Tricky - An Englishman in Paris

Tricky had all the trappings of fame. Now he lives in the French capital in peaceful anonymity – but he’s braving a return to territory that once left him self-conscious and paranoid. Elisa Bray meets him

I spot Tricky sitting outside the Parisian cafe, his trademark sculpted dreadlocks shrouded by a hat. It’s the cafe where you’ll find the trip-hop star every day, writing lyrics. During our meeting, a couple of passers by do a double take, but I can see the venue’s appeal. He’s left to his own devices.

“I could get a coffee and stay here for four or five hours”, he says in a West Country burr. “So, here I write, sometimes I just smoke a spliff and watch people. One of the younger kids recognised me, but some of the other people haven’t got a clue. They’re just very cool people. They leave me alone.”

His pursuit of anonymity is one of the reasons that he moved to Paris two years ago - that and restlessness (“I get bored very quickly”). Before Paris, he’d lived in Los Angeles and New York. “I stopped looking around seeing the beauty of [LA]. And when I came to Paris I was shocked by the beauty of it. And when that goes, I’ll move on somewhere else.” Where, he hasn’t a clue.

He doesn’t have a girlfriend and lives alone, he says, because he’s so self-absorbed. “It could be very difficult,” he admits, “because I go into zones– if I’m listening to music, all of a sudden they’re not there. And I prefer to listen to music on my headphones. I don’t share stuff. So I don’t think it’s a fun situation being my girlfriend. I do realise I’m hard to be with.”

It wouldn’t be an interview with Tricky without him sounding off about whatever’s exercising him. Today’s grievance is the empty trappings of fame. After all, Tricky has firsthand experience. With the release of his debut album, Maxinquaye, in 1995, he went from underground rapper, scraping a living by selling a bit of weed and the odd petty theft, to one of the most recognisable faces on the music scene.

And not just famous, but rich, too. He recalls living in Harlesden, in north-west London, unable to afford the fares across town to East Ham to see his family. All that changed overnight. “All of a sudden I’ve got money, I could go where I want.” The excess was mindboggling: hiring a jet to New York for the weekend for £25,000; $200,000 on a chauffeur in two years. “I lived in New Jersey in a massive house, not a 50 Cent mansion, but four bedrooms, and I had acres of land.

A car service, a Russian guy called Vladimir, would come up at 11am, wait until 1pm when I’d showered, take me into Manhattan to do a bit of business, then I’d go and meet a friend and proceed to a club. And I’d come out and Vladimir would be asleep in the car because it would be 6 in the morning. I was just living a crazy life.”

If it sounds like living the dream, the dark side was loss of anonymity, and paranoia.

“A lot of young people have not a clue what being famous entails,” he says. “When you lose your anonymity you can’t walk down the street without people looking at you. Fame used to come with the territory – you become successful with your art, and fame was a by-product of that. Nowadays being famous is more important than the music Sometimes I walk down the street and hear people whisper ‘that’s Tricky’ and I look back, and I see them looking back, then that affects everything I do – the way I walk the way I talk. It stops you being real.”

Being an introvert also didn’t help.“I’m really shy,” Tricky stresses, explaining his former gig performances in near total darkness and why you won’t hear banter between songs. So it was his worst nightmare when he found himself on stage with Beyoncé at Glastonbury last year, his mic not working, and the superstar compensating for the hitch by – to his horror – grinding against him. “I’ve never been so embarrassed,” he says smiling. “My body just froze. And it’s like the whole world looking at you and waiting. God, I didn’t want that to happen.”

What’s precipitated his musings on fame is that Tricky, now 44, has returned to th album that brought him fame, performing Maxinquaye in its entirety at London’s Sundance festival and Bristol where he was born. Although his big break came with Massive Attack, whose Blue Lines album he rapped on four years earlier, it was  Maxinquaye,  the dark, trip-hop album that sounded like nothing else, that made him a star.

It was this fame which threw him off his path, and prompted a disintegration in his sound. After a few obtuse follow-up albums and five years off the radar, when 2008’s Knowle West Boywas released, critics were eager to hail his return to form. But it wasn’t, according to Tricky. The guitars it introduced he puts down to trying to sell records on a label, Domino, best known for guitar bands like the Arctic Monkeys.

“See, I fell into that trap of success. Normally I just record, what I like I keep. Now I’m starting to think things like ‘well if I do a guitar record that’s going to get me more record sales’ and that’s the wrong way to be going.” He shrugs, his lack of interest in his last two albums palpable. “The tours were just about making money so to me it was just one big party. I was going out to a club every night. It’s almost like I didn’t care. To be honest, I’ve been drinking a lot over the last two years, more than I’ve ever drunk out of sheer boredom of touring.” Dangerous amounts? “Yeah. I was drinking say a bottle and a half of whiskey on a show.”

When it was suggested by his manager that Tricky, born Adrian Thaws, play Maxinquaye in full, he was as opposed to the idea as he was to the album’s re-release in 2009.“Like totally against it,” he says. “because I don’t want to look backwards. But my manager explained that what I’m trying to run away from, some people embrace. My cousin said ‘if it weren’t for Maxinquaye, you wouldn’t even have a kid’. And when people put it these ways, it’s like wow. If it did mean a lot to people, why not do it?”

Maxinquaye did mean a lot – it was one of those rare works from the underground that did nothing to compromise, yet still became a hit. And ironically, returning to the album has dragged him out of his spiralling state. It’s also made him think about his mother after whom it is named; she committed suicide from a drug overdose when he was four.

Does he remember Maxine Quaye? “No. I can remember seeing her in the coffin. My Grandmother had the coffin at home, opposite my room, with a glass [top]. I used to go and sneak into the room. I knew it was my mum, but I was too young to understand.” However, his mother’s suicide did affect him subconsciously. Until she died last year, his grandmother was convinced he developed asthma as a result; studies show that without theirmother, children can develop breathing problems.

He started writing at 15 at his grandmother’s home, where he was raised (his father had left before he was born), the 13th of 14 siblings. He would later discoverhis mother was a poet, and believes he is his mother’s medium. He’s even been revisiting the one photo he has of them together: “My mum was giving me a hardcore stare, she’s like ‘don’t stray’. I strayed off that path. Now I’m back there. And I think going back to Maxinquaye is maybe to remind me.”

Martina Topley-Bird, whose singing alongside Tricky’s distinctive mumbled rapping, gave the album’s powerful sexual tension, is also the mother of the couple’s now 17-year-old daughter Mazy. This is the first time in 15 years that the pair are performing together, and Mazy will be watching them.

Now he’s nearly finished his new, double, album (he hints that the first single, “Armies”, could be out as early as July) and his excitement is infectious. “I haven’t been motivated like this for many years”, he enthuses.

“I’ve been lost, but I’ve found myself again. Now I remember I’m not here to make millions of dollars or be a superstar, I’m here to help people. With Maxinquaye, I wanted to change the world. My new album is going back. It’s spiritual, and makes my stomach go funny; I’d lost that for years. Going back to Maxinquaye has given me a new energy and I feel like doing these shows and working with Martina is closing the chapter and then I’m moving into a new chapter. It’s good.”

Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird play Manchester Academy tonight

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