A little bit tricksy

Finley Quaye is sharp, streetwise and has a musical pedigree you couldn't argue with. Even if nephew Tricky does deny all knowledge of him. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
It's tempting to see Epic Records' would-be star Finley Quaye as a variant of Paul Whitehouse's street-smart wide-boy from The Fast Show, the one who's a little bit this, a little bit that, a little bit, y'know, dodgy. For Finley, you feel, is a lot smarter than he pretends to be, though he pretends to be very smart indeed. As the still centre of a whirlwind of publicity orchestrated by his record company, he's being touted as the next big thing: a little bit reggae, a little bit dance, a little bit India, a little bit ooh. Throughout all the shenanigans - the carefully planned PAs, the showcase gigs, the radio interview spots - he's mostly content to keep his own counsel, and his cool, which is already spectacular.

He's 22 years of age and the recipient of a very major, major-label deal, but he doesn't seem the slightest bit fazed, although he exhibits an unusually fluid personality. On a promotional bash in Bristol recently, his voice moved between the dialects of Jamaican patois (with his dreadlocked driver), gritty Manchester realism, and smooth Edinburgh aplomb with disturbing ease. Smallish of stature, with a powerful head and one of the cutest curled lips to appear for quite some time, Quaye manages the difficult feat of looking both deeply vulnerable and potentially dangerous at the same time. And when he sings he can sound like a young Burning Spear, which is no mean feat. Taken all together it's a formidably winning combination, and that isn't even the half of it.

As should be well known by now, Finley is also Tricky's uncle, through a weird set of genealogical circumstances whereby his much older half- brother, Caleb Quaye (who played guitar with Hookfoot and Elton John in the Seventies), is also Tricky's late mum's half-brother. When Tricky's album Maxinquaye (named for his mum, Maxine Quaye) came out, Finley was confused. "I used to see these words on ads everywhere, bits of my name, and I couldn't work it out. I didn't even think of Maxine Quaye. My family is huge, man." The daddy of them all is his own father, Cab Quaye, a half- Ghanaian, half-American musician in his seventies who lives in Holland, and whom Finley has never met.

When in New York to cut his album last year, Finley called his nephew up on the phone and they met for the first time. "We got on like a house on fire, totally," he says. "We went out and met Nellee Hooper, and then Iggy Pop, who's a friend of Tricky's, and me and Tricky caught the same plane back to London in the morning. It was weird, because we had booked seats on the same flight without knowing each other. It was like, position." I haven't got a clue what he's talking about, and Finley takes infinite pains to explain what he means. "Our mannerisms come from our position, the circumstances we're in, the vibes!" he says. "I'm not in the same position as you, am I? Or that brother over there? But with Tricky it was the same position and situation: music business, same flights, same shoes, all kinds of things. It was like the Corsican brothers. It's groovy, but it is scary." Recent reports suggest that Tricky sees it differently, at least since Finley made the cover of Dazed and Confused and started getting noticed. When Marc Kidel, the director of a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary about Tricky's roots, asked him about Uncle Finley, Tricky denied all knowledge, claiming there was an impostor about. Such paranoia might well be the price of fame.

Finley's own roots are worthy of a bad Dickens novel: "I was in Edinburgh until I was four, then I went to London until I was 10, and then back to Edinburgh, where I went to live with my grandparents because my mum had a heroin problem, and I stayed there for a few years. Then my uncle and aunt in Manchester looked after me because I was a bit too exuberant for my grandparents. Then I went back to my grandparents for a year and then back to my uncle's when I was 15. Their relationship was falling apart and he would pay me to go out so they could have a good shout. One day he took a belt to my head so I just left in my school uniform and went back to Edinburgh on the train."

He got a job in a garage spraying cars. "My friends were into hot-rodding and racing down to Newcastle on the A1, listening to music. We would watch the planes come in over the airport at night." After a year he went back down to Manchester again and enrolled in a BTEC course for sound engineering. "I did it for about 10 months until I got kicked out for not handing in any assignments. They were far too orthodox, teaching you to call headphones `cans', like a glossary of how to be hip in the studio." He left again - after contributing a vocal to a track by Mancunian dance producer A Guy Called Gerald - and hit the road, joining the ranks of the Donga Tribe, and camping out in a tepee in a church in Kentish Town. "It was a wonderful experience," he remembers. "The christening bowl was at the foot of my bed and I would steam my face in it in the morning from a big pan of boiling water with a towel over my head."

Earlier, he had taken guitar lessons in Manchester from a guitar-doctor friend of his uncle and aunt, and he continued to make music whenever he could on a four-track home-studio, tracks that later became the bait for several record companies. He drummed, constantly: "Drumming with my fingers, drumming with knives waiting for the toast to pop up, drumming on poles waiting for the train to come - you get a wonderful ring off those poles. Drums are a great foundation. If you start replacing drums with instruments you've got a really good method."

The influence of reggae - which forms the dominant sound on his first EP and single - came not from the usual sources but the avant-garde experiments of John Zorn's Black Hole Dub. The musicians in his band are a bunch of London rastas and his first gig - which I saw - was as support to Jamaican singer Luciano on a reggae-circuit tour. In a setting where most new artists would have run for cover, Finley was typically cool, calm and collected, even though almost no one was watching. His forthcoming album, Maverick a/Strike, will go deeper into reggae but one senses (and his record company must be betting on it) that he can reach out to a much wider audience.

Questioned about what he wants to communicate with his music, he says: "There's a drive to elucidate, to educate, without being too rude or political. I speak of Essex, as Chris Eubank would say." He concedes too, that his unsettled family background has marked him. "I have definitely adopted musical father-figures because I didn't have a father-presence myself. So when I hear Big Youth I check that that's the kind of father I want; one who wears Nike and drives a turquoise Plymouth V8." A little bit this, a little bit that, Finley Quaye has definitely got what it takes.

The debut single `Sunday Shining' is out now on Epic