Martina Topley Bird is one of British pop’s great mavericks. When she first cast strange and exhilarating shadows over contemporary music on Tricky’s ‘Maxinquaye’ in 1995 no one was expecting the arrival of such a precocious young talent. The times were demanding conservative, retro-minded Britpop. Instead, the pair conjured up an intimate yet other-worldly form of down tempo, with Martina’s vocals acting as celestial foil to the blunted genius of the music, causing critics to fall over themselves and cash-till’s to work overtime.
Further collaborations on ‘Pre-Millennium Tension’, ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ and ‘Nearly God’ saw Martina acting as both musical and visual foil to her (then) ex-boyfriend. Dazzling stars in a dull universe, they subverted gender politics and mainstream pop, their chalk’n’cheese synergy chalking up platinum sales en route. “Those records still sound good today, and that’s all you can hope to achieve.”
Martina has guested on a who’s who of contemporary music, including David Holmes, Gorillaz, DIPLO, Primus and The John Spencer Blues Explosion, developing her craft as both a singer and songwriter along the way.
For her solo debut,’ Quixotic’ (2003) Martina called on heavy friends ranging from David Arnold to Josh Homme to Mark Lanegan to help fulfil her sepiated vision. The result - an exotic fusion of vintage soul, rock and nocturnal blues - duly received a Mercury Prize nomination and prompted Mojo to declare it “a sensual and endlessly inventive record.”
“If you look at my career on paper it looks a little bit like a hobby” she says “But it’s always been a matter of waiting for the right people to work with. This is the happiest I’ve been, working in this particular constellation.’’
Such eagerness to see music as a vast melting pot can be traced to her childhood.
‘’I saw The Sugarcubes when I was twelve and after that I really got into alternative music- Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction. I’ve known Josh Homme since he was in Kyuss.”
‘’My Parents played R’n’B and soul in the house (opera and jazz on Sundays). My mum would play one song incessantly in the car to torture us! Barry White was my parents’ smooching music – I guess that’s why it had the opposite effect on me, eugh!’’
Whilst much modern chart music has given up on breaking new ground, Martina’s career has been about deconstructing the past and building something more fantastical in its place. Who better to embark on her latest voyage with, then, than Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton, mastermind of pop situationists Gnarls Barkley, and widely regarded as modern pop’s most visionary thinker.
“Brian has been a friend for a long time, and we first worked on a track in May 2005. We were both so excited by the results; we agreed to do the whole record together. I had loads of songs before we started, but in the end I only kept one (‘Poison’). Instead, we created something new between us. Brian is a huge anglophile, and the album is very visual sounding. I wanted there to be a sonic manifesto as well as a lyrical one, and I think that’s been achieved.”
The result, The Blue God -recorded in LA o ver a three month period last year- is where Martina takes the fabulous contradictions of her past and wraps them in live instruments and luxurious production. A unique musical environment which fuses Hollywood glitz, psychedelic-pop riffs, ambient interludes, light and shade and her trademark futuristic pop noir. At the same time it’s a banner under which Martina can deliver ruminations on the human condition.
“A lot of the album is about the notion of physical proximity relative to emotional connections between people. My dad, Martin Topley, died when he was twenty-nine. Between the release of ‘Quixotic’ and now I turnedtwenty nine, and I started thinking and what I’d achieved in my life as a human being. Also I wanted to focus on the nature of my relationship with him and with my step father because of the way I felt those relationships were affecting my other relationships.”
If sure-fire hit “Poison”, Wurlitzer waltz “Snowman” and Arthur Lee inspired psychedelic-pop gem “April Grove” don’t get your feet moving and your spirits soaring then bad luck, you’re dead already. Elsewhere, “Phoenix”, “Razor Tongue” (featuring bass by Money Mark) and instant classic “Baby Blue” are further reminders Martina has lost none of her freewheeling vocal dexterity. Perhaps best of all, as first single ‘Carnies’ proves, The Blue God is as British as fish’n’chips.
“Carnies’ is about how intoxicating it is as a kid to go the fair and go on the rides. You get the horrors and feel out of control, and there’s a real sense of danger. At the same time, the central lyric is “Say what you want/ Life’s too good to be true’’. It’s bittersweet. The song is saying either you’ll come home or you won’t. I’ll always come home, I hope.’’
Intelligent, life-affirming, futuristic, pop noir to make the head spin and the heart soar, then.
In a world that has come to welcome self made artists, Martina Topley Bird’s return couldn’t be better timed. She’s got something to say. Have you?