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A Conversation With Martina Topley-Bird

Martina Topley-Bird, live with Massive Attack
Martina Topley-Bird, performing live in South Korea with Massive Attack

Martina Topley-Bird first garnered critical acclaim with her contribution to Tricky’s debut, Maxinquaye. Her voice made the record iconic and established her as an artist with tremendous potential.

Her debut album Quixotic was nominated for Britain’s Mercury Prize and was a critical success. Her second record, the Danger Mouse-produced The Blue God, saw her work with Damon Albarn and expand her standing as a siren on the rise.

With her latest record, Some Place Simple, Martina has sprinkled four new songs amongst selections from her first two albums, both of which had a great deal of difficulty getting a Stateside release.

The first thing you notice about Martina Topley-Bird is her voice. It is magnetic, dreamlike and otherworldly in its power. Her progress as a songwriter has progressed as well as she undauntingly strips bare her previous work to remold it for this album.

Rob Levy exchanged emails with the soultress about her music, writing, and all the fishes in the deep blue sea while she was on the road in Montreal touring with Massive Attack and Thievery Corporation.

Rob Levy: What made you decide to revisit songs from your first two releases for Some Place Simple?

Martina Topley-Bird: I’d intended to write new material to record with my NinJa [a frequent collaborator], but when Damon Albarn saw me perform reworkings of my old songs with him he was very keen to capture exactly what he’d seen on record. He offered his studio and label to make it happen and I thought it: brilliant, let’s do it!

[ad#longpost]RL: What was the process of making Some Place Simple?

MTB: The songs were written, we were well rehearsed, having just completed 49 shows opening for Massive Attack, so it was just setting the date and showing up! We allotted ourselves one week to record. The first day we ran the set we’d been doing and also recorded a further 6/7 songs, new ones or cover ideas. That way we could get an overview of what songs worked together and what elements of songs worked live but perhaps didn’t bear the repeat scrutiny they’d be getting on record!

RL: How much time do you spend working on new songs?

MTB: I don’t know, we averaged four songs a day, working an eight hour day… In a way the new songs were easier to record because there was no yardstick or reference point to measure them against. I can work in Logic and Pro-tools on my computer. I travel with a guitar now, though that’s not my favourite way to write. I like writing on my Wurlitzer. I’ve come up with some really cool in Logic. It’s my new fave thing to to. Though I think I’d like to try out some programs on an iPad too. That looks really user friendly. I’m looking forward to spending all my free time working on new songs.

RL: Do you approach your work differently when you are a solo artist rather than being a collaborator?

MTB: Yes! More POWER! More CONTROL!!!! I know how I like to work and it can be challenging to accommodate someone else’s modus operandi.

RL: What was it like working with Diplo, Common, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Gorillaz?

Martina Topley-Bird

MTB: Well, Common, I had only spoken to on the phone before I worked on his track and emailed him everything, so that was the remotest working relation I’ve had so far. Diplo, I had met, but worked from home and emailed him my vocals. JSBE I hadn’t met, but was invited to work on their stuff by their producer, David Holmes, who I knew well and I recorded with him. I think there was whiskey involved. And finally, with Gorillaz it was, I think, a 3rd attempt at working with Damon, a first meeting with Danger Mouse, the least remote version ‘cos I went to the studio. I was there for thirty minutes, sang for about five minutes and then had some Jamaican food.

RL: You have a great relationship with Massive Attack…how did that come about?

MTB: Thank you. I guess it had a long and tentative gestation period. I never really hung out with them before we started working together in May last year. We have chemistry and a certain mutual understanding. It’s been lovely getting to know them.

RL: Do you do anything special to preserve your voice?

MTB: Aiaiai! I think restraint in all ways is key. Smoking, drinking even talking too much can wreak havoc. I was a lot more cavalier about this in the past, but last week I got hit with laryngitis the day of a gig and I think it wouldn’t have happened if I’d been looking after myself. It scared me, frankly. I like Manuka Honey in warm water when I’m warming up to sing.

RL: Has it been frustrating for you as an artist to get your first two records released in the States? It seems like there has been a long delay in getting them out over here.

MTB: Yes.

RL: I read that you wanted to study oceanography. Is that on the horizon? Has your interest in that been transposed into your music?

MTB: I went to an Honest Jon’s [her record label] thing at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] recently and felt really comforted by the idea of being… um…institutionalized. Ha! No, you know, of routine and structure. So yes, I’d like to study and the oceans are still romantic and awesome to me. I think it’s a safe place to exercise the analytic side of my brain, which can be a little intense and drive other people nuts.

RL: How is the current tour going?

MTB: Great. We just started! I did a solo show in Chicago, which I really enjoyed; the crowd was very warm and welcoming. Now we’re in Montreal.

RL: Will you be doing a solo headlining tour in the near future?

MTB: Couldn’t make it work this year, perhaps early next year.

RL: What would you like to do next as an artist?

MTB: I’m looking forward to having a break from touring so I can be in charge of my own schedule and spend some time alone, writing. I have three balls in the air. Which I like ‘cos it seems to take the pressure off. I’ll need to put a stop to the collaborations for a while. I’d quite like to do one out-and-out super slick tight pop project. The other things I’ve got going are really cool, but a bit more like band identities or things that want to take their time getting to the point. I feel lucky tho. I have lots of ideas and have found some great people I’m really excited about working with.

Some Place Simple is out now on Honest Jon’s/Ipecac Records and available from Amazon as either a CD or MP3 download. Her official website can be found here. You can become a fan of Martina Topley-Bird on Facebook here.