting the result you want." 

I suggest that throwing a strop often proves an effective studio tactic and could help build her a reputation as a diva not to be crossed. "I havenít thrown one yet, or at least not a proper one," she smiles. "Though I have been told it might be a good idea. I should put about rumours that I did have a hissy fit and everyone was very scared and now does exactly what I want within seconds." Give it time and I expect they will. Hissy fit or no hissy fit. 

Need One is out tomorrow on Independiente; Quixotic is released on July 15 

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