Martina Topley Bird: 'I played Boggle till 4am the other night. Is that rock'n'roll enough for you?' | Q&A

Tricky's former muse on Massive Attack, English breakfasts and the truth of how she was discovered

You're supporting and guesting with Massive Attack on their world tour. What stage are you at?

We started a couple of weeks ago. Right now, we're in Venice and I'm about to eat spaghetti pomodoro with a tomato and mozzarella salad. Then we've got Greece, Finland, Korea, Japan. It goes all the way through to the middle of November.

The Massive Attack tour bus: a hedonistic thrill-ride?

We're not setting any precedents here – nothing that'd impress anybody. The main health risk is probably too much nice food. When you go to a bunch of hotels and breakfast is included, it's like: "Well, I must have a full English breakfast every day." Then your clothes don't fit and it's not good. I did also play Boggle on the internet until four in the morning the other night. Is that rock'n'roll enough for you?

Given your background on the Bristol scene, singing with Tricky in the 90s, is it odd that you've never worked with Massive Attack before? Your first collaboration is on their latest album, Heligoland.

No, not to me, but I do hear that quite a bit. I'm just relieved that it's worked out so well. When I moved on from working with Tricky, I became acutely aware of how rare a certain chemistry is when you work with other musicians.

How does your set compare to theirs?

They're about as opposite as you can get. Mine is a very bare bones way of making live music. It's just me and my percussionist, Ninja. He plays guitar and drums and kalimba, and I play a bass, a guitar, a Wurlitzer and a little keyboard I stole off my daughter.

They, on the other hand, have a massive live show with several drummers and five singers, including me, and it's always amazing. Occasionally, I get a chance to stand up front and watch. I'm always shocked by the power of their performance.

Tell me about your new album, Some Place Simple.

It evolved from the live show. Ninja and I knocked together a set of songs in an afternoon so we could hit the road. Then people started telling me I needed to do an album like that. A lot of them knew me only as a singer and didn't realise I could play instruments as well.

It wasn't until Damon Albarn saw the show that I recognised it'd be valid to record these reworkings of previously recorded songs. He said: "You should make a record like that, you can use my studio, we'll put it out on Honest Jon's.[Albarn's label]." So we did it quickly and it sounds fresh.

The stripped-down instrumentation puts a spotlight on your voice. Were you always destined to be a singer?

As a kid, I got into the choir because I was loud and had a good memory. But as a teenager, I didn't think my voice was strong enough to fit in with what popular music was then. Also, R&B didn't represent who I was.

The story goes that Tricky discovered you sitting on a wall near his house in Bristol, singing to yourself.

That's really how it happened. It's one of those things people are always surprised to find out is true. I remember the graveyard behind the wall. A few weeks later, I went around to his house with some friends. We'd been drinking cider after our GCSEs. We were banging on his door, but he wasn't in. Then [agit punk-funk pioneer] Mark Stewart, who lived there, came up to us and said: "Yeah, this is Tricky's house, jump in through the window." So I jumped through, opened the door and we got mashed.

So you were actively pursuing your big break.

Not really. In my teen arrogance, I felt I'd outgrown school and I wanted to meet people who thought the same way as I did. I was a little audacious about it, but really I'm quite private.

Do you look back on that time fondly?

Sure. Well, parts of it. A lot of things were happening at once. I became a mum, and left school, and the first record [Tricky's Maxinquaye] came out. The rate of change was pretty intense. I wasn't prepared for what happened. I agreed to do it but I was like: "I don't want to be in pictures, I don't want people to know who I am." It became difficult the more official it became and the more other people became involved.

Do you miss working with Tricky?

I don't miss it, because it's not something that can't happen again. As time passes, I realise how fortunate I was to have had that [relationship]. But right now I have enough on my plate.

Does your daughter with Tricky – Mazy, 15 – live with you in London?

Yes, but she stays with her dad as well. He's a bit peripatetic so she's been moving around a bit. She hasn't had one fixed place for a while.

Nor, by the sound of it, have you. Do you call London home?

Yeah, but I'm there so rarely that I feel like a tourist when I go back – I take pictures in Piccadilly Circus. I was born in London and had lots of years where I didn't enjoy life there. But I like it now.

What's your greatest extravagance?

Parking tickets and congestion charge fines. Good food as well. I don't have this relationship with money where a bunch of it would solve all my problems. I live on a big shopping street in London and I've never had a problem with spending too much money there.

Are you easy going or hard working?

A bit of both. I can be controlling and uptight, and easy going to the point of catatonia. In the past, I've needed someone to put me in a room and tell me to not come out until my work was done. But I'm a grown-up now.

What's next?

Two projects I've fallen in love with that haven't entirely come to fruition yet. One is an epic minimalist thing that's hard to explain. It's a bit Burt Bacharachy with something of Scott Walker's ballads. The other is a band project with a few musicians I've met in LA. It's all really exhilarating – I feel pretty lucky.

Some Place Simple is out on Honest Jon's


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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