Wouldn’t it be refreshing to book a flight and spend a weekend inside somebody’s brain rather than picking a physical place on a map? This was the first thought I had after interviewing ethereal singer-songwriter Billie Marten. Billie pauses for longer than most before answering questions. At first I think it’s the dreaded Zoom lag before wondering if it comes from uncertainty, landing on the idea that the silences come from neither - instead they represent quiet confidence, a brain so quick and so full of sounds, smells, feelings that she wants to select the words that truly articulate what she’s trying to say.
Her delicate manner and soft voice could have Billie mistaken for a wallflower but, to the contrary, she carries herself as a strong woman who has taken the time to really get to know herself and the world around her. She’s come a long way from the Billie starting out who she claims had ‘no idea who I am’.
Her new album ‘Flora Fauna’ signifies her growth, not just as an artist but as a person - tracks feel lighter, more lively than her previous releases. Don’t get me wrong, they still exude that element of mystery that keep people wanting more - maybe that’s why I leave the interview wanting to pack a bag and fly to Billie’s bubble. Billie if you’re reading, I’ll be on the first flight.
Rachel Edwards: Hey Billie! I see you’re in the studio right now! Billie Marten: Yep!
R.E: Were you making music today? B.M: I’m trying to at the moment but it’s coming very slowly and quite tiredly... but it’s nice.
R.E: Have you been enjoying everything opening up again? B.M: Kind of... I’ve been to the pub a couple of times which is immediately where my mind goes when everything opens up. My life’s kind of stayed the same. We got the studio in lockdown, the album was done in lockdown, I signed to ‘Fiction’ in lockdown... so it’s kind of just normal living.
R.E: Do you feel like maybe lockdown helped creatively? B.M: Yeah absolutely, I loved it. When the world was called to stop I felt this immediate wave of relief. It was the beginning of March and at that point I wasn’t really working in music, I didn’t have a label and I’d got rid of management... I didn’t have an agent or anything, I was completely treading water at that point. It just felt like a really good time to look and assess and do that work that we’ve kind of all been ignoring this whole time.
R.E: Exactly. So your new album is called ‘Flora Fauna’ - what brought you to that title? What does it mean to you? B.M: Flora fauna encompasses everything - every plant life and every animal life and I just found it was a good label for this album because it’s a mish-mash of everything.There’s a lot of different subject matters and it’s definitely cohesive. They were all written in the same year, bar one or two and they’re all about a similar sort of feeling of regrowth and progression and accepting who you are.
R.E: Is that what your single ‘Creature of Mine’ is about? B.M: Yeah that one was more about me experimenting with songwriting and at the time I was in with Rich who’s my producer and we’d make these very basic song structures. Within twenty minutes I immediately had to get the lyrics out and the melody and form this entire song because it wasn’t an option for me to go away and mull over things and do it slowly which is how I normally do it. So these instantaneous, quite visual lyrics came out and I was very interested in singing to a different rhythm and always being on beat rather than floating around. That felt amazing, they’re all just experiments.
R.E: I love the dreamy nature of your voice. Do you remember your dreams?
B.M: Yes I remember specific dreams and my most recent one was full of wet cardboard boxes. And you know wet cardboard just disintegrates into chewy paper. It was just an alleyway of wet cardboard boxes... I don't know what that means.
R.E: I think you need to google this. We have to get to the bottom of this... I’m not sure even Google is going to come up with anything. B.M: (Laughs) I’ll speak to my therapist tomorrow.
R.E: Find out the deep underlying meaning. I also read that you love alpacas. I thought ‘Creature of Mine’ could have been about an alpaca... Are you any closer to getting one? B.M: Well, a couple of years ago I was driving around at home and didn't really have any plans. It was dusky time and people were coming back to their houses and then I came across this alpaca field. I pulled up at this woman’s farm and I was like ‘can I touch them?’ and then we just had this conversation about the shows that they’ve been doing and how they’re reared and what land they need and what food they need and it got so intense that I basically said I’ll take three of them. The thing is I have no land and it would be completely implausible. So then I took her number and said I’d call her but never did.
R.E: (Laughs) Maybe this is the next thing you’ll see in London, people taking their alpaca on a walk with a lead, you never know. B.M: I mean I’ve seen cats and girls with ferrets recently...
R.E: Yeah come to think of it I’ve seen some cats on leads. So you were thrown into the industry at such a young age, what would you say to younger Billie who’s just starting out in the industry? B.M: Say no all the time! I know you probably don’t know who you are right now but stop imitating other people. I did a lot of serious chameleoning and got all these cultural references from other people which is sometimes great because they’re like ‘have you read this book?’ or ‘have you seen this film?’ or ‘I’m really obsessed with this person’ which is really good but I did too literally take everything else on and by the end of the first album I was like ‘I have no idea who I am’.
R.E: I’m a verified people pleaser so I can resonate with what you’re saying. Would you say that you’re a people pleaser or maybe were before? B.M: I think weirdly it’s a paradox because when you try to actively stop pleasing people you actually please more people. I found that better people were coming into my life and worse people were leaving. Especially after lockdown I arrived at a very settled loving place and everything was safe and I was happy with everyone in my life and music was good. It was really a good, kind of profound year.
R.E: Yeah it sounds like a massively profound year for you. I was looking at the names on your new album and a lot of them seem to refer in some way to religion. Would you say you're religious or spiritual? B.M: My mum was always CV Christian and I was baptised and christened and all of that stuff. I used to go to church every Sunday as a kid but my dad is a strong atheist so together they never projected anything onto me. I was never forced into religion or anything. It was just interesting being on the inside and the outside. Eventually, as most kids do, you lose it a little bit and it becomes uncool or not important and I’m not okay with a lot of aspects of religion - I think it causes a lot of pain and suffering but there are important things I got from witnessing it and important mantras like ‘have a kind heart’ is something my mum always said to me. That’s something I got from that community. You don’t have to take everything literally and you don’t have to read the bible every day or whatever. The same as meditation - any aspect of religion is about core things.
R.E: Taking the values from it. B.M: I just like observing spaces and people and I think religion has always been tied to songwriting, and you’re always looking for something to thank and I was just tapping into that idea of what salvation or redemption actually is. Actually at the time I was dating a Buddhist punk and he used to get up and chant every morning and he took me to some of the meetings so I was heavily in this community for a very brief moment and it was obviously so far away from home. That song heaven came out of that, I was just observing someone else’s life and it was really interesting.
R.E: This sounds like an incredible experience. And you’ve spoken quite openly about toxic relationships. I think it’s something that so many people end up in at some point in their life. What advice would you give to someone who’s just left a toxic relationship and is trying to heal or get back to themself? B.M: It’s so difficult because it’s always a case by case thing. I guess in toxic relationships you are always wanting protection and for some reason it feels safe but it’s also very damaging. I think once we find an opportunity to escape something like that it’s literally about starting again and trying to heal your body physically. Making sure that you’re moving at an incredibly slow pace and I’m not saying that it’s an addiction in any way but like the addictive community you have to just go cold turkey for a long time before you can start introducing things back into your life. I think at the time it’s so hard to have a voice because, like the people pleasing thing, you’re always going to say yes and it’s all about trying to eradicate that passivity and being active about it.
R.E: I think that’s great advice, I really do. So many people want that instant fix because the pain is hard but it doesn’t work in the long run. Would you say you’re a romantic person? B.M: (Pause) Em, I don’t know... I think I am now but I wouldn’t say I’m classically romantic. I find weird things romantic.
R.E: (Laughs) What’s the weirdest thing you find romantic? B.M: I don’t know, why did I just drop myself in there? Not necessarily chivalrous things. Just people that know you and know things before they come out of your mouth. If you were in a shop they know what you’d buy and if you were a type of dog they know what you’d be. It’s an unspoken but very important thing.
R.E: What would you say is one book and one film that has inspired you? B.M: I’ve always loved ‘The God of Small things’ by Arundhati Roy. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I like writers that mix up the senses a little bit. She has this way of explaining things the way my mind works and I love that you can tap into a songwriter or a writer and they work how you work. So it’s a lot of synesthesia stuff and associating characters with colour or name and dates with things or things like that. She will say something like ‘they sounded like peaches’ or something.
R.E: And film? B.M: Well I’ve entered a really nice relationship and he’s very much into film so this past year we’ve been getting into everything I’ve never seen and I watched ‘Life is beautiful’ for the first time and cried so hard for so long. I think it’s the best film that’s ever been made.
R.E: Are you excited to play live? B.M: We have a full September tour and then festivals and I just got an email about a tour for the end of next year which is mad!
R.E: Amazing! What song are you most excited about on the new album? B.M: I’m very excited about this one called ‘Liquid Love’. There’s not an acoustic guitar in it, there’s not even a guitar in it. It was the one that was made the quickest, just in a couple hours - me and Mitch. We just used this little Yamaha keyboard and I just put my voice in it and it’s got this vocal loop that goes all the way through and this wall of sound full of vocals just layered and layered and layered.I’m really excited about the music video as well so when that comes I shall be happy.
R.E: And is there anyone who you’d want to collaborate with right now in the music industry? B.M: There’s so much music right now it’s insane. I’ve had to stop myself listening to them now because it was just getting constant and it just made me feel bad about song-writing but I’ve always been a fan of ‘Big Thief’. I’m just very impressed with everything they do and how weirdly prolific Adrain is. She’ll put four albums out in a month. I love that they’re such modern hippies, it’s amazing. It would be great to just get into a room with them and see what would happen.
R.E: It could happen! In a lot of your music videos you’re in nature and you grew up surrounded by nature - do you find that you need to retreat into nature to feel creative or do you find it quite easy living in London? B.M: Hmm I’ve actually been struggling with this today because I don’t know how many words I can use to say the same thing and I’m always talking about nature but this morning I went to cycle to a different park I hadn’t been to before and it was literally just about lying on the ground and feeling something, not having a phone or a screen there, not having people interact with you and I just love the language behind it and how it’s such a big metaphor for everything and it’s so seasonal and you can attach any emotion to nature. It’s kind of just the biggest writing tool ever.
R.E: A lot of people don’t spend any time at all in nature when they live in London. I think it’s quite easy to lose yourself or lose your roots anyway. Are you close to your family? B.M: Yeah I love my family. They’re all vaccinated now so I’m actually going to be able to get back up north to see them but I spent the first 6 months of lockdown living with them and it was idyllic, it was beautiful.
R.E: When it comes to work are you quite spontaneous and do you work at different times of the day? B.M: I’ve heard different theories on it. I’ve heard that you should treat it as a job and you should do a 9-5 and have your weekends off and come back and feel you’re in work mode on Monday morning. I’ve tried that and it does not work for me. I’ll get to 2pm on Monday and I’ll just want to go home. With me I just realised I’ll write a song a month but it will be important and it won’t be a lie and I’ll just slowly start banking things up and then that’s my document. I’m just documenting life right now and that’s not a daily diary entry. You don’t have something to say every day.
R.E: Do you keep a diary to jot down lyrics when they come to you? B.M: There’s eternal voice-notes and I have a notebook with me now. *holds up notebook*
R.E: Looks like a classic Moleskin B.M: (Laughs) Yeah I mean, obviously... I did keep a diary for a couple of years and really religiously did it every day but I just found that I was only noting all the bad stuff that happened like I missed the bus or I hate my body because that’s what you do when you write. Your brain doesn’t really bank happiness it just banks all the other emotions.
R.E: It’s so true, you don’t log the happy parts but I guess it’s a type of catharsis. Have you had any crazy fan moments at all? B.M: Someone once made me an alpaca cake, that was pretty full on.
R.E: Was this just a random person who approached you with the cake? B.M: Yeah, it was in Glasgow actually! And people are really getting into tattoos at the moment and I'm kind of worried I’ve started a trend because if you say anything to anyone publicly they all kind of latch onto it and now I feel like I’m this weird tattoo service for young girls and it’s worrying me.
R.E: Wow so a lot of girls are getting your lyrics tattooed? B.M: Yeah they want my handwriting so I’ll take a picture of a song title or a lyric or something and off it goes on their body forever.
R.E: (Laughs) But that’s cool! B.M: I mean it’s very flattering.
R.E: And if you weren’t a musician what would you do? B.M: I would like to have a bookshop or be a florist or be a cobbler, I was into that for a bit. I just like the idea of making shoes every day. Something active with my hands!
R.E: And what would you say happiness is for you? B.M: Happiness is umm... kind of absence. It’s like having an empty brain.
R.E: I like it, it almost comes back to the Buddhist way of living... And what is the most luxurious thing you’ve ever bought? B.M: Well I heard Daniel Radcliffe with his first cheque bought a £50,000 mattress which is absolutely fucking insane.
R.E: That is mental! What about you?
B.M: I did not do that. I did buy a car when I was 15 or 16 and I’d always wanted a Defender Landrover and now it’s my best thing ever.
R.E: That’s a good one, much better than a mattress. B.M: I had to get my dad to drive it as I didn’t have a license then.
R.E: (Laughs) Always good to get the car before the license, that’s what I always say... So what are you most looking forward to? B.M: We have lots of hugging, that’s going to be nice! Travelling, you know, getting on a train or a plane that would be amazing. We’ve got the summer of love, it’s about to begin!
R.E: It’s true! Last question... What is your favourite F Word? B.M: Ohhh, I’m going to say Flour spelt o-u-r.
R.E: Do you want to elaborate or let people interpret it the way they want?
B.M: They can have fun with that if they so wish!
R.E: (Laughs) Okay thanks for talking to F Word Billie!