On a wing and a prayer

Best known as the collaborator and muse of the trip-hop star Tricky, Martina Topley-Bird is now flying solo - and her debut album proves that good things come to those who wait. She tells Fiona Sturges why it has taken so long
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"Music has always meant a lot to me," reflects the 28-year-old singer Martina Topley-Bird, sitting in a small Italian restaurant around the corner from her Chelsea home. "But there's a serious risk in doing something you really want to do, in putting all of yourself into one thing. Is it worth the risk? I decided there was only one way to find out and that was to go ahead and do it."

Her name may put you in mind of a character in a PG Wodehouse story and her singing may conjure visions of a satin-clad she-devil, but in reality Topley-Bird is considerably more down-to-earth. She comes across as a sensible, smart and - to borrow her favourite word - "centred" individual, who seems both bewildered and gratified by the excitement surrounding her debut album, Quixotic.

You'll have first heard Topley-Bird's dark and deliciously sensual vocals on Tricky's 1995 album, Maxinquaye. The album was widely regarded as the greatest of the decade and, albeit unintentionally, gave rise to the trip-hop genre. She feels "lucky, honoured and proud" to have been a part of that, but mostly lucky. "To meet someone you have an affinity with and get to create something like Maxinquaye, it's incredible. What are the chances of that? I never dreamed I would get such an opportunity."

It has been five years since she stopped working with Tricky and four since she began work on her own album. When I suggest that this is an inordinately long time to be working on anything, she wags a disapproving finger in my direction.

"It may seem like a long time but it's a different thing when you're doing it on your own. My record label did give me a couple of deadlines and I tried really hard to meet them. But there's the time that you take writing and making something and then there's the time you take to run away for a bit, so you can come back and go 'Is it OK?'. I was unaccustomed to making music, and having to show it to somebody and be responsible for it. It took a lot of getting used to."

There was a pressure, she admits, in putting her own name to an album after all this time. "There's no way round it, is there?" she ponders, pushing a piece of pasta disconsolately around her plate. "The only way to weather anything like that is to make something that you like yourself. That's what I set out to do. To make something that I liked and found interesting and satisfying. Then you have to give yourself a break. You do what you can and if people like it, that's a bonus, and if they don't then you deal with it."

Amazingly, Topley-Bird had never written a song before she started work on Quixotic. She had written bits and pieces, but never had the confidence to show her writing to anyone. Now she views her first album as chronicling her own learning curve. "You do all the work and become a ble at something, and then go away and be creative with it," she explains. "By the next album I should really have some skills to show off."

Quixotic may have been a long time coming but it has certainly been worth the wait. It's an astonishing debut, a work of skewed beauty that sounds like nothing else around at the moment. From the gospel groove of "Soul Food" and the Eastern promise of "Ilya" to the out-and-out rock of "Need One" and "I Wanna Be There", it's filled with conflicting sounds and moods. The album comes with a classy set of collaborators as well, among them the producer David Holmes (on whose album Bow Down to the Exit Sign Topley-Bird has contributed vocals), the arranger and composer David Arnold and the Californian metallers Queens of the Stone Age. Topley-Bird's voice still has the capacity to chill you to the core - "Lullaby" is truly the stuff nightmares are made of - yet it has grown richer and fuller over time. While there are shades of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, for the most part it's a voice that defies comparison.

"I've never had any real training apart from the lessons I had at school," she says. "I guess you just do what comes naturally. You find your voice adapts to fit the mood of the song almost unconsciously."

Following 1998's Angels With Dirty Faces, the last album on which Tricky and Topley-Bird worked together, she considered ditching her singing career altogether. After years of post-Maxinquaye touring and promotional activities, she found the lifestyle didn't agree with her anymore.

"I started to need a lot more structure and routine," she says, leaning back in her chair and pulling out a cigarette. "I didn't think I was cut out for it anymore. Going out and performing means that all sense of stability goes out of the window."

Topley-Bird grew up in Lisson Grove, London, in a large family - she was one of eight siblings and step-siblings. She first met Tricky, who was then a rapper in Massive Attack, in 1990 while she was studying for her GCSE's at boarding school. She happened to be sitting on a wall at the end of his road in Bristol smoking a cigarette. The pair got chatting "about music, all sorts of things" and became friends. She left school after a year and returned to London. For a while they exchanged tapes of their favourite music by post and eventually he persuaded her to sing on his debut album. She describes his working methods as "original, unorthodox and authentic", instincts that have clearly carried through into her own work.

As well as being Tricky's vocal foil, Topley-Bird was his partner for several years and is the mother of his daughter Mazy, now eight. A barrier goes up up when I ask her about their relationship; her answers immediately become slow and monosyllabic. "I don't want to go down that road as it's very distracting," she says, with a nervous smile. "I feel like I've already given out a lot of information by making an album."

What is already known is that their working partnership dissolved in 1998 in troubled circumstances. The famously volatile Tricky was accused by a journalist from The Face of holding his singing partner back. "He was trying to make me into this Ike Turner figure. I wasn't going to mess around with his stupid little games," he told me earlier this year. The writer received a punch in the face for his troubles; Tricky puts this incident down to why he has never worked with Topley-Bird since.

"I can't speak for Tricky but it's a shame that it happened," she says cautiously when I ask how this made her feel. "I don't get any of what that writer said. I'm responsible for what I do and what I don't do. So I don't understand anyone making that assumption. That's all I can say."

These days Martina and Tricky live on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and Mazy lives with her mother in Chelsea. Clearly the pair are on good terms, however, as Tricky makes two typically dark appearances on Quixotic.

The longer Topley-Bird has been away, it seems, the greater the curiosity surrounding her next move. It's clearly this kind of scrutiny - the Tricky line of enquiry, if you like - that she has dreaded all along, and it is possibly what prevented her, until now, from striking out on her own.

"That may be true," she says. "What is odd about making something like this is the talking about it afterwards. You make it, you put all the information in there, but then you incite more questions than ever. But then that's the problem with this business, isn't it? In the end, it makes you vulnerable."

'Quixotic' is out on 14 July on Independiente