Tricky has never heard me sing. In addition to being a lucky break for him, this gap in his experience also gives him the leeway to make pronouncements like, "I really believe if I went into the studio with you, I could get something out of you. I could get a song out of you. I know that for a fact."
Tricky's boundless optimism and zest for musical exploration are positively cheering. After a five-year recording hiatus, the maverick singer and producer is back with "Knowle West Boy," out today and easily his best album since 1998's "Angels With Dirty Faces." Lavished with praise by the British press, "Knowle West Boy" marks a long-overdue return to form from one of the founding fathers of trip-hop.
Following on the heels of new albums by Portishead and Morcheeba, "Knowle West Boy" makes 2008 officially the year of the return of trip-hop. But as Tricky's album definitively proves, there never was much uniformity to the genre. Lumped in with fellow Brits interested in sampling and hip-hop atmospherics, Tricky has always pursued his own musical muse even when it was to his detriment. He long ago made his peace with the consequences. "People rip [me] apart, or they give me incredible love," he says. "I'd rather not be in the middle."
Some 13 years after his classic debut album, "Maxinquaye," Tricky is now working with a rejiggered sound. No longer enamored of most mainstream hip-hop - "It's so egotistical, it makes me want to vomit," he says - Tricky's new sound is more like blues for the era of the digital sampler.
"I've always considered myself a blues artist - not in the sound of the music, [but] because it's struggling music," he says. On tracks like the elegiac "School Gates" and jittery album opener "Puppy Toy," Tricky dials down the claustrophobic menace of his early work. After two albums of mostly failed attempts to crack the mainstream, this is Tricky mingling pop and avant-garde in one shiny package.
He, of course, insists that this is no big deal: "I could have done this album 10 years ago - I just chose not to. Some of the tracks are seven years old."
After seven somewhat accidental years living in Los Angeles (he went there just before Sept. 11 and ended up never leaving), Tricky has discovered his true home: nowhere. "I'm a gypsy," he says. "I need to stay on tour, and stay recording, and keep recording in different countries, in different cities."
Musical inspiration can be triggered by the slightest sensation.
"One time I was waiting for a car service, right by a bus stop in New York," he remembers. "And a girl was on the bus and her profile was to me, and she tucked her hair behind her ears. And I think of that, 'tuck your hair behind your ears,' and I'll remember that. All I need is that one line, and the song is done for me."
Most of the time, however, it will be a melody, or a blip of sound, that will serve as the foundation for a song. "I just press record on the computer, and then I'll play around with sounds," he says. "I record everything for three minutes, and then take a second of it, and loop it up, and play on top of it. It just builds up like that." This has been Tricky's modus operandi for as long as he has been a solo artist; shards of meaning - stray bits of lyric, lone sounds - take on heightened significance when set against his music's ghostly minimalism.
Considering that the 40-year-old Tricky has been doing this since debuting on Massive Attack's 1991 album, "Blue Lines," his utter lack of cynicism about his profession is downright remarkable. The act of making music is so genuinely pleasurable that all the other hassles - contracts and labels and interviews - are piddling in comparison.
For Tricky, making music means huddling in a studio with other musicians, be they eminent past collaborators like Björk and PJ Harvey (whom he calls "a genius" four times in less than a minute), or no-name street singers and pals, like the lead vocalist on "Joseph," whose first name is the song's title.
Tricky has always enjoyed turning over the reins of his songs to other voices, especially feminine ones. Stereotyped as a tough guy back in his mid-'90s heyday, Tricky has in fact always been something of a softie, and prefers to mask it by importing a feminine touch.
"I feel like some of my vocals are from a female point of view," he notes. "So it's nice to hear it coming from a woman. You can hide behind someone else, you know?"