Into the past, present, future
Upset by the focus on her private life, Martina Topley Bird 'went away for a while'. Now she is glad to be back with a solo album and a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize, she tells Brian Boyd
Bristol, 1990: 15-year-old Martina Topley Bird is sitting on a wall, still in her school uniform. The trip-hop star in waiting, Tricky, passes by and starts to chat to her.
"That's when we first met," she remembers. "But a few weeks later, while I was pissed out of my head on cider I went round to where he was living and started banging on the door. I climbed in through the window and we must have spoken about music, because the next time we met, Tricky was 'oh, you're a singer'. That's what I remember about the meeting."
The exotically named Topley Bird had grown up in London in a large extended family - her mother had five children, her stepfather had three. Her racial background is exotic too: "My mother is El Salvadorean and Seminole Indian; the rest is untraceable African-American. We moved about a bit when I was a child, which wasn't a problem for me - if you're not white and middle-class, then you're slightly different and exotic in those new environments. I thrived, and survived, on those situations."
Quite refined of speech, she laughs as she recounts her musical background.
"I suppose I started off singing in school choirs, but soon I discovered punk and dyed my hair blue," she says. "Then I got into a real rock phase, bands like Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers."
When she hooked up at such a young age with Tricky, she had no idea where the adventure would take her. She was a major collaborator on Tricky's début album, Maxinquaye (1994), a groundbreaking work that is rightly regarded as one of the albums of the 1990s. Those slow motion hip-hop beats, claustrophobic grooves and Tricky's dark lyrics were perfectly offset by a rara avis of a voice: Topley Bird sang in a distinctive style, both breathy and broken.
"It's a sort of dislocated voice," she says.
She went on to have a relationship - and a child - with Tricky. Still very young, she toured the world and for a while the pair could do no wrong. But she found the attention focused on her private life intolerable. "We were doing this festival in the US called Lollapalooza," she recalls, "and at one of the merchandising stalls there were all these photographs of me saying: 'This is the mother of Tricky's child.' That really shocked me."
The two collaborated on a few more albums before splitting up, professionally and personally. Topley Bird seemed to disappear - she did crop up singing backing vocals on the odd album for people she liked - although rumours persisted of a solo album.
"I just felt like I needed to be centred to make music," she says. "And once I felt that, I was ready to record. There were practical issues to consider, but in the end I just worked at my own pace and in my own time. I knew there was some talk along the lines of 'whatever happened to Martina?', and different people had different ideas about where I had gone, but really it was all about me making the album when I was ready.
"I decided to call the album Quixotic - I just liked the word and after I'd put it forward as a title I discovered it had many meanings. It really makes sense because the album is about a journey sparked by idealism. I like to think it represents my past, present and future."
A varied and intriguing work, Quixotic is rock when it wants to be (Queens of the Stone Age collaborate), and sweepingly orchestral when it wants to be (cinematic composer David Arnold also helps out). Northern Irish DJ David Holmes also makes an appearance, as does Tricky (on production duties), and as dramatically different as the styles are, the constant is Topley Bird's other-worldly voice. Like Norah Jones? You'll love this.
Although musically contemporary, Topley Bird's voice also has a sense of history. She evokes the spirit of older, more intimate-sounding singers - Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone would be obvious reference-points.
"That's the kind of effect I was after," she says. "A lot of music now just sounds so dressed up and there is too much going on at any one time. If I had my way, I would strip everything back down, get to the real core of the song. There are some really abrasive sounds on the album but I think they're held down by the vocals, which are quite soft."
The collaborators all come from different musical fields but Topley Bird thinks this only adds to the album's appeal.
"With the guys from Queens of the Stone Age, they're just out-and-out rock," she says. "I was a really big fan of the band they used to be in, Kyuss. I met them years ago and they said they wanted to do something with me, and finally it has happened. With David Holmes, I had sang on one of his albums and he was great in that he just energised so much of the album. He'd come in with these great samples - there's one on the album, taken from an old New Orleans rhythm and blues record."
Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize last month, Quixotic is being tipped, cautiously, as an overall winner, but Topley Bird is not overly-impressed.
"It was a real surprise to be on the shortlist but I don't know about anything else," she says. "It all seems to be about 'urban' music now and this album is certainly not that. There's a lot of R 'n' B, soul and gospel singers out there but that sound doesn't really reflect where I'm coming from. I'm more of a rootsy person myself; I like stuff that sounds a bit unfinished, a bit raw, that Tom Waits sort of sound. And also you want to keep that real individual stuff - look at what someone such as Bjork has done. It can be difficult for women in the music industry in that regard, to ignore the pressure to sound a certain way, but it's worth it.
"When I first started out, I knew nothing about the music industry. I just met this guy, left school and recorded an album. It was all accidental. People thought I had run away from music, I couldn't cope or whatever, but I was just went away for a while and thought things through. It's good to be back".
Quixotic is on the Sony label