Ben Smith spoke to Billie Ray Martin about her forthcoming Hi-Records inspired soul album 'The Soul Tapes'.
Date published: 29th Apr 2016
Image: Billie Ray-Martin
A name synonymous with "repetitive machine music", Billie Ray Martin has turned a multi-decade long project and desire to be a soul singer into a reality with forthcoming album The Soul Tapes released May 13th.
What all started in a Berlin record store and through a love for Hi-Records has inspired a project off-beat from what you'd usually expect from the house pioneer.
She is most recognised for her nineties hit 'Your Loving Arms' and record 18 Carat Garbage - though her forthcoming Jon Tiven produced record will undoubtedly garner mass-recognition for her craft in soul circles.
Looking ahead to the album release and an appearance at Newcastle's Hoochie Coochie in May, Ben Smith spoke to Billie about her soul roots, the record itself and Hamburg.
Could you tell us where your affinity with soul music started and how it has continued alongside a very successful career in dance music?
When I first came to Berlin as a teenager, I walked into a record store one day. For no reason I know of, the sales guy (about 19 years old) came up to me and asked me if I’d ever listened to soul music. I replied: Yeah, kind of, but not really.
He told me he’d order a couple of compilations for me. They were Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Supremes Motown compilations. There was no going back for me after that. And, since I was an electronic head, listening to Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, I had to combine the two.
The thing that struck me about Soul was that there was a different way here to express emotion. I was used to the complicated stuff like Throbbing Gristle. Something came over me; Now here I had 'Love Love Love, makes me do foolish things’. It was so direct and yet true and deep.
You enlist producer Jon Tiven for the album, how did you two meet and could you expand on the journey of the album from the beginning to now?
We met in NYC as we were introduced by our publishing company at the time. Jon is such an easy going guy and we decided to write together right away. It was not until I suggested doing a whole album that Jon - together with his wife and co-writer Sally Tiven- fired over a whole bunch of songs, and within the shortest time I had written the melodies and lyrics.
I then borrowed money from a dear friend and suggested we rent a recording studio and out it all down. Jon Tiven put the band and the session guys together who would later do some overdubs etc. And I brought Felix Huber from Hamburg along who played some additional keyboards.
Felix had produced the 18 Carat Garbage album of mine. A long time passed as the budget had run out and I ended up, some 10 years later, borrowing more money from another dear friend, Paul Brewer from Sweet Feet Music, who is a very talented producer in his own right, and thus I was able to go to London, add Production, and mix the album.
I also re-recorded some of the vocals. Writing with Jon and Sally is so easy. They are true songwriters in the best sense of the word. It’s all about songs and this is what I do too so… Everyone always tells me my songs are like soul or country songs put out dance music, so we did not have a problem creatively meeting.
Just look at Jon Tiven’s track record. He’s produced many of the soul and blues music greats.
What is it about the appeal of Hi-Records that strongly influenced your decision to make this album?
It is a sound that is so unique. It existed one time in the history of time on this planet. Only once. Everyone has tried to copy it since, and it is not possible. There is s simplicity and a minimal approach to this almost laid back sound, and yet all the energy and magic is there.
Willie Mitchell, along with brother James and the Hi Records Musicians, created a sound that was only possible there, in that studio, with these bunch of guys and backing vocalists etc.
Thus the sound of Ann Peebles and Al Green and many more Hi Records stars could happen the way it did. To me there is no other sound in soul music like it. Stax for instance, to me personally, does not have the feel, neither does any other sound.
Motown had its very own sound. That’s about it. Those two are the main ones for me. And to me personally Ann and Al are what draws me in like a moth to the flame. They are giant talents.
Soul music is a genre that originated through afro-american pride, experience and culture. Does ‘The Soul Tapes’ communicate any of your own values or experiences?
I could not claim to even try to tap into the origins and roots of this music. However I do believe that for some reason this music is in my blood, and whatever I communicate sometimes succeeds to reach a deep place, sometimes not.
Why did you choose to cover Ann Peebles 'One Way Street' and Rolling Stones 'That's How Strong My Love Is'?
Two all time favourite songs of mine. Both are gods to me. So I cover the gods.
Could you tell us something we wouldn't know about The Soul Tapes?
It took a lot of hard work and dedication. We live in a culture where music has no value. I would like it to be known that it has never been more important to give value back by supporting artists to continue doing what they do. Spotify is not the answer, it is the problem, along with three major record companies, reaping the only benefits.
I’d also like to mention that the album moves me, and that I do hope that some of it moves the listener too. I can always do better. I’ve not reached my goals. I have a long way to go, but I hope it is a piece of the puzzle.
I hear you're recording a new house album, could you tell us about who you're working with on that and how far along the line it is?
I am currently talking to a few heroes of mine. Nothing has been confirmed but it’s not on the list of priorities. The reason I’ve not recorded demos, is that, in this case, I will create something fresh, from scratch, with my production partner and co-writer.
NO ‘music by email’ or endless re-producing of demos that were better in the firest place. This will be fresh and unique and truly be a merging of myself and the collaborator. I hope I can confirm one or two people soon. (Hear Billie's hit 'Your Lovin Arms below)
Soulful house is enjoying a moment in the sun at present, how would you compare the scene to when you were operating in the early nineties?
It’s hard for me to say as I, like most people, just pick up what I get to hear on the internet and I get send some fabulous promos each week. I think the music itself is strong at the moment.
Each week I get at least 10 amazing tracks, that I can’t wait to play when I DJ. The scene itself I can’t say that much about as I’m just behind the decks most of the time, as opposed to going out and looking around some more.
Electribe 101 remarkably enjoys its 25th anniversary this year, how proud are you of the group’s influence and what are the plans to mark the milestone?
I'm talking to some people and labels about plans for a re-release. Let's see what happens. As for the influence....I can't really say. Does anyone remember us?
I'm visiting Hamburg later this year, does the city continue to inform your creativity at all and how best can I experience the culture of the city?
Hamburg is one of the most gentrified cities in the world. So let’s say it is a new Hamburg now. You’re best to walk about and explore, and check the local galleries and museums and listings for what’s on. But there’s still much to do there and explore. Some good restaurants too.
It’s kind of a long story. Hamburg has always just gotten rid of the old (buildings, trees, anything in it’s way) to make way for commercially promising buildings. So the soul has been knocked out. My song 'The Glittering Gutter' (above) is about this.
Billie Ray-Martin plays Hoochie Coochie in Newcastle on Saturday 7th May - Tickets available via the box below.
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