Where Are They Now? Billy Ray Martin

Electribe 101 were one of the first – and foremost – groups to emerge from clubland’s late-80s acid house explosion. But after one brilliant album they disappeared. So what happened to enigmatic frontwoman Billie Ray Martin?

Billie Ray Martin, leading light in 1990s electro crossover act Electribe 101 and dancefloor-slaying solo artist of ‘Your Loving Arms’ fame, isn’t where you’d imagine a Top 10-selling hit maker would be at 9am on a 21st century Thursday morning.

“I’m sitting here buried under hundreds of CDs and vinyl and I have to pack them up and send them all out,” she sighs from her home in Berlin.

The LPs and CDs are Electribe 101’s ‘Electribal Soul’, the band’s fabled, long-lost second album, which is finally seeing the light of day via her own Electribal Soul imprint.

“I don’t think either myself or the other members of the group had any intention to ever think about those songs again,” she says of the 1991 recordings that were never released. Following some decent success with their debut, 1990’s ‘Electribal Memories’, their label declined to pick up the option on a second album.

“It was worse than that,” says Billie. “A very bad remark was made when they heard the album.”

Oh really? What did they say?

“They said,” she pauses to take a breath. “‘What’s with this soul shit?’. After a comment like that, and then getting dropped, and not getting signed by anyone else, we actually thought it was shit.”

It’s nothing of the kind. A sleek electronic soul offering, it’s stacked with sure-fire hits. How the label passed on it is unfathomable. They were supposed to know what they were doing, right?

“I know,” she exclaims. “Fuck ‘em.”

To the casual observer, Billie Ray Martin might seem like she was a flash in the pan – someone who rose with Electribe 101, peaked with ‘Your Loving Arms’ and probably lived off the spoils of a Top 10 hit, coining it whenever one of her songs got reworked. Indeed, ‘Your Loving Arms’ is currently destroying clubs again in the shape of Fred Again’s ‘Billie (Loving Arms)’.

The thing is, she’s hardly been idle in the three-decade gap between Electribe releases. Influence-wise she’s always cited two sides to her musical coin – heads it’s Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and The Human League, tails, Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin and Motown. For every electro-tinged offering, there’s also a soul-fuelled belter. So you get 1996’s ‘Deadline For My Memories’ (featuring several retooled tracks from the lost Electribe album, just to prove a point) and 2001’s ‘18 Carat Garbage’, which she recorded in Memphis at the famous House Of Blues studio.

“I went there to record with Willie Mitchell and the Hi Records stable, because that’s my favourite sound in the world,” she says. “I soon discovered you can’t just go to Memphis and expect everyone to do as you say, they tick differently there. You need to spend time, get to know everyone and then you’re going to get a good result.

“One of the musicians didn’t show up, another one decided not to play secular music anymore… then the keyboard player, Marvell Thomas, the son of Rufus Thomas, said, ‘Listen, I’m just gonna get my guys in for tomorrow’… and Aretha Franklin’s backing group showed up! Which was great, but the sound I got was not the sound I wanted at all.”

An undiscovered gem in her locker is a collaboration with Norwegian producer, Aquavit label boss and DJ, Robert Solheim. The Opiates’ 2011 album ‘Hollywood Under The Knife’ shimmers with lush Kraftwerk-inspired pop hooks. There’s also some killer remixes, among them ‘Anatomy Of A Plastic Girl’, reworked by TG power couple, Chris & Cosey.

“I’d covered Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Persuasion’ in the early 90s and we’d stayed in contact over the years. It was a natural thing to say: ‘Hey, do you want to remix this? And they just said: ‘Yes’.”

She’s also collaborated with another of her heroes, Stephen Mallinder, on the 2010 Cabaret Voltaire homage, ‘The Crackdown Project’, a rework of tracks from the seminal release.

“Cabaret Voltaire never sold out,” enthuses Billie. “They just suddenly came out with ‘The Crackdown’, this incredible dancefloor record. I met Mal during the Electribe days, and I remember telling him just how influential they’ve been. I think he was quite pleased about the whole project. We worked with all these hip electro guys – Celebrity Murder Party, Dunproofin’, Phil Retrospector – who offered to do some remixes. I handed it all over and I was very happy with what came back.”

These days, Billie runs a tidy DIY operation, which is home to three record labels – Disco Activiso, Gezeitenraum and Electribal Soul. She is also working on four new long-players, including a collaboration with brooding alternative British rockers Tindersticks inspired by 1970s French film soundtracks.

“The releases are all very different,” she explains. “They have different themes and completely different production. When they’re ready, I’m going to put them out six months apart. Fuck it. My last album was ‘The Soul Tapes’ in 2016, oh my god, it’s such a long time ago. People have been waiting long enough, so these are coming out very quickly. I haven’t quite started on the fourth one, but the other three are two-thirds completed so...”

Things are clearly going well in Billie world.

“Yeah,” she beams. “I mean, I’m overwhelmed, but I love it. I can do whatever I like, whenever I like. I’m getting more and more support, there’s a lot of validation coming my way right now. I’m still flabbergasted that I’m working on four albums, and I can do that. Things have really turned around for me that sense.”

And about bloody time. Not so much a case of where is she now then. She’s never been away – you just had to know where to look.

Neil Mason

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