- 13 Sep 21
She was the voice of trip-hop and yet was often written off as muse to Tricky. Now, with her stunning new album, Martina Topley-Bird has found herself as a solo artist. She talks about her early career, her new life in Spain and what she learned from Massive Attack.
When she left boarding school aged 17, Martina Topley-Bird had no idea what was around the corner. Within a few years she was a chart-topping pop star, a mother and one half of a celebrity couple. A quarter of a century later, as she prepares to release a stunning new solo LP, this icon of the ’90s trip-hop scene and foil to maverick producer Tricky still exudes mild shock as she reflects on the roads she has travelled.
“I had been at boarding school since I was 10,” she reflects. “And then at 17 I went to a state school – it was too soon for me to be independent. It wasn’t trying to be naughty or get into trouble or anything. I started making a record and got swept up in that.”
Topley-Bird and Tricky – real name Adrian Thaws – have long since parted ways. Asked if they are still in contact, she demurely mouths the word “no” and moves the conversation on. If the subject is difficult for her then it is with good reason. She and Thaws had a daughter, Mina, who was born in March 1995, one month after the release of Maxinquaye, the trip-hop classic they made together.
And then, two years ago, Mina died by suicide. This happened as Martina was along the path to completing her new album, Forever I Wait. Hot Press doesn’t ask her about her daughter’s death – a gap of 24 months is far too soon.
But Topley-Bird explains that all the ups and downs of her recent life have made it on to Forever I Wait – a stunning, rhapsodic soul record grounded in ’90s grooves, yet with an emotional directness that feels thoroughly 2021. If you want to know what she has been through, good and bad, that is where you will find the answers.
“I had really great family stuff happening. And some things that were difficult,” she says. “I’m super proud of what I did with the album.”
Topley-Bird is speaking over Zoom from her home in Valencia, Spain. She’s still feeling her way as a “super independent” artist.
“It’s been a steep, steep learning curve,” she says. “I’ve been on independent labels before. But now, it’s like ‘woah’. My manager had to take time off at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 to be with her family. I had one person on my team, my publicist.”
This is new territory for an artist who never craved acclaim. As Maxinquaye became one of the biggest releases of 1995, she was more comfortable taking a back seat and allowing Tricky to soak up the spotlight.
Such restraint arguably came at a cost. Topley-Bird was an equal partner with Tricky in making Maxinquaye. Yet he was the one lauded for his “genius”. She meanwhile was written off as muse or backing singer.
And yet, listening to Maxinquaye today, it’s undeniable that its best moments are all about Topley-Bird. Consider the single ‘Overcome’, where she sings like a sad angel. Or the punk-pop reinvention of Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel’, powered by her remarkable vocals. All the credit went to Tricky alone, though. Topley-Bird’s name was even misspelt “Martine” in the sleeve notes.
“It’s nice that I discovered different ways of singing on that record,” she says. “I don’t think I’d done a vocal like ‘Black Steel’ before.”
She doesn’t seem to regret not having demanded more attention.
“We did the Lollapalooza tour in 1997 and as I got off stage this long-haired guy who was maybe 20 came up to me and said, ‘I thought you were Tricky’. But it went the way people wanted it to go. I wasn’t pushing an agenda.”
Topley-Bird was born in London in 1975, to a father who died before she came into the world. Her mother remarried and the family moved to Bristol. Later, she went to state school in Cambridge. After her GCSEs, she moved home. In 1993, she was sitting on a wall, humming to herself, when she was “discovered” by Tricky, who happened to be walking past.
They shared an instant chemistry and, less than two years from their initial meeting, had made Maxinquaye. They recorded a further three albums together, concluding with Tricky’s notoriously unlistenable 1998 release Angels With Dirty Faces. But by then their relationship had come unstuck and she moved on to singing with Massive Attack – and working on her first solo release, 2003’s Quixotic. And she guested with the Prodigy, Clark and Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz.
She hasn’t spoken to Tricky in a long time. However, she remains close to Massive Attack, whose Robert Del Naja contributes production work to Forever I Wait (the overall project is produced by Topley-Bird herself).
Massive Attack are famously not a band to hurry the creative process. Making Forever I Wait Topley-Bird similarly proceeded at her own pace – piecing the LP together painstakingly since 2010.
“I’ve been around quite few people who haven’t rushed a record. I was making Quixotic at Real World and Peter Gabriel was doing a record,” she smiles. “I can’t remember quite how long it took – but it was a real stretch of people’s concentration. Maybe 10 or 11 years. I’m not the only one that takes a long time.”
Some musicians grow up dreaming of being pop stars. Topley-Bird wanted to be a scientist -– specifically a mathematician. Then she met Tricky, got into music and life was “derailed”.
“I probably would have had some sort of existential angst regardless of where I was or who I was around,” she says. “I didn’t actually hate boarding school. I loved it. But I needed someone to talk to. I was in Cambridge and my parents were in Somerset. It would take me five hours to get home and I’d feel slightly forgotten. I’d come home and my mum would have forgotten I was vegetarian. I didn’t do as great as I needed in my exams; I was trying to organise re-sitting them. And then music came in.”
She’s not keen on talking about the past. Which is understandable considering her relationship with Tricky and the passing of their daughter. But then, as stated above, she doesn’t need to bring up these traumas.
You can hear them on Forever I Wait, which is as powerful and cathartic as anything she has done in her career. After a tough several years, in which it may have felt hell was perpetually around the corner, perhaps the sun is finally about to come up for Topley-Bird.
“I wanted to make a record that had an arc,” she says. “It talks about a lot of things that were on my mind. In my back catalogue, I perhaps had more vague or suggestive lyrics. I wanted something that was clear and explicit.”
•Forever I Wait is out now.
Photo Credit: Allison Marchant