Interview: Brit Songstress Billie Marten on Vulnerability, Ditching London…and Eating Mud
Above image: Kate Silvester
Rising young Brit singer-songwriter Billie Marten thinks mud is actually quite delicious. She knows this because the cover of her latest album Flora Fauna (out May 21 via IMPERIAL Music / Fiction Records) has her smirking through a mouthful of it. It’s here, against a vibrant orange background that we see the singer-songwriter’s face – girlish, delightful, freckled, and golden – grinning wildly with dirt smudges across her cheeks and forehead, and errant blades of grass between her pearly white teeth. It’s an unexpected depiction of a burgeoning young star…and that is entirely the point.
“I wanted to make myself quite ugly,” she says over the phone from London whilst cooking up a dinner’s worth of moules frites. “I wanted to spoof myself a little bit, as if I was trying to imitate another artist. And I just wanted to drill that nature analogy home and literally just eat mud, which is surprisingly tasty!”
The 21-year-old is making claim to her own image after years of the music industry manufacturing one for her. She started her career at the ripe young age of 17 (after being discovered at only 12), and has learned a thing or two about the pressure of fitting in a marketable box. With this album, however, she wanted to reveal a different side of herself, to eradicate her archetype as a “country, whispering waif, tortured soul type” (Her own quite amusing words).
The cover is only the beginning. A departure from her previous two albums – 2016’s Writing of Blues and Yellows, and Feeding Seahorses by Hand from just two years ago – Flora Fauna reveals a new depth and maturity wrapped in a fitting metaphor: nature as growth.
“Lots of things [have changed since my earlier work],” she admits. “Age and knowledge and confidence and all of those things that make your life and everybody else’s a little bit easier.”
The album embraces a more urgent sound, while remaining true to her captivating, always emotive vocals and sweet lyricism. Shimmering layers emerge as fresh, youthful, rapturous, percussive, and even catchy at times. The album’s opener and single ‘Garden of Eden’ gets immediately lodged in the brain in the best kind of way. Others take on a different shape. ‘Aquarium’ feels folky, like something that could’ve been written in Laurel Canyon back in the 1970s. While ‘Kill the Clown’ has a more modern rock sensibility. There’s movement throughout, with the music and lyrics never getting stuck in one place for too long. Marten indeed credits nature as her muse.
“It’s such a huge concept,” she observes. “It’s completely nonjudgmental, and you can be any character in it, or not even in it – but it’s sort of ever-present and it’s something easy to draw comparison with, you know…with emotion and feeling and human nature.”
While Marten’s label is packaging Flora Fauna in a pretty bow of hope and optimism – something we all desperately need right now – Marten actually sees it all a little differently.
She explicates, “I’m aware that there’s a lot of spin on this album, which is considering it as entirely positive…and it’s not. There are moments of vulnerability still, and I touch on a lot of difficult subjects in there. I’m trying to blanket the whole thing as a lesson in self-belief; but that comes with one day feeling very positive and confident and the next feeling like you’ve knocked all the wind out of yourself and you want to crawl back into bed.”
Speaking of crawling back into bed, the past year put us all to the test when it came to survival, productivity, and depleted serotonin levels. While many found the pandemic to be at worst a horrific nightmare and at best mind-numbingly dull, Marten couldn’t have enjoyed it more. She spent the first six months in North Yorkshire with her parents, shedding an unwanted layer: people, ideas, bad habits that no longer served her.
“It’s been wonderful,” she says. “It’s been the best year of my life, amazing… I just really got to grips with the important things in life. Then I came down to London with a fresh perspective. After having been quite beaten by London before, because it’s a tough city, I sort of discarded all the negative people in my life and negative things I was doing…and made a clean slate for myself. I got into a really healthy relationship and I’m still very in love with that. I just really, really – not trying to blow my own horn here – but I just really feel good.”
She recorded Flora Fauna – which she’s called “a green bath for my eyes” – with producer Rich Cooper (Temper Trap, BANKS, Logic). They spent several days writing songs until they unexpectedly realized that it all hung together quite nicely. This was in 2019. They then had to wait until September of 2020, when UK travel resumed, to reunite and record the entire thing…which took all of ten days.
“It’s mostly just a feeling of relief,” she says of finishing the album. “I felt like I’d said everything I needed to say and I didn’t want to extrapolate on anything – I could leave the rest for the next album.”
Though she’s loved the intimate quiet of pandemic times, the world is very ready for live music to return. And so she’ll launch a 15-date UK tour this July 30 at the Y Not Festival in Matlock, swinging back to London in late September.
“I’m certainly excited [to tour], and I’ve gotten over myself and my fear; it’s clearly something that’s very valuable to everyone. When [touring] goes away, it’s just a massive loss and it would not be very good of me if I came back and I was miserable about the whole thing. So I’m just going to enjoy it.”
We’re pretty sure we will too.