In Conversation with — Billie Ray Martin

No one who hears Billie Ray Martin’s smoky, commanding voice in full flight is unaffected, unimpressed or fails to enjoy the experience. Hers is a voice that harks back to the great divas of the 1960’s and early 1970’s; Dusty, Aretha and even a bit of Shirley Bassey. That Billie’s vocal métier has a similar style is not entirely a coincidence. She has readily acknowledged this. She grew up in Hamburg, near to its notorious vibrant and shady Reperbahn, a place where talent could shine in a particularly German form of glam and, hopefully, escape to fame and fortune. Thus, the images of such glamorous women with big voices and equally big personalities were a strong influence at the time she was really starting to understand that she had been blessed with a unique voice.

Billie Ray Martin

Billie Ray Martin Clothing: Linda Tscherpel Photo: Caterina Rancho

The rest of the world first got to really experience that voice when Billie’s unique sound announced Electribe 101’s arrival as part of the great global wave of deep house music. Various hits later, including her worldwide No. 1 house anthem, ‘Your Loving Arms’, Billie has continued to work on a wide range of music projects, not only the dance music for which she is known, but also more experimental forms of electronic music and, naturally, Soul and its related genres.

Her voice and feisty personality have made fans and friends out some of the world’s top acts, always eager to have her collaborate or guest. In fact, each new successive generation of trendy musical styles seems to rediscover Billie Ray Martin as can be seen by her collaborations with DJ Hell at the height of the global frenzy for International DeeJay Gigolos’ style of electro a few years ago. Even as this text sprawls across the Internet, Billie Ray is amidst a collaboration with young Italian Nu-Disco cult freak kids Hardton. Then again, there isn’t a day that goes by when Billie Ray isn’t simultaneously working on some new exciting collaboration and her solo projects.

And it’s not just limited to the world of music. She has been an inspiration of artists in other disciplines too: Wolfgang Tillmans photographed her twice and nominated her for I-D magazine’s twenty-fifth anniversary issue as one of the world’s 25 most influential women.

Similarly, Billie Ray Martin has always had an interest in fashion, design and video making, often collaborating with artists, photographers, designers and stylists to create the particular looks and personas that she wishes to explore in the limelight or to offer the media as her professional artistic image. Deeply conscious of the fact that a performer’s style and persona is vital to his or her reception, she’s even earned a reputation of being something of a control freak over it. In stark contrast to the variety of musicians who blindly deploy the services of a stylist to create a look that provides the public with exactly what it wants to see, Billie Ray Martin is clear that it is important for her to be instrinsically involved in making the decisions about what particular style she will show to the world. In this sense at least, there is something rather ‘old school’ about the approach. Like the great ladies of the 1960’s who shaped their own look, Billie Ray Martin is no vocal show horse of someone else’s creations alone.

After some two decades of being very much ensconced in the London scene, Billie surprised many by announcing that she was moving back to Germany a few years ago. In fact, so much part of the London creative scene was she that there were even some who were more surprised to learn that she was German. Now based in Berlin, she continues with her busy music output and performance and dj’ing travel schedule, but retains her connections with her former home in various ways, including as a columnist for the popular blog of London members club, The Hospital.

Meanwhile in Berlin, she has been getting up to all kinds of new and interesting design projects and collaborations too.

Other Edition’s Ken Pratt touched base and popped a few questions.

KP: A little bird tells me that your latest online outing has resulted in a bit of scandal. Do tell….

BRM: I guess you are referring to the ‘tits out’ issue. Someone on Facebook complained about one of my latest pictures in which a nipple is showing and I guess there’s a little exposure of half of the lower parts of my breasts. I was not amused about this, and it sparked a rather humorous debate on Twitter, Facebook etc. about this. My point of view is that I hadn’t even noticed it at the shoot, and certainly didn’t give it a thought afterwards, as my whole point had been to show myself as an alien, Helmut Newton-style. Helmut Newton pictures showed full nudity, of course, in the 80’s. Did he get attacked for this? Why would anyone, so I argued, bother to give this any thought at all?

I amused myself by declaring ‘Tits Out Sunday’ on Twitter and got many thumbs up. I intend to make this an ongoing theme. But seriously it really does tick me off. I don’t get it. It’s all in the name of art, dear.

KP: And this is kind of related to a project where you became the subject of a Berlin fashion school’s project to produce looks fitting for a diva. Care to enlighten us?

BRM: My idea was that my new singles and album will be accompanied by a visual campaign that portraits me as an alien. But not a freakish pale alien, which would be the usual thing to do. I want to explore themes of a sexy alien. Helmut Newton came to mind as he showed women like this. I felt that this alien comes to earth and by dressing as she believes women on this earth dress, she would fit in, only to find that actually she does not. With this theme I approached Esmod Fashion School in Berlin and they jumped at the challenge.

Students were given the exam subject of designing clothes for this particular alien. I had to stand in front of fifty students and tell them about my outlandish ideas and they gagged. But some really rose to the challenge and I am now going to use my personal ‘winners’ in my forthcoming videos.

In the second video clip this alien meets a bunch of stylised robots and together they burst into a Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ inspired dance. At least that’s the plan. Watch this space. So the students had to make the clothes for both those clips.

Esmod Fashion School is extremely creative. Some of the talent there is immense and I think some students will go far. Also their attitude of being able to react quickly to an idea that an outside influence, i.e. me, brings to them was impressive.

KP: The other day I finally got to go and see the Wolfgang Tillmans show at the Serpentine properly, which was naturally great. But it also reminded me of how you were photographed by Wolfgang and that you once told me a poignant story about all that. Care to share?

BRM: Working with Wolfgang is a joy. Each time he photographed me I remember lots of laughter. Of course it’s an honour when I walk into the Hamburger Bahnhof to the opening of his big exhibition to find myself included in it. In I-D magazine he got to chose I believe the 25 most influential women, and he photographed me for that. Again …very humbling.

He actually supported me by sharing the income generated from the first portrait he did of me, thus enabling me to pay for some recording time. Not everyone would do this and I feel eternally grateful.

KP: You’ve been back in Berlin for a while now and – I know we’ve spoken about this before- but it’s not always a city that pleases you. But, recently, you’ve been telling me about a whole range of new problems for the city and your support for the anti-yuppification agenda. What’s all that about then?

BRM: Berlin is becoming like any other city. Rents have risen, gentrification is taking place, green spaces are sacrificed for developments that do not serve the area or neighbourhood etc; the usual story. On a personal level the rising rents and more or less zero vacancy rate in any desirable area has meant that I can’t find a decent place to live, as I simply can’t afford it.

So one begins to wonder if it is worth living in a city like this. I’m putting my feelers out for options. Amsterdam?

Politically Germany is a corrupt country. Socially underprivileged tenants are driven out of their flats and are supposed to move to the suburbs to make way for yuppies who can afford the rents. This will of course mean less diversified infrastructures etc.
Where have we heard THAT story before? New York, London, you name it. Berlin was the last bastion of alternative living. Not for long folks…

KP: So, is Berlin the endless party town for you then? Or do you seek out the quieter aspects of the city? What are your top recommendations for any visitor?

BRM: Well actually I don’t go out so I stick to my neighbourhood for a quiet drink. Or not so quiet when you’re in town, Ken. Remember the Victoria Bar on Potsdamerstrasse? My recommendation for a top cocktail bar; it’s beautifully designed. The party scene, I simply do not know, so I could not comment.

KP: Earlier this year you brought out a double album of Cabaret Voltaire covers and remixes and you’re already on to something new. What’s happening in the studio and what can we expect in the coming months?

BRM: I actually just returned from the studio. The end of this year, fingers crossed will see the release of the long overdue album by ‘The Opiates’. This is a duo I’m part of. The album will be entitled ‘Hollywood Under the Knife’. We’re doing the final mix this week and if I get my skates on, I can release it this year.

At the same time I’m finishing 3 singles of mine in the studio and the first one of those will be released also at the end of this year, I hope. At least I know I will manage to get some remixes out if not the full release.

I will also put out a couple of free releases of songs of mine like the electro-disco number ‘Twisted Lover’. Or should I re-title it ‘Titted Lover’?

Last but not least, I’ve just started collaboration with the very, very talented songwriter and singer/producer Colin Waterson and we wrote two songs already. I’m thrilled about this one. Colin and I have known each other for a while and suddenly it started to just happen.

Oh, and I was in the studio with everyone’s faves Hardton and we recorded 2 songs, ‘Phantasy Girl’ and ‘Sold Life’. Phantasy Girl is done and I’ll make sure to get it out this year. In fact it may be the first track of all of the above to come out.

KP: Ever since your gun-slinging neckwear back in the old days, you’ve always had a particular style. How would you describe it and whose work has fitted with that style?

BRM: Isn’t it funny that I still wear the guns in this form or the other? They add an edge and make a statement somehow. I try to look anything but mediocre as at present everyone is playing it safe and I don’t see many out there who take risks.

The designer and dear friend of mine Rui Leornardes, for instance, tickles my fancy. With him I don’t have to say anything. We just look at each other and smile about ideas. He’s great and doesn’t compromise. The other day at the local LIDL store (yes really) my mobile rang and it was Rui. He was gasping that he simply had to call me to tell me that he’d just been to see someone who makes artificial limbs and that he must simply use them somehow. It was so funny.

I’m about to do another photo shoot here in Berlin with a young photographer called David Nescholta. It’s the alien theme again, but this time I’m going for the Stepford Wife look. David seemed to get tuned right into my head when I told him about it. Of course I’ll get a long wig.

Billie Ray Martin

Billie Ray Martin Clothing: Linda Tscherpel Photo: Caterina Rancho