The tracks of a disco diva's tears

Billie Ray Martin has been a prima donna since she was two. She suffers for us all. By Glyn Brown
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The Independent Online
Interesting thing, the diva. Try as she may (though she usually doesn't) to deny such a description, the genuine article stands out a mile because drawing attention is a prime attribute. So, though Billie Ray Martin bats her black-lined lids and states with Teutonic hauteur, "I don't know and I don't care - that label's something people dump on me", she has the waiters in the restaurant where we meet genuflecting like drunken nine-pins. I persist: what is "diva" quality? After a beat, she relents. "It's dignity in the face of difficulty. And making a big personality out of it, which is why gay people love divas - is that thing recording? It's the fact that you have to make up a personality: you don't know who you are, so you invent an identity that's larger than the realities you deal with in everyday life."

Svelte but larger than life, the Hamburg-born Martin (not, of course, her real name) knows something about difficulty, but more about overcoming it. A cult figure for more than a decade, she first brought her swooping soul register and eclectic influences - Captain Beefheart and Aretha Franklin, Throbbing Gristle and Martha Reeves - to bear on the British club scene with her band Electribe 101. A debut album, a hit single - the eerily erotic "Talking with Myself", where her honeyed tones rubbed knowingly against an icy electronic backdrop - and then in 1992 Electribe imploded. There followed two years of penury ("I was literally starving," she sighs dramatically, peering from beneath her cloche) before a watershed show resulted in a major deal and songwriting with renewed vigour. The result is the new album Deadline for My Memories, an aching mix of lush electro dance beats and gospel-tinged, shattered-heart ballads ("Kraftwerk meets Phil Spector", as Martin puts it).

But career is not the only thing now resolved for the woman dubbed the Dietrich of disco. Pale as Buster Keaton and clad in existentialist black accessorised with bracelets big enough to floor Nancy Cunard, Martin relates a more personal epiphany. Deserted as a baby by a young mother who worked on Hamburg's notorious Reeperbahn and "wanted to be a rock 'n' roll chick" (she eventually secured a date with Gerry and the Pacemakers' bassist), Martin was raised by her grandparents but sustained a deep identity crisis. Some sense of self was established via singing, and prima donna status set in at the age of two. "What a brat! Because I didn't know who the hell I was, the only way my real soul would shine was when I was forcing everyone to listen to my tapes, which I did, probably boring them to tears."

Self-affirmation was not easily won this way. "You can't get more working- class than the background I come from, and I was always told, the stars on TV are better than us, and we... we are nobody, you are nobody. I would sing and even my father would laugh at me, so I'd go crazy - it's my dad, can't he hear what I'm trying to show him?"

In her own precocious effort to be a rock chick, Martin named her teddy bears after the Beatles. "I would sing to all of them, then cut up a piece of lace, stick it on my head like a veil and marry Paul. Always the same bloody teddy; eventually the springs burst and the head fell off." Which may have prefigured relationship dysfunction to come. Doomed love affairs figure large in Martin's lyrics, but her most traumatic ex is not disturbed by the inspiration he provides "because he didn't have any inner emotional life to speak of, so he wouldn't get it if it screamed in his face". She laughs, revealing very good teeth.

The happy ending to our story is that fairly recently the parental rift was healed and the singer is now in touch with her mother. It was a move not unconnected with Martin's spiritual rebirth, a gradual process involving Transcendental Meditation and only partly sparked "by seeing that Tina Turner movie where she meditates, then goes and kicks Ike's head in". Songwriting, though, remains the best therapy. Martin frequently cries when she writes; friends, affected by her melodies, call her up weeping ("one broke down in tears while he was Hoovering"); even hacks are not immune. "Yesterday a journalist from Singapore said 'True Moments of My World' made him cry for three hours." Ask if she's a depressive and a certain froideur becomes evident in the German husk laced with London vernacular. "Ach, that's really boring. The same as Bjork being called a weirdo - it's actually racist this, know what I mean?" Despite the hurdles of her past, or perhaps because of them, Martin in person is, it must be said, upbeat.

In her moment of deepest, deal-less crisis, she was told her voice has healing qualities, and now interprets any tears her lyrics elicit as cathartic. "I would never call myself unique or special, but the healing power of music is one of the most powerful, and I fit in there somehow."

A more intimate source of comfort is a certain recurring dream. "There I am with Clint Eastwood in Madonna's pool trying to go for a swim and snogging as we do it, but these huge ships - I come from Hamburg harbour - are coming toward us. So Clint goes, 'I'll take you away from all this,' and we get out and walk into the sunset. Clint, to me, is a symbol of longevity, and someone whose life is plain sailing..."

A stranger to subtlety perhaps, but candour, enigma and bravura performance is a rare blend in a pop star. Which may be why Billie Ray Martin is a diva.

n Billie Ray Martin plays the Ministry of Sound, London SE1 (0171-378 6528) this Saturday

n 'Deadline for My Memories' is released by EastWest on 22 Jan