Whitehot Magazine

October 2011, Interview with Billie Ray Martin


Interview with Billie Ray Martin
All images Wolfgang Tillmans, from The Opiates, Hollywood Under the Knife; copyright 2011

You've heard of Wolfgang Tillmans? How about Billie Ray Martin and/or The Opiates? Not to be presumptuous, but a graphic representation of affirmative responses here would likely be... unbalanced. This makes it all the more interesting that the former, a widely celebrated photographer, has provided the album art for Hollywood Under the Knife, a relatively obscure new release by the latter. The points at which art and music touch are generally intriguing and this particular type of engagement can throw those involved - and their respective disciplines - into relief. (Previously unreleased work from Tillmans hitting public light is also worthy of note - these are, perhaps, a selection of his b-sides?)

To fill in those who did not, in fact, answer the second question affirmatively, Billie Ray Martin is German singer who has produced, and leant her voice to, numerous electronic tracks since the 90s. Her newest project, The Opiates, is a collaboration with Norwegian electronic composer Robert Solheim. When we spoke to her she was energetic, intelligent and frank. On the eve of The Opiates' first release we discussed the relationship  between singer and photographer, and the varied nature of collaboration at large.

Kyra Kordoski: To lay the groundwork - how and when did you and Wolfgang Tillmans meet?

Billie Ray Martin: I've known Wolfgang since about around 1998. He contacted me through a record label that I was signed to at the time. I don't know why but I wasn't aware of his work at all then. He was writing about music for a magazine in Germany, so I flew to Munich and we hung out for an afternoon, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s photographed me twice once for his own book and once for the London magazine I-D. It was a piece about... I can never remember whether it was the 25 most influential women for the 100 most influential women but I was in there anyway. He's just a great supporter of my work and of me.

Kordoski: What kind of questions did he ask you?

I don't remember exactly, but I remember that it was unusual in a sense that he didn't ask me about my lyrics or, you know, ‘what about this voice of yours?’ I remember that we spoke about political elements of the music industry and how it was as a woman. And, how I saw myself given the fact that I was no longer with a major label. I had done the whole major label thing, got screwed over by them but also had a lot of fame and success, the Wharholian fifteen minutes... I remember walking away that afternoon thinking 'I can't remember if that went well or not' because it was really quite hard work. My first wish was obviously to talk about my writing and how I sing in the studio, all that kind of stuff which we didn't actually speak about.

Kordoski: If you had that conversation now, what would be different?

Now I have a lot more of a definite opinion and attitude.  I have been active as an independent artist - as in starving independent artist - for years. Years ago I decided I was going to start my own record label, release my own music, everything that happens now is actually done by me. The conversation now wouldn't be hard work because I know exactly what I'm doing. Including knowing what I don't know, because the industry has changed to point that I think nobody knows how can you get exposure. I wouldn't even call it an industry anymore.

Kordoski: What’s your perspective on how that issue might be changing for visual artists?

I’ve actually just started a collaboration with a visual artist called Ceven Knowles, he's Canadian and lives in Berlin - he's doing all the onstage visuals for the Opiates. We're both really influenced by Derek Jarmond's early work; when we started talking about him we got really excited. I'm talking to him now about how it is for a visual artist because I have no idea how it works for them, how they get their exposure. I've never understood the art world. How on earth does a painter become known as opposed to remaining in obscurity even though he's the best painter in the world? But with Ceven, I'm ready to learn from him. We're going to launch some of the visuals he's doing for us through youtube and such channels as stand alone video art, starting in about three weeks when I get back from the tour. We're probably going to launch one each week.

Kordoski: What’s your sense of what makes a traditional music video different from a collaboration with a visual artist?

I can only talk about my music videos because I'm a little bit from the old school of show business, where I believe it's got the word, 'show' in it, so show something. Something that's larger than life, something that's, ‘I'm not a nerd in an anorak.’ I'm not going for the student look. [laughs]  I admire the old school entertainers like Liza Minelli. I would be proud if I could ever call myself some little speck in a long line of entertainers from that background. If you look at the official Opiates videos that are already out that's really me doing my thing, even though it's dark and fucked up it's still a music video. There's lip sync and there's props and a story and close ups. Whereas the visual pieces that we're doing, I guess they're something you would see in an art installation. Whatever that means. It's basically creating almost a trancelike atmosphere through visuals that don't have to have anything to do with me.

Kordoski: And how has working with Ceven been different from working with Robert [Solhiem] who composes for you?

With Ceven he gets the brief to each song and then I step away. Then I come back into it and he shows me stuff and I say yes or no and then he goes away... more and more now as we get to know he other he kind of knows what he wants to do. With Robert it takes a lot more time to do a song, especially the way I work, I'm a perfectionist which drives people crazy but hopefully it shows in the results. It's basically back and forth for weeks before we're happy with the final mix down and the final results. It's definitely a 50/50 collaboration but there isn't a note of music I haven't given my comment on. With visuals I'm a lot more into giving more freedom letting them do what they want. I'm still a control freak but it's not such a drawn out process. With Robert also, we worked on the album for so long, there were dramas, there were periods where we couldn't work because it was all too much. That's because obviously my soul is the music so it's a lot more about trying things.

Kordoski: You met Robert on Myspace - do you feel like the virtual realm is taking over as your dominant collaborative space?

I've actually cancelled a few online collaborations because I'm really tired of it. There's only so much you can communicate by email and uploading stuff. I mean look at how the Rolling Stones recorded albums, your mind will be blown.  These people were in the same room for months no matter whether they loved or hated each other, no matter what was going on in their lives they were locked into wherever they were recording for months, writing songs, inventing them, developing them, recording them. And you can tell from the results. Now what we do is send stuff online. Most of the music that's out is utterly soul-less because there's none of the that trying out, no trial and error, and none of the vibrations that happen in a room between people.  It's not part of that equation.

Kordoski: Having your new album's cover art by Tillmans - I wouldn’t describe that as an artistic collaboration exactly, but it is representative of some sort of artistic relationship. How would you describe its significance, and how would you answer any suspicions that its primary function might be publicity?

It’s definitely not an involved collaboration from Wolfgang's side, he's simply too busy to do that, and he also prioritises his own work. That's what I admire about Wolfgang very greatly, that he knows exactly where he's going and what he's doing. Every time I speak to him about these areas -  what could one do with this or that - he knows exactly where he's going as an artist, which is quite astonishing. But maybe that's why he is where he is. I really learn from that.

With The Opiates the way that happened was almost natural. I knew I wanted something out of the ordinary for the album artwork, not just another picture of me looking pretty or whatever and Wolfgang has such a definite style. So I asked him and he said yes. The album is called Hollywood Under the Knife and he said ‘There are these pictures I took in Los Angeles, why don't you take a look at those.’ But he basically opened his entire archive and said whatever hasn’t been published yet, you can use.

Kordoski: Very exciting - like a kid in a candy store.

I know! It's great! I obviously had something in mind when I was looking for images but it was still hard to reject some and go for others. Wolfgang's style can be very extreme, which is good, but I felt like for this album, because the music is so gentle I was going a little bit more for the more poetic images.

And I'm not getting that much publicity. I think if you're already very famous and Wolfgang does something for you they'll all go nuts, but if you’re a new band and you're independent and no one gives a shit anyway it really remains to be seen. If there's widespread publicity well then I welcome that, definitely. But the significance was more just about this kind of long distance friendship I have with him, where you call each other once a year, and then it’s 'have you got some images?' 'Yes, take these - I have some from LA.' and then, bizarrely, it works. It's more a karmic thing.

Kordoski: If you were to interview him, what would you ask?

I would definitely ask him about what I just mentioned. I'm inspired by his focus, he directs his priorities and he's choosing his projects wisely. Recently for instance he wrote an article for the German newspaper Zeite about the riots in London and it was such an inspiring piece, reading him question why we aren't focussing on what makes poverty stricken youths do these despicable things. They're picking on these people saying they're scum but they're not actually looking at why are they are doing this. The political nature of his article made me really interested again that whole element behind his work. He obviously thinks very deeply about what's behind things, what's underneath the surface, and he feels very passionately about this. And I found a connection to me, there, as well - living in a world that's alienating, with media that doesn't normally reflect what we feel, but no one really talks about it.

Kordoski:  And that element is reflected in your work?

What people have picked up on is the fact that with The Opiates each song on the album deals with a different misfit in the world of hollywood. Every single song deals with someone who believes that if they change themselves in drastic ways will make them fit in and become a happy person. That never happens. They carry the consequences of their actions and they are quite aware they doing so. And the album just happened that way, it wasn't a plan.