INTERVIEW: Billie Marten

We catch up on the latest news on past pupil and talented singer/songwriter Billie Marten

INTERVIEW (The Independent, 2021)

ALBUM REVIEWS (Palatinate, Sept 2021; NME May 2021)

Singer Billie Marten, who left RGS in 2017, signed to Sony aged 16. Six years on, she tells ELLIE HARRISON of The Independent why leaving the label was so liberating. CHARLOTTE SMITH (Palatinate) & CHARLOTTE KROL (NME) review her Flora and Fauna album, below

'YOU know in films when they’re screaming under water? That’s how I felt,” says Billie Marten, a plume of cigarette smoke escaping her mouth. The 21-year-old musician is describing the angst and depression she felt as a child and teenager, hardships she was uncertain about exposing in her music.

“I was worried about how deeply I was feeling things,” she says. “My peers were quite distant emotionally, and it was very taboo to feel anything other than… pumped.” She laughs. “But I was really trying to express deep depression, anxiety, complete isolation. It was quite intense. Mentally, I’m so much better now. I’m trying to eradicate that ‘tortured soul’ thing. It needs to get in the bin.”

It’s this tussle between withholding her emotions and letting them out that has characterised Marten’s music since she was discovered on YouTube aged 12. Her first two albums, 2016’s Writing of Blues and Yellows and 2019’s Feeding Seahorses by Hand, are both whispering, cautious records, poking at wounds without ever opening them up.

We meet at a pub on London’s Columbia Road, where I strain to hear Marten‘s soft voice over roaring motorbikes and hipsters. Her face is fresh and freckled. She uses her paler-than-pale eyelashes to comic effect, blinking emphatically after deadpan statements.

Her new album, Flora Fauna, is empowered by her split with Sony (more on that later) and finds her gleefully tearing off some heavy shackles. Her narrative was “getting bluer and bluer” and she “wanted to dig myself out of that hole”. Her signature hushed tones are still there, with floaty musings set to acoustic guitar, but the record is spiked with punch and grunge. “I picked up the bass, which made all my rhythms different,” she says. “I wanted it to be meaty and juicy and have something to grab hold of.”

The track “Ruin”, in which light plucking and crooning give way to a lively, galloping anthem, is a study of self-loathing. “If I spoke about another person the way I do about myself, it would be horrific, it would be bullying,” says Marten. “That’s what I was doing all the time. I was hanging around with the wrong people, having fleeting and unmeaningful relationships, drinking a lot and not eating. I was really not good on tour. I was so tired and cold all the time and couldn’t project my voice.”

“Human Replacement” – a scratchy, stealthy alt-rock song about not feeling safe to go out at night – was written long before the Sarah Everard case came to light, but now carries extra weight. “Every time I go outside, it’s on my mind,” Marten tells me. “I’ll always get something weird happening. Something not quite right. Microaggressions are the problem. How many times have you been walking down a street with your keys in between your knuckles? It’s so wrong.” In the video, Marten is riding an enormous army tank around central London. “I felt like Kendrick Lamar,” she says, delighted.

Other high points on the album are the glorious first single “Creature of Mine” and “Liquid Love”, a synthy lullaby that ascends, her airy voice layered like a choir. It’s Marten’s favourite. “There’s that line about kissing the lips of the sun every morning, something I’m very thankful for,” she says.

Marten was born in Risplith, a tiny village near Harrogate, her father a copywriter and her mother a teacher. “I keep putting across this very quaint image of myself and I’m doing it on purpose now because it’s funny,” she says, “but I literally was born in a house on a hill.” Her father took her outside to show her the world but was quickly scolded by the midwives.

Grammar school was somewhat thwarted by Marten’s budding music career. She joined Sony the day before her GCSEs, her revision notes under the table at her signing photo. Not long afterwards, she was nominated for the BBC Sound of 2016. From then on, she was shuttled to and from London, but was keen to keep her two lives separate. “I wouldn’t talk about school when I was in London and I wouldn’t talk about music when I was back being a normal person,” she says.

Marten thinks her school friends would describe her as “quite distant”. “I tried my hardest but I wasn’t into the things they were into,” she says, matter-of-factly. “There’s a certain level of responsibility [once you are signed], even if it’s very low key, not being able to have that drunken photo of you in a nightclub. I’ve kept a very small amount of close friends but I’ve always felt different. A bit skew-whiff.”

In 2019, after four years and two albums with Sony, Marten was dropped. “That was the best day of my life,” she says. “I got dropped. I went to see Big Thief at Shepherd’s Bush. Everyone at drinks was asking if I was okay. I was like, ‘I’m really good. This was my saving grace.’”

‘I’ve always felt a bit skew-whiff'

“The second album was an incredibly small, not single-worthy piece of music, and it made me really doubt it,” she continues, clearly keen to get things off her chest. She resented being thrown into the world of co-writing early on and did sessions with Ivor Novello Award-winners Eg White and Justin Parker, who are known for their work with global superstars Adele and Lana Del Rey. “That’s not my musical world, it never has been,” says Marten, sighing deeply. “It’s assumed that’s the path you’re going to take.” When she’d first joined Sony, she was on their boutique label Chess Club. “Halfway through the second album, Chess Club went away and I was just left with everyone in this huge office and no one had heard my music,” she says. “It was like, why are we working together? I don’t see you, you don’t see me. That sort of thing shouldn’t happen. It’s sabotaging and it only looks bad on the artist.” Over lockdown, she signed with Fiction – which was home to The Cure for more than two decades – an experience she describes as “such a relief”.

Marten still feels angry about many aspects of the industry, specifically the huge chunk of the royalties that labels earn from streaming – leaving artists struggling. “Most people I know that have a top 10 album right now are on Universal Credit,” she says. “It’s embarrassing.”

She is optimistic about touring this year, however. “You have to be,” she says, “because if you aren’t it’s probably not going to happen.” Flora Fauna is out the week before her 22nd birthday. “I’m pitifully young,” she says, laughing. “It’s disgusting. It’s the one thing I don’t recognise. It feels like I’m lying. My mental age is mid-50s. I like the quiet, slow pace of life, and talking about old things. I’m really glad that I’m 21 going on 22, it’s a great time, I just feel weird about it.”

Flora Fauna was released on Fiction Records on 21 May, 2021

Discover more on Billie's website here: Billie Marten • Official Website


Songwriting blooms with confidence and clarity

The artist's work has often been couched in terms of her 'precocious' talent, but this experimental third record would be impressive from any musician, writes CHARLOTTE KROL in NME

BILLIE Marten once said her youth was "the worst thing" “about her. Society’s obsession with age, especially in the context of art, can be something of a poisoned chalice. Early articles about the singer-songwriter focused her supposedly ‘precocious’ talent, and in a statement accompanying this album, she speaks about having previously concealed herself in her music and being “obsessed with what people thought of me”. Confidence and clarity has come with age – and with it her biggest, boldest music.

Marten’s third album ‘Flora Fauna’ is a collection of songs that acknowledge the need to weed-out toxic behaviours, using metaphors in nature to nod to both her imperfections and personal growth or humankind’s precariousness. All this is soundtracked, largely, by a departure from the pretty but safe acoustic sound of her 2016 debut ‘Writing Of Blues And Yellows’ and its 2019 follow-up ‘Feeding Seahorses By Hand’. Marten learned bass and listened to lots of Krautrock around this record; the melodies here are her most moreish, her stories are her most open and experimentation is at its broadest.

‘Ruin’ sees Marten ruminate on her tendency to self-destruct (“Got a war with my body”). She illustrates the conflict of being cognisant of that but proceeding anyway (“I’ve been committing a crime”) by shifting from springy beats and bass on the verses to sharp, darting guitars and kinetic drums on the chorus. These beat switches course through the album elsewhere. It’s a welcome refresh of her songwriting.

On ‘Garden Of Eden’, Marten sings about nature as a tonic to modern-day overwork (“Eat the sun, and water up”), while ‘Ruin’’s chorus houses looser beats and more joyful tones, unfurling like a flower in a garden where she’s ready to “feel alive” again.

As with the sitar-spun knots of ‘Heaven’, ‘Human Replacement’ sees Marten push for more curious sounds amid themes of women’s safety and religious faith. A noodling bassline, paired with kitchen pot percussion and Marten’s unnerving, spoken word-esque delivery introduces ‘Human Replacement’’s tale of feeling “not safe in the evening” because “you could be taken”. Jabbing piano chords and screeching strings make for an explosive chorus: a clarion call for every woman’s right to be left alone when out at night.

On ‘Flora Fauna’, Marten navigates a newfound confidence while examining what it takes to survive and thrive. It’s her most mature, vivid work yet – and would be impressive from an artist of any age.

'Self aware and lyrically brilliant'

By Charlotte Smith (Palatinate)

Since the release of her first EP in 2014, Billie Marten has cultivated a gentle indie-folk style, most clearly demonstrated by her 2019 release Feeding Seahorses by Hand. Flora Fauna, released in May ahead of her ongoing tour, retains the comforting tone she is known for, but balances this with an impressive show of personal and musical growth: a darker, more adventurous sound is achieved with fuller textures and more varied instrumentation as Marten expresses her anger and fatigue at the state of the modern world alongside her desire to be surrounded by nature and feel connected to the earth, in a powerful showcase of the outstanding songwriting we have come to expect.

Marten’s lockdown impulse purchase of choice was a bass guitar, providing a solid foundation for several tracks on this album. ‘Garden of Eden’ is the first of these tracks, with a strong bassline immediately defining a new era of musical style. The natural theme of the album is immediately evident, certainly helped by the album’s title and artwork – covering yourself in mud can’t have been pleasant but the dedication to the album cover is clear! The verses’ lyrics critique our modern culture of productivity, and the choruses provide contrast with more pastoral content – the tone of the album is set.

‘Creature of Mine’ is, in Marten’s words, a cry of “frustration with the planet” and a “mish-mash of all sound.” This is certainly an accurate description of a powerful track which shows Marten’s talent for expressing anger. She does not shy away from this intensity, as the following track is ‘Human Replacement’, a hard-hitting song conveying Marten’s anger at the perpetual fear felt when simply existing in the world as a woman. The resentment at the fact that “you’re just not safe in the evening” is felt in Marten’s voice and echoed in the harsh instrumentals, expressing a feeling that is all too easy to relate to.

‘Liquid Love’ is a personal favourite from the album, with soothing backing vocals and an accompaniment that completely surrounds the listener, expressing the “hazy feeling” of “beauty and melancholia” that Marten talks about on her Instagram explanation of the song. Following this is ‘Heaven’, a song that makes extensive use of the timbre of the sitar and questions the use of religion as a process of repentance.

‘Ruin’ fits well within the theme of the album, playing around with rhythm to create a contrast between the verses and choruses similar to ‘Garden of Eden’. The song serves as a reminder that sometimes the things our brains tell us aren’t particularly rational and shows Marten acknowledging this and making light of her problems in a joyful-sounding song. While this sounds strange, it is done sensitively and effectively, making this song another favourite of mine.

‘Pigeon’ is another song that we all seem to relate to, describing the fatigue brought about by the fast-paced, commercial world we inhabit. This song is repetitive, but Marten manages to use this to her advantage to really convey the tiredness expressed in the lyrics without the song itself becoming tedious.

Following the intense textures of ‘Kill the Clown’ are the final two songs of the album: ‘Walnut’ and ‘Aquarium’. The vocal harmonies of ‘Walnut’ are captivating, and an effective contrast to the previous track. ‘Aquarium’ makes for a calming end to the album in which Marten expresses her need to be surrounded by nature and by people she loves.

Flora Fauna is a heartfelt project that shows a real sense of Marten’s growth and branching out from her previous album. The lyrics demonstrate this perfectly, and are reflected in the fuller instrumental textures and more upbeat songs. While Feeding Seahorses by Hand was the perfect album to provide a sense of comforting sadness, Flora Fauna feels more hopeful. Marten’s songwriting is incredibly self-aware and lyrically brilliant, acknowledging the world and its problems but using natural environmental imagery to provide a much-needed remedy.

From October 2021:

Billie Marten announces new ‘Acoustic’ EP

Sharing a remix of ‘Liquid Love’ by Mr Jukes (Bombay Bicycle Club's Jack Steadman) alongside the news, Billie says, “If a song on the album were to be reinvented, it would have had to have been ‘Liquid Love’. There’s so much room on it to manipulate and subvert things. I asked my friend Jack if he’d like to add his two cents and I fell in love with the result. He’s made something beautiful and rare”.

Discover more on: Billie Marten • Official Website