Blue Sea, Red Sea
The track, Blue Sea, Red Sea, is available via:
6th November, 2018
IT has been a while since I last reviewed Billie Marten…
with a deep and curious pen! Isabella Tweddle (Billie Marten) is back with new material and, ahead of her second album, it gives me the chance to compare and contrast. The last time I gave her a proper investigation was about a year ago and, in her world, a lot has changed. I will talk about development and maturity; the nature of the sound she produces; how colours seem to be pivotal in terms of emotional expression; Folk and how she still leads young singer-songwriters; how emotional revelation and honesty can bond songwriter with performer; a bit about Marten’s future and how her style of music is a beautiful contrast to what is out there. One will forgive any sloppy errors in this review as I am currently suffering from sore muscles...or something like that. My rib cage is aching and it is hard to bend at the moment; like I have been given a good beating but have, in fact, been sitting down a lot. I cannot blame old age (…as I am thirty-five) or anything ‘naughty’. It is a bit of a mystery but, luckily, Billie Marten’s music is providing balm and comfort. There is a lot of great music out there in the world and, more and more, artists are competing against a packed environment; doing everything they can to get ahead and get their music noticed. There are many things to love about Billie Marten – I shall bring more of them in later. I was one of the first to get to Writing of Blues and Yellows (I make it sound like I was the first cop on the scene of an R.T.C.) and marvel at its profound beauty and maturity. The then-school-age Marten had released this album into the world without trumpeting, the carnival of modern promotion and any sort of ego. This was a strikingly talented, if modest and shy, young artist who had collected together original songs (bar one cover right at the end) and, yeah, that was it. Such a lack of fuss and hoopla might have been a dangerous move in 2016 but, wonderfully, it harked back to what music should be about: an artist going in with a proper album of brilliant music without the need to rinse it through the digital wringer!
What I loved about the album – and was keen to highlight in my review – was the sheer grace and beauty of Marten’s voice. One could hear little elements of other singers but, largely, it was the Yorkshire-based songwriter being pure to who she was. Tracks like Emily and Heavy Weather are, remarkably, still in my head and I cannot get over the rousing beats of Green; the images one provokes when listening to Teeth (Marten, one suspects, pouring her heart out on the piano in a quiet room) and the fabulous little oddities about the album – I think, at one stage, one can hear her dad mowing the lawn in the background! Marten’s music, like my writing to an extent, rewards those with patience and the desire to listen to music without skipping and being distracted. I was appalled critics did not place Writing of Blues and Yellows in their end-of-year top-fifty countdown. Some pretty crap albums made some lists – whatever tat Robbie Williams had that year broke The Sun’s top-fifty! – but I did not see Marten’s name come up! It was a shame and I wonder why that is (she did not make the lists). She was, I think, sixteen at the time so maybe the naivety of youth was a consideration; the songs did not explode and pop the same way Beyoncé did on Lemonade. She was not a mainstream artist and there was not these endless promotional spots on T.V. and radio. What one got, instead, was a pure Folk/Singer-Songwriter album in the spirit of Nick Drake’s Bryter Later, John Martyn’s Solid Air or Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Marten, after the album was released, toured around the world and allowed the songs to resonate and romance. What has happened in the distance between the debut revelation and this modern day?! Well, in terms of sound, as I shall explore, there have been minor additions but that reliable Marten gold remains pure and bountiful as it did back in 2016. The biggest change, oddly, is the lack of radical change. I half-suspected a lack of widespread critical bosom would lead Marten into a dark corner: reinventing herself as an Electronic artist or producing the same sort commercial Pop one would get from Rita Ora or Dua Lipa or going a bit mental.
Typical of a woman who keeps her roots, family and musical ethics close to her soul and warm; her first ‘new’ single, Mice, arrived a few weeks back and, as I drew breath worrying she might have gone a bit Ora-ble and Pop-y; Marten, wonderfully, was the same girl we’d always known (a White Stripes pun/switch), albeit it one with a more matured voice and a new story to tell. Now, on Blue Sea, Red Sea, Marten has delivered another gem from the as-yet-untitled sophomore L.P. The teenager is someone whose music puts one in mind of classic songwriters and you can imagine her, in this digital age, writing music/lyrics on paper, reading an assortment of her favourite books and composing music, largely, the same way my idols like Kate Bush and Jeff Buckley would have done back in the day: some crutches of the studio but, true to them, the analogue warmth and something simpler. I would not have minded were Marten to go a bit Electronic – I think she could produce something akin to James Blake and be able to pull that off – but we might get something like that in her album. The most striking aspect of Marten, in 2018, is her artwork and looks. Writing of Blues and Yellows (and covers for singles from the album) were art pieces; beautifully designed images that had a romance, Parisian edge (strange, but I always think Marten would be happiest in a Paris apartment with art on the wall and a record player in the corner) and something striking. Promotional images of the songwriter saw that long blonde hair hang and a slightly shy, if intrigue, look present. It was a homely, modest and élégant teen who stuck out against many of her peers – who were flouting flesh, pouting and trying to thrust their image down the throat. The hair is still long and blonde but, with a little lick of rebellion, I notice a nose ring. The young woman we fell for on Bird (Writing of Blues and Yellows) seems different, physically, to the one we hear now. Not that Marten has gone full-bold and tattooed herself and shaved her head but it is a nice touch to show she is still the same person but there is something new. Similarly, promotional images for her singles Mice and Blue Sea, Red Sea, see water play a role. Mice’s cover is Marten in a lake with wet hair and a focused look; images around her latest cut see insects on her face and this rather alluring/haunted look (it truly does combine the two). Whilst we are not hearing a reinvention akin to David Bowie in the 1970s or Madonna in the 1990s; Marten has evolved in some areas and is, as you’d expect, reflecting who she is as a woman.
This visual and physical evolution does not, as I say, mean the music has compromised its ethnicity and dynamic. One listens to Blue Sea, Red Sea and trace a line to the debut-era Marten. What is most obvious about the music is the lack of change. That might sound contradictory but attention, a couple of years and an altered lifestyle/routine has not lead Marten down a wrong path. She is, as I imagined, a woman who still writes in her bedroom and loves curling in with a good book when the rain lashes against the window but there are touches here and there. For instance, as I shall explore more; the lyrics have kept the same narrative voice (in the sense that they are personal songs on a common theme) but her linguistic mindset has changed. It is hard to explain but there is something more striking and urgent about the words. On Writing of Blues and Yellows, there were tales of doomed heroines and something tragic but there was the poetry of weather and a lightness that suggested, when all the excrement hits the fan, the heroine could get out into the Yorkshire air and find sanctuary. Maybe she could be warmed by her mother’s embrace or, after all the emotion has come out, she could find some light. Not that there is fatalism in the modern work of Marten but the passing of time has not provided much relief and release for Marten. One might feel a raising profile and the relief of a well-received debut would have afforded her some happiness – and I know she is grounded and satisfied in life – but the writer is as raw and open as she was a couple of years ago. Water and other images make their way into the music more; there are slightly starker lines here and there but the same woman – slightly older but the same Billie Marten we love – is here.
The biggest regret would have been for Marten to change who she is, musically, or let any sense of personal struggle affect her progression. I mention how her music is as honest as ever but she has added new elements into the work. I associate Writing of Blues and Yellows with the homemade sound, a sparseness; a combination of piano, guitar and voice with a few other elements thrown in (some strings here and there with some percussion). There were some backing vocals (by Marten) but, largely, it was a Folk-based album that framed the vocals more than anything. I think now, more than anything, the lyrics are in the spotlight more and the music/vocal side of things has evolved. Maybe Marten wants the power of the words hit more than the beauty of her voice because, when I listen to Blue Sea, Red Sea, the images and personal poetry stand out most. There are new sonic touches (new instruments and the production sounds is slightly bolder; backing vocals more striking) and it was important for Marten not to repeat herself but keep her core intact. Colour is important when it comes to Billie Marten’s music. Her debut album, obviously, has yellow and blue in the title and, to me, that seemed to represent fear/sunshine and unhappiness/the open sky. Other songs seemed to have that pastoral and riparian colour scheme. You could smell the Yorkshire countryside and its bloom but, when the lights were dimmed, the colours of Billie Marten were splayed onto the page. That might sound wanky/psychotic but she writes as an artist thinks. By ‘artist’, I mean one who paints. Rather than define her music in thematic and emotional terms; colour and visions seem to guide her mind; much in the same way visionaries such as David Bowie used to think. Not only were colours overtly references on her debut but her latest single talks of a red and blue sea. I will talk more of interpretation and symbolism then but, instantly, Marten is using colours to make one think and project. I think the ‘red’ could refer to blood or stillness and the blue to escape or depression. Rather than give us long titles (no song she has put out into the world has employed more than four words); she is keeping them brief (cryptic and oblique too) and letting the colours themselves do the talking.
PHOTO CREDIT: Liz Seabrook
One thing that stunned me when listening to Billie Marten back in 2016 was how honest and lacking in pretence she was. Given the fact she was (and is) a teen could have meant an avalanche of modern slang, technology and lyrics that focused on sex. Maybe we might get some more salacious on her new album – a new/old/same boy in the scene; the growing woman exploring her physical side more – but it was the charm and earnestness that got to me. You wanted to give Marten a hug and a cup of tea and talk with her; tell her it was all going to be okay and listen to records with her. That sound odd but, without meeting her, I felt like I knew who she was and what makes her tick. I think we share musical obsessions (I actually bought John Martyn and Jeff Buckley vinyl I was going to send her but never did…) in terms of those classic singer-songwriters. We both have various psychological barriers – I am older but, as creatives, our minds are wired the same – and Marten’s quirkiness and humour is something that seems to set her aside from the copy-and-paste, rank-and-file artists that are being rolled out. Although colour and texture are prominent features in her music, the true personality of the songwriter is not disguised. Marten makes references (on Blue Sea, Red Sea) to wishing her mum could come and pick her up. Mice was influenced by a rainy and horrible day where she sat on a bench (in a graveyard, I believe?) and let everything out. Whilst Isabella Tweddle the daughter/student/northern star goes through depression and has struggles; at the end of it, can giggle with delight when seeing an alpaca (she has a love of those) and get excited by the emergence of Christmas; that is not filtered and dressed in fake clothing. The woman away from the microphone is not different to the one behind it. Marten is as raw and revealing in her music as anyone I have heard. You can tell she thinks deeply and has to wrestle demons but she does no use subterfuge and ambiguity when expressing these feelings.
There are more and more songwriters coming out talking about their emotions and issues – once was the day when it was considered taboo. Marten is frank regarding her struggles but she mixes it together with romance, literature and the comfort of home. Back in 2016, I had never heard anyone like Billie Marten. There were/are young female singer-songwriters like Lucy Rose and Julia Jacklin but the unique scent of Billie Marten is impossible to match. I have seen, in the ensuing two years, a lot of artists trying to get together their own version of tender, spellbinding and emotionally true music. Some have made a gallant effort but, again, there is nothing out there like Billie Marten! This is wonderful to see but I think it is that reflective and un-distilled revelation that makes her such a stunning artist. Even though her second album is not out and the songwriter is tender in years; she has come on leaps and bounds and proven herself to be one of the best young artists in the world. Look at what is out there at the moment and you get nothing quite like Billie Marten. I am hooked on Muse’s new album, Simulation Theory, and it is light years away from Marten. Although songs like Pressure are funkier than out of date milk in Nile Rodgers’ fridge; it does not have the same impact and emotional effect of Marten’s music. I can hear a lot of solo Pop/Folk artists who open their hearts and minds but they lack the same combination and chemistry as Marten. That immediate beauty and distinct accent; the sophistication and accessibility of her lyrical palette and the way her compositions act like characters and voices in a novel are to be applauded. No other songwriter, in my view, can combine those aspects as consistently and effectively as Billie Marten.
I have mentioned how depression and anxiety are coming into music more...and I will not dwell for too much longer. It would be easy for Marten to write about the rush of passion or the cheating liars who have broken her heart and appeal to the commercial mindset – but that is not who she is. Maybe she has experienced that recently (I hope not) but her songs are largely about her. Writing of Blues and Yellows dealt with third-person narratives in some songs but, in every moment, I felt like these characters and scenes were projections and sides of Marten herself. Maybe the biggest change from her debut is the greater personalisation of her music. Maybe songs – on the debut album – like Bird, La Lune and Emily talked of other bodies but, listening hard, and I feel it is a way for Marten to talk about herself without being too obvious and personal. It seems the two songs we have heard from her upcoming album have stripped away those layers and provided something clearly personal and direct – much in the same way Teeth did on her debut. This year has been a busy and eventful one in music and I feel the biggest impression has been made by female artists. Aside from stunning albums from the likes of IDLES – I feel Joy as an Act of Resistance will top everyone’s end-of-year polls – it has been a year for female artists to shine and strike. From Christine and the Queens to Anna Calvi and Cardi B to Kacey Musgraves; it is all about the strength and personality of the best female artists around. Marten’s debut was overlooked by some back in 2016 but I feel her unflinching honesty and artistic brilliance cannot be overlooked now. Many have already expressed their love and affection for Mice and reviews are coming through for Blue Sea, Red Sea. It would be a foolish reviewer who went in to reviewing her second album with preconceptions, naivety and any sort of negative comments.
Things start a lot more quickly and urgently than many might be used to. With some bass and a spirited acoustic strum; Blue Sea, Red Sea has that sense of weight and momentum without much flirtation. One actually gets a sense of the waves tumbling and the water churning as Marten, against the grumble and speed of the strings, provides some gravity and comfort. It is amazing to hear her pure and smoky voice contrasted against the composition. It is impossible to deny the sheer wonder of the voice but one can never ignore the lyrics! I have studied her work for a while and the way she employs language and presents images is exceptionally impressive. Here, somewhat unexpectedly, she plugs herself into someone else’s eyes; walks in their shoes and sees the world through their eyes. She likes what she sees and, at once, you get the sense Marten is at sea and lost. Maybe she has gone through a bit of a funk and cannot regain that spirit but she wants to recharge and come back. The heroine is a content fish in a blue sea and swimming along merrily. Rather than sympathise and wish she could get this release and happiness; Marten does not want anyone to love her and feel sorry. Gorgeously backed by (her own) vocals – to create this wave-like beauty and serenity – you feel like the heroine is comfortable in her skin but she needs her distance and time alone. The chorus employs wordless vocals (a series of “la la las”) and there is a delicious combination of strings and bass. My musical anatomical dissection is a little lax but you can hear a nice grumble splice with the skip of acoustic guitar. One can imagine Marten floating in the sea and there is no harm in sight. Maybe it is a rather casual and detached way to a feeling of stress and unhappiness but the heroine is by herself and dealing with her issues the way she wants to.
After the interjection of wordlessness; we see snow falling heavy and the need for her mum to come and get her. You can imagine Marten covered in snow and looking unhappy; waiting for familiar headlights to hove into view and rescue her. Whereas she talked about a blue sea and the warmth and solitude of moving in her own way; she wants the tranquillity and stillness of a red sea (maybe the Red Sea itself?) so she can feel that weightlessness and not sink. In an instant, you get a clear view: the blue sea is her underwater and feeling submerged whereas a red sea allows her that safety and she will never sink. Maybe I have jumped the gun but that is how it came together in my mind. Marten, still, does not want people picking on her with their sympathies and concerns. I love the backing vocals and how they heighten the song; the echoing and twanging strings and how she has introduced subtle new elements into the work. It is hard to suggest any improvements in the composition – I yearn for the piano – but there are lovely little sounds that come through as the song evolved. Marten wants to make friends with the angels and, whilst it sound fatalistic; there is that desire to be on her own plain and get away from all the crap the world is delivering her. Above all, that need to feel secure and not bombarded is most striking. As she did on so many songs on Writing of Blues and Yellows – including Bird, Heavy Weather; Hello Sunshine and It’s a Fine Day – weather and the sensations of nature are impinging her mood. On her debut album; you got the sense the Yorkshire countryside acted as safe space for her to wander and breathe. She has always used the weather and nature to act as symbols and characters. Few songwriters are as influenced by their surroundings as Billie Marten. She can be honest and revealing through her music but, at every stage, the natural world and its power plays a big part. It is another remarkable offering from Billie Marten that shows she has updated and pushed her sound forward but will not alienate people. The core elements remain but there are new instruments and little touches into the blend; a familiar lyrical bent but told in a fresh way. The extra exposure and attention she has been afforded after the success of Writing of Blues and Yellows could have changed her but, luckily, the young artist is keeping it real and very much her.
I have taken up a lot of your time so, before it gets dark and chilly; I will wrap things up and get down to it. Check out Billie Marten’s social media pages – all the links are at the foot of this review – and you can see she will be on the road. She is on BBC Radio 6 Music next week (performing for Lauren Laverne, I think) and she will be gigging in the capital (I am keen to see/meet her). The best thing about where she is now is the opportunities she has in front of her. She is supporting Isaac Gracie and Villagers and radio stations such as BBC Radio 1, 2 and 6 Music have spun her music. Marten is not an artist who appeals to a narrow sector: her universal lyrics and connection with the listener transcends age and language barriers and, as such, it seems like 2019 will be busy. I am not sure when her album is due – I suspect it is early-2019 – but there will be more gig demands and possibilities. Marten’s song, Live (as in ‘to live’ rather than ‘play live on the stage’) might have confused some with its homonymic brevity but the heroine wanted to break free and travel across Europe; take some time out and chill. The two years between the release of her debut and the new material has not been idle. She has travelled and performed and spent a lot of time reflecting on her life and trying to make music that pushes her work forward but remains honest to whom she is. That is a hard act to balance and kudos to Marten for achieving that. I am not certain whether Blue Sea, Red Sea and Mice are clear indicators of her sophomore sound but it will be interesting to see. I can envisage Marten playing in the U.S. – she would go down a storm on the West and East coasts – and more of Europe. I am not sure what she is like with long-haul flights but I can also see her conquer Melbourne and Sydney; taking her sounds around the world and seeing new faces. Maybe some would say the emotional rawness and sense of vulnerability in Billie Marten’s would put off some and appear a bit jarring. In fact, we are drawn to her more and can find something familiar and inspiring in her words (an artist being so honest with us); a songwriter who is not willing to compromise and wants to connect with the listener on a very deep and meaningful level. Although Billie Marten has changed slightly – the nose ring and a slightly different look on single covers – it is the same warm and charming woman we have grown to know and love! I am not sure when another single will come but we have the brilliant Blue Sea, Red Sea. Away from the evil of Donald Trump and environmental strain; the divisions in the country and all the horror we have seen in the news; above all of this madness and unhappiness, it is good to have Billie Marten...
MAKING it all seem better.
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