“I’ve got something to say” whispers Martina, barely tenminutes into The Blue God, her first album for five years. “Have you?”
It’s a neat touch -a reminder that for MTB, music is as much about challengingthe audience as tapping into the creative flow.
“For me, music is about accessing thoughts and emotions that lie below thesurface” she explains.
“I’m interested in using music as a way of exploring the emotional layers inlife.”
Martina Topley Bird is one of British pop’s great mavericks. When she firstcast 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. Thetimes were demanding conservative, retro-minded Britpop. Instead, the pairconjured up an intimate yet other-worldly form of down tempo, with Martina’svocals acting as celestial foil to the blunted genius of the music, causingcritics 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 genderpolitics and mainstream pop, their chalk’n’cheese synergy chalking up platinumsales 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 DavidHolmes, 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 rangingfrom David Arnold to Josh Homme to Mark Lanegan to help fulfil her sepiatedvision. The result - an exotic fusion of vintage soul, rock and nocturnal blues- duly received a Mercury Prize nomination and prompted Mojo to declare it “asensual 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 herchildhood.
‘’I saw The Sugarcubes when I was twelve and after that I really got intoalternative music- Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction. I’ve known Josh Homme sincehe was in Kyuss.”
‘’My Parents played R’n’B and soul in the house (opera and jazz on Sundays). Mymum would play one song incessantly in the car to torture us! Barry White wasmy parents’ smooching music – I guess that’s why it had the opposite effect onme, eugh!’’
Whilst much modern chart music has given up on breaking new ground, Martina’scareer has been about deconstructing the past and building something morefantastical in its place. Whobetter to embark on her latest voyage with, then, than Brian ‘Danger Mouse’Burton, mastermind of pop situationists Gnarls Barkley, and widely regarded asmodern pop’s most visionary thinker.
“Brian has been a friend for a long time, and we first worked on a track in May2005. We were both so excited by the results; we agreed to do the whole recordtogether. I had loads of songs before we started, but in the end I only keptone (‘Poison’). Instead, we created something new between us. Brian is a hugeanglophile, and the album is very visual sounding. I wanted there to be a sonicmanifesto as well as a lyrical one, and I think that’s been achieved.”
The result, The Blue God -recorded in LA over a three month period last year-is where Martina takes the fabulous contradictions of her past and wraps themin live instruments and luxurious production. A unique musical environmentwhich fuses Hollywood glitz, psychedelic-pop riffs, ambient interludes, lightand shade and her trademark futuristic pop noir. At the same time it’s a bannerunder which Martina can deliver ruminations on the human condition.
“A lot of the album is about the notion of physical proximity relative toemotional connections between people. My dad, Martin Topley, died when he wastwenty-nine. Between the release of ‘Quixotic’ and now I turnedtwenty nine, andI started thinking and what I’d achieved in my life as a human being. Also Iwanted to focus on the nature of my relationship with him and with my stepfather because of the way I felt those relationships were affecting my otherrelationships.”
If sure-fire hit “Poison”, Wurlitzer waltz “Snowman” and Arthur Lee inspiredpsychedelic-pop gem “April Grove” don’t get your feet moving and your spiritssoaring then bad luck, you’re dead already. Elsewhere, “Phoenix”, “RazorTongue” (featuring bass by Money Mark) and instant classic “Baby Blue” arefurther reminders Martina has lost none of her freewheeling vocal dexterity.Perhaps best of all, as first single ‘Carnies’ proves, The Blue God is asBritish as fish’n’chips.
“Carnies’ is about how intoxicating it is as a kid to go the fair and go on therides. You get the horrors and feel out of control, and there’s a real sense ofdanger. At the same time, the central lyric is “Say what you want/ Life’s toogood to be true’’. It’s bittersweet. The song is saying either you’ll come homeor you won’t. I’ll always come home, I hope.’’
Intelligent, life-affirming, futuristic, pop noir to make the head spin and theheart soar, then.
In a world that has come to welcome self made artists, Martina Topley Bird’sreturn couldn’t be better timed. She’s got something to say. Have you?