Some Place Simple is an unusual album. It contains only a handful of new songs; the rest are new versions of songs from her previous albums Quixotic (2003) and The Blue God (2008). Mostly, the arrangements involve no more than two instruments, ukulele and percussion, for instance, or e-piano and percussion, or even nothing but percussion. The results – the only predictable aspect of Some Place Simple – are gripping.
Sublime: The sound of Some Place Simple is sparse, the combination of instruments highly unusual. How did you arrive at this sound?
Martina Topley Bird: The opportunity came up to do some gigs. I suggested we try to get a set together with just the two of us, my dude and I. In about four hours we managed to isolate the main riffs, the counter-melodies and the rhythms that seemed to work for a bunch of songs, trying to make most of the opportunity that came up. And that’s how we’ve been performing live for a couple of years now. I guess it started it 2008. Then in September 2009 Damon Albarn saw the show. He didn’t know I could play any instruments, and he suggested we make a record just like that. He’s the best person to recognise the validity of reinterpreting the songs that had already been released. There’s so much ‘fame’-based thinking in the industry; there’s all these rules about what you can and can’t do, and what you should do if you want to be successful. Damon opened up a refreshing perspective for me. It’s not really an acoustic album, it’s a reduction, a minimalist thing. Apart from one or two exceptions, we’ve only recorded what we can feasibly play like that live.
S: The sparseness puts a lot of emphasis on lyrics.
MTB: Yeah, which is nice because there’s some good lyrics there, and I’m totally under-appreciated as a lyricist, ha!
S: In the context of the new folky stuff that’s around, it’s become a cliché to have some wispy vocalist whispering a confessional into the microphone. With you, however, the effect is more abrasive, tart and sharp.
MTB: Another label is going to release the album in America, and I was running it past them and they said, ‘Oh, the ukulele is a little bit harsh on there, and grating sometimes.’ I said: ‘That’s what keeps me awake and engaged.’
S: You’ve changed record labels. Normally, such a move wouldn’t warrant comment. In your case, however, it’s interesting that you’ve moved from a semi-mainstream, semi-indie label to an out-there independent. Did you feel constrained in the previous environment?
MTB: What I’m realising is that it doesn’t matter. As soon as you give anybody a little power, be it a big label or a little label, they can be like your parents. You have to be careful about giving your power away, or trusting blindly, or assuming that someone’s going to do something just because they said they would or because it’s their job. My future lies in being as autonomous as possible, doing as much as I can before I get anybody else involved. The best thing is to do as much as you can yourself, be careful and ask the right questions from the people you’re going to get involved with. Make sure you get firm answers. Not just a lot of ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ – you need to see it in writing.
S: As a result, did you find you were seen as a difficult artist because you asked questions?
MTB: I don’t know. I have a certain way about me sometimes which is perhaps not conducive for people to do their best work for me. Maybe I scare some people. I think there’s a way of positively motivating people, being direct and firm. I tend to forget that people don’t realise how much work you put into it, how much it means to you and how vulnerable doing this kind of thing makes you. When you’re hyperaware of it, and you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t seem to respect that, then it feels quite shocking.
S: Around your first solo album, after your stunning albums with Tricky, were the expectations a burden?
MTB: At that point they were. Inevitably they were going to be high. You have to go through the process. Anybody who creates something for the first time by themselves has to go through that, and the experience of being fatigued. It’s part of growing up.
S: Do you feel you’ve found a healthy way of dealing with it?
MTB: No, you just have to deal with it. Before that first gig [a showcase at a packed club in Holborn] I was very nervous, scared even. I was sitting down beforehand, thinking, I don’t wanna do this. I went to the loo to get some space and there, I was, I don’t have to do it. No one can make me do it. Then I thought, actually, it might be fun! It might be a laugh. So I talked myself round to it.
S: The British music business has been informed in the last decade by a post-Britpop ‘lad culture’. Has that been a problem for you?
MTB: I thought that was going to be a real problem. How is anybody going to relate to me? I’m not really representing a huge demographic, am I? But I don’t have to represent anybody. I just have to be me saying what I think. I have the same basic human needs as others, so on some level we’ll connect. We don’t have to wear fricking Fred Perry, or whatever.
S: You seem to be pretty successful at doing your own thing, and not being waylaid by trends and fashions.
MTB: I’m too slow to jump on any bandwagon. I’d like to be a bit more prolific, though.
S: You’ve become a member of the Massive Attack touring circus. That’s practically a coming home for you, back to your Bristolian roots.
MTB: It was quite comforting going to rehearsals and hearing so many Bristolian accents. That was nice. I haven’t spent much time in Bristol since I left. The guy we’ve been co-writing with is someone I was at school with when I was 14. My piano teacher had a jazz band and he was trying to get us kids into it. Dan Brown – he was the guitarist – has got recordings of us when we were 14, 15. And he co-wrote two of the songs on the Massive Attack record, totally separate from me. That’s going way back, further back than Tricky. I didn’t know the Massive Attack guys. I’d only met them a few times over the years.
S: How did the idea come up that, nearly twenty years after ‘Blue Lines’ and the whole Bristol boom, you should at last link up with massive attack for the first time?
MTB: In 2008 they asked me to be part of the Meltdown Festival in London, which they were curating that year. A couple of years before that, I’d seen G and he had said, ‘You should come down to the studio and work with us,’ and I was like, Why? When we did Meltdown I was starting to get the impression they were trying to get something going. I was surprised they seemed to think it was a good idea. I remembered having Tricky work on my first solo record. People didn’t respond very well to that. They said, surely if you left him you must hate him, and you must move on, so don’t work with him. I was like, even if I do hate him I’d probably still work with him because I have a musical affinity with him which I’m realising is very rare. It’s just that, really; chemistry. If you’ve got chemistry with someone, that’s the right place. With Massive Attack, as it happened I wasn’t that busy, so they sent me some tracks and I worked with those, and they sent some more, and I went to Bristol to record.
S: There is, after all, some kind of chemistry with Massive Attack as well
MTB: Yeah, there is. There’s been lots of really lovely surprises. The way D thinks, for instance. It’s like meeting Tricky’s family back in the day. I hear them talk, and suddenly I hear the connections – ah, that’s where that came from! Hanging out with G and D, I suddenly recognised that there was a similar sensibility, a soul-punk sensibility. It’s a punk sensibility expressing itself in a surprising context because the music was more influenced sonically by soul. I get what D wants to do. And, in terms of any kind of collaboration, I feel useful in that constellation.
S: There was a time when the media were so full of talk about the ‘Bristol sound’ that it became an irritation and a fashionable cliché. At the same time, you can hear a similarity in spirit in a lot of music from Bristol. It’s often more eclectic than London, not so obsessed with being cool.
MTB: London has a real problem about looking at itself in the mirror and checking its hair, and shit. Really, it turns my stomach. I do like bits of London, but I’m not inspired to make a lot of music here. With Bristol, I like that whole kind of simmering anger. It’s there in Massive Attack and Tricky, and it’s there in Portishead.
S: For the next six months you’re touring with the album and Massive Attack. What’s the plan after that, in an ideal world?
MTB: Hopefully another record. That’ll be it. I started a bunch of stuff in January in LA. The intention is that it’s three separate projects. I hope it’ll end up being three, but it might be one. I called up all my friends, everyone I knew. In LA, people call you at the last minute and go, Oh, I can’t do it on that day after all, I need to take the dog to the vet. So I triple-booked, and then everyone turned up. At one stage I had three separate sets of people waiting to get into the studio. There are definitely different identities in the three different projects. I’m hoping I’ll be able to put myself in the right space to get there.
Martina Topley Bird, Some Place Simple (Honest Jon’s)