The return of Martina Topley Bird

It's been four long years since Martina Topley Bird, the singer with a voice as unique and exotic as her name, started work on her debut album. But, as Sean O'Hagan discovers, the muse who inspired Tricky and defined a musical era, has never missed a beat

'I am not romantic about the idea of making music,' the wonderfully named Martina Topley Bird tells me. 'It has to fit practically into my life.' She sips on her preferred pre-lunch apéritif - a cup of camomile tea - and mulls this over for a while amid the be-suited bustle of a Chelsea bistro, lighting a cigarette and focusing intently on somewhere in the middle distance until the right words come. We are talking about why it took her so long - four years, to be exact - to complete her debut album, Quixotic, due out in a few months' time. 'According to my publicist, people have either been saying, "Oh, I wondered what happened to Martina" or "Oh, so she's finally finished it, then?" But you know, I don't really care. I work at my own pace and in my own time. It takes me a while to write, and I have to get comfortable with new people. That's just the way it is.'

Like quite a few female singers - Macy Gray springs to mind - Martina's singing voice echoes her actual personality. She could best be described as languorous, laid-back, slightly left field, someone you cannot ever imagine getting into a flap or throwing a tantrum (though she assures me the opposite is true). Someone slightly dreamy and yet earthy, and thus utterly bemused by the unreal whirlwind that is pre-release publicity, by all the fuss that is being made about her and her new record. 'I just go with the flow,' she says. 'They let me make my record, so I let them get on with their job.' What is important, she says more than once, is that she feels 'grounded', that she stays 'centred'. 'I just see it all as different levels of health. If you are healthy, physically and emotionally, and you know yourself, then everything adjusts and settles accordingly. You need to be centred to make music. If you're not, well, just listen to what's out there right now.'

Quixotic, save for the odd perhaps excusable moment of overproduction, is utterly unlike anything that's out there at the moment. It is both ultra-modern - produced in places by DJ David Holmes (fresh from a sojourn in Hollywood, where he created the soundtrack for Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven) and in other places by her erstwhile partner, Bristolian maverick Tricky - and dotted with musical map reference points from the past: vintage soul, smoky jazz and, most palpably, deep, dark blues. It manages to sound both rough and smooth, raw and sophisticated, conjuring up a world where Billie Holiday's world-weary songs are transmuted through a postmodern techno sheen. The voice, though, is the thing.

Anyone familiar with Tricky's ground-breaking early work, most notably the still mesmerising debut album Maxinquaye, from 1994, will know all about the singular qualities of Martina Topley Bird's singing voice. It is an instrument of rare and offbeat beauty, achingly tender and oddly broken, exotic and yet emphatically, endearingly English. The perfect cracked vessel, in fact, for carrying Tricky's dark odes to urban disaffection. 'The place where I stand gives way to liquid lino,' she sang on 'Ponderosa', their debut single. 'Underneath the weeping willow lies a weeping wino.' Late 20th-century blues, Bristol style. 'I try to sound like a normal English person,' she told me back then, 'but a bit dislocated.'

These days, that voice has grown into an altogether more sophisticated instrument, but there remains a slightly skewed edge, and a sensual, drowsy undertow that drifts in and around all her carefully chosen words. She is old-fashioned only in the sense that she recalls older, more intimate-sounding singers, all those purveyors of desire and loss and longing from a time before pop became commodified into just another niche-marketed consumer choice: the torch carriers, the testifiers to love's deep, dark well of longing. You can hear echoes of the aforementioned Billie Holiday in Martina's almost resigned tones, as well as the late Nina Simone at her sultriest and even, here and there, Eartha Kitt's feline purr. Martina, though, says she is rooted in more recent music, the tug and sway of contemporary African blues from Mali, as well as the punk-metal thrust of her teenage heroes, Fishbone, Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (She is dressed down when I meet her in jeans and a T-shirt celebrating the Swans, an obscure if influential hardcore art-punk group from the 80s.) 'I just like rootsy music, anything raw and pure, not too tampered with. I like the texture of things that are a bit unfinished, whether it's Tom Waits or Toots and the Maytals. The blues voice is the most credible to me, though. You don't have to embellish. You just have to tell it like it is. Mind you,' she adds, 'that in itself is hard these days.'

Martina grew up in London amid a large extended family: her mother has five children, her stepfather three. Her real father died when she was a child. Otherwise, she is wilfully vague on family details: her mum 'has properties in France', one sister 'works in the music business in New York'. She was all set to study oceanography - 'I know it sounds weird, but it's something I might still go back to' - when she bumped into Tricky back in 1993. If the legend is to be believed, she came to music totally by accident. When I interviewed Tricky back then, he told me, 'I was looking for a singer and she just turned up. She was sitting, singing to herself, on a wall outside my house in Bristol and we just got chatting.'

Martina was 18 at the time, still at college, and nursing some vague ambition to be a jazz singer. By the time I got to meet met her, just before the release of Maxinquaye in 1995, she and Tricky were an item. The next time I saw her, about a year later, she was holed up in a flat in Kensington, nursing their newborn daughter, Mazy. She did not, I remind her, seem very happy back then. She ponders this for a while, perhaps having anticipated this line of retrospective inquiry, but not that happy with it nonetheless.

'Well, it was a tough time,' she says eventually, pulling out another cigarette. 'I mean, I'd met this guy, left school, recorded an album, and I didn't know anything about the music industry. I was working with this - how shall I put it - original thinker. None of it was planned. It was all accidental, even the music.' Back then, I say, I would have bet on her retreating from music altogether. 'That's what I had to go away and think through. The touring was tough, basically because I didn't have enough energy to do that as well as look after my daughter. It was just too stressful until I decided that everything had to fit around Mazy. It was that simple, really. And that is still the case.'

Mazy is now eight years old and lives with her mother in Chelsea. Martina and Tricky have, as she puts it, 'combined our energies to make sure she has a stable environment' (though the wayward rapper is now mainly based in New York). He has even worked on two typically Tricky songs - dense, dark, playful - on the new album. 'It's actually all rather simple once you break it down into simple components,' she says of their chequered relationship, 'and if you are principled and go for a path that's constructive rather than destructive. I mean, we have a shared future, and that's our priority.'

This sense of practical co-operation, though, was not always the case. Back in 1998, after three albums, their musical relationship ended and Tricky, then an altogether more volatile and paranoid individual than of late, put their break-up down to two articles in The Face that supposedly suggested he was a bad parent. 'Everything I do I'm the bad guy,' he bemoaned to a journalist from The Big Issue. 'The Face thing showed me that as long as I'm doing music with Martina I'm going to be a bad father, a prick. She's in the perfect position. She gets all the credibility but, if the album's bad, they won't say anything about her, it's all going to be about me.'

He later exacted revenge on Face journalist Craig McLean, punching him backstage at the Glastonbury Festival. Those must have been strange and disorienting times for her. 'I don't really think about it much,' she says, shrugging. 'I was young, and it was all just, "Let's go for it." I suppose you could say I had a thrill-seeking personality as a teenager, but only up to a point. Then, I just sort of had enough. That's the way it is with me. I have to get centred if things get too stressful. I just walk away and take care of myself for a while. If you do that, you tend to stay safe and sane.'

Between her messy musical break-up with Tricky and the recording of the new record, Martina has dipped tentatively into music, guesting as a live vocalist for Porno For Pyros, Perry Farrell's stop-start project, and recording with another American indie-rock outfit, Primus. Quixotic has been four years in the making, three of them funded by Independiente, the label she signed to despite advances from, among others, Nellee Hooper, who, ironically, was a member of Bristol's Wild Bunch hip-hop crew back in the early 80s alongside Massive Attack and Tricky. (He has since gone on to work with Madonna.) The record company introduced her to David Holmes, who she describes as 'a whirlwind. He would just come in and energise everything.' The album is an eclectic mix of styles - and producers - unified by that extraordinary voice. On 'Need One', the first single, she touches base with rock and soul; on 'Anyone' she sounds by turns sultry and plaintive; on 'Stevie's', subtitled 'Days of a Gun', her skewed voice drifts over a remarkably rich Tricky production and a soaring string arrangement by David Arnold. 'I don't want to talk about individual songs,' she says when I attempt to do just that, 'except to say that there is an abiding theme, and if you are bothered, they explain themselves. Most of the album is about the struggle between your desires and what's good for you. The emphasis is on desire, though. First person. The songs are actually in the moment, or just after the moment. Or, it's just about to happen. That's all I'm saying.'

Onstage a few weeks ago before an invited mostly music business audience, Martina Topley Bird looked as exotic as her name, sheathed in a clingy evening dress, surrounded by backing singers and flanked by a blues harmonica player in a Cotton Club pinstripe suit. You could see that it was not exactly what most people were expecting from the girl, now a woman, who was once the defining voice of what came to be known, much to her and Tricky's dismay, as trip hop. This was an altogether more adult music, and she sounded, particularly on the slower acoustic numbers, like a seasoned veteran who'd come of age in the smoky bars and late-night dives of another era. Some songs came spectacularly alive, others worked in fits and starts. Sometimes, stripped of all that was non-essential, backed just by guitar and voices, she sounded absolutely sublime, at home in her dreamy words.

'The music business has always been very nebulous to me,' she tells me in parting, 'and I suppose my instinct is to keep it at arm's length. I had to battle with people on this record, though, just to keep things stripped down and essential. A lot of post-hip-hop music sounds so dressed up with sounds that don't really add anything to the song. I want everything to serve the song. If I had it all my way, the sound would be stripped to the bone. I don't even care if a song's off key as long as there is love in there. That's more important to me than how well-dressed a song is. You have to get to the core of things. That's where the truth lies in songs, and in life.'

· Martina Topley Bird's 'Need One' is released on 2 June. Quixotic is out later this summer.


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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