We first heard Martina Topley-Bird‘s breathy sensuality on her contribution to Tricky’s dark & brilliant trip-hop debut, Maxinquaye, and fell hard & fast for her dream-like delicacy and compelling nuance. Her voice was recognized & celebrated early for its hypnotic nature, whether through a reimagining of Public Enemy’s Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos or the magnificently stoned haze of Makes Me Wanna Die from the landmark Pre-Millennium Tension album.
Martina’s since taken flight with an outstanding career in her own right, with a body of solo work and further collaborations with the likes of Massive Attack (such as on last year’s Heligoland), Gorillaz/Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Mark Lanegan. Her debut album Quixotic was nominated for Britain’s Mercury Prize and was a critical success, while her second record, the Danger Mouse-produced The Blue God, saw her work with Albarn to expand her artistic horizons to compelling effect.
Some Place Simple, her latest album, is a stripped affair featuring four new songs as well as reworked selections from her existing catalogue, a bold reexamination of her strongest material to date. Her touring work with partner-in-execution Ninja, a multi-dextrous instrumentalist and DJ who gives flight to Martina’s imagination onstage, has allowed Topley-Bird’s confidence to soar, resulting in bold new directions for the British chanteuse.
We’ve paid close attention as her career taken off both through her own solo work and various collaborations, and were excited to get some time with the songstress to discuss her craft.
This is going back a ways, but did you ever hear any feedback from the Public Enemy camp on your cover of Black Steel with Tricky? I’ve always been madly in love with your take on it, and only recently did I discover that you weren’t familiar with the song when you recorded it. Somehow that makes it more captivating.
Thank you. That’s really nice to hear. Well, Flava Flav jumped up onstage with us at a gig somewhere in the states in the late 90s — I guess that was an endorsement of sorts.
You’re right. I’d heard the song for the first time in the morning, I wrote out the lyrics (this was pre internet for me) and then I really thought we were just doing a warm up pass, but we ended up using the whole of that one and only take. I sang only over the beat and the bass loop. The band played over it later.
The Tricky/Massive Attack history is a slippery one, but there’s a very large cross-section of fans who adore both. Aside from when interviewers pester you about it, is there any lingering impact of being a collaborative bridge over such a storied gap between the two camps?
I’m just glad to be help.
How different would Some Place Simple have been without Damon Albarn’s involvement? Your records have wildly different sounds to them when placed side by side.
Oh, it would’ve been quite different, yes. I would have a made a record with my NinJa, but Some Place Simple came about because Damon saw us play live and was really stunned by the way the songs came across. Ultimately this record is what it is because he championed the idea of recording songs I’d already released but in this very new constellation.
How has the relationship been with Albarn’s own label Honest Jon’s?
Well, each new place is culture shock. To assume makes an ass of u and me etc. I was hoping to get the record licensed in all the places I was touring with Massive Attack. But no…. The best thing has been sensing the care and attention, time they put in to really understanding what the record is and safeguarding its integrity with regard to running order, title and artwork. On the artistic side I couldn’t fault them and would definitely work with them again. I’m pleased there’s been a proper domestic release on Ipecac in the US.
With only you and the NinJa onstage at a time, have the stripped performances yielded any new growth within the songs?
Yes, I definitely feel like we’ve connected with the soul of the songs more and we convey that more immediately and sometimes more viscerally because there’s no frills, nothing to hide behind. My voice has to carry the songs in a way it’s never had to before!
What effects do you employ onstage these days, whether loop pedals or otherwise? You’ve used a loop station for layering beats in the past…
I started using the loop station pedal for harmonies, to get round not being able to drag backing singers everywhere. What i like about it is that you get to see something from nothing, a sound being created in front of you and you get this sense of this music almost becoming tangible. I love when the components of a track are laid bare and then stacked to make something different in fusing the separate parts. Yeah, it just does it for me.
Then percussive elements started to work their way in there. I asked a couple of beatboxers to appear when I was supporting Massive in UK. They are very sensitive about sharing trade secrets! But I got a kick sound through logarithmic pressure build up or something…
How’s the beatboxing coming along?
I am fussy about the cleanliness of microphones in a way I have never been before.
How do you prepare your voice for performance?
Nowadays I try to avoid loud places where I have to shout to be heard the few days before the show. If I feel a little vulnerable I use a steam inhaler (which has claimed the life of 3 keys on this MacBookPro) . But if I’m in relatively fine voice I warm up by drinking warm water with Manuka honey if I can find it. Someone just showed me a good trick – you run your tongue around the outside of your teeth and this really stretches out the muscles in your mouth and throat.
Do you concern yourself with the evolving industry? Any thoughts on the state of the business side of the music world, as it stands now?
Indeed I do. There are a lot of different business models out there now, so you have to be very careful to choose the one that’s right for you and your work. Weigh up what the benefits and risks are. You have to understand that the music industry was created by gangsters! So watching its slow journey towards legitimacy has been pretty fascinating…. and then it gets hijacked! By techno geeks from cyberspace. Brilliant.
Your chemistry with Massive Attack is evident both sonically and physically – seeing you perform together onstage is a beautiful symbiosis to witness. Is there a comfort in being one of several flavors in the mix, as you are as a part of a larger group, or is your natural inclination to cast your own colors, make the individual statements of your solo work?
Thank you so much, that’s lovely to hear. It’s been a really lovely experience.I enjoy and I learn a lot in collaboration which is great when I gives me insight into how to tackle a problem in my own work. It’s also very mysterious, this concept of chemistry and why things work or they don’t and I find compelling more than comforting and you’re working in this intangible, invisible medium of balance and tension in emotions. And it’s fulfilling to feel like you made an important difference to someone else’s project. I’m now in the phase of finding it incredibly important that I work by myself and make space to ferret out al the little secrets I’m keeping from myself.
Given your featured appearances on other people’s records, which obviously necessitates adhering to their ideas, when it’s time to work on your own material do you find yourself overly protective of your vision for it?
It’s no struggle adhering to an idea I like and have an affinity with and more often than not people tend to offer to change things about their work that doesn’t work for me if they want me involved. I am protective of my work but certainly overprotective. It’s not from collaborating on other people’s work that’s made me wary either. I used to get a bit freaked out when I didn’t know how to record or produce myself, because there’d be a lot at stake if I was running up a studio bill and spending time away from my kid and not getting the sound I wanted. That was depressing and frustrating. Then if the label heard it and liked it and I didn’t – nightmare. Now I’m not signed, I can use Logic and Protools and I write alone so it’s no longer an issue, thank God. When someone is working on my music I try to make the situation conducive to getting the result I’m looking for
Do you write on the road?
Not really. Damon is the only person I’ve heard of who LIKES to go on the road to write.
I’ve heard from several people (and I agree) that it would be fantastic to hear you on a really sharp pop project record. Does that draw your interest at all?
Oh definitely, I’d love to do a really slick, tight all out pop record. Definitely. That would be rad.
Will we see a full-scale Martina solo tour in the next year or two? I’d imagine you could use a little personal time away from it all after such a busy time in your life.
I’m gonna take some time off but will back as soon as I can make a tour work. I want you meet my NinJa!
Learn more about Martina and buy her music at her official site.