LGBT History Month: Billie Ray Martin
To start the Polari Magazine celebration of LGBT History Month 2014, John Preston talks to Billie Ray Martin about her upcoming single with trans artist Aerea Negrot.
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Berlin-based House diva Billie Ray Martin has remained committed to her dance roots for over 3 decades now. Constantly surprising and innovating, with her combination of exquisite song craft expertise and musical reinventions, her latest single with trans artist Aerea Negrot ‘Off the Rails’ is imminent.
I asked Billie about her upcoming performance at the Dalston Superstore, the possibility of a new solo album and whether she considers herself to be a queer artist.
‘Off The Rails’, your duet with Hercules and Love Affair vocalist Aérea Negrot, is imminent. You have worked with Aerea before on the Hollywood Under the Knife remix album Hollywood Cuts but have never sung together. How did this come about, and will it in fact be off the rails?
When we were first put in contact by Kim Ann Foxman we found out that we live about 10 blocks away from each other. At our first meeting we knew we wanted to sing together and I brought along the song, which was co-written by myself and Colin Waterson, and produced by Waterson as well. Then both of us got kind of lazy and it took ages until one day we finally got together and recorded the vocal. As Aerea put it: Ben Hur took less time to complete.
It’s a big vocal record of course, with so many backing vocals that it took me about 4 weeks to edit them all. It’s a somewhat chaotic and definitely ‘off the rails’ House record. I guess it has a little techno-ish feel to it as well, and there’s a bit of a pop vibe, but actually I’m not sure. It doesn’t sound like other stuff that’s out there so it remains to be seen how it will be perceived. I loved working with Aerea. She is such a fun partner to work with. Actually we’re planning to do a show together in March at Berlin Suedblock, but of course we may do some performances of the song, should anyone want to see us.
Your last solo singles have been ‘Five Takes (A Song About Andy)’ and ‘Sweet Suburban Disco’ and are both very different sounds. Your last solo album was 18 Carat Garbage, another musical style entirely. When can we expect a new Billie Ray Martin album and do you know the direction that it might take?
I’m always in the planning stages. I’ve started programming tunes myself and am talking to potential co-producers as well. I have not found one or two persons yet who I think will fit both in their craft and attitude. I have a pretty firm idea of the sound, and on the other hand I’m open for a collaborator to come in and bring it all to the point. The main style will be old-school influences House brought into the now, of course. I am not interested in pure retro. There will be big vocals all the way. The real BRM will appear again.
There is one song which we are releasing soon as well. It’s a cover of Bowie’s ‘After All’, and it’s House too. Mellow and quite minimally arranged. I’m mixing it in February and then hopefully it’ll find a good home immediately so it can be released in the spring. This was produced by Darkstorm who came to see me in Berlin.
There is incredible footage of you on YouTube singing a very emotional and beautiful version ‘Your Loving Arms’ at a gay marriage in New York’s Russian Tea Rooms. Many see gay or equal marriage as an integral part of the LBGT equality fight. Given the reactionary efforts to derail it, do you think it’s one of the last great hurdles?
I think we’ve seen a lot of positive change here. There will always be naysayers who want to block progress and equality, but there was a huge surge of positivity and change last year with gay marriage becoming ‘normal’ in many cities and countries. I do believe more good things will come. It is of course most worrying that countries as Russia, some African countries etc., try to criminalise homosexuality, and the violence this creates is truly heartbreaking to see. However again, I do believe that when the injustice seems to be at its worst the resistance is at its strongest. People all over the world will not stand for it and I do believe things will get better all around. Like with everything else, it’s a process and sometimes it seems things are getting worse rather than better.
I do also believe that we should include other minorities and persecuted groups when we fight for what we believe in. What is happening to women in India, for instance, is almost unfathomable in its hatefulness and violent details. Where does so much hate from men against women, just because they are women, come from? It’s completely unfathomable and needs to be stopped.
So I say let’s include others in our thoughts as well at least, even if they do not belong to our immediate group that we prioritise.
Your Opiates album contained incredible, somewhat disturbing visuals and videos. Your look is ever changing and has always been an essential part of your image. Pop culture has never before seemed as focused on external appearance, especially highly sexualised young women. How do feel about this and who has inspired your image choices? Film appears to play as vital a role with you as fashion.
I have always found it interesting to play with the idea of femininity and twist it as much as I can. I like looking feminine in my videos but I am really interested to explore what this could mean to me.
I’m not in the least interested in fashion. Fashion designers are often male and think they have a clue of what do do with women. They do not. Also fashion uses fur so I couldn’t be interested in until that stops.
Film is a major inspiration, mainly Polanski. I love how a film can explore a character throughout it’s duration and the essence of the character is what inspires me. The other thing of course that is my main inspiration is the Warhol stars and Warhol himself. Holly, Candy, Jacky and all the others … they’re what I call fashion icons. Because it was not just the shell that was visible, it was their essence. They had more character, and luckily in some cases still have, than anyone else in popular culture history. They are so underrated and never got the rewards they deserve. We must adore them. Holly is still out there performing and doing a wonderful job.
As far as my outfits and styles in the Opiates album that you mention, I just came up with all that off the top of my head, as I always do. I develop a character that I want to play in the video, so I kind of know what they should look like. Sometimes it goes wrong and some attempts work better than others but generally I guess it’s ok. Some footage for those videos we re-filmed on another day because the make-up I’d come up with just made me look awful. I looked like a zombie. So I tried again and it was better the second time around.
Your work has always has a tremendous sense of melody and an understanding of intricate and devastating middle eights. This seems to be coming rarer in dance music but with you it never falters. Does this mainly come from listening to disco artists or is it a combination of dance singers and more traditional singer songwriters like Karen Carpenter or Carole King? I can hear them all in your work.
They’ve not been an influence at all. Karen I love of course, but more in recent years.
My influences have been much written about and really there are too many to mention. It’s about growing up with the radio on, I think. I grew up with songs, no matter who they were by. I refuse do anything else than these storytelling type of songs, and will not stray from that in future. Many dance producers can’t handle that but I have to tell them that if they want BRM they’re gonna have to deal with it. If they don’t then we’re not the right team. Dolly and Emmylou are good examples of how you can get better and better at writing the more you mature in life. They didn’t stray and things turned around for them eventually.
You have been immersed in the underground gay and dance scene since the days of Electribe, and continue to be. Your collaborations and subject matters such as Hard Ton, Candy Darling and Andy also confirm an innate gay sensibility, but would you classify yourself as a queer artist?
It’s probably not for me to know that. I have a massive gay following worldwide of course and wouldn’t want it any other way. Maybe it’s because I’m quite camp myself and my songs reflect that. Basically I just like to write songs that are about change of identity, struggle to find it, effort to build it, etc. That’s what all of my songs are about. And I like a good drama, I have films going through my head when I write, so …….
You’re playing London’s Dalston Superstar on 15th February, the day after Valentines Day. What can we expect and will you be performing your gritty Valentine anthem ‘Blood Roses Sunday Valentine’?
I will be doing a full DJ set and I’ll be singing about 5 songs. I think I might drop some exclusives of ‘Off the Rails’ and ‘After All’, and I kinda feel like giving it some Vasquez as well on this occasion.
Regarding ‘Black Roses Sunday Valentine’ – it’s on my list to produce, maybe for my album.
I really look forward to the Superstore show. People go there for the music, it’s such a great place.
Producers are now as revered and as well known as the artists they work with. Kelela’s inventive and beautiful Cut 4 Me album for example placed as much emphasis on individual producers as it did Kelela. If you could pick your dream production team who would it include?
Sly and Robbie with Ramadanman on programming and additional production.
Will you do a duet with Anthony Hegarty please? Your voices together would be the ultimate gift to many.
That would be nice. Ask him.
And finally, who is your LGBT hero or heroine?
A preview of the single ‘Off The Rails’ will be featured by Polari Magazine in mid-February.