In Conversation with… BILLIE MARTEN

It’s early February, in 2022, and Billie Marten is setting out on a week’s worth of live gigging with indie rock outfit, Palace. Both are out celebrating their respective recent album releases, for Marten, this is 2021’s effervescent foray, Flora Fauna. It represents a time in her music that has symbolised growth for the artist: it features a bolder sound, it relies heavier than ever on band dynamics and it speaks clearer and louder than previous outings have dared to venture. Overall, it’s another brilliant record from an artist and songwriter that is already three albums deep in a very accomplished career.

Marten’s live set has also graduated to a place of expansion; her natural prowess of enchantment and loveliness is still there but there’s more to it now: she has become more present, more embracing of an audience, this shows in the way we’re starting to see a stepping forward to the front position, leading a band and owning it, an enjoyment of the process rather than just the offering of an impression of contented performer, Marten really does seem to be enjoying her time on the stage now. And in this performance in Manchester, at the O2 Ritz, the biggest room we’ve (personally) ever seen Marten play to date, we see a performer embracing the highs of which this milestone grants. The songs are mostly familiar but are delivered in a suppler format, leaning into the fluidity and lightweightedness of upbeats and guitars present in indie rock.

It’s a sign of Marten’s ever-evolving sound, stepping further outside of the harsh restrictions that the singer-songwriter banner incites and saying hello to flexibility. Marten’s burgeoning sounds are still feeling out the space, but that’s not to say herself and her band don’t fill the room full of cheery energy and excitement, it’s a Friday night after all. It takes time, and her songs up to this point have never been the loudest fair – yet that’s not a difficulty, it’s their strength. We can’t wait to see where Marten takes her live show in the future as it’s already irresistible (and we have a feeling, that this is still only the very moderate stages of the evolution).

We caught up with Marten, ahead of the tour’s call in Nottingham, to discuss, at length, her intuitive choices in navigating career and industry, as well as delving into life on the road, and why this new material she is currently working on is self-described as the most excited she’s ever been about new music.

I feel the only right way to start this off is by asking: how have you been? How are you today?

Billie Marten: “I’m good. I guess we’re nearing the end so very bodily weary and looking forward to my own bed but, you know, very grateful and just very pleased to be on the road again.”

We can’t talk about touring and not mention the fact that it has actually been hugely difficult to physically tour recently. While you’ve been able to make a few bits happen here and there, you’ve also had to lose some shows. At this point in time, are you able to channel those losses into something positive?

BM: “Absolutely. I think it’s important to not place blame on the menial aspects and logistics of touring when the problem is so much bigger. And, you know, a lot of people are trying to place blame on certain things but in actuality we just, in some places, need to hold off for a bit longer. And that is absolutely fine. It is heartbreaking for the industry but I really feel like we’re all getting our claws back into it. And I’ve surprisingly got a very busy year ahead, it’s looking like. I have more than fingers crossed, now. I’m done with trying to cling on to hope, you just gotta understand that it will happen and then it seems to happen, you know?”

And a US tour already announced and scheduled in…

BM: “Yeah. Yeah, very excitng. Yeah, I’ve never done this one before so very thrilled.”

What’s life like on the road in these times? Do you feel a difference?

BM: “No. Surprisingly similar. In Dublin, it was a bit more strict and around here [England] I think people have generally—possibly—given up. But in reality we’re living quite a separated life, bar the merch stand, from humanity so you’re really there in the confines of a van or the hotel room or the service station.”

You’re currently touring the UK with Palace, and in your set you’re starting to reveal a few newly written songs. What have you noticed about these songs that you’re writing now?

BM: “Well, I’ve been piecing together the next album over the past year and generally the themes are more positive, possibly, more direct and I’m trying to really work on songwriting as an old school craft rather than writing songs for the feel, but potentially not necessarily the lyrical content, so I’ve never tried this hard at writing songs and it feels a lot more gratifying when you know that you’ve worked really hard. We’ve put a couple of new ones in the set because generally with a support set you’ve got a lot more leeway and people don’t know who you are and you can play anything you like. I’m really really enjoying that because up until last week I’d never played these songs before, ever. Only just to me. I’m getting good feedback and people like the general difference in pacing, which I think is important for an album, so I’m just, yeah, feeling it out.”

Well, I noticed that the songs sound… well, in this set it’s a lot more bouncier and it’s got a lot more life to it as well.

BM: “Um, yeah. I guess I feel like I’ve a lot more [Billie giggles to herself here at the thought she’s about to deliver] a lot more life in me. I don’t think I did a couple of years ago, as is the case with everyone. I mean, in a normal set, I will, of course, go back to the acoustic and go through the old catalogue but it’s great to have change.”

Now you’ve had some time to road test Flora Fauna in front of an audience, what’s struck you most about the response? Have you received any feedback that you’ve been particularly comforted by to hear?

BM: “Well, it’s always surprising to hear people’s’ favourites on an album because they’re generally never yours, which is interesting. And the difference between Flora Fauna recorded and live has been quite disparate, I’d say, in trying to re-create that sound because it just was a heavily produced album. But, I guess, people have noticed a certain rise in confidence, possibly. They’re saying lots of nice things about performing and it makes me feel much better about myself and much more able to gig, so that’s nice. And also, an album that is loud and large, brings in a whole different crowd of people so that’s been really interesting. You know, people that have just heard me on Radio 1—and that brings them in.”

Billie Marten is really clever and has incredibly soft yellow hair and green eyes” Just a few of the words written in the biography section of your Spotify profile—

[Clocking onto what was happening mid quote, Billie lets out a considerate laugh.]

BM: “They’re good, aren’t they?

[Breaking into laughter again:] “I can’t believe the label let me do that. They didn’t even question it.”

I thought there was a certain audacity to it and also something carefree. Would you have ever dreamed of presenting yourself in this way four or five years ago?

BM: “Do you know? Well, obviously, never. I guess a sense of humour is absolutely essential to living.

“I really struggle – and I’m struggling at the moment – with the industry as a whole and my place in it and what sort of character I have to be and the difference in character day to day is astonishing ‘cause people really need you to be a plethora of different people in one, which isn’t me. So – making light of everything, and you know, taking the piss with the old album cover with the mud on my face and riding a tank around London, I think sometimes it’s just important not to take yourself that seriously. Remind people that sometimes the person is not necessarily the music, you know what I mean?

“But ‘soft and yellow’ – I’ve never [Billie’s laughter erupts again,] yeah… never had that one before.”

Yeah, but it’s true. It’s true.

BM: “There we go.”

On Flora Fauna, the choices you made were bolder and more forthright. And due to this there are new themes and perspectives explored by the record. Now that the door open, is this an aspect of your artistry that you intend to pick up in everything you do?

BM: “Um, well, at the moment I’m definitely in the headspace of not making an album like that again. I think it was a great – the word is so frequently used – departure, but when I am getting down to writing it is just me and the acoustic sat at home and I have my musical tastes and childhood impressions that I always keep with me as the pedestal of music. So – Flora Fauna was great fun and put me in such a different headspace and I managed to let go of a lot of things that I previously would have said no to but I think my spirit lies in getting back to – I don’t know – sounds of the old, I guess. That Seventies sort of songwriting feel, and just, really raw sounds.

“So, I’ve actually just been in my studio for a year. Trying to get into production and that’s been really fascinating because up until now I’ve not had the chance to. The job is always put on someone else, which is no bad thing, and I absolutely needed that to happen at the beginning but this time round I’m feeling a lot more pride in autonomy – without the arrogance, of course, because I absolutely don’t know what I’m doing. It’s very fun to learn – and I think that is morphing the sound away from Flora Fauna and sort of nodding back to the first two albums but it’s much more in its own natural field.”

That’s really exciting.

BM: “Yeah. I’m excited. I feel more excited about this stuff than I ever have with the rest.”

It’s great to hear all the self-love on this latest album – I particularly appreciate the candidness of ‘Liquid Love’ and the joy you have in expressing “proud of my accent” with such clarity of mind in the lyrics. Is this something you’ve battled with in any way because it seems to strike a chord…?

BM: “Well, actually, the lyric is “proud of my actions” but everybody says it’s ‘accent.’ Which I really like because that is where I was going with that and the two words just happen to merge.

“And yeah, I have this – I don’t know – what I would sometimes consider an illness of chameleon-ing into other characters, and with that comes – I mean, for instance, speaking to you now. I feel I have my home accent sort of embroidered with living in London at the same time. But then, if I’m hanging around with someone from London or someone from Ireland, I really will just change into their specific inflections and I can’t seem to not do that [she laughs.] It’s like a tribal thing.

“And then, again with my singing voice – that’s a completely different accent. And that comes from listening to music since the beginning and forming your own voice.

“And then also, I was thinking, when I was writing that song about the voice that you have when you’re reading, and how it doesn’t actually exist, and if you heard it you probably wouldn’t recognise it ‘cause, you know, you’re reading and it’s not your voice. It’s almost like your conscience has its own character, and I find that really interesting.

“So – it is important to hold your ground, and I’m trying more and more to figure out who I am around people. But, I guess, something about, perhaps, the region – if you have a softer accent, you just tend to morph into other people.”

It’s a really interesting idea because I’ve thought about it myself before.

BM: “Yeah.”

You’ve said before, that to write you must first have something meaningful to say. So, what has been the biggest or most profound breakthrough you’ve experienced with your writing?

BM: “Oh, I don’t know about profound [Billie says in disbelief.]

“Well, the most significant leap – I think – was between second and third album. They were very disparate places and my mood was either end of the spectrum between those three, four years. So the breakthrough, I suppose, would be trying as hard as I can to eliminate that comparison aspect of songwriting and being an artist. I, sort of, got into more of a spontaneous way of writing – knowing that I had a general feel of what I needed to say but then allowing the subconscious to give me the exact wording, which is really interesting. And then, just holding your own. Knowing that what you have to say as a human being is always valid.”

I’ve noticed that a few people have stuck around in your team or in your band over the years, not many people but a few. Like, Jason Odle, like Rich Cooper. Is it nice to live through this process alongside people like that, that have known you from before the success, and that you can share in these moments with as things have become bigger and more serious?

BM: “Absolutely. Yeah. I could have not done it without them and it’s really important knowing that you have a comforting safety net that’s always there, regardless of what you decide to do in your life, which is really nice. And vice versa, obviously, I will always be there for them. And it brings a certain unspoken connection, I think, when – say, you get a call about a tour or a something, something that would be considered big in the industry, you can just react in a very comfortable way to the ones that have known you.

“I think it is also a great marker of progress when you, perhaps, feel like you’re in a rut, or you haven’t done anything with your life – you know, those days you have when you feel sort of irrelevant? And then I’ll turn around to Jason and we’ll be mid-gig, and you know, I have always turned round to him for nearing ten years. That’s really beautiful. And I hope that we, yeah, stay together.”

I don’t know if you realise this? If you were to look at your album covers back to back, the artwork seems to tell quite a story, one that seems to elude to the growth that you have been referencing throughout this album campaign for Flora Fauna

BM: “That’s good.”

I was looking at it and thinking, well, Writing of Blues and Yellows features an oil portrait of you – I take this as present but distant. Feeding Seahorses By Hand graduates to an actual physical image of you albeit it’s with your back to the camera – looking outwards, possibly? I feel like lyrically it is a lot more of that, as well. And with, Flora Fauna, it’s an image of you up front and centre, face to the world, happy, smiling. Is this your way of offering insight into the record through visual means? Or does is it speak even further than that?

BM: “Yeah. I mean, well observed. I always try to keep things concentrated and together in their groups. And I think, in the beginning – obviously, there was a huge amount of adolescence there, quite muted colours but sort of reflecting innocence and Springtime, and you know, I was studying art and I found that tactile nature really interesting so there’s a lot of collage and polaroids – collections of memories from the past three years. And then, yeah, moving into more of a muted colour palette but in a darker way for the second album. Everything was very blurry and the film we shot on that day, actually, came out wrong. It was supposed to be in focus and it wasn’t so we chose to stick with that as the sort of general haziness theme, of conclusion and questioning, and as you said, outwards looking. I didn’t feel good in my self, so I didn’t want my face and body to be centre of attention – not that it ever has been and I try and keep that away from music as much as you can. I think certain people in the industry would like all female artists to, you know, have themselves front and centre on there. And the way I could subvert that and throw it in the bin on the third album is to make myself as ugly as possible but in a really happy way. And, the colour scheme couldn’t be brighter and more, sort of, primary colours and each press image aligns with the primary colour spectrum. That was the plan, I guess.

“I wonder where I’ll go now?”

There’s somewhat of a dichotomy between the needs of which is necessary to nurture a music career, which commonly centres around big cities, and the actual art itself, which in your case often relies heavily on space and imagery and softer things like nature and emotional fluency. It’s something you talk about often, but do you find this aspect becoming clearer and/or easier in any way as you progress? To find balance between the two?

BM: “I was thinking about this – and quite often with the last album – it got penned as this… I know I did name it ‘Flora Fauna,’ but an album just about nature and the balance between urban and commercial living, but really, that’s sort of, 20% of the whole thing. I guess, it’s easier to write a press release when there’s a theme like nature, but then I think the reason I talk about it so much is because we just always want it, and I wonder what would happen to me if I did up sticks and go straight to the country now?

“I think I would have a massive longing for my peers, and the reason I was so unhappy as a young person was because I hadn’t really found them yet, and I was living in rural, sort of regressive societies that didn’t really have music as the centrepoint so I will always talk about it because it is my greatest love, second to music.

“But, yeah, I wonder if that narrative will ever stop? Depending on where I am in the world.”

What is inspiring you right now?

BM: “The Beatles, obviously. Big year for the Beatles, that’s been great. As soon as I go back to them: listen to them, watch them, read interviews – obviously, I got the Paul McCartney book for Christmas – it just takes you straight back into this sort of tingly, creative excitement feeling because they make it look so easy and they’re the greatest band of all time. So – it sort of is a free pass for any musician to feel good about themselves – and that is why I love the Beatles. So lots of that, if ever I delve into live concerts of people on YouTube, I find that is really good for performance help, again because it just looks so natural and simple.

“And, I guess, love is inspiring me. Lots of good love at the moment, I have in my life, which is really nice and lucky. And that has opened up a brand new vocabulary, for me, because I haven’t really been used to it before. So – a lot less misery and melancholia and a lot more ‘how can I say something about love that hasn’t been said before?’”

Billie Marten’s third studio album, Flora Fauna, is out now on Fiction Records.

Photo Credit: Katie Silvester

Find Billie Marten on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Charlotte Holroyd
Editor, Creator and Founder of Bitter Sweet Symphonies. A lover of music and cinema, who's constantly attending gigs and in search of a great experience.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.