Until recently, Tricky had a picture of his mother as the screensaver on his phone. He never got to know her properly – she killed herself when he was just four years old – but he had gone through life believing that she was out there, somewhere, keeping an eye on him.
“And I did believe that,” he says. “Until 8 May this year. Because that was the day my world ended. So if she was supposed to be looking after me, what the fuck’s happened?”
The date he is referring to is the day his daughter Mazy – also known as Mina – died at the age of 24 (there is currently an ongoing NHS trust inquiry into the cause). At the time of her death, Tricky put out a brief statement saying: “I thought I knew what loss was, but now my daughter is gone I realise I had no idea what it was after all.”
Today, several months on, he still sounds utterly bereft: “I’ve lost my belief,” he says at one point. “Hopefully I will get it back.”
He is here to talk about his autobiography, and you wouldn’t, on the surface, know that he was grieving. We are sitting at an outdoor bar alongside Regent’s canal in north London. Tricky is drinking “water with bubbles” and smoking rollups. He is outgoing, cheeky and full of warmth. He speaks with a thick Bristolian burr, loudly and quickly, a surprise to people who have heard his music – which can be dark and claustrophobic – and expect a moody personality to match.
The memoir charts Tricky’s unlikely rise from young Bristol tearaway to one of British music’s most creative visionaries. His hushed style of rapping, unusual production methods and ability to reconstruct soul, punk, reggae and hip-hop into strange new shapes has long left critics scrabbling for words to define his 13-album career. He hates being called “the godfather of trip-hop” – hates the phrase “trip-hop”, in fact – but it is probably as close as you will get to a neat label and it is hard to argue with.
Tricky shaped the sound of Massive Attack’s landmark 1991 album Blue Lines, and four years later – thanks in part to the beguiling vocals of his then partner and the mother of Mazy, Martina Topley-Bird – changed the face of pop with his baffling, beautiful debut solo album, Maxinquaye, named after his mother.
The book’s title – Hell Is Round the Corner – is taken from a track on Maxinquaye, and it aptly describes a life in which violence and tragedy have lurked beside every success story. Born Adrian Thaws and raised in Bristol by his grandmother and aunties, Tricky had a happy, but unconventional, childhood: food often consisted of rabbit stew sourced from the family’s poaching expeditions; criminality was an accepted way of life.
Without his musical gift, Tricky’s prospects would not have looked bright: “Where I come from, a lot of people are either on drugs, in prison or dead,” he says. His uncles were gangsters and Tricky grew up noticing how people would treat him differently whenever their names were dropped: his food in a curry house would be upgraded; the atmosphere in a pub might suddenly change.
“Once, I asked my auntie why everyone was scared of my uncle Martin,” he says. “She said: ‘Because if he says he’s going to cut your throat, he’ll cut your throat.’”
He saw unimaginable violence from a young age. Several social workers, including his other daughter, Marie, have read his book, and told him that the way he was brought up would, in their professional eyes, count as neglect.
But that is not how he sees it. He loved life in Bristol’s Knowle West, a tough, predominantly white neighbourhood, and says his upbringing was full of affection. Still, you can see where the social workers are coming from. His grandmother would often say things like: “‘Oh, it’s cold today, you don’t wanna go school, stay at home with me.’”
She would also tell him to always empty his pockets before going out, in case he accidentally left something behind at a crime scene. “What I consider normal ain’t really normal,” he concedes.
Perhaps the most startling example of this in the book is when he introduces a character from his youth as a “lovely guy” and then, a paragraph or so later, breezily mentions that said character had also shot someone in the neck. Tricky pauses when I mention this, as if trying to work out who I’m on about. Then he breaks out in an explosion of affection: “Oh, Wayney Lomas! Yeah! Aw, Wayney was a brilliant guy! But yeah, he got found with his head chopped off. They shot him in the head, in his house, then took his body, chopped him up and put him in a concrete floor.”
Er … who did?
“They don’t know who did it. But he was a lovely, lovely guy. But yeah, he’d shot someone in the neck, apparently.”
He checks my startled reaction to this tale and laughs. Is it any wonder, he says, that his music can sound dark to some people? Darkness is what he has always known. His first memory is peeking into his mum’s coffin while it was resting in the family home before burial. Didn’t that mess with his head a bit? “I don’t think it would be a great thing, would it?”
The men in his life were tough guys, but the women who raised him were tougher. He saw his grandmother and aunties street-fight like his uncles (“The fighting was more vicious, cos men care more about their ego”) and observed them being strong in other ways, too: running the household and feeding the family while the men were away doing time.
“I’ve a kinship with women,” he says. “That’s why I’ve always put women in strong positions in music.”
Topley-Bird was the most important of these. He met her by sheer luck in about 1992 – she had been singing with schoolfriends outside his house. A few years later, they became a couple and had Mazy together; the relationship didn’t last, but they continued to collaborate musically on several more albums.
That music as restless and ruthlessly experimental as Tricky’s found commercial success is perhaps surprising, not least to him. He expected to be an underground producer – instead Maxinquaye went to No 3, and was followed by a string of Top 40 albums. His sound became hugely influential and he was sought after by everyone from David Bowie to U2. Everyone wanted to be associated with him – even Samantha Cameron claimed to have spent time hanging out with him while she was at university in Bristol (Tricky has always remained sceptical of this, saying he has no recollection of her).
But he didn’t enjoy being in the limelight. A tempestuous relationship with Björk turned him into a tabloid fixture for a while, and he increasingly tried to self-sabotage his career. One time, in New York, he failed to turn up to a meeting in his hotel with Madonna because he wanted to sleep instead. He was also terrible when it came to money. He knows that he once owned a house in New Jersey with acres of land around it, but he can’t remember where exactly it was, how it got sold or where the cash went.
His mental state wasn’t helped by the amount of weed he was smoking, while he believes candida – a yeast infection rarely taken seriously by conventional doctors – was largely responsible for some of his more erratic behaviour. Even without these problems, the spotlight of fame didn’t suit him. His subdued rapping style comes, he says, from shyness; the same goes for his live shows, which use minimal stage lighting: “It’s all lack of confidence
This proved to be an issue in 2011, when Tricky was invited by Beyoncé to appear as a guest vocalist for her headline set at Glastonbury. He says he wanted to say no, but his manager insisted, so he wrote a verse to perform during her song Baby Boy. When he got on stage and saw the lights, huge crowd and celebrity faces – Chris Martin, Jay Z – staring back at him, he froze. “I wasn’t ready for it … it was too much,” he says. “I told the press that my mic wasn’t working, but it was working fine.”
Anxiety has sometimes overcome him in more destructive ways. In his book, he talks about living in Los Angeles in the 00s, when he would keep an Uzisubmachine gun underneath his bed for protection. Would he have been prepared to use it?
“This ain’t bad-guy talk, cos I’m not a bad guy,” he says. “But people don’t realise what fear can do. I’ve had situations where I’ve been so scared, where I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, and it’s gone on for weeks and it’s ruining my life. It makes you sick, it makes you mentally ill.”
He continues: “So I had this person – I can’t tell you who – on my mind day and night. And there was a chance I could bump into them. My mate brought me over some gloves, a different gun, and I had to polish the bullets so you don’t leave your finger prints on them. And then I went out in the car, to see if we were going to bump into each other.”
He notices my eyes widening – not for the first time today. “Fear can be very dangerous. You should never make someone too scared of you.”
Processing emotions has never been easy for Tricky. He admits he was a terrible, absent boyfriend to Björk. She apparently told him he was “emotionally numb”. And it is true that, throughout the book, there is a sense of indifference to some of the people and situations in his life.
But it is striking how Tricky shakes off that detachment whenever he writes about Mazy. When talking about her, he is anything but emotionally numb: he recounts with love taking her on Australian tours (where she was babysat by Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, of all people), and buying that house in the New Jersey wilderness so she could play safely away from the New York streets. His adoration for her is so clear and, now, so heartbreaking.
“One of the biggest problems with my daughter is that I’ve never loved anybody that much before,” he says. “I was there at her birth. And all of a sudden I started feeling things. And it was too much for me. Because I was emotionally numb, and it was easier for me to get through life being emotionally numb, but then suddenly I was feeling things.”
He tries to explain how he’s feeling now. “I’ve lost people before, like grandmothers, but I’ve bounced back,” he says. “This is different. Everything looks different, even music doesn’t sound the same. I feel like I’m losing my mind. I was in Islington yesterday and I was hoping I was going to see her, hoping she’s gonna walk up to me.”
I ask how he is coping, and he says therapy. “It’s good. Like, really good.” But getting through each day is tough. He says there is a girl in his apartment building in Berlin, where he lives, who is the spitting image of Mazy. When she was alive, he even connected the pair of them on FaceTime, just to freak them both out. “And now, when I see her, it’s like: ‘Whoa!’”
Mazy was a musician herself, and Tricky has plans to work on some of the songs she left behind. He already has two tracks that he wants to put on his next album. There are other things, too, that give him hope. Like the time a “white ghetto dude” stopped him in Notting Hill and said: “Your music got me through prison.” Or the moment a young Texan revealed that his family had played Tricky’s music to him while he was in a coma. Then there’s the nurse in a Chicago burns unit who told his drummer they played his music to the kids there. “That’s when I knew: ‘This ain’t just about me,’” he says.
He has been thinking of these stories a lot recently. About how others have found something in his music that has got them through.
“I never thought of my music as dark,” he says before we part. “It can’t be that dark to get people through a dark period, can it?”
He gives me a huge embrace before he leaves, an acknowledgement that it has been a difficult conversation for him. He is going through unimaginable darkness right now, but hopefully he, too, can find some light.
Hell Is Round the Corner is published by Blink on 31 October. Tricky will be in conversation at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London, on 26 October.