Pure Heart: Martina Topley-Bird Interviewed

Pure Heart: Martina Topley-Bird Interviewed

From her Bristol roots to her bold new album...

It’s the classic ‘rapper meets singer, rapper loses singer’ story we all know by now, thanks to the music press.

Martina Topley-Bird, a 17-year old student from Clifton College, sozzled on cheap cider with her mates after the exams, sits on the wall by the St. Andrews Cemetery, singing. Adrian Thaws, a 24-year old graduate from the school of hard knocks, happens to stroll by and hear her voice. Three days later, an empty timeslot at someone’s home studio falls into his lap, and she invites her to come along. There isn’t much to go on – a Five Stairsteps drum break, a Marvin Gaye guitar riff, a handful of lyrics – but the track that comes out of their session on a C60 cassette is gold dust that is soon brought into an A&R meeting at Island Records. The rest is history.

Martina’s own story – the one yet to be told – starts less than a mile up from St. Andrews Cemetery in Whiteladies Road, a famous thoroughfare of Bristol with a somewhat chequered past. “My gateway band was Guns’n’Roses,” she reveals, her voice tinny and distant in my speakers at first, until the Zoom connection between Valencia and Berlin gets up to speed. Sitting in front of a traditional dry stone wall, wearing a sleeveless, pinstriped marine blue and white linen dress, and ocean green nail polish, she hasn’t aged one jot in thirty years, only matured a lot. And perhaps mellowed, by the sound of it.

“I saw Sweet Child O’ Mine playing in a chip shop and they really captured me,” she recollects with polished enunciation and trademark mellifluous voice. For a mixed race girl from the crime-ridden Lisson Green Estate behind Marylebone Station, the 1990s Bristol alt-rock subculture was a bold choice. “There was something a bit more charged, I suppose, a bit more angst that appealed to teenage existential shit,” she speculates. “For me it was an outsider thing. We knew it was a predominantly white scene, and we felt good being different.”

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Sure enough, a cursory glance at Martina’s previous collaborations is enough to prove she really hits it off with other Gen-Xers: Josh Homme, Mark Lanegan, Jon Spencer, Josh Klinghoffer, Les Claypool, Liam Howlett. The golden era of distortion pedals and power chords stand out on already her debut album, ‘Quixotic’, a cross between the abrasiveness of PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’ and the audacity of Barry Adamson’s ‘As Above So Below’, the bag as mixed and contradictory as its reception by the press and Martina’s peers.

“The first record was definitely just an exploration. I wanted to work with a really small group of people, I didn’t want any big names that I thought would influence me.“ By the time the grinding process was over, and the album was signed off, something had been lost in translation. “There really wasn’t enough of a vision for the record,” she admits. “It touched on some points that I wanted to touch, touched on things that I was thinking about, but it wasn’t a deliberate, sonically deliberate statement.”

As for the circumstances surrounding the project, she is outspoken without trying to shift the blame. “The label I was on at the time were of the mind that artist should have the time and the space to just do what comes through from within. It’s not how Michelangelo created his pieces,” she recalls, conviction shining through her voice. “Anyone who we still talk about today, they were all commissioned, they worked, they got up, they crafted, they didn’t just sit around, waiting for inspiration to strike. So much of what I saw of how the music industry was run was just without structure, without analysis.”

And yet in the same breath she acknowledges she was far from the finished article herself. “I was still in the period of adjustment between having made my record before and being disappointed with how things had gone with them, even what choices I’d made. Then at that point I was still not really owning my voice and was agreeing to things that actually, when it came to the crunch, I couldn’t live with,” she describes her learning curve. “That’s something I’m really, really working on and I’m doing much better with.”

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As soon as the conversation moves on to her brand new album ‘Forever I Wait’, Martina becomes more chipper and animated. One of the long term collaborators on the new album is Robert del Naja, or D, as he’s referred to by friends, produced ‘Collide’, ‘Rain’, ‘Hunt’ and ‘Your Heart’. It turns out there is a crucial link between them. “Coming from Bristol and the mix culture, reggae and sound systems and punk, I know that Robert’s got that. There is an unspoken checklist of signatory motifs, an identity of the songs that both of us agree on,” she explains. “We don’t make punk music but there is a soul of that represented somewhere.”

Between the three previous solo albums and ‘Forever I Wait’, a seismic shift has taken place. In hindsight, the first and only clue as to what this would entail was a bittersweet, heart-wrenching single ‘Solitude’ in 2018. Seeing as the space previously reserved for nylon strings, harmonicas and a Fender Rhodes has now been snatched by drum machines, synths and midi controllers, the deal here is very much out with the old, in with the new, a fresh start rather than a comeback.

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If Martina preferred to steer well clear of big names in the past to preserve her artistic integrity, now her skin has grown thick enough to take them on all at once. Enter Christoffer Berg, the Swedish whizz-kid behind Fever Ray, and Richard Morel, a hyphenate who has worked with New Order, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, well-versed on toplines and packed dancefloors. “I was aware that Rich came from a more commercial background. What ended up on the record was ‘Wanted’, this melodically beautiful song, and ‘Game’, a fun, upbeat track. He brought an open, light sensibility and contrast to the rest of the record, which is moody, edgy.”

More to the point, this time around there she’s had a coherent vision, there’s no two ways about it. “I wanted to make an album with a broad appeal. I was trying to mash the abrasive, organic with electronic and synthesizers,” she sumps up. “I wanted synths on this record. That was my thing. If someone put them in, they were not taking them out again. They had the tension and texture and melody. They were my signature sound. If anyone had a problem with the synths, then they had a problem with me!” she quips, pointing both index fingers at herself, laughing.

But it’s obvious there is a lot more at stake here than winning a straightforward argument over the instrumentation. “It was my evolution, the sound that wasn’t there before, and it was my decision. On previous records, 'Some Place Simple', 'The Blue God' and 'Quixotic', these weren’t necessary my ideas how the tracks would start or evolve,” she contemplates. “I think it makes a lot of sense… Not as a solo artist but my whole history, my roots and my subsequent collaborations.”

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Some of the tracks on ‘Forever I Wait’ were meant to be released on an EP called 'MTB Continued EP' that was announced in 2018 but never came to fruition. “At that point we were just about to move from Baltimore in America to live in Spain, and the idea was to wrap up this EP before we left, and I just couldn’t wrap it up.”

Although Martina and her family moved around the UK a fair bit since she was little, moving overseas had a very different purpose for her. “I had wanted to move out of London for a really, really, really long time. I lived in Chelsea, London, which is very white and affluent, and I moved to Baltimore, which is very black and poor, and I wanted to experience that contrast, I wanted to be in a place where I wasn’t… minority. And living away from England, I really felt liberated from all conditioning I had about the class system, how I look, what people think of me,” she elaborates. “Living in a different country really helps to throw off the shackles of your conditioning or any sort ideas that you think the society has about you.”

A peripatetic way of life goes a long way towards explaining why Martina’s lyrics are filled with lines such as ‘Finds this way back home again’, ‘Walk in a circle / Trying to find our way home’, and the textbook example in the chorus of the rapturous album closer ‘Rain’ where she sings ‘To find a home and get some sleep’.

“When you can finally call the place you live in ‘a home’, it’s not a house… it’s not a place where you send my mail… it’s home because it’s surrounded with things that have my memories and my intentions and my identity,” she ponders, her eyes roaming around the room. “That’s where the arc of the story is leading, from this place of insecurity and doubt and that’s where you want the story to end – in a place where you have some sense of self-acceptance, at least, and peace.”

My desktop clock says we have 10 minutes left, which means we are right on schedule. One last question remains unticked on the list. “If you could sit down with a 13-year old Martina, struggling to find her place in the world, what would you tell her?” The question catches her off guard. She goes quiet for a moment. “I’d like to think about that for a second.” For the first time she turns away from the camera, looking offscreen into the distance, working through every angle before committing as if this was part of an individual oral exam for International Baccalaureate. She purses her lips and squints. “Hmmmm… I don’t know what words I would use. I’m gonna think about that.” And that’s exactly when the right words come to her mind.

“Don’t give your power away.”

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'Forever I Wait' is out now.

Words: Eero Holi

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