It’s a steamy, hazy, noisy afternoon in Camden and a…
Billie Ray Martin, the ‘queen of electronic soul’ is back. If you’re unfamiliar with the unique artistry of this thrilling singer, it’s high time to catch a ride on the clue train. Billie burst onto the rave scene in the late ‘80s as a guest vocalist with Mark Moore’s S-Express. She then led the acclaimed deep house act Electribe 101, scoring a slew of hits and providing the soundtrack for chill outs worldwide.
Billie went on an international pop trip with ‘Your Loving Arms’ in ’95. before embarking on a number of side projects and collaborations that continue to stun, dazzle and challenge the status quo.
Of this release you stated ‘God this is scary’- what’s the fear?
Releasing something that people don’t expect, that doesn’t fit a trend (not even in soul music), that’s just music for music’s sake. Lays you bare in a way.
The Glittering Gutter is wistful for the red light sleaze you grew up with, pre gentrification- is there anything we can do to save the underground from becoming beige?
Too late. They’ve beiged our balls.
You recorded 18 Carat Garbage with the legendary Ann Peebles and some of the best Hi Records session musicians- what did you learn during that experience that you’ve brought to this recording?
First of all I learned that they tick very differently over there, which was the hugest learning experience for me. They move slower in Memphis, they have their own pace. Some of the Hi People were not used to recording the way I was used to. The drummer didn’t know what to do with headphones and freaked out. The other musicians were at a loss as to what to do.
The organist had turned church minister that week and refused to play secular music. I had to send them all home on the second day, no joking. They were replaced with Aretha’s band, including Marvell Thomas, who’s incredible. But after the event Ann’s manager told me that, had I talked to him beforehand, he would have known how to get the Hi guys to play, as he knew them better.
Ann Peebles and Carla Thomas were just delightful. Arriving hours late, they presented some flowers they’d picked along the way and Ann had some lavender on a hanky for relaxation. Of course I’d been waiting in the studio, panicking. When they arrived, I realised that there are other things in life, like picking flowers and sniffing lavender.
I also learned about opening my eyes to what’s really going on behind me, instead of being so driven, expecting everyone to function like clockwork. James Mitchell, the legendary string and brass producer and brother of legend Willie Mitchell, was so kind and I didn’t see how much he was giving, until it was too late and he’d passed on. Then I realised what a friend he tried to be. So, I guess in Memphis you learn to feel your heart, don’t miss the moment. It’s about people, and if you want a result, you better stop and smell the lavender.
What made you return to the bluesy country sound again?
With 18 Carat Garbage, we added all the crazy electronics onto what the band had played, so it was a mix of soul and electronica and drum and bass and what have you. This is the pure soul thing now. A natural conclusion I guess. Next I’d love to do something more northern soul.
Is the acoustic sound harder to create than cutting dance tunes?
It’s easier, more immediate. Musicians play, instead of you staring at a screen, watching files move along.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge with these recordings?
To get the Hi Records sound. It was a blast researching in minutest details how each cymbal, each instrument is mixed on those records. I’m a lot wiser now. And on the songs that aren’t meant to be the Hi Sound, the challenge was to give them a very distinct sound in the mix. We did, and I’m quite proud of the result.
Whether it’s house or acoustic soul- heartbreak and tragedy seem to be your oeuvre, why do you think that’s so?
I’m not sure.
You recorded an authorised cover of Bowie’s ‘After All’ from his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World – what did he mean to you?
From my early youth he meant everything. I dressed my big bum in those baggy pants (not a good look) and died my hair red. His music was so beyond and different with each release, and the quality of song writing was so outstanding. Vocally he always pushed himself to new heights, and records like ‘Young Americans’ are almost a miracle in that way. A true and unique human being that I aspired to be like when I was in my teens.
What have you learned about yourself while making this album?
That I am a fine producer and that I have a mint pair of ears. And that’s not big headed. I’ve spent my life thinking I’m nothing, so this is new.
I’m gutted I missed the ‘Live recording of ‘Four Ambient Tales’ with pedal steel guitar and piano, in front of audience’- how did it go?
It’s on the 10th Feb. You haven’t missed it. There was a mix up with the Facebook date.
What made you choose PledgeMusic over other crowdfundy platforms?
They are music specialists, for musicians, so there is a chance that interested people may just discover me there or notice me.
Did you have some interesting ideas about what kind of gifts you could bestow on to pledging fans?
I hope so. Most are live gigs and so forth and there’s a signed photographic print. I didn’t want to get T-shirts done and what have you. I wanted it to be about the music. And I won’t sing on Skype.
Billie Ray Martin will be live at the Jazz Cafe on Friday May 20th.
The Soul Tapes is due for release. For more info visit Billie’s Pledge page.