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In Conversation with Billie Marten (Interview by Dexter K.)

Billie Marten photographed by Katie Silvester
Billie Marten photographed by Katie Silvester

UK Singer-Songwriter Billie Marten joins WCBN’s Dexter Kaufmann ahead of her tour stop in Detroit on November 12th at St Andrew’s Hall. Billie gained popularity in the UK folk scene as a teenager and has spent the last decade evolving her sound. The culmination of this evolution is her latest album “Drop Cherries”, which features tender lyrics over slick production by Marten and the Grammy-nominated Dom Monks (Big Thief, Ray LaMontagne, Nick Cave). Listen to “Drop Cherries” and see her live with Canadian band Half Moon Run.   

Dexter Kaufmann: The act of making a setlist is difficult because you want to exhibit your original work, especially when you’re promoting a new album. But at the same time, there’s something so fun about playing or hearing a cover at a live show. Do you have any covers in your back pocket for this tour? 

Billie Marten: Well funny you should say that because last night I ended the set. I’ve been doing completely different set lists every night because it’s fun for me, and last night we were in Victoria, which is where Nelly Furtado is from, so we played “I’m Like A Bird” at the end. 

DK: You’ve mentioned Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell as some of your influences. Anyone who’s tried to learn their songs will notice the bizarre alternate guitar tunings. Do you also enjoy playing with alternate tunings?

BM: I do. I do it quite often because I find that it helps me write new, different-sounding songs. A lot of the Drop Cherries album is in a low C sharp tuning which I think is a John Martyn tuning. But sometimes you just turn the tuning pegs and then it comes out into a completely different tuning shape that hasn’t been done before and then it kind of opens the gateway to another song. 

DK: I’m glad you brought up John Martyn because I know that you took your stage name from him. Do you think that your name Billie Marten is a stage name that’s separate from your personal life, or do you feel like at this point, you and Billie Marten are one and the same? 

BM: Funny question. I think it’s important to have a little bit of separation between performance you and artist you and personal home life you. But everybody knows me as Billie anyway, so I find that keeping them close in terms of character is also quite beneficial. I suppose you are acting in a way when you’re performing because I’m certainly not a natural performer but there are elements of that performance where you know that the things people want to see and hear are parts of you that are personal and hidden. So you have to reveal, kind of systematically, parts of yourself. It’s very calculated. 

DK: Do you enjoy that aspect of performing? Do you enjoy the act of making a character and sort of creating a movie and an aesthetic for an album, or do you kind of wish you could just stay in the studio and only stick to music? 

BM: I do enjoy the studio more than anything else because I feel that that’s the most authentic. I think it’s just every time you put an album out, you always want to change something after it’s already out and all the aesthetic is wrong or you regret some music videos you’ve once done. But it’s important to just keep kind of moving forward and keep trying to be inspired visually as well as audibly. 

DK: We are a university radio station and everybody at the station are huge music fans, but many of us are also musicians, including myself. Your career took off at a very young age, so do you have any advice for young people who are in school and also doing music at the same time and trying to balance both? 

BM: Well, it’s very hard, so congratulations if you’re doing that. It can be kind of whirlwind-esque in terms of being catapulted into a very adult world when you’re perhaps not quite ready. But I think it’s important to retain as much of your integral self as possible, even if you’re meeting new people and making new sounds and kind of getting into a different area of society than you’re used to. So, yeah, keeping close to your family, I think is important, and your friends. Trusting the gut is a very important one. I think you just know when you’re talking to bad people or not making the music that you want to make. I’m being very general here, but there is kind of like an instinctive root feeling. 

DK: One of my favorite aspects of the new album is the vocal stacks and the vocal layers that you’ve done. Do you prefer singing with other people or do you prefer harmonizing with your own voice? 

BM: I think I’ve had to harmonize with my own voice because it’s usually just me and one producer. So yeah, I’ve got used to making little crafty harmony stacks. But recently I’ve done singing on other people’s albums and you do live sessions and things like that. I think it’s great when you have added textures that you’re not used to. There’s a song called “Acid Tooth” and “Arrows” is done with a band called Flight, and they’re excellent at male harmony. So I kind of like that gender collaboration with the voices. 

DK: If you could do a dream duet collaboration with any artist, who do you think you would choose? 

BM: Have you heard of Ice Spice? 

DK: [laughter] Of course I’ve heard of Ice Spice. 

BM: I just discovered her. Somebody, a friend in New York, told me about her and she’s deeply famous. 

DK: Yes, in America she’s very big. I think you two should do a song together. I don’t know how it would sound, but I want to hear it. 

BM: I think it would sound good. I mean, she’s 23, you know, she’s hungry. 

DK: I think she could appreciate your music, and obviously vice versa.

BM: Well, she’s worked with Taylor Swift, right? So she’s dabbled in the folky world and we could go even further. 

DK: I want to hear that, let’s make that happen. Let’s put it out in the universe. 

BM: Okay, this is your job now. 

DK: I don’t know, I’ll try. I’ll try my hardest. Maybe I’ll just have to do a mashup or something. It might be the closest we can get. 

BM: AI, let’s AI it, why not? 

DK: One of my favorite songs on the album is called Willow and in it, you have a line that says “Music, it runs in my blood”. Was that somewhat literal, do you have other musicians in your family? 

BM: Great question. I think I was trying to get the point across that the thing I care the most about is music, which is sometimes overlooked when you’re actually in the industry. But my family has always been musical, just not professionally. My dad taught me guitar, my mom played piano, and my brother sings and plays guitar, so I kind of just followed everyone’s lead. 

DK: Did you learn piano or guitar first? 

BM: Piano, I think, when I was like five or six, and then guitar came at seven. 

DK: Do you prefer writing songs on the piano or the guitar? 

BM: Very different beasts. I have a lot less experience with piano, so it’s much more of a guessing game. Not that I know everything about guitar either, but you know I didn’t mean it’s more of an accident for me to write a song. I guess guitar is just more standard, just what I’m used to. But sometimes you think you’ve run out of chords and melodies and words and then all of a sudden you’ve got a brand new song. 

DK: How do you generally write most of your songs? Do you start with lyrics, chords, or a title? Is there a different process each time? 

BM: My favorite question: It’s different every time. It’s writing in your notes. It’s a very spontaneous feeling. Sometimes someone will say something and you’ll have to kind of run away and immediately write something down. Sometimes you’ll be super bored and you’ll pick up a guitar and think I should probably practice, and then out of that comes a song. It can be kind of as romantic or all sort of you know, analog situational, as you like. It can kind of get either way. 

DK: The American idea of British music is unfortunately usually limited to London and maybe occasionally a mention of Manchester or Liverpool. However, you grew up in Ripon. What’s the musical culture like in that part of rural Northern England? 

BM: Oh, there is none, nothing, [laughs]. I think I was the only person in my secondary school that had been to a concert. I remember taking my friends to their first concert and they were kind of confused as to how it all worked. I think that’s why I ended up going to London so early, just because I couldn’t find my people up there. 

DK: How did you discover music then? 

BM: My parents got me on to just good taste, with the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Joni, you know all that stuff. I have a brother who’s 10 years older, so I kind of got the modern stuff from him, but it was too old for me at the time. My parents took me to my first gig when I was nine and it was a very abstract folk singer called Chris Wood, and I spoke to him after the show. My mum definitely made me do it, but I was kind of like, “Hello, I write songs” as a nine-year-old girl. He put his hand on my shoulder and he went “Bloody, go for it”, so I did. 

DK: So you mentioned the Beatles and everybody’s thinking about them because of the new release “Now And Then” that just came out. Do you have a favorite Beatle? 

BM: It changes a lot. I was watching the Anthology documentary that Jools Holland made with his friend and it goes through each kind of week in the lifespan of the Beatles and it starts with the Quarrymen. I would say at the beginning it’s John, because of his humor and he’s messing up all the interviews and he’s being all silly as they’re getting stupidly famous. And then when I was getting into late teenagehood it was George, with All Things Must Pass. You know you’re kind of like oh, he’s the cool psychedelic one, but right now It’s Paul. I think if you’re into songwriting at all, you’re just crazy if you’re not a fan of what he does. He is kind of an astonishing alien songwriter. 

DK: I’ve read in some past interviews you’ve mentioned authors like Jonathan Franzen and Maggie Nelson as some of your literary inspirations. So, in the same way that a restaurant would pair a wine with a meal, do you have a literary pairing for your album Drop Cherries? 

BM: Oh, my goodness me, that’s an awesome question. Maybe Laurie Lee? He’s a very quintessential British writer. There’s a book called “Cider With Rosie” which is based around the homestead and kind of those warm, fuzzy carpet feelings. It’s about a fire-lit, abstract, pastoral town, and going for adventures in the fields at night. I would say “Cider With Rosie”, by Laurie Lee. 

DK: Is there somebody that you couldn’t have made this album without? 

BM: I guess my muse. He’s also on the album. I’ve never had this much of a pure kind of source of inspiration before. I get why musicians need muses and why Leonard Cohen was so obsessed with people because it kind of opens up the stream of consciousness.

DK: If you could learn a new instrument, what would it be? 

BM: Violin. A friend gave me one as I was recording Drop Cherries and it’s all kind of beaten up and unplayable so it’s been in the shop since last September. I’m waiting to get it back, but I had this very urgent need to learn violin. 

DK: Have you ever met somebody with a Billie Marten tattoo? Have you reached that point in your career yet? 

BM: Yes, and I will say the tattoos in North America are quite intense. On the last tour in June, I had a worrying trend of people getting me to sign their hands or their knees or their arms or whatever. I signed someone’s back and then the next day they tagged me in a post being like, “I got your signature tattooed! …Forever”. Every time, I have to say, “Are you sure, young one?”, And they’re like “Yep!”. 

DK: Plus, you have to make it like your perfect signature because if you mess up and hit a bony part of their spine, it gets all messed up and people will think you have a weird-looking signature. 

BM: It’s very stressful, especially when people ask me to draw something or write down this lyric, and then you’re kind of conscious about your handwriting. 

DK: Would you ever get a tattoo to honor an influential artist?

BM: Well, I have one actually, which is by a very obscure artist called Ivor Cutler. He’s an old Scottish folk singer and he played the harmonium and he’s got a song called “Squeeze Bees”. So I have Squeeze Bees written on my arm because it’s a lovely little sentiment. I’ve also got one my friend did on my foot which says Rust, from Rust Never Sleeps, the Neil Young live album. 

DK: Do you have any up-and-coming artists that you really like? 

BM: Yeah, loads. Do you know Maple Glider? She’s an artist from Australia. Ice Spice [laughs] and Mary In The Junkyard. They’ve got one song out and it’s called “Tuesday”. It’s deeply, deeply cool and I messaged them straight away. I never message people because I like to be very private with my music taste, but, yeah, definitely listen to that song because they’re going to blow up. There’s a guy called M Field who’s from South Africa and he makes beautiful poly rhythms mixed with kind of offbeat lyrics.  

DK: You have a past interview where you said you “want to get a small ginger cat named Scampi”. Did you ever get Scampi? 

BM: So I got the ginger cat, but I named it Pip. Scampi wasn’t allowed because it wasn’t serious enough. You know, as he grew older into a wise old kitten man, he would need a more respectful name. 

DK: What about Mr. Scampi?

BM: [laughs] I suppose, but we went with Pip from Great Expectations. 

DK: Is he an outdoor cat or indoor only? 

BM: Oh, he’s outdoor. He’s a vicious killer. He’s recently into attacking birds and mice, and he brought in a frog the other day. 

DK: I have no idea how birds get caught by cats, I feel like the bird has such an advantage. 

BM: You’d think, but there have been so many times when I’ve got home and there’s just feathers in the house. 

DK: I have one more question: What was the last record that you listened to? 

BM: Oh, it’s another new artist called Nurìa Graham. She is Catalan and her album is called Cyclamen. Stunning from start to finish.

DK: Thank you so much for joining me, and good luck on the tour. I’ll see you when you come to Detroit. 

BM: Awesome, see you then. Thank you, Dexter! 

DK: Thanks, Billie. 

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