FEATURE: Billie Marten: Lionhearted



Billie Marten:

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 YESTERDAY, I was lucky enough to be in the…

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right place at the right time, as it were. I was tuned into BBC6 Music – during Sean Keaveny’s show – experiencing a live version of Kate Bush’s track, King of the Mountain. It was played to commemorate and celebrate the upcoming three-disc live album, Before the Dawn. If you were lucky enough to catch Bush perform during her 2014 shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo you would have witnessed it for the first time. The sound and scope of the song is mind-blowing. Cinematic and dramatic in conception: funky-ass guitars with electricity bubbling; bellicose, tribal drums and an overall air of mountain air, mysticism and unholy drama. Scoring and guiding the tale of high-summit royalty was Kate Bush – sounding like she did in 1979. It is startling, not only hearing a performance of such magnitude, command and resonance but the fact Bush has not aged in the past thirty-seven years. I listened to that song and – after hearing it a couple of times during Mary Ann Hobbs’ afternoon show – was left speechless and blown away. There is something completely entrancing about Kate Bush; no matter how many times you hear her sing. Those live shows will be brought to disc next month and distill the finest moments of her London shows. It is debatable how many more gigs Bush has in her but one thing is for sure: make sure you buy Before the Dawn when it is released on 25th November.

It was whilst listening to the radio yesterday – coincidentally, 6Music again – I was not only treated to a rarified performance and breathtaking moment but a modern-day connection of two like-minded artists. Billie Marten is someone I have interviewed and reviewed – coinciding with the release of her debut album, Writing of Blues and Yellows. The reason for this comparison – and this piece as a whole – is how unerringly similar the two singers are. Kent-born, Devon-based Kate Bush first came to prominence with the release of her debut album, The Kick Inside. That album featured the groundbreaking, career-defining (to many, at least) Wuthering Heights. Such a voice has never really excited: not one with such eccentricity, fairy-like agility and beguiling majesty. In retrospect, The Kick Inside might not make many people’s list of top-three Kate Bush albums – one suspects Lionheart and The Dreaming would edge it for a spot. Many would contest Hounds of Love is the incontestable granddaddy of Bush genius: a two-part, sweeping epic that, once heard, is never forgotten. When people heard Kate Bush in 1979, they were not quite sure what to make of her. One saw a phenomenally beautiful and striking young woman but one whose head was intelligent, mature and down-to-earth. A young star that knew her talents but came across in interviews as relatable, charming and sweet – small wonder she would be taken into the critical bosom. I get that same impression when listening to Billie Marten.

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Circling back to my 6Music anecdote: Marten was performing on Lauren Laverne’s show from a library in Rochdale – as part of a campaign to get people into libraries and celebrating literature. It was a short and sweet interview but one that showed how down-to-earth and warm Marten is as a conversationalist. Her performance – of album track Emily – was typically transcendent and hushed (more on that side of things later). It is not often you are hooked into someone by mere conversation: hanging on their words and completely engrossed. It was not necessarily the tone of voice – although it is soothing and expressive – but what was being said. Marten, is, a seventeen-year-old musician that SHOULD, one thinks, fall into the traps and clichés of her similar-aged peers. Having come away from that interview, it was clear as crystal: Billie Marten is someone who differs from her contemporaries and belongs to another time.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Victor De Jesus

She reminds me of Kate Bush, who, when The Kick Inside was released, would be the darling of the interview circuits. Interviewers would try to crack down to her soul and figure what makes her tick; why she was so fascinated and obsessed with dance and how she remained grounded and modest. Of course, back in 1979, social morals and interview topics differ from one expects in 2016 – laced with a bit more controversy, relationship angles and less on an artist’s background and personality. In a disposal, sell-your-product-and-get-to-the-point-quick society: Marten is someone who seems to float above it all and has that Bush-esque air of humbleness and confidence. The main reason I wanted to compare the two artists – and highlight Marten as a very rare and special artist – is because of the arresting music and absolute ageless wisdom both possess.

I look at Kate Bush belt out her classics (from two years ago) and how in love she is with music still – someone who is as eager and determined as when she first arrived. Marten is embarking on her first steps but I see similarities between Bush’s 1979 debut The Kick Inside and Billie Marten’s 2016 offering, Writing of Blues and Yellows. Bush, on her debut, had that standout song (Wuthering Heights) but ran through genres, ideas and moves – that enticing, spectacular voice making everything sound completely essential and magical. Marten may not be as wide-ranging in terms of genres on her debut but you cannot deny the similarities. One is buckled by her velvet-smooth; kitten-sooth sensuality and the raw power that comes from someone who could make anything sound life-affirming in its beautiful. Hearing The Kick Inside and I am always brought to the point of shivers by the pin-sharp delivery and wonderful sweetness of the voice.

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The Man with the Child in His Eyes is, perhaps, the finest example of the young talent daunted by the music industry. Written when she was just thirteen: Bush went into the studio – backed by an orchestra – and was nervous and felt very odd in that surrounding. Billie Marten records with guitar (and very few other elements) but you feel a prodigious young woman in her own world and in her comfort zone – someone who feels the anxieties and pressures that expectations and the music industry provides. I shall step away from the Bush-Marten comparisons – until the final segment – and want to embrace Marten on her own. Writing of Blues and Yellows is not the first offering from the Rippon-based teenager. She has been performing music for years – sending YouTube videos to her grandparents years ago; a way of connecting and demonstrating her talent – but has really hit her stride now. Over the past two years, Marten has released two E.P.s on two different labels (2014’s Ribbon on Split Milk Records and last year’s As Long As through Chess Club Records) but showed a keen and brilliant talent and remarkable voice.

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The thing that really strikes me about Marten’s music is the lyrical intelligence and that singular voice. Given the fact she is seventeen; one would imagine songs of broken relationships, jerk-ass guys and plenty of anxiety. It may sound like a generalisation and all-sweeping statement – applied to the boys too, you understand – but there is some truth in that. I love young stars like Dua Lipa but feel there is too much emphasis – even from her own mind or record executives – to go straight to the crotch. Overtly sexual, primal and ‘grown-up’; it makes you wonder whether musicians are being forced to become women/men too soon – or are too open and explicit with their music. There are a lot of artists like Lipa – who I genuinely feel has a great future – perhaps inspired by the chart acts of the U.S. – Rhianna perhaps the most fervent inspiration. I am not pointing fingers or moralising – a little, maybe – but feel a more sanitised, wise approach to song-writing is needed. Not only do many of these young stars have an army of writers and producers behind them: their subject matter and lyrics book is full of clichés, sexual come-on and teenage tropes.

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Billie Marten took her surname from the British Folk legend John Martyn – her real name is Isabella Tweddle – but that nine-year-old (whose grandparents lived in France and would get to witness a bright singer interpret other people’s songs) has blossomed into a bit of a national sweetheart. Before I get to her voice and songs; it is worth applauding and commending her words. Having heard her discussion with Lauren Laverne yesterday: literature and words are vital to Marten. She is someone, I would envisage, happy to ensconce herself in a quite nook and digest a chapter of classic literature and immerse herself in a novel for the afternoon. She seems like a human from another time – you could not see her glued to an iPhone or on Snapchat all night – but she is a very mature and smart young woman who brings this to her music. Like Bush in the ‘70s (last mention): Marten fuses literary references – Emily was inspired by Marten’s love of the second-most-famous Brontë sister; that connection with Bush once more – and you feel like you are involved in a story when you hear her sing.

Too many modern songwriters are either devoted to their own prurient, salacious desires or reflecting on inner-woes and engrossed in hyperbolic first-world moaning. Again, it is a generalisation, but there are few writers that break away from that parable and actually offer something vintage and modern at the same time. Marten is a woman who is still studying and school-age but brings her education and a quest for knowledge into her rich, nuanced songbooks. I will investigate her album tracks fully, but you just have to listen to a song like Emily or Lionhearted to know this is no ordinary musician. Addressing mental health struggles and the vicissitudes of the world: the desire for courage, resolve and sanctuary – the album’s title seems to reflect sadness (blue; depression and unhappiness) and courage (yellow; yellow-bellied). Billie Marten does not bring you down with deeply personal and open-souled professions; every line and song is ethereal and utterly sensual. Even when she is talking about walking away from home or looking into herself – the choice of words and turn of phrase is immaculate. Writers twice her age are barely capable of creating such novelistic, poetic sentiments – you just know she is only revealing half her true potential. Going hand-in-hand with her fine lyrics is a voice that is, many would proffer, her strongest asset.

There are few things more bird-like an angelic than hearing a Billie Marten song. The moment that gets me is during Heavy Weather and its chorus. Maybe it is the melody or the subtle fingerpicking; the build-up or emotional catharsis of its author – my heart seems to skip a beat and the breath goes. Marten’s delivery and cadence is unbelievably gentle, soft and engrossing. It is like you are in a room with her by the microphone: she is singing the song directly at you with her lips pressed to the mic.; eyes closed and her hands clasped around the stand. I would imagine there was a sense of intimacy and blocking-away-the-world when that song was recorded but is remains (in my heart) her prime vocal turn. Milk & Honey, La Lune and Lionhearted are the three singles released this year – Heavy Weather was out last year. Lionhearted is a song that is grabbing most critics because of its vocal: one that blends fragility, sorrow and the desire for fortitude, answers and a psychic hug from the universe.

The reason I entitled this piece in honour of that song is to show just how lion-hearted and brave Marten is. In today’s music, there is such instancy and a conveyer-belt-style of promotion and production. Artists are revealed, revered and rescinded without a breath being taken – the fickleness of record bosses and the general public is quite bracing at times. Too many young musicians boast little variation, individual talent and anything that distinguishes them from the crowds. If Marten’s voice and music were not as insatiable as they are – would she survive in the modern industry? Marten is someone I adore in the sense she is humble and modest. She is happy to live at the family home and occasionally visit the city – she is not a fan of the bustle and throng of commuter bodies. I said Marten is someone who would love to curl with a good book and you get that throughout Writing of Blues and Yellows. Certain songs are so intense and passionate; you are practically inches from Marten’s tongue: there is that live-sounding quality and such an intimacy that radiates from each number. Writing of Blues and Yellows has been gaining a plethora of four and five-star reviews. Critics have been seduced and entranced by Billie Marten and the way she operates. She is a woman without ego or pretense and that all comes through in her music. Teeth deals with the realities and suffocation of anxiety; Milk & Honey is lullaby-like and transportive; Bird, perhaps the most nimble and gossamer song she has ever put her voice to. Compared with artists like Lucy Rose and Laura Marling: Marten is someone who you cannot compare to anyone vocally; her lyrics are very much her own and she is an artist with very few equals.

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Before wrapping things up – and coming back to the Kate Bush parables – I would advise everyone spend some time getting to know Billie Marten and her music. Just hearing her in interviews – there are few out there but each is memorable – there is a shyness and reluctant but the words and outpouring or a very mature soul who wants her voice and words to be heard, understood and appreciated. She is not someone that will be engaged in Twitter wars with Azealia Banks or rolling out of a pub at 4am. That was one of the fears I had when hearing her album in full: where will Billie Marten be in several years to come? I am not saying she would have grown into a twenty-something hell-raiser that is courting tabloid inches and snapped with a string of famous boyfriends – what a gaudy and repulsive life that would be. I was just concerned record labels and the realities of modern-day music/life would take that home-based, shy quality and force Marten to become more outgoing and exposed – having her face on magazines and selling a bit of her soul. I hope that does not happen and I hope Marten is preserved just as she is for decades to come.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Victor De Jesus

I am sure she has an honest and fulfilling relationship – or will do in years – and is not concerned with publicisng it and making it a point of conversation. Similarly, she does not wish to be embroiled in social media controversy or appear on various chat shows and being what we think of as a ‘celebrity’. Perhaps the greatest thing about Billie Marten is she has no hidden wiles and unexplored tensions; no harsh outer skin or desire to embrace the late-night lifestyle – someone the music world desperately needs to appreciate and promote as an advertisement for the better way of living. She loves her books and loves performing to new faces – despite nerves still being an issue – and a life-long desire to purchase an alpaca – you can imagine she’d have it next to her bed or watch it eat her parents’ plants whilst they were away at work! It is those quirky edges and smile-inducing biographical revelations that make her a true one-of-a-kind. The beautiful, intelligent Yorkshire lass is as striking as she is modest. The teenager has just released her debut album, but one must realise, she will be making albums for decades to come.

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Writing of Blues and Yellows is an album you cannot imagine anyone else was involved with. It would seem odd to have a producer or engineer calling shots or being involved. The songs were all penned by Marten – except for It’s a Fine Day which is the sparsest, most curious song on the album – and her voice and guitar are the only things you hear for the most part. There is the odd bird sample and other strands but, by and large, it is the seventeen-year-old and her soul. Maybe she will embrace piano sounds on her next record – an instrument I feel will add flesh and majesty to her songs – and perhaps orchestral swathes. I often see her as a Nick Drake-esque typewriter. Deeply poetic, brilliant and quotable – someone whose lines and thoughts are superior and vastly fascinating. If Writing of Blues and Yellows is her Pink Moon – Drake sat alone with guitar recording the tracks at night – then future record might be more Bryter Later and Five Leaves Left – strings and pianos and more percussive expressions. That is all for future consideration but Marten appeals to the heart because the music sounds like it was recorded in her bedroom with nobody else around. Maybe the sun is streaming in but there are no distractions and technicians; a young woman surrendering herself to the moment and producing the most personal and immediate music she possibly can. Even if she does expand her sound and employ more edge and rouse in follow-up records; you feel the recording method and production sounds will all remain the same.

I’ll end by bringing things back to Kate Bush and the reason this all started. It is hard to say whether Billie Marten will be packing them into venues in her 50s but one suspect she has a long and fruitful road ahead of her. Watching her blossom and be heralded this early is pleasing and her artistic maturation is going to be one you will not want to miss. The last time I heard a voice and set of songs affect me profoundly was when I was a child and listening to The Kick Inside. During the late’80s and early-‘90s, I was started to discover music and Bush’s bewitching voice and incredibly ageless songs – from someone who was a teenager when she recorded the album. Kate Bush has endured because of that debut album and the path she took after it. Not wanting to be thrust into the limelight and record her music the way she wanted to – choosing a more home-set, honest methodology and having creative control right from the start. Billie Marten recorded her debut album even younger than Kate Bush and one feels has been writing songs/poetry from an early age, too. Play the albums in tandem and those similarities and subtle difference really do start to come through. I am not saying Billie Marten’s career trajectory will be exactly the same as Kate Bush. Marten might not choose to create her own Hounds of Love – although that will be something to see! – but you know there are many more albums ahead and decades-long duties and demands.

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She (Marten) has a list of influences but one wonders whether Bush is among them? It would be interesting to find out more as I can see Billie Marten enjoying sell-out gigs and having a huge legacy. The first steps are vital and she has already proved she is one of the finest young songwriters in the world. That voice will only improve and expand as the years go by – not only meaning her music can step into new genres but fresh nuance and emotional sides can emerge. The same way Kate Bush stunned people with her demonic, animalistic vocal on Get Out of My House (the closing track to 1982’s The Dreaming); Marten has that same potential and talent. There are so many young singers and musicians out there but Marten stands out because of who she is as a person – not what the charts mandate and fitting into critical moulds. If you have not discovered the multiple sides, joys and pleasures of Billie Marten’s music I would urge you all to do it and discover a sensational young talent. Writing of Blues and Yellows might be the start of things but is certainly…

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NOT the end of things.


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