Artist To Watch: Billie Marten

Josh Shinner

Artist To Watch: Billie Marten

Josh Shinner

Every teenage balladeer hacking away at a guitar or piano imagines their songs unfolding into the kind of gorgeous sonic panoramas found on Billie Marten’s debut album, Writing Of Blues And Yellows. The difference in Marten’s case is that her songs really are that good, from their bare essentials all the way up to the outer reaches of their lush arrangements.

Out today, the album finds 17-year-old Marten — born Isabella Sophie Tweddle in the cathedral city of Ripon — flexing a songwriting talent so powerful that “prodigious” feels like a major understatement. Perhaps reflecting her upbringing in the English countryside, her songs are rustic and dreamlike, refined in their construction and generous in their beauty. Fans of Laura Marling, the Staves, or Nick Drake will find a lot to love.

Stream the album below while you read an interview with Marten conducted by phone last week.

STEREOGUM: Where are you calling from?

BILLIE MARTEN: I am currently in rush hour traffic in London, trying to catch the train home, after doing a little gig.

STEREOGUM: Oh, did you play a gig in the afternoon?

MARTEN: Yeah, it wasn’t a normal gig, it was to a load of record shop sellers and buyers, so it was everybody who’s basically spreading the record around the country, which was nice. So yeah, not the usual one.

STEREOGUM: Oh wow, is there a lot of pressure associated with that? Like convincing those people to stock your record or something like that?

MARTEN: Yeah, it was quite nerve-wracking. It wasn’t my finest moment, but it happened now, and yeah, they seem lovely.

STEREOGUM: I know the album title, Writing Of Blues And Yellows, is a reference to synesthesia. Are blue and yellow the dominant colors in your music, do you think? Is that why those are the colors listed in the title?

MARTEN: Yeah, I think so. It’s kind of blues, yellows, greens, and some oranges and things like that, but I guess that’s just a ridiculous title, so I went with the first two — blues and yellows. [laughs]

STEREOGUM: That makes sense. I mean, I’m not sure that I have that condition — and I’m colorblind, so what do I know? — but it sounds green to me, personally.

MARTEN: Well, there you go! It’s different for everybody.

STEREOGUM: When you were creating the record, did you write a lot of songs for it? Was it a thing where you had to whittle it down from a big pool of songs, or is what we’re hearing pretty much what you have at this point?

MARTEN: Yeah, I think it’s more of the latter. I never set out with the intentions of “OK, I’m gonna write an album, I’m gonna start writing songs for it from this point on.” It was, “Well, here’s everything I’ve done in the past two years and this is what I’ve evolved to like doing.” And it’s all sorts of different sounds in there. Every vocal take sounds different cause it’s all from months and months apart, and obviously my voice is not gonna sound the same for three years anyway, so it’s kind of like a mish-mash of everything I’ve been doing. It wasn’t a concentrated thing of writing for three months. It was over a big timespan.

STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask you about that because you’re at an age when people’s tastes tend to develop rapidly. Do you find yourself changing your mind about songs frequently, or wanting to go back and revise them?

MARTEN: Yes, all the time. I think it’s quite a struggle to convince yourself that something sounds good, even after a few months of playing it. In your head, it’s kind of gone a bit stale. You don’t feel like playing it anymore because you can’t understand what you’re saying because you don’t feel like that anymore. In that way, it’s quite difficult. I’m always having little arguments with myself as to what I want to sound like and which direction to go in, but I’ve got all the time in the world, so this is a good time to experiment with things. And if it doesn’t sound great, then fine, at least I’ve tried it and can move on.

STEREOGUM: Can you talk a little bit about how you build one of your songs? Does it start typically with just you at the guitar or piano and you flesh it out from there?

MARTEN: I think most of the time, it will start with guitar, melody, and it won’t have anything with it for a good long time … and then one word will come out and that will be the basis of the song. Obviously, it’s a little bit different every time. Sometimes I’ll have a verse that was written with no music behind it, which means you can adopt it for anything you want, so you might write it thinking it’s a song that sounds like a Nick Drake song, and then by the end of it, it comes out like a Radiohead song. It’s never the same twice, but I think I always find the comfort in the guitar because there’s a lot of guessing that goes on in finding new chord shapes that people haven’t used and you don’t really know much about. I think it’s the basis for everything, really. You’ve got your melodies from there, so you just carry on.

STEREOGUM: One of the things I really like about your songs is that a lot of them have these really gorgeous arrangements that amplify their beauty, but the songs also work at their basic core, like they’d still sound good if it was just you performing solo with the guitar. As far as fleshing them out into these full-bodied, expansive works of art, what’s that process like? Is it a situation where you’re able to go into the studio and mess around?

MARTEN: Yeah, every song will always come down to me and guitar or me and piano because that’s how they were written, so they always have to have that basis. What I’ve found this year that works the best is just literally doing a live take as if I was just recording a demo, and then we’ll just add tiny layers that don’t really seem like much. Some of the piano parts have three notes in them, they don’t do anything, they don’t move anywhere. But it’s just about finding little spaces in between the songs where it needs attention, where it needs something else other than guitar or my voice. I’ve never wanted to make a song too big anyway; I don’t think there’s much of a point when you can’t recreate that yourself. So yeah, I keep it quite simple, but I say that and then will have some mad percussion noise that we’ll find in the studio that day, and quite a lot of it is made out of weird noises, which I like. So nothing’s too conventional, but it’s also classically simple. We don’t try too hard.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you’re on your way home from an event in London. Is that where you’re based now?

MARTEN: No, I don’t think I want to move to London soon. I’m North Yorkshire, so it’s full-on countryside, terrible weather, and a lot of sheep.

STEREOGUM: As an American, my main exposure to North Yorkshire is probably Downton Abbey. Is that sort of countryside what I should be imagining?

MARTEN: Yeah, I see that. It’s probably less dignified than that, a little bit. Quite a lot of angry farmers about. But yeah, I love it. I think it’s beautiful, and without that, I probably wouldn’t have anything to write about, so I’m very thankful for it.

STEREOGUM: What do you mean by that? Do you find a lot of inspiration in the natural beauty of the area, or are you referring to your life experience there?

MARTEN: I think at the very beginning, when I was just trying to understand how to write songs when I was really young, obviously I didn’t have much to say about me because I hadn’t done anything, and I was still trying to figure out what was going on. So what I’d look to was things around me, and that would be the surroundings. I’m very lucky to live in a place like that because there’s really a lot to say, and even now, I’ll still put that in every single song, because it’s either where I am at the time that I’m writing songs, or it’ll always be in the back of my mind if I need some description of something else. It’s a recurring theme with my songs.

STEREOGUM: Are you going to be doing much touring in America soon?

MARTEN: It sounds amazing and I’d love to. I think probably around Christmastime, there might be a plan to go over there and have a little explore, but for now, there’s only a little five-day tour in October, just around this country, ’cause I guess I’ve never had my own tour yet, so I ought to start in my own country first. But I’d love to go.

STEREOGUM: I’m excited for whenever that does happen. Last question: How did you settle on “Marten” as a stage name? I know that “Billie” comes from “Isabella.” Did you pluck “Marten” out of the air?

MARTEN: It took a long time, actually. It was around the start of doing music more often. Basically, no one could say or spell my real name at gigs or anything music-related, so it got quite ridiculous. I just picked something that was really simple. The reason for it is I always wear Doc Marten shoes, those big boots, so I looked to them for inspiration. Also, John Martyn, he’s my dad’s favorite singer, and we’ve always listened to him since I was growing up, so it’s kind of an ode to him.


Writing Of Blues And Yellows is out now on Chess Club/RCA Victor.

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