Yorkshire-born singer-songwriter Billie Marten talks to Duncan Seaman about her new album ahead of her Leeds gig.
With a string of US theatre concerts with the band Snow Patrol barely a week away when we speak, singer-songwriter Billie Marten can surely be forgiven some pre-tour nerves.
“I have never in my tiny little life played a gig in America,” says the 19-year-old who was born and raised in North Yorkshire. “There’s a lot of dread there, but it will be fine.”
Having relocated from her family home in Ripon to London in the couple of years since she released her debut album, The Writing of Blues and Yellows, Marten is becoming accustomed to a certain amount of upheaval.
She admits leaving her roots was “difficult”. “I was kind of torn between staying up in a place I knew very well and also finding new ground and trying to become a bit more of a person, I guess.”
The capital won out, she says, because she wanted to be exposed to “a wider environment – that was important to me as well”.
I’m not even particularly an activist. I mean I follow the news like everyone else, but it wasn’t intentional to go all political.Billie Marten
“I looked at studying as well. I was going to go to uni for a bit because I thought that was something I should do, as well as playing music at the time. But it just wouldn’t have worked. There was no way I could have done both, unfortunately. And you can do a degree at any time.
“I should have been about to graduate this year, but it’s just when life takes you and you really want to do something that concentrated and focused. If you’re going to put a lot of effort into it you need to do it when you’re ready.
“But London is good, I’m finally making friends with it, the city.”
For a while Marten supported herself by working in a pub – a job she has said made her “a shell of a human being” – before finding solace volunteering in a charity shop in Finsbury Park. “I still do that,” she says. “The day I quit the pub I walked past this Crisis shop and they had a little hand-written sign in the window saying ‘we really need volunteers at the moment’ and I guess that was my cue, so I just walked in, did the application and they said, ‘Great, come for a trial next week’. They’re very flexible. Volunteering is good if you’re a musician or you’re freelance. I love it, it’s necessary and I get way more from it than I ever did from the pub.”
The pub job may have only directly inspired one song – the wistful Toulouse – on her second album, Feeding Seahorses by Hand, but Marten feels the wider experiences she’s gained in the last two years have been beneficial. “I guess it’s a wider overview of things, it’s more observational about other people.”
She agrees that she’s a less introspective songwriter than in her younger days. “I think you get into dips and swells of getting really personal and constantly digging to the core of what you think you’re trying to say, how you view yourself, and I think I wanted to lose that for a bit. It got boring, you didn’t get a lot of answers. There will always be songs on each album that return to that, but I guess this time around I just wanted to talk about somebody else.”
In the songs Betsy and Cartoon People, she even turns to politics and Donald Trump. “Where did that come from?” she ponders. “I’m not even particularly an activist. I mean I follow the news like everyone else, but it wasn’t intentional to go all political, it just came out.”
If The Writing of Blues and Yellows was styled in the acoustic vein of singer-songwriters such as John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, that she’d grown up listening to from her parents’ record collection, Feeding Seahorses by Hand was inspired by “more minimal, lo-fi production type of things”. “I was listening to a lot of new, young American bands,” she says. “There’s a difference I felt between the English bands and the American ones; everything was a lot more garage-y.
“I didn’t want to be very particular about this one. We did it in 10 days, or thereabouts, and we recorded everything on tape. I felt that it should have been an album that was more drum-led, it was less floaty and wider, there’s more strings on it, it’s more stripped-back. But then again, we did play about with the production a lot.
“It’s sort of a mix, I think, between the classic folk scene, which of course [the producer] Ethan Johns is from and is very heavily into, and this modern pulse running through all the time. We played about with lots of old instruments and then brought drum machines and noises and different tools as well. It was lot of fun.”
Johns’ ability to allow songs to breathe was important. “He knows a lot about space. Like Brian Eno, the best thing he’s ever done is left a bit of silence. There’s a lot of that from Ethan as well.
“It was interesting,” she adds. “I’d never worked with someone for that amount of time in such a concentrated way. I stayed with him at his house with his family the whole time and you get very close as a group. Me and Dom Monks, the engineer, who was fantastic, we really created our own little relationship. But it’s always a push and pull, I think. You always want a producer who’s invested very heavily anyway, but I can’t let another person take over a record or I’ll produce it myself.”
Marten also found time to experiment with toy instruments. “There was lots of that, I love that side of things,” she says. “Things that make noise that’s very beautiful from day to day, I love to put them in a different perspective. Dom has lots of young kids and he brought a big box of toys in one day, so it’s all down to Fisher Price, I guess – they have some excellent toys. They have this plastic turntable that you put really thick records in this groove and it plays Happy Birthday, so we did a lot of that, and we used these huge echo chambers, that’s all over She Dances – the intro for that is actually Happy Birthday.”
The small musical imperfections in the record are also deliberate. “It’s integral not to be too polished because you do go wrong and make bad sounds sometimes, but if they’re not too bad you can leave them,” Marten says. “I hope it doesn’t offend too many people. All of the songs were recorded in one or two takes because there was no point in doing it again and again and again.”
Although living in London, Marten likes to get back to North Yorkshire whenever she can. She says she “massively” misses the countryside. “There are parks and you’ve got Hampstead Heath and Victoria Park and things like that, but it’s just a different feel because everybody there is escaping the city whereas when you’re in Yorkshire it’s your home. You’re not always aware of that when you’re there and you take it for granted, but I go back all the time. I think it’s important not to lose it.”
Feeding Seahorses by Hand is out now. Billie Marten plays at The Wardrobe, Leeds on June 11. www.billiemarten.com