Interview by Alexander Laurence
Martina Topley-Bird (born 7 May 1975) is a British vocalist who first gained fame as the vocalist on Tricky's debut album Maxinquaye. She worked with him on his follow-up albums and released her own solo album Quixotic (2003). This album was nominated for the Mercury Prize, and was later released in the US as Anything (2004).
There have been a few collaborations with Massive Attack, Gorillaz, and Danger Mouse in recent years. Her second album is called The Blue God (2008), which she worked on with Danger Mouse. This summer there is a live album being released by Damon Albarn. She opened up and toured with Massive Attack in May 2010 in the US. They were on the Jimmy Kimmel show on May 21st, where Martina performed “Tear Drop.” I got to talk to her backstage before the show and catch up with her activity. Martina and some of the Massive Attack band had made a trip to a nearby taco stand.
AL: Have you playing in America before?
Martina: This is the first time that I have toured in America. I have only done one gig at the Tribeca Grand in NYC as a solo artist. That was a showcase gig in 2004. That was all I did.
AL: Did you play in the UK in support of the first record?
Martina: I played in Europe and the UK. We played not many shows. I had a ten piece band and it was expensive to tour. I hadn’t released a record for about five years in 2003, and by that time, the industry had completely changed. I was used to having a label with a whip cracking behind you to get you to tour. There was a sea change and everyone was worried about downloading. Labels were losing money. My label didn’t do tour support. I didn’t know how things operated. I didn’t know that until we started to book a tour. It cost five grand to do a show. I figured that for this showcase that we should have ten people. In my mind, I only wanted to play with three people. But since we were doing one show, we figured “let’s have this big band” and everyone loved it. I played one show supporting Massive Attack back then in Bristol.
AL: What were you doing between the first and second records?
Martina: I was working with several people on material. I thought that I wanted to have one producer for the whole record. I met Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse working on the Gorillaz record. I asked him if he wanted to do a record. He said “yes” and we waited for time he was available.
AL: Who did you make the first record with?
Martina: My stepbrother and his mates in London. I wanted to work with someone who would influence me or had a strong signature sound. I wanted my own sound. I felt good working with my stepbrother. I did a couple tracks with Tricky and David Holmes. David Arnold was on there. On the second album I only worked with Danger Mouse and Josh Klinghofer.
AL: So when Danger Mouse got on board, did you have a bunch of demos, or did you write together?
Martina: Both. I had a lot of songs done. He likes to start from scratch, and I feel like you can never have enough songs. I was happy to do that. I wrote with him, and I wrote separately from him as well. There were only two or three backing tracks that we didn’t use. I am doing this new live album. The record is re-interpretations from the first two albums. The premise of the record is it’s just me and my percussionist and songs. The way we did them live merited a new recording because they all have a different feel. There is an emphasis on music and voice.
AL: When you did these new songs with Massive Attack, was the music already finished and you wrote the vocals?
AL: Do you work that way?
Martina: I start with melody first.
AL: When you write lyrics and songs, are you writing about specific times in your life, or are you just doing story telling?
Martina: It depends. When I write those songs for Massive Attack I still consider them my songs. I write from my own experience and what I am thinking about, but it’s not always literal.
AL: Sometimes a vocalist will do a vocalization of sound rather than words first.
Martina: Yeah. I do that.
AL: Are you playing only new songs on this tour?
Martina: Mostly songs from The Blue God. A few from Quixotic. One new one.
AL: Will you come back and do some solo shows?
Martina: I want to, but I am committed to the Massive Attack tour. They will be playing for a year. They are planning on coming back to Los Angeles in October.
AL: Will you open some of those shows too?
Martina: I hope to.
AL: You had some very colorful dresses in New York. Are we going to see such color here on the west coast?
Martina: Maybe. I have a lot of different colorful kinds of stuff. I like the incongruous nature of me in a dress and doing everything myself.
AL: Do you like any new bands?
Martina: Beach House. I saw them at Coachella.
AL: Is there anything you do before a show?
Martina: I usually drink one glass of champagne.
AL: You are doing some re-interpretations of Massive Attack songs. What do you think of the Elizabeth Frazier vocal?
Martina: I am a big fan of hers. The weird thing is her husband is in the band. Damon and Elizabeth were living in Liverpool at the time. He told me that they moved to Bristol because they liked what I did on the Tricky records. So weirdly, if it wasn’t for me, they would have never moved to Bristol, and there wouldn’t have been a collaboration with Massive Attack. Robert ran into her at a supermarket there.
AL: That is where all good collaborations are made.
Martina: We haven’t changed “Tear Drop” but the feel is different. It’s more naked. It’s very bare.