Martina Topley-Bird: ‘I wasn’t trying to be famous. I was embarrassingly earnest about being authentic’

The vocalist breaks her long silence to talk about grieving for her daughter, her pioneering work with Tricky on Maxinquaye and finally making an album she’s 98% happy with…

Martina Topley-Bird is struggling with her voice today. “It was awful last night,” she says, croakily, down the line from her home in Valencia. “My first interview in 11 years and then this happens!” As it turns out, Topley-Bird’s will hold out for well over an hour. But it won’t always take her to where she wants to go. She’s agreed to an interview to promote Forever I Wait, her first album since 2010’s Some Place Simple, but she doesn’t enjoy talking about herself; she’s fully aware of her tendency to let conversations drift, leave sentences unfinished, not quite pin down the message she wants to deliver. Speaking to her can be like listening to some of her dreamier music: captivating, meditative, yet somehow with a sense of her barely being there at all. A typical anecdote might grind to a halt midway through: “But yeah… I don’t know… sorry, vagued out again!”

There is also a subject that is never going to be easy to talk about. In 2019, Topley-Bird’s daughter, Mazy, also known as Mina, killed herself at the age of 24. She had suffered a psychotic episode following a gig with her band 404 and died after being admitted to West Park hospital, Darlington. An inquest led to the coroner saying he would make two prevention of future death reports to reduce the risk of patients self-harming on the ward. At the time, Topley-Bird put out a statement saying: “Sweet baby, life won’t be the same without you.” But she hasn’t spoken since. She’s said in advance today that the subject can be broached, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult. “I’m only just beginning to process it,” she later admits.

Forever I Wait does not address this tragedy directly – it was largely written in the years beforehand – although she accepts that people may interpret it that way and that it’s not entirely possible to untangle the two things. On the opening track, Pure Heart, amid an electrical storm of dirty guitars, she sings of “A place I’ve never been to rest my tired heart/ And wait for it to heal so I can have a fresh start.” If nothing else, finishing the record gave her some structure, a focal point through the grief. “I created something to engage with and revolve around and interact my energy with,” she says. “Has that been healing? Yeah.”

Martina Topley-Bird’s daughter Mazy (also known as Mina), who died in 2019 aged 24.
Martina Topley-Bird’s daughter Mazy (also known as Mina), who died in 2019 aged 24. Photograph: PA

What she’s hoping she can do today is explain just how much this record means to her – and why. Topley-Bird was still a child when she started working with Tricky in the early 90s, recording the white label Aftermath with him aged 15, before going on to add some of the strangest and most sublime vocals ever committed to tape on his debut album Maxinquaye a few years later. That record changed the shape of pop, helping invent with its ghostly, otherworldly qualities. Topley-Bird would appear on later Tricky records, but her solo career since has been fitful. One month after Maxinquaye’s release, she and Tricky had their daughter, Mazy, two huge life-changing events for a young woman who had originally been planning to go to university to study oceanography.

“That rate of change was so intense,” she says. “Friends of my mother’s were having kids in their 40s and they were talking about how difficult it was to adjust. So yeah, it was stressful. I found it very difficult.”

She finally released a solo album, Quixotic, in 2003, and has put out two more since. But those records, she says, didn’t provide creative fulfilment. “I felt like I had to keep making records because I was a parent. But I guess I was on the back foot a lot of the time. Essentially, I didn’t have all the skills I needed to achieve what I wanted to achieve, so I kind of look back on those records as exercises rather than pieces of art.”

Forever I Wait, then, feels like her debut album. It’s the first time she’s made something that she’s “98% happy with, which is better than the normal 60%”. It was pieced together over several years and in at least three countries: her partner, Nat, works in international development so they’ve had spells in Baltimore, London and Spain. She enlisted new management – female, Russian, no nonsense – who helped hone her vision and encouraged her to stamp her authority on the project. “Before, I would always be, like, ‘Let’s do this together and if it sounds good for me, I’ll keep it, and if for you, you keep it.’ I had to mature out of that and be like, ‘No, this is what I’m doing.’” Then she decided who could make this vision a reality and enlisted them as collaborators, Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and Fever Ray producer Christoffer Berg among them. The result is billed as a trip through Topley-Bird’s psyche.

It is an album of contrasts: ice-cold synths and rough guitar textures rub shoulders, breaking into blissful, dreamlike passages. There are songs about crystal meth zombies who walked the meadows near her Baltimore home and the motorbiking African American kids she’d see pulling wheelies so vertical they called themselves 12 O’Clock Boys. There are also songs of self-doubt and self-acceptance.

Forever I Wait was almost complete when Mazy died. I ask if it was difficult to return to the project. “Actually, connecting with the record was helpful,” she says. “And just going through the process of getting to my desk and making lists and doing a lot of computer work helped. Because I’ve always found that if there’s difficult emotions going on, doing things that are rote or mechanical can be helpful.”

Listen to Pure Heart from Martina Topley-Bird’s forthcoming album, Forever I Wait.

I sense a weariness in her voice so ask if she’s OK to talk about her daughter. She lets out a big exhale. “I don’t know. Generally I’m not. I get a feeling of a ball in my stomach and it’s still very unpredictable how I’ll feel.” With a suddenness that seems to take her by surprise she starts to cry. “I’d like to be able to comfort other people that are affected by it, too,” she says after a while. “But I don’t even know how to talk about it. It was just the two of us for a very long time, and…” She trails off again and I suggest we move on.

“I’m sorry this has turned into a jolty ride,” she says with a laugh through the tears.

I’m sorry for making you cry, I say.

“It’s still unpredictable,” she says. “Nobody asks me on a day-to-day basis, so it’s not something I deal with. And so if I do go anywhere near it then, yeah, that starts happening and I’m not used to it.”

* * *

Martina Topley-Bird was born in London in 1975, growing up in a large family with five siblings and three step-siblings. Her father, Martin Topley, died before she was born; her surname combines his with that of her stepfather. After moving to Bristol, she studied at the prestigious boarding school Clifton College. But a chance meeting with Tricky – he heard her singing outside his house – sent her life down a more musical path. Was she a rebellious teen?

“I had quite a lot of attitude and was a tiny bit maybe arrogant, yeah,” she says. “I mean… yeah!”

What did her family make of the sudden change in her life?

“It wasn’t like a one-day thing. I did Aftermath but that didn’t get released for two years. It was kinda fun, people were calling to say that Björk liked the track and it sounded like Sade, but I was studying still. I’m not sure I told my parents about it.”

It was later, while resitting some of her exams, that Topley-Bird embarked on a romantic relationship, worked on Maxinquaye and, as she puts it, her “life began to drift. I started to lose form, as it were.” She had sung in the school choir and in her piano teacher’s jazz band, but she had no recording experience when Tricky enlisted her as the record’s main vocalist. To make matters more confusing, it was one of the most unconventional records ever made: many of the vocals you hear are first takes, with Topley-Bird having never even heard the backing track before she recorded.

“I wasn’t practising all day and then turning up to the studio to belt out show tunes,” she says with a smile. “A lot of those vocals sound like they do because that was the kind of vibe and way we were recording.”

At the time, she was often described as Tricky’s “muse”, when in fact it was her conceiving the twisted melody lines of Ponderosa or providing a completely fresh take on Public Enemy’s Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos. “It’s funny you should say that because I don’t actually have any written credit for those vocal melodies,” she notes, “but that is a longer story.”

Watch the video for Tricky’s Ponderosa.

Despite the uncompromising sound, Maxinquaye became a hit. Fame didn’t suit either Tricky or Topley-Bird. “I wasn’t trying to be famous,” she says. “I was embarrassingly earnest about being authentic and reverent of the music. I was young and being made very aware of what people’s perception of me and the situation was and I found that always uncomfortable. I don’t have any need to be recognised or stopped in the streets. I don’t crave that. So if I was recognised somewhere I would be a horrible arrogant teenager. People would say, ‘Are you Martina?’ and I would say, ‘Yeah, and?’ Not being very graceful about it.”

Tricky has talked about how he viewed Martina as a mouthpiece for his mother, who killed herself when he was very young, as if his mother’s words were finding a voice through his vocalist. How did she feel about that?

“We both had deceased parents, so there was maybe an affinity there. So if that’s what he believed… it’s something that’s very meaningful to him, I guess.”

Despite her natural talent for melody lines, Topley-Bird had never written a proper song until she made Quixotic. That must have been daunting?

“Yeah, it was, especially with lyric writing.” The song Sandpaper Kisses, which was sampled by the Weeknd in The Birds (Part 2), came to her first while on a train to her recording studio. “I relied on these random flashes of inspiration.”

The music industry was equally tricky to navigate. She recalls her solo contract arriving in the post one day. “It was very difficult to figure out who to trust. Things were not so transparent back then. And I had no business experience at all and my family were not familiar with the ins and outs of the industry. I remember looking at my music friends who’d been to art school and thinking that kind of mentality and structure would have been good for somebody like me. Because I work more intuitively and instinctively and that doesn’t always get to the art I want to make.”

Forever I Wait was an attempt to rectify this approach. “I had to be honest and say what I wanted to do and not just flounder around and hope that I would eventually land on something.”

A few days later, Topley-Bird requests another chat. She’s worried she slipped back into “the old habit of being vague and letting the conversation drift” and wants to clarify a few points. She’s been reflecting on how difficult it was to talk about Mazy and the fact that the inquest into her death only concluded recently has meant the wounds have been freshly reopened. “I’ve got a lot of support and love; I have my family, my partner, my partner’s family. I feel very cherished and supported by them. And I think it’s going to be a slow process. I’ve pulled myself and my project together and that is part of it.”

Performing with Tricky in London, 2012.
Performing with Tricky in London, 2012. Photograph: Alamy

In many ways she’s happy now. She loves her life in Valencia with Nat and their dog, the city’s liberal approach to life and the fact that, before the pandemic, she’d see “people drinking red wine from 9.30am in the morning or staying out all night”. The city was very different during lockdown, but that also had its benefits. “Everything went really quiet so I didn’t have to worry about scurrying behind trying to keep up. Everyone was at this pace. There’s something about that that made me feel like I had something profound in common with everybody. Whereas a lot of the time I feel very different. I’m not an everyperson.”

And she’s found a sense of fulfilment in working out how to express herself differently in her music. “Because I’m a lot more open. Maybe there’s some catharsis but I think it’s more an evolution, a growth. I’ve let go of some immature, restricting ideas. Bullshit beliefs that were not helping me achieve what I wanted to achieve or really be doing what I want to do.”

In April last year, Topley-Bird travelled to the mountains by the sea south of Valencia to decide on the tracklisting. The album ends with Rain, which sees her singing over a string quartet: “One day while walking in the rain/ I found my path along the way.” It speaks of acceptance, of living in the present. It feels like a moment of cleansing and spiritual rejuvenation.

The song’s lyric was written not by her but Nat. “It’s funny because she works in international development, she has never written lyrics before. But she thought she’d have a go. And I saw them and thought, ‘This is so not me. I would be cryptic and vague and I don’t know if I would be that person. But then I found a way to sing it.’”

She’s beaming with pride now. And a sense that, despite everything, she’s finally arrived at what she wants to say.

Forever I Wait is out 10 September on Awal

Contributor

Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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