PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Silvester
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
The track, Betsy, is available via:
13th March, 2019
PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Silvester
The album, Feeding Seahorses by Hand, is available from 26th April, 2019.
Sony/Chess Club Records
I do not need much of an excuse to review...
PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Adam
Billie Marten - but it always helps when she continues to bring out such great music. In a way, I have been following her career for a few years and sort of seen this maturation and blossoming. She has turned from this newcomer teen who was writing about her life and feelings and now, on her second album, there is a more outward perspective. I will start off with that and then, in a bit, look at female artists vs. male artists in 2019; Folk and why it is a genre that is burning hard; changing your life and absorbing new experiences/influences; recording processes and how the best albums can come down pretty quickly – a bit about Marten and where she is heading. It is quite wonderful seeing this songwriter go from strength-to-strength and, as I say, I have known about her music since she was sixteen. Her debut album, Writing of Blues and Yellows, arrived in 2016 and I instantly fell in love with it. In a year where we had albums from Beyoncé and David Bowie, Marten’s debut remains my favourite. It is a gorgeous and spine-tingling collection of songs that address her life but also a definite ambition. I still adore the record and play it often; listening to that unique voice and how she can paint these incredible scenes. Songs such as Emily and Heavy Weather are incredible and instant – you cannot believe you are listening to someone so young! It will take a big effort to shift that album from my mind and when her second album, Feeding Seahorses by Hand, comes out next month, maybe it will not be as instant. The reason I say that is because Writing of Blues and Yellows has stayed in my heart and I can identify with the young woman writing. Marten was making sense of anxiety and her life but doing so in a very original and spectacular way. It is only natural that, a few years later, Marten would change and her dynamic would be a little different.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
I will talk about her new life situation but, on her sophomore release, there is a greater need to look at the outside world and absorb what is happening right now. Betsy is the lead-off single from Feeding Seahorses by Hand – a bit confusing as she has already released two tracks from the album – maybe this is the first ‘official’ single – and Betsy is a great blend of what we know of Marten already (in terms of her style and voice) but the lyrics are definitely fresh. I know there will be Writing of Blues and Yellows-like songs on her new album but there is a lot more of the world-observing young woman who needs to put it onto paper. It is a trend that is defining this year and, as I will show in a bit, it is mainly female songwriters doing this. Maybe it is me being soppy and sentimental but I was not quite willing to let go of the Yorkshire-based artist at her family home; the teen who was quirky and comfortable surrounded by beautiful geography and recording music at home. In many ways, one felt like they were at Billie Marten’s home in 2016 and could picture the scenes. Because of that, Writing of Blues and Yellows had this real sense of the physical and evocative. Even though a lot of the songs had a downbeat nature, Marten mixed that with songs of light; she was looking to other lands and seeing where her life might head in a few years. Three years after her debut album, a lot has changed for Marten. The Yorkshire-born artist is no longer there and, when looking at her publicity photos, there is something a bit different and changed. This is natural but, as I said, I have a fondness for the debut-album Marten and how that album makes me feel. I have noticed something interesting about female artists and how they differ from the men in 2019.
I am going to write about it in more detail this weekend but there is a definite split between the male and female perceptive in modern music. Some critics have noticed how the men of music are more boring and writing about their personal lives. Aside from more exciting options like Sam Fender, we have something rather tepid from the largely bearded and acoustic guitar-strumming alternatives. I will name no names but there is a feeling that male artists in 2019 are more concerned with following acts like Ed Sheeran and creating something more commercial and far less challenging. It is not the case that every single male artist is quite dull and lacks ambition but I do feel like there is this divide. Listen to the male crop and there is so much of the same thing bubbling around. Not a lot of it resonates and says anything important. Female artists, on the other hand, are producing something more interesting. This is even the case when we talk about the Pop mainstream. Listen to other artists, though, like Julia Jacklin, Lucy Rose; Billie Marten, Sharon Van Etten and Self Esteem and they are reflecting the world beyond their bedroom. It is no coincidence that albums but Van Etten, Jacklin and Little Simz are seen as some of the best from this year so far – because of what they are talking about and how important their words are! I am not sure whether all of Feeding Seahorses by Hand is all going to be political and impersonal but you know there will be that charm and Marten touch. Songs we have already heard – Mice and Blue Sea, Red Sea – are more about personal struggles and what is going on in her life. Betsy is, as she explained, more about a political feeling and something rotten in the country. This CLASH feature included a quote from Marten regarding the song:
“It was the first time I’d tried jamming with someone and had the pressure of writing instant, spontaneous lyrics. They poured out actually, it’s about confronting a politician, no one in particular, but sort of ridiculing them. I liked the idea of using number 9 instead of 10. I didn’t want the big political stance, and I didn’t want to single out a specific human, it’s representing parliament as a whole institution really.”
“The song turns the wise old politician into a child, infantilising them takes away their power. I think most people feel a bit unsafe with it all, because it’s impossible relate to these characters. No one shows any personal weakness or empathy, and if they do, they’ve already cracked”.
It is amazing seeing how the sixteen-year-old Marten who was writing about the need to break from where she was and discussing stresses in her life and changed her lyrical perspective and is now tackling politicians and the way they run this nation. Alongside Rich Cooper, Betsy is a track that definitely has something to say and seems to be following closely to the best female artists of today. I am not sure why there is this split regarding themes and musical depth but maybe there is this feeling that male solo artists cannot write politically or need to be more commercial. Artists like Sam Fender are the exception but maybe the words are more potent and intelligent coming from female artists. Whatever the reasons, I am seeing this contrast and I feel 2019 is going to be defined by the female voice. Since Billie Marten released her debut album, a few other singer-songwriters of similar voice – nobody is quite as mesmeric as her – have come along. Lucy Rose is the closest example and it will be interesting to see how Marten’s forthcoming album compares to Lucy Rose’s No Words Left. It is clear Marten is more comfortable jamming and writing lyrics on the spot now. Before, she would often write in her room and craft lyrics in quiet. In many ways I prefer that vision and young woman but I realise people change and, if it leads to terrific music, then one must let go of that romantic vision. The slightly older Marten is still the same but city life has changed her perspective and process. I am glad she has a new album out and I was worried whether we might have to wait until later in the year to hear anything. I do think it is these fantastic young women who are shaping music this year and delivering the biggest records. I must move onto Folk and Singer-Songwriter genres and cover them a little bit.
Before I mention that, I must nod to Billie Marten’s song titles and how they grip you before you even hear them. I am still hearing so many artists who write boring titles and they seem very samey. On Writing of Blues and Yellows, songs like Heavy Weather, Teeth and La Lune stood out and sort of gave you an impression before you heard the songs. On Feeding Seahorses by Hand, we have songs like Cartoon People, Blood Is Blue; Vanilla Baby and Boxes. In some ways, Marten is more an author creating chapters and mini-stories than a traditional songwriter. On her debut, I sort of felt this narrative but each song inhabited its own world and skin. Now, in 2019, it seems like there is a similar thing happening on her sophomore release. Maybe it is me but I think genres like Folk allow artists a bit more expression and sense of the literary. Pop, to me, seems about creating these bangers and tracks that will get in the head and make an instant impact. Even if Pop artists are being more personal, there is this more processed and soulless sound that doesn’t have the sort of depth and nuance you’d like. Other genres can create depth but I feel like Folk and Singer-Songwriter are the perfect choices. Here, artists can take the momentum down a bit and relax the energy. Billie Marten has always been great when it comes to letting listeners into her world and creating these amazingly rich and wondrous songs. Her peers such as Laura Marling and Lucy Rose do this too but I think Marten is a step above. One of my biggest fears when I knew Marten had moved to London and was growing a bit was that she would go electric or maybe add more Pop into her music. I would forgive her and many would have done that. Happily, she has not radically altered her debut sound and we still have the gorgeous voice at the centre and a similar vibe. If anything, she has become bolder as a composer and there is more electric guitar and other instruments in the mix – her debut largely revolved around acoustic guitar with percussion and piano (and some strings on a few songs).
PHOTO CREDIT: Liz Seabrook
Things have definitely changed for Marten and I do think that the music has evolved in a natural way. Rather than succumb to the temptation to go commercial or collaborate with a line of different singers, her core is solid and it means those who love her debut album (such as me) do not have to adapt too much. I do like the fact that the production sound is a little different to Writing of Blues and Yellows. It is a bit less intimate and a bit bolder. There is more electricity in the songs and, thematically, Marten is documenting the world about her and not quite as enclosed and homely as she once was. It is this maturation and sense of this young woman stepping out into the world. I am pleased to see there is a natural change between albums because repeating her debut album exactly would have been an unwise move. I did mention how this year will be about women in music and maybe it the way they look at life that leads me to believe this. I know bands like IDLES and Sleaford Mods have a political mind but you do not hear a lot of it from solo artists. It is hard to explain but I do feel a lot of male solo artists are more interested in commercial success and talking about matters of the heart. Whether they feel ill-equipped to pen songs about politics or they feel they need to follow the mainstream best, it is down to some great female artists to say something more relevant and important. Billie Marten sees what is happening in the country and is motivated to have her say and address her anger through songs. Even on her 2016 debut, she was conscious about the bigger picture and not beholden to being too personal and limited. It is the move to the capital that has compelled a lot of her new expressions and directions. She has said that, on her new album, she is unlearning a lot of what she learned on her debut.
Some of the best moments from Writing of Blues and Yellows were when you got the feeling you were at home with Marten. On It’s a Fine Day, the closing number, we could hear her dad mowing the lawn. It seemed like, on Teeth, we were in her living room and there was definitely an intimacy and feeling we were right inside Billie Marten’s life. Now that she has relocated, her process is different and her objectives have changed. Her lyrical talent remains but she has had to sort of write in a different manner – no longer in a cosy room in Yorkshire, the city-based Marten now has to get used to the different pace and feeling around her. I am not sure exactly why she moved to London but I get there was a feeling that she needed to be closer to the action and the commute to and from Yorkshire was a bit of a drag. If one looks at her Twitter and Instagram feeds, there is still the same quirky and charming Marten we are used to – especially when it comes to things like trying new food (I wonder if she is still fascinated by alpacas?!) – but there is a stronger, bolder and more resolute musician in her place. Marten packed her bags after finishing school and, rather than continue in higher education, she left the beauty and grace of Yorkshire to come to the more rushed and packed London. Working in a bar, she was able to observe the world passing by and, crucially, she found her feet before too long. Able to observe a greater demographic and more people, this inspired her music and outlook. A few songs on Feeding Seahorses by Hand look at political figures and how ridiculous they are but there is also the feeling that this young woman still feels a bit squashed by the city. Marten knows she is more aware of society than she was at fifteen – the then-Marten more engrossed in records and books – but she has retained that sense of intimacy and warmth that defined her debut.
Moving to London has also provided greater opportunity when it comes to personal and spaces. I believe she resides in East London but, in terms of producers and studios, there are greater options compared to somewhere like Ripon (where she used to live). Although a lot of the lyrics and music was written in London, Marten actually recorded a lot of the album in Ethan John’s Bath house. She recorded over this intense two-week period and worked in a way that was very different to her debut. In many ways, I sort of see Marten as a Kate Bush-like figure. Bush, on The Kick Inside, wrote the songs at home on her piano – some were written when she was as young as thirteen! There is this personal feel to the album and Bush allowed herself time to get the tracks write and make sure she had them all right when she headed to the studio. By her second album – or later in her career – she was writing more in the studio and recording in a very different way. In fact, when Bush was Marten’s age, she had just brought out The Kick Inside but already looking to work in a different manner. There is less need to have this perfect and polished sound: instead, Marten has created music that is honest, urgent and broader than what we are used to. Betsy has only been out a couple of days but is already delighting people and making an impact. I should move on and get to the song itself – as I have talked quite a bit. I hope, too, there will be some new photos uploaded to her social media because there is a split between the sixteen-year-old debut-look and how she appears now. She can still create striking art and images but there are different tones this time around – Writing of Blues and Yellow’s album and singles had actual painted images as their covers; a more homebound and intimate feel, as I say. Besty is the new song from Feeding Seahorses by Hand – or the ‘lead-off single’ as many have said – and it is a cracker.
PHOTO CREDIT: Victor De Jesus
Whereas a lot of songs from Writing of Blues and Yellows began with a gradual rise or some acoustic passage, Billie Marten is bringing percussion and force more to the fore. Maybe this reflects the album’s tonal shifts but I feel she is becoming bolder with her compositions. Betsy opens with this crackle from the drums and unexpected rush. Many might have been expecting a bit of guitar lick and piano tenderness but, no, there is this nice little spark that gets things going! In a way, there is this Country feel to the song. It is a soothing and languid in equal measures. There is this nice woozy electric guitar in the background that creates this sort of ripple and mood. Marten’s voice has a tired-but-seductive quality and it is almost whispered. This creates this wonderful mix of emotions and sounds that makes the song an instant winner. We know that Betsy is about an unnamed politician and a reflection of how, in some ways, the country is being torn by those in power. “Heard you got the job/Hope it serves you well” suggests a sort of sarcasm where politicians are in government for their own ends; a way of serving themselves and not the people. In this “coffee-ticket town”, it is only natural these people in power are not really concerned with the bigger picture: their voters and those who they are meant to be looking out for. Marten, as narrator, calls in at number nine and there is the feeling she will not get any truths. I mentioned how there is a sense of sarcasm but maybe cynicism is a better term. When we get to the chorus, there is this percussion rise but it is more the odd bit of cymbal and a more paced delivery. Rather than popping in big drum solos and packed sounds, there is this breezy and dreamy sound from the drums that gives this mixture of keen kick and lumbering vibe. “Take a generational bow” are words in the chorus and it makes me wonder where that came from.
Again, it seems like Marten is calling politicians out and getting them to bow to those they have let down – sort of mocking their lack of accomplishment and wondering what they are for. In that slightly breezy-cum-breathy sound, one can draw a line between Julia Jacklin and Billie Marten but there is something distinct about Marten’s words and how she delivers her songs. Even when Marten – as she does in the second verse – is talking about politicians corrupting and talking about death, there is this upward lilt in her voice and half-smile that keeps things being too heavy and haunted. The words are powerful and the second verse talks of leaders messing with heads and the church. These are deep ideas and expressions and Marten projects her words beautifully. There is no huge anger nor is there this sense of detachment. Instead, we have this artist who seems angered but has a weariness and sense of defeat. Whereas a lot of writers repeat choruses and have this very rigid approach to songwriting, Marten is different and ensures that her songs have movement and flow. “It’s wavy, man” she explains; the way she chooses her language is incredible! “Are you ruined by the shake of a hand?” is another line and, again, Marten showing she is so much more interesting than most songwriters. This mixture of oblique and tangible means the song strikes upon the first spin but you’ll want to go back and hear it again to see if the words paint new images. As percussion waves and clashes, Marten talks about the world and how it is no man’s toy. Things have changed and the glory days – perhaps as old as the 1990s – are behind us. Where are we heading and how far have we really come?! Billie Marten knows we are doing things wrong and is trying to make sense of it all. Rather than yell and be aggressive on the record, there is this sense she is tired by the machinations and lying; not having the strength to get worked up but she knows how bad things are and we need to do something. Betsy captivates from the start to the end and, in the outro, Marten sings “All feel better/This all feels better/So much better” and it has this mantra-like quality. The words are hypnotic and wave-like and take the song to a beautiful end. Betsy is a complex song and has layers but there is a definite truth. If Feeding Seahorses by Hand contains more songs like Betsy then critics will be drooling and it will be among the best albums of 2019 – something Billie Marten is fully capable of doing!
PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Silvester
We have heard three songs that will appear on Feeding Seahorses by Hand. There is more political and social awareness on the nineteen-year-old’s new album but Marten is still tackling self-doubt and anxieties – Blue Sea, Red Sea and Mice are prime examples of this. I cannot wait to hear the rest of the album and, as I say, the rest of the songs sound great. I love how she can create this anticipation with titles alone. If Writing of Blues and Yellows was about this teen in Yorkshire who was making sense of the world and seemed to be vibing from her record collection – a lot of classic Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley in her songs – the slightly older Marten is in a fresh setting and reflecting what is happening in London. She has been inspired, good or bad, by the mix of people and the pace of life (one feels getting crushed on the Underground will never inspire anything positive). It is amazing seeing how she has grown and how far she has come. Betsy is a song that shows how, in many ways, she has kept her true and distinct sound but really changed as a lyricist. Marten will tour the U.S. in May and returns to the U.K. to headline – beginning on 5th June in Birmingham before concluding on 13th June at London’s Islington Assembly. Check her social medic channels and official website for ticket details as, from 22nd March, they go on sale. Also make sure you pre-order Feeding Seahorses by Hand and get it on a cool, orange vinyl! I still maintain Billie Marten is the finest young songwriter we have right now and, despite new artists coming through since her 2016 debut, nobody has the same jewellery box as Marten. That brilliant voice and all the colours and gems she has at her disposal; the way she expresses her lyrics and that nuanced and multi-layered voice! I feel that the female voice will guide 2019 so would not be shocked if Feeding Seahorses by Hand cracks many top-ten lists come the end of this year. In many ways, critics omitted Writing of Blues and Yellows from their end-of-year lists and, given the fact the album picked up a slew of four-star reviews, it was a travesty! Let’s hope, when Feeding Seahorses by Hand arrives, the critics, come December, will not be...
PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Silvester
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PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Silvester
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