The most intriguing musician in the world live from Berlin…
After first appearing as a guest vocalist on electro pioneers S-Express’s hit single ‘Hey Music Lover’, Billie Ray Martin came to greater prominence leading the acclaimed deep house act Electribe 101 with her unique voice hitting the house scene and charts alike with a serious infusion of soul. SInce then Billie has brought us numerous releases working with the likes of Anne Peebles, Carla Thomas, DJ Hell, Scotland’s Slam DJ duo alongside solo projects and her own club night ‘Komputerliebe’ with Billie gracing the decks with her cutting edge house and Nu-NRG disco. Which brings us to the present day and the anticipation of the new The Opiates album ‘Hollywood Under The Knife’, courtesy of herself and Robert Solheim. Once dubbed “The Carpenters of Electro”, one thing is for sure, this album is certainly going to grab everyone’s attention. Dan Prince calls into Berlin…
Billie, welcome to the DMC world. A brand new The Opiates album ‘Hollywood Under The Knife’ is swinging our way this month. A fascinating long player where each song portrays a different misfit of American life described so wonderfully. Can you talk us through the album, how long did it take to create?
“Hi there. We worked on the album almost for three years. This is because once it was finished we felt that a couple of songs were not well mixed and one of the compositions was not good enough. We wrote one new song and mixed a few tracks again until we were happy. The fact that each song portrays a different misfit of society was more of an accident than a plan. I always write about these Hollywood and Warholian freaks and stars and would be actors etc. and Robert’s dark and quite minimal soundscapes seemed to put everything into a direction for this kind of output.”
Who are your favourite characters – you are going to have so much fun with the videos.
“My favourite character has to be Simone Choule, mainly because Roman Polanski’s film The Tenant, which is the basis of the song, is my favourite movie but also because Robert’s music inspires me greatly. But also other characters like the Candy Darling character I portray in ‘Rainy Days and Saturdays’ etc. are very close to me.”
You were born and raised in the red light district of Hamburg – do you think your surroundings there affected your style of music?
“The songs on this album, as well as my other music, are all inspired by the characters I grew up with, whose sex was not always clearly defined to say the least. Also of course the faded and shall we say ‘alternative’ idea of glamour of the strip joints and sailor bars I passed daily were part of my pop culture education. It is a long story and could fill volumes.”
The ‘Rainy Days and Saturdays’ EP which is just out and features three remixes of songs from the album, describes the life of a transvestite longing for married life and children. How many of the people on the album are based on people you know?
“Not too many. ‘Reality TV’ is based on some I saw on that brainless show ‘Make Me A Supermodel’. After that I gave up watching TV, one of the best things I ever did. The others are inventions but they are in effect all part of my own character. This is why I feel drawn to make them up or write about them.”
You have turned to Turner Prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans who has lent his sleeve design and video direction for the likes of The Pet Shop Boys and Goldfrapp in the past. A set of nine previously unseen and unpublished phototgraphs adorn the sleeve and booklet for the album. What is it about Wolfgang’s work you love so much and will he be involved with the videos…
“Wolfgang’s work is without compromise. It is this total focus I like. A very strong and forward looking kind of beauty is created.”
You are one of the most remarkable sounding and looking artists we have in the music world. In the past you have been described as “the ice queen of electronic soul”, “the thinking man’s diva”, a female modern day Marc Almond”, “Emma Peel on acid” and sounding like “Marlene Dietrich by way of Diamanda Galas”. How would you like to be remembered…?
“Being remembered at all is enough.”
If you could change anything about yourself what would it be?
“I would change my sadness into happiness sometimes.”
What is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for you?
What music were you listening to as a child, who were your favourite artists back then?
“Elton John was my obsession. Also, my parents and grandparents played me their Beatles and Stones collections of 7 inch records. This is why my knowledge of music history is quite extensive as I grew up with all kinds of influences. Also in Germany, we grew up with all the French and Italian singers as well as other European countries. The French have such a strong style that I was very influenced by their minimalism in dress and existentialist attitude to performance. Then of course when punk and later new wave and electronic music happened everything changed for me. I decided this is what I wanted to do.”
You once said you grew up surrounded by a lot of ‘borderline characters’ – can you elaborate?
“My family is borderline enough to say the least. Let’s call them dysfunctional in the best and worst possible ways. But also the area I grew up in meant that roles were never clearly defined and I had to always think about why people looked the way they did. Half of the women in my family looked like trannies, so there’s a start…”
Who has been your biggest influence both musically and personally?
“Again Elton John. There is a vibe to his classic recordings and Gus Dudgeons production of those albums which took me to another place for years. But everyone in punk rock, new wave and of course soul. Too many to mention.”
In one of your songs you sing “je regrette everything” – how is life now, happy with things?
“Still regretting everything.”
With Electribe 101, when you wrote ‘Your Loving Arms’, did you have any idea that it would become the international phenomenon that it did?
“Not to the extent. I did convince the `record company’ though that this should be the single, but I wasn’t really sure.”
What is your greatest weakness?
“Getting bothered by other people’s negativity. Basically giving too much attention to plonkers.”
You once said that the only music you don’t dig, is heavy metal and George Benson, I can understand heavy metal, but why George?
“Don’t ask. I’d rather listen to hours of metal of any kind than one minute of George Bensons’ horrific noodling.”
What song can’t you get out of your head at the moment?
“Anything by Robyn. My favourite artist.”
What is the worst and best thing about living in Berlin?
“Worst: rude people. Best: space.”
Which artist dead or alive would you like to have a duet with?
When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?
“When I was born.”
What did your grandparents think of your choice of career?
“They were not around long enough to see it come to fruition. When I was little they were aware of my ambitions. My grandfather kept saying that I should go to a music college but my gran came from a background were this sort of thing wasn’t part of one’s agenda, so in effect I was not supported in my goals. I had to leave and make my own way towards this and that’s what I’m still doing today.”
What is the worst job you have ever had?
“I have not had too many as I mostly pursued music, but maybe working at Wreckless Records in Berwick Street. Management as well as staff were horrific bullies, the atmosphere stank to high heaven.”
Who in the celebrity world has style right now?
“I’m not too sure. Still the old French girls I guess, as they still have the same style they did in the 60’s. Francoise Hardy, people like that.”
Have you ever been arrested?
“Yes but don’t ask…”
Who was your first crush?
“Possibly Brian Connolly of The Sweet, but I’m not too sure.”
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
“I haven’t really been given any.”
What is your vice?
What are the plans for The Opiates for 2012? And also, any news on the next solo album?
“I’ve started to plan and record my solo album. It’ll be a little while yet for the results but I am thrilled to say that Kim Ann Foxman and Drums of Death among others will be part of it. As for The Opiates – there will be a remix album in March and hopefully some more gigging. Also another single ‘Reality TV’ in February I hope.
‘Hollywood Under The Knife’ is out on October 17th on Disco Activisto Records