THE wonderful and evocative talent Martha Tilston…
is busy touring and about to head to Australia. I was keen to grab her before she left and talk about that side of music. Her new double A-side, Nomad Blood/Little Arrow is out and will be taken from the album, NOMAD (out 12th May). It is a record that, perhaps, has obvious inspiration but goes deeper than issues of transitory relocation and finding oneself. I ask Tilston about her upbringing – Steve Tilston is her father – and what it was like being in such a creative household. She discusses the year ahead and how her new material differs from her previous work. Tilston discusses certain album tracks like Fish Tank and its origins; the sort of imagination and stories that compelled the record’s best moments and the advice she would offer to new songwriters coming through.
Hi, Martha. How are you? How has your week been?
Hi. Well, this week has been pretty busy as we are getting ready to fly to Australia for a tour. But, we are all super-excited: especially the kids who I kind of promised we would see a kangaroo. We will be there for six weeks… we’re bound to, right…?
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?
My name is Martha Tilston. I am a mother and singer-songwriter. Nice to meet you.
Nomad Blood is your new track. I love the title of that. Where does that originate from and do you consider yourself nomadic?
I wonder if we are all nomads at heart – even if it’s just to get away for two weeks in the summer.
There is something so old and important about travelling some distance with the ones you love to see different skies; talk to each other in a different way; cook outside; connect and look at the stars again.
Where are you based at the moment? I know you have recorded down in Cornwall. How influential is the county/countryside in regards your creative process?
I live in Cornwall – it’s a very special place to me; this county down in Penwith, particularly. I love standing on the big granite rocks on top of Zennor Hill. It’s where, as a child, I remember first feeling the beauty of being small in something big – a passer-by in nature – which seems to know so much more than we do, if we would listen.
The video seemed like it was a great and interesting experience. What was the concept behind that and do you enjoy the video-making side of music?
Thanks, it was fun. The concept was just for me to learn my lines again (I tend to let songs evolve when I play them live so I had to remember how the recording went). Then, we just drove and sang to the track until we got to one of my favourite secluded beaches. I knew we had to make a fire and the rest just happened naturally.
I do enjoy making videos: I used to be an actress and I really like playing with the intimacy of the camera and being experimental.
You lauded (director) Beccy Strong’s bonhomie and free-spirit (when filming the video). Did you bond with Beccy instantly and what it is about the setting/concept that was such fun? You two going to work together again?
Just over a year ago, I had an idea to make the music programme that I would really like to see. So, I got some of my favourite songwriters from all over the country to come to a cliff-side cottage in Cornwall – with a grand piano and a roaring fire. Everyone passed the guitar around and it was magic – we somehow managed to capture some of the best performances I have ever see on film. Well, Beccy was a friend of the producer (Gillian Burke) and Gillian said we should get Becks down to take stills and some backup footage – we hit it off straight away. The film is called the Kernow Sessions (Kernow – Cornish for ‘Cornwall’). Beccy has an amazing eye and she is very encouraging. I will definitely work with her again: in fact, we are doing more stuff at the moment….
Little Arrow forms part of the double A-side. What is that song about and what as the idea behind a double A-side? It is quite rare to do, don’t you agree?
I guess things are changing so much at the moment, in so many ways, that it feels right to try new things. Little Arrow is to help guide us through loss: all the pain that comes with being human and having souls (and not being robots).
But, left out in the rain, I know which of us will rust first.
This is a song about (when) you lose someone close to you and they would have been the person whose advice you would seek – but now they are not here anymore. However, if you look inside, you may sense which direction they would point you in – you don’t have to follow the little arrow and sometimes it is spinning around. But, like a compass, it tends to settle down on a direction. Me and my siblings have to look for that little arrow a bit more now.
Nomad Blood is taken from the forthcoming NOMAD. It is out on 12th May. What kind of things are included in the release in terms of themes and genres?
Oooh….themes that float like wood-smoke round a fire: themes of moving and looking out; big green moons of forgiveness; loss and guidance; utter joyous love; saucy dreams; despair at what a mess we are making of things in the world. Faith that somewhere on this blue pearl we will find some helpful answers.
I believe the album was born out of recording sessions of 2014’s much-praised, The Sea. It is almost a Radiohead-like creative process (recording Amnesiac’s songs whilst laying down Kid A). How much of the album was written back then and how much of the new record is brand-new?
The framework of half the songs came together in the after recording sessions of The Sea (in Cornwall). I would start cooking dinner then our lovely Mr. Matt Tweed would put down his bouzouki and pick up his electric double bass. The wonderful Nick Marshall would stand in his corner of amps and valves and put down his acoustic guitar; fire up his 1960s amp and pick up his electric. Tim Cotterell did some banjo, fiddle and mandolin magic. I would leave the dinner to burn whilst I played some very new and raw songs. We would jam them through recording (at the same time) and try and catch that early magic.
And, because we weren’t taking it so seriously, there is a natural raw, honest and playful vibe that spilt out onto the microphones. For a while, it was called Backstage at the Aquarium. Ha! I do love that title but it’s not the most-catchy. Later, we had lush musical additions from the rest of our talented crew – Matt Kelly, Robin Tyndale-Biscoe; Cate Ferris, Johnny Lamb; Camilo Tirado, Luke Parker – and we put it all together at our studio in Falmouth. Thanks to Matt Tweed (producer) and Robin (mastering engineer)!
NOMAD is quite an experimental album that draws Country, Folk and Rock together with Pop and Acoustic. Who are the artists that inspire this wide-ranging musicianship and ambition?
Probably everyone I have ever felt a connection to musically. Here’s a few that pop to mind:
Gillian Welsh, Kate Bush; Portishead, Jason Isbell; Willy Nelson…
All my contemporaries on the underground songwriter scene: Nathan Ball, Carrie Tree; Nuala Honan and, of course, my dad the fantastic songwriter, Steve Tilston; the late Maggie Boyle… and all the others I will think of – just after I have submitted this interview.
Can you tell us about any musicians/producers you are working with on NOMAD? Any of The Sea’s personnel make their way onto this new record?
I think I might have covered this in my ramblings earlier. Matt Tweed, my wonderful friend and producer, worked on this album (Nomad) and The Sea – along with Nick Marshall, Tim Cotterell; Matt Kelly and Robin Tyndale-Biscoe.
A couple of the songs have caught my imagination seductively. Climbing Gates looks at the conquests musicians face. Can you go into more depth about the idea behind that track and the relevance it holds?
Thank you so much for asking about that song – in some ways, it’s the most pertinent for me.
I have grown-up around touring musician and artist parents so, when my heart led me to follow the artistic path, it was, in some ways, a natural direction. But I know musician friends who really struggle with the financial uncertainty and perhaps feeling the pressure to get a ‘proper’ job.
These days, it is increasingly hard to marry art, integrity and wage together. The reality, of course, of following the artistic path is fraught with uncertainty: a good dose of poverty, glorious life-enriching moments and a lot of doubt.
I wish those in the seats of power remember to fund the arts and assist artists so they can question, sooth; bring light and frustrate us all forever. Because, if we are all supposed to buy into the ‘real world’ – well the real world is looking increasingly unreal – leave us the option to fly up and look at life from different perspectives and to share that perspective. We need it now more than ever.
Fish Tank is, perhaps, the one that stands out strongest. It looks at the return of self-confidence and the experiences you have faced as a woman in music. Do you feel you would have been afforded more attention and opportunities were you a male? What is modern music like for a young woman? Do you think there need to be changes made to the way women are treated?
I was just going to answer this one before I went to bed – but it’s a whopper of a question. I shall go to sleep and tackle this in the morning to give it my best. Night night…
…well it’s been two days, so I should answer it now….
Your question is interesting and I could have written so many words on this topic but it seems the question is wider than just about the music industry and gender. I will try to distill it down to a few words:
Male and females work so well together as equals and we will do again. When this happens, it will be great for creativity (of all types) as well as the world as a whole.
Before concluding, I want to look at your childhood and family. Your father is Steve Tilston and Maggie Boyle your stepmother. John Martyn was a frequent visitor to the family dinner table. I guess you were always going to be a musician, right? How important are your parents to your career and what was it like seeing such legends come into the family home?
My mum is a wonderful artist and a free spirit along with my theatre director stepdad. They did most of the bringing-me-up in a beautiful-crazy house in South West London – full of kids and actors, chickens and cats – and Joni Mitchell spinning on the record player.
I did also spend a proportion of my childhood at my father and stepmother’s house in Bristol (then Yorkshire). Dad is a fantastic songwriter and he had a spine-tingling duo with my stepmum singer, Maggie Boyle. We used to tag-along with them to festivals and Folk clubs, sometimes.
They also played with Bert Jansch and John Renbourne (amongst others) so I was around all these fantastic players. It seeped into me, I guess, and it is wonderful to look back and think what a rich tapestry of life it was.
You have shared the stage with Damien Rice and Kate Tempest. You’ve played Glastonbury and featured on Zero 7’s album, Yeah Ghost. In addition, you have released seven albums on your Squiggly Records label. What has been the highlight and your career and where do you find the energy to do everything you do?!
We have just had a pretty amazing response at Port Fairy Festival in Australia so that springs to mind. Every bit of this journey has all been wonderful – even the obstacles – but nothing quite comes close to when I first started out: playing until dawn in the lantern-lit Bedouin tent on the Small World (Solar) Stage to a couple-of-hundred folks drinking brandy hot chocolate and feeling like some kind of magic was floating around with the wood smoke.
In addition to new music, you are on the road. You play London’s King Place on 18th May. You have a lot of dates coming up (playing down my way on 9th June). Which dates are you looking forward to and do you enjoy touring?
Bristol, Birmingham; Yorkshire, Falmouth (our hometown these days). All of it!
If you had to select the three albums that have meant most you; which would they be and why?
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love – because it reminds me of Sophie and Dad and the tingle of music that makes you imagine (you are) running up a hill.
Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark – because I see my mum lifting the needle into place on the record and, as the album crackles into life, she’s dancing around the sitting-room in her tasselled skirt – and I am about ten years old – and we’re singing “ Help me/I think I’m falling in love again…”
Ray LaMontagne – Till the Sun Turns Black – because I fell in love to this album
Who are the new artists you recommend we investigate?
Have you any advice for songwriters coming through at the moment?
(To) tell the truth, enjoy every bit of your path; help others on theirs.
Avoiding politics in your art is quite a political thing to do.
Finally, and for being a good sport, you can select any song you like and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
Kate Bush – Cloudbusting
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