What's in a name? When it comes to Martina Topley-Bird, it's synchronicity. The longtime muse of Bristol, England, trip-hop pioneer Tricky, Topley-Bird spent her teenage years onward singing on three Tricky albums — Maxinquaye (Island, 1994), Pre-Millennium Tension (Island, 1996) and Angels With Dirty Faces (Polygram, 1998) — and the Tricky side project Nearly God's eponymous release (Island, 1996). In '98, Topley-Bird decided to go out on her own, and while the prolific Tricky (a former collaborator with both Massive Attack and Wild Bunch) was busy pumping out three more artist albums by 2003, Topley-Bird was looking over the edge of her safe haven and toppling out of the nest.
As luck would have it, she didn't crash to the ground. But taking on the challenge of becoming a solo songwriter and producer was none too easy. Fortunately, Topley-Bird's stepbrother Nick Bird (one of her seven siblings and step-siblings) is a songwriter. And he asked producer Alex McGowan and guitarist Steve Crittall to lend a hand to Topley-Bird. The production trio, known as Amp 9, helped create a safety net for her to get started. “[Nick] was like, ‘Why don't you join the project?’” McGowan says. “And I said, ‘Wow, that's just fucking amazing because out of the whole trip-hop scene from Bristol — Tricky, Portishead and all that — she was my favorite voice. And he was like, ‘She doesn't have a deal or anything, so there's no payment or anything.’ And I said, ‘It doesn't matter! Let's just fucking work!’”
Although an album didn't manifest in lightning speed, after four years of collaboration, the beautifully diverse Quixotic (Independiente) was finally released in 2003 and was quickly nominated for the UK's Mercury Prize. Making cameos on the record were Tricky (for the Quaalude-induced “Ragga” and “Ilya”), Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan (on the surprisingly anthem-rock-oriented “Need One”), Irish techno producer David Holmes (for the spaghetti-Western-meets-early-blues-diva “Too Tough to Die”) and film composer David Arnold (for strings on the '70s-soul-style “Soul Food”). Recently, the album made its way over to the states in the form of the resequenced, redesigned Anything (Palm Pictures, 2004).
MELODIES ON THE BRAIN
As a 16-year-old, Topley-Bird had her sights set on becoming an oceanographer, but a chance meeting with Tricky (with whom she had a daughter, Maisie, in 1993), changed that. And like the time Tricky overheard her singing while perched on a wall outside of his house in Bristol, Topley-Bird still has vocals free-flowing through her psyche wherever she goes.
“Most of the time, I start from a vocal idea,” she says. “Right now, I've got an Mbox and Pro Tools at home, and I've got a G4. So I just do that and either send it to people, and I put a harmony around it so they know what the chords are.” Before Topley-Bird had her portable recording setup, the vocal ideas came without warning and often outside of a recording studio. “On Quixotic, a few of the ideas started from a melody point of view, like ‘Lying’ was just kind of walking down the street, and it just kind of came out of a conversation. And ‘Sandpaper Kisses’ is something I thought of on the Tube [London Underground railway system] on the way to the studio.”
But having only a vocal melody to work with left her collaborators occasionally scratching their heads, including Bird, the songstress' brother. “It was really weird working with my brother,” she says. “I think the first time I started conveying the idea of having a melody first, people couldn't hear the chords around it. And in my head, I can hear all the chords around it, and I'm like, ‘Can't you hear how it's supposed to be?’”
Topley-Bird can play chords on guitar and keyboards, but melody is still her favorite way to start a song. “Even now, I have these melody ideas that I've had for years,” she says. “I just remember them in my head as I'm working through songs. I really prefer that way of working. Otherwise, if I find a particular sound that's quite open, then that's quite easy to write to; it doesn't lock you in to a particular number of notes you have to work with. But I never really started writing to chords.”
Topley-Bird's current writing partner, who goes by just the first name Leila, is working on the next album with her (along with a handful of other as-yet-to-be-named collaborators). “The first time I hooked up with her, she tried to convince me that it's more inspiring to listen to a sound rather than writing to guitar and stuff, and I had to explain to her that I'd never done that before anyway,” Topley-Bird says. “So it was kind of more new and bizarre to try and write to some chords on the guitar.”
For Anything (aka Quixotic), however, Topley-Bird recorded her vocal ideas at McGowan's studio; the two then sorted out a tempo for the song and figured out a rhythm to start with. “We'd lay down a very simple rhythm, not to clutter it up too much,” McGowan says. “And then she'd go through sounds and samples. For me, it was quite important to suggest things to her, have her play the keyboard and samples and just step through sounds and go, ‘You play it, and see what you like.’ We would carefully layer things around her vocal. But sometimes, because we work quite in an experimental way and improvise a lot, too many ideas would get in a track, and it was more work to sift through that and get rid of ideas so that it wouldn't be too cluttered.”
For McGowan, the best barometer for clutter is the vocal melody itself. “When you have the vocals and you listen to the whole song, you may actually lose touch with the vocals and not actually listen to them anymore, but you listen to the drums or whatever else is going on, your own ideas,” he says. “It's just like, keep listening to the vocal and check whether that's still paramount, if that's the kind of track it's supposed to be. Sometimes, you have a track where the vocal is more of an instrument. But on the Martina album, it's all very vocalist because her voice is just great.”
TRYING NOT TO SPOIL THE SOUP
Working with Amp 9 and other collaborators, sometimes, things got a little hectic with multiple visions in the same space. “It didn't always work out that well, and it did kind of boil down to me and Nick writing and Alex working on production as time went on,” Topley-Bird says. “It was potentially difficult with four different opinions. I have to remind everyone, ‘It doesn't matter what you think; it's my album!’ — in a nice way, of course. You can't have too many chefs, can you? Or is it too many chiefs?”
Topley-Bird is doing things a little bit different for the follow-up to Anything, for which she has three finished and five unfinished songs so far. But one lesson she learned through the process of doing a solo album is that her ideas need to be pretty cemented before getting too many other people involved. “‘Need One’ was tough because I'd say I wanted it to feel ‘punky,’” Topley-Bird says. “And Jake [Davies, the mixing engineer] would say, ‘Well, punky is, like, 250 bpm.’ And I'm like, ‘No, it's an attitude, a feeling, not a speed.’ So it was that kind of thing, not having the same reference points as somebody, so at one stage, it was totally lighter-up-in-the-air stadium rock, which is a bit too traditional for me. I've got really particular tastes, and, sometimes, someone has an idea which clashes totally with your whole ideology, so you're like, ‘Nah, I can't do that.’
“I think the main problem was that the songs were not evolved enough to be straight-up mixed,” she continues. “And there was a little too much opportunity for miscommunications. Because the thing is, people would really love the songs, and they feel passionate about their visions for it. And I'd be, ‘Well, that's not really what I want.’ And then they'd try something and would get really heartbroken when it wasn't what I was envisioning. But like I said before, you've got to be prepared and have it as ready as possible before you introduce somebody else to it. No amount of talking really does anything. You gotta have the song, and you gotta have any kind of reference that you want for the song to show to someone if you want their influence and their input.”
Toward the end of the process, Topley-Bird met with Tricky for a trusted second opinion. “Some songs I was really happy with, and some I couldn't get the balance right on the production or arrangement,” she says. “And so that was kind of the right stage to go and work with him again on things, because there was already a strong identity there 'cause I know him, so I know his tastes, and he knows my tastes.”
When the record label, which Topley-Bird had signed with a year-and-a-half into the process, started putting on the pressure for a finished product, McGowan and Topley-Bird met with the eccentric Tricky in Jersey City, N.J.; Los Angeles; and London. “If he works on something, then he's gotta be the boss,” McGowan says. “He's just that sort of totalitarian, strong-headed kind of musician or artist or producer. And that was that. Again, for me, it was amazing because I love the Tricky stuff, so to actually work with the man was incredible.”
McGowan — who recently finished an album for his own project, the Future Shape of Sound (which he calls “'60s northern soul, space-age-gangster-soul-psychedelic-blues”) — took his equipment to New Jersey and L.A. to work with Tricky. “He doesn't operate any equipment,” McGowan says. “He just sits down on the keyboard and grumbles and says, ‘Give me a sound,’ and you just step through whatever sounds you have. Then, he chooses a sound from the ones that you suggest, and he'll build around that. But he's got good ideas.”
THIS IS THE END?
The last collaboration on the album actually happened after it was finished. Topley-Bird had known members of Queens of the Stone Age since their days in Kyuss. And McGowan ended up going to a QOTSA show when a friend of his was opening for the band. “Backstage, I was introduced to Josh [Homme],” McGowan says, “and he was like, ‘You're working with Martina. Great. I want to be on the album.’ I was thinking, ‘Okay, four years, and the album is now finished.’ But, of course, Josh Homme. So I said, ‘Let me make a phone call.’ I called Martina in New York, and she's like, ‘Yeah, yeah, great. Just do it.’”
Although cementing studio time with Homme proved difficult due to opposition from Homme's tour manager, they weaseled a way for it to go down by taking a Digidesign Pro Tools rig to South Hampton, where QOTSA was playing next. Backstage after soundcheck, Mark Lanegan sang backup vocals, and Homme recorded guitar on top of what was supposed to be the final mix for “Need One.” “Josh came into the back room with his gear and improvised, like, 20 takes of guitar, one after the other on the track,” McGowan says. “And we took it back and filtered it all out.”
LIGHTS, MONITORS, ACTION!
Playing live with a band is actually a part of Topley-Bird's studio process before the album is even recorded. “Now what I'm doing is the writing, and then I'm going to work with this one person on preproduction,” she says. “Then, I work on the songs with the band, and then I'd want to get a producer in to record. That's how I think it would work out best for me, because I really enjoyed developing the songs for the live shows. When you're in the studio, staring at a computer screen, you change one thing, and the whole balance is strangely off, and you have to adjust this and that. But when you're playing with a band, people have to get a feel for it, and then it evolves in a less painful, mentally taxing way. There's got to be the little alchemical aspect of the thing having a vibe and a flow to it. And that tends to happen if you're playing with live musicians. Most of [the people we work with] are artists; they're not session musicians. We wanted to have people who were passionate about music, not just jobbing it.”
The songs play out in various ways onstage. But even when a song isn't an exact replica of the recording, if it turns out beautifully, it validates the strength of the songwriting. “‘Soul Food,’ for instance, sounds pretty much exactly like the record when I play it with the full band,” Topley-Bird says. “But for ‘Ilya,’ we didn't really have the samples and everything ready to rehearse live, so I just turned it into an a cappella song, which I actually really, really like. It really has a beautiful feel to it, and it's very different from the record. But what I also like about that is how it demonstrates how the song works when you're able to change arrangements and it sounds as good or better than what you made in the studio with the computer.”
On hand for mixing sessions were Tchad Blake (at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios), Davies (at Eden Studios) and McGowan (at McGowan's Space Eko). “Mixing is the most painful part of the whole process because that's when you complete the thing,” McGowan admits. “That's when you let go. This — is — it! It's great when you have an idea, and you start with something, and anything's possible. And so I think the way that I mix, I sort of need time. It doesn't need shitloads of time. But do your mix and put it down, and come back the next day and listen with fresh ears, and sit back and see whether anything gets on your nerves.
“Sometimes, I'll try two or three different approaches together, so maybe the middle eight comes from the weird mix,” he continues. “So not the whole song is weird, but just the middle eight, and then it gives it an extra sort of dynamic. Mixing is sort of like film editing; you can change so much in it. In a way, it's still part of the arranging — even the writing. But it can be a bit painful if you lose the plot, which is something that happens to a lot of people: You do a mix, and you think it sounds great. And then the next day, you're like, ‘I don't know. Where's the vibe?’ It's just knowing then to stop trying too hard. So save the settings you've got and mix something else and then come back to that one. And then it will be very apparent very quickly what was not happening with the particular mix.”
For Topley-Bird, certain songs turned out as she had envisioned, and some morphed and changed into something she didn't expect. “‘Soul Food’ was a difficult one; it wasn't what I started out with the intention of doing,” she says. “But I thought the mix that was done was so nice, and it had its own magic that I thought, ‘Well, that's what it is, and you just have to respect it for what it is and leave it there.’” With a sigh a relief, Topley-Bird lets go of the tight grip on her original ideas to accommodate chance. And with that, she's off to the studio to finish her next release, due early 2005.
ALEX McGOWAN'S SPACE EKO STUDIO
COMPUTERS, DAWs, RECORDING HARDWARE:
Apple Mac G4/800 computer
Atari 1040 ST 4MB computer: “A lot of the MIDI was actually done on Atari,” McGowan says. “I have now changed to Mac, but I had so much stuff on Atari from the past, and I just love working on it.”
Emagic Logic Audio software
Lacie 120GB external hard drive
Panasonic SV3800 DAT recorder
Steinberg Cubase SX software
SAMPLERS, DRUM MACHINES, TURNTABLES, DJ MIXER:
Akai S2000, S3000 samplers
Roland HPD-15 HandSonic percussion controller:
“It kind of looks weird, and it's got a D-Beam, and you can do strange things with the D-Beam.”
SYNTHS, MODULES, SOFTWARE, PLUG-INS, INSTRUMENTS:
Atari Notator software
Fender Rhodes 73 electric piano
Kawai K4r rackmount synth module
Korg Kaoss Pad effects unit
Oberheim Matrix 1000 keyboard module
Yamaha DX-11 synth
MICS, MIC PREAMPS, EQs, COMPRESSORS, EFFECTS:
Alesis 3630 compressor
Ibanez UE 405 multi-effects unit: “It's really a guitar effects unit from the '80s,” McGowan says. “It's got a particular sound, but it's got a great atmosphere to it on vocals or drums. It fucks everything up pretty harshly.”
Neumann U 147 mic
Oktava MK219 mics
Roland RE-201 Space Echo, RE-301 Chorus Echo, RE-501 Chorus Echo effects units: “The RE-501 Chorus Echo makes everything sound like old '60s recordings.”
SPL Gold Mic Preamp
CONSOLE, MIXERS, INTERFACES:
Allen & Heath Saber Plus mixing desk
Digidesign Digi 002 Rack interface