Interview: Billie Ray Martin (The Opiates)
Published on November 23rd, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
The fascinating career of Hamburg songstress Billie Ray Martin, the “queen of electronic soul” and voice of oldskool classics such as “Your Loving Arms” and (with Electribe 101) “Talking With Myself”, has taken another intriguing twist with the release of Hollywood Under The Knife, an album of dark electronic pop in which each song “portrays another social ‘misfit’…characters who, trying to change their outer appearance or tweak their behaviour, believe they might just fit and ultimately face the consequences” (click here for the full low-down on these fictional lost souls).
A collaboration with Norwegian musician Robert Solheim under the collective name of The Opiates, Hollywood Under The Knife also features a selection of accompanying images courtesy of Turner Prize winner and long-term Billie Ray Martin fan Wolfgang Tillmans, as chosen by Billie Ray from his repertoire, as well as a series of videos by Ceven Knowles to lend an audio-visual dynamic to her live shows. Curiosity sufficiently piqued, Rocksucker fired over a bunch of questions and received back the following, illuminating set of replies…
People who remember you for songs like “Your Loving Arms” might be quite taken aback by Hollywood Under the Knife‘s dark themes. What inspired you to devise these characters?
I don’t think they’ll be taken aback. They’ll be used to it by now. I’ve released everything from “Persuasion” to “Dead Again” and collaborations with DJ Hell and Slam etc. so people know my weird stuff for years now. There have always been the two sides. It’s nothing new. The characters on Hollywood Under the Knife came naturally to me. I have always been inspired by the ‘freaks’. Warhol superstars, failed existences etc. I grew up in the Red-light district of Hamburg. Enough weirdos to inspire many songs.
You mentioned in this interview that there were some dramas while recording the album. What sort of things
would you and Robert disagree about? How did you settle disputes?
We didn’t disagree on musical things generally. Mixing was real fun to do together, actually. It’s more the kind of thing where sometimes during the creative process personal issues get in the way. So the dramas were more caused by the pressure everyone feels when so much seems at stake, i.e. producing something that will have to be forever good enough. Also travelling to other countries to work is pressure.
No, but I can see what you mean.
“Oprah’s Book Of The Month Club” is a fantastic song title! Why did you call it that?
I can’t remember exactly but I think that I found it an appropriate title for this elaborate, rather ironic tale of the daughter of a formerly rich actress and her bizarre journey. I was kind of trying to say that it probably wouldn’t end up in Oprah’s Club but by calling it Oprah’s Club I put it there, if you know what I mean. Everyday freaks for me, too edgy for Oprah.
How did you decide which of Wolfgang Tillman’s images (as featured) to use for the project?
The album is out. The images I chose are beautiful and poetic and reflect the tenderness of the lyrics and music whilst showing the dirty side of glamour. They do so in a magical way, it seems to me.
From an audio-visual point of view, what made you decide to work with Ceven Knowles and Jörn Hartmann?
I had known Joern for a while as I know some of the guys in his office and am a big fan of his Mutti and comedy movies. And of course I knew him as a porn director. One day at his office, I mentioned that I wanted to talk to him about making some music videos and his ideas, which came pouring out of him, blew me away. He was almost reading my mind and the ideas literally came as if he’d worked on them for ages. I just nodded and said yes to everything, including using the porn studio and it’s props. The videos can be found on my website and everywhere else.
Ceven convinced me as an artist. We met I believe on Facebook and he expressed interest in doing something. I loved the work on his website. When we met there was an initial confusion about what it was I wanted. When I mentioned Derek Jarman and the videos of Cabaret Voltaire, there was a ‘eureka!’ moment and Ceven just went away and was now able to use all the info I gave him about what the songs were about. He lived and breathed the same influences. I could not have asked for a better visual artist to become part of this. He’s just amazing.
What was it like working with Stephen Mallinder? Do you think you might do something again in the future?
We haven’t planned anything. It was like getting a blessing from the pope (I imagine). I couldn’t believe he said yes to my suggestion of singing on the “Crackdown” cover. Everything was just smooth sailing. He did a great job vocally.
I like some of it but don’t get a lot of it. I think at the heart of it my taste is more British. Of course I have many other influences but….
You’ve said that you were screwed over by the major label you used to be on. What happened? Do you look back on your “Wharholian fifteen minutes of fame” with fondness or regret?
Who hasn’t been? But fondness all the way. It gave me the opportunity to earn money, get rewarded financially for my work, travel and take my music around the world. So I have no problems with any of that, really. Only with the short-term thinking and short-sightedness of these labels, i.e. not building artists or using their talents to the full potential and dropping them when this policy does not prove fruitful after a short period.
What can you tell us about your next solo album? What kind of direction is it taking, when might it be released, etc?
House music all night long. I’m going back to my roots. Old school influences meet the new. I will be working with some amazing people such as Kim Ann Foxman, Drums Of Death etc. I would hope for a late 2012 release, but meanwhile there will be single releases and also the Opiates remix album in February or March. There are some great mixes on this album by incredible people like Aerea Negrot, Chris & Cosey, Kim Ann Foxman, Dropout Orchestra and many more.
You’re playing a couple of shows in London at the beginning of December. What have been your experiences of this city in the past? Is there anything you particularly like to do while you’re here?
I’ve lived in London for fifteen years. It’s not the city I loved any more. Greed and commercialism have killed a lot of creative outlets. Same as everywhere. When I’m there I just like to sit in coffee shops in Soho and watch the buzz that’s still there.
Are there any journalistic clichés that you’re sick of people using to describe your music?
Not really. It’s all valid.
Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming acts that you’d like to recommend or give a shout out to?
There are so many. I get sent new stuff daily and there’s so much talent. I guess my shout goes to Glyph from Belgium and Superstringz from Brazil, both of whom I’ll be working with. Their work blew me away.
Billie Ray, danke!
Bitte gern geschehen.