"Never Play To The Gallery" Clash Meets Billie Marten

"Never Play To The Gallery" Clash Meets Billie Marten

Her solitary artistry is being driven to fresh depths...

“Never play to the gallery” was the advice that David Bowie offered in an interview he gave in 1997. Perhaps he didn’t know it at the time, but some twenty-odd years later, he would be speaking to a lost-and-found generation of young artists. Billie Marten is one such artist. She cites this as “one of the greatest interviews of all time.”

As with just about everything that Bowie did within his lifetime, his words walk the razor-edge. When you find yourself in that place that feels just slightly out of your depth, he says, you better take your shoes off and get comfortable. Because that place where your feet don’t quite touch the bottom, in that dangerous place right there, is where the magic is bound to happen. At the mention of these words, a devilish smirk rises on the lips of Billie, almost as if she seems to recognise something of herself within them.

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Billie Marten is not afraid to take risks. In fact, the last time that Clash spoke to her was in 2018, a year or so after she had uprooted her life from her sleepy Yorkshire hometown and set up shop in London, a city full of strangers. London, she says, was never “supposed to be a permanent home, but gradually it just became that.” She brushes this off as more of a strategic choice, since flying up and down the country twice a week would make even the most restless of us feel unsettled.

“I started out in Crouch End, which is a really bad place to start. You know, a yummy-mummy situation, nobody under the age of twenty-five, everyone dressed in fitness leggings and like, lovesWaitrose.” She later found herself in Hackney, where, for now at least, she moves more freely, circulating among other musicians in East London, and occasionally going for a summer-time swim in the Hackney Marshes - which, she says, you’re not really supposed to do. It will surprise no one to find out that she has. “I’ve heard you can gain a finger or something really horrible, because of the water. But I’ve been totally fine!” she laughs.

Now, on a grey Tuesday afternoon in May, Billie is preparing for the release of her third record ‘Flora Fauna’ and learning to play the bass-guitar. The instrument was a rogue purchase after one too many, but it arrived on her doorstep the following morning. Let’s get to work then, she thought. Playing it like an ordinary guitar, “these strange sounds that came out... because you know, I don’t know how to play the bass” would go on to form the wonderfully volatile soundscape of her record.

‘Flora Fauna’ she says is “supposed to poke fun at those darker emotions.” She explains that this is “why the sound is so erratic and large, and doesn’t really coincide with the narrative, which is something that I like.” She also likes heavy sensory experiences and underlining the lines of books that she hopes to remember. ‘Pretentiousness’ by Dan Fox, she says, is particularly good for this.

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There are a few things that Billie doesn’t enjoy. Like the fact that she hates surprises and doesn’t like talking about herself for extended periods of time. It also bothers her that every other interview question wants to know her musical influences, or who she was listening to before she wrote the album. “Female musicians, because there are not many of us, are tied in this small pool of ten to fifteen artists. I was Joni Mitchell, Lucy Rose and Laura Marling for seven years. Even though I’ve loved them all, they are not necessarily what is going into my music.”

Billie is more elusive on her musical influences, although she did mention a brief stint in a London pub that she took, following her cross-country move. “I got the job not because I needed to work in a pub, but purely for writing reasons.” Reflecting on this experience now, she questions why writers have spent so much time romanticizing the hell out of working the bar.

“It turned out to be just the dregs of society: people who really love a day-drink, but not in a good way. It was very antiquated and all the views were outdated. They were people that weren’t really doing anything with their lives, and it really just stunted my creativity. You become nocturnal and your sleep is so messed up. You drink a lot more than you should. Just go to a café.”

Reconnecting with her creativity and shutting herself off from the world with producer Rich Cooper, Billie notes that while she will always be drawn to the tenderness of sad songs, in ‘Flora Fauna’ she chooses to play with the “sunnier side” of her emotions. “I think that I’m trying to give sadness a lot less air-time. This whole album is about registering those positive emotions, which the brain doesn’t really do too well. You inhale positivity or excitement or joy really quickly, and then it goes away. With any negative emotion like sadness, anger, fear... those sit with you for days.”

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Billie is adamant about separating her music from her personality. For this record, she eats mud, and smiles about it. “It’s almost like I’ve had a sensory enema.” Her tone quiets as she exhales in wonder. “Everything has been cleaned. It’s fresh. I don’t feel stunted or clogged up this time. I feel like I’ve said the things I needed to say and they’re out there now.”

“They’re not exactly ground-breaking thoughts or promises, but they are honest emotions that I’ve managed to get down and document. And once you do that, they just float out of you and they’re not really yours anymore.”

In ‘Flora Fauna,’ Billie is exhaling pure power. She’s shaking off the white dress of the waif-like earth-child in exchange for an army jacket and war-paint, steam-rolling through the backstreets of London in what can only be described as a massive tank. As much as Billie would love for this to be her regular mode of transport – pulling up to the off-license in her tank to grab a pint of milk – this was the scene chosen by herself and director Joe Wheatley to be featured in her music video for ‘Human Replacement,’ the third track off the album.

“It was the most ridiculous day of my whole life.” She laughs, shaking her head. Billie’s experience of owning the streets was something of an apocalyptic dream. The best moment, she says, was easily a toss-up between not seeing a single woman outside, or feeling like Kendrick Lamar. “We had to do a night shoot so as not to disturb so many people with my massive tank noises. It was setting off all the car alarms and we had a police motorcade and an ambulance. It was amazing.”

“The only people I saw were these really shifty-looking solo men, just speckled around the city. I didn’t really know what they were doing, and they didn’t really know what they were doing. I didn’t see a single woman there, and each and every man was utterly gob-smacked by the sight of this tank, with this tiny blonde person steam-rolling past them. It was the most powerful feeling.” 

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When speaking of the biggest risk she’s ever taken, the answer for Billie is obvious. It’s music. “It’s the moments where you take a gamble on doing something you love for a living versus something that you have to do.”

“Well,” she says, turning her head slightly to the side, in a movement that is simultaneously child-like, yet suggestive of her withholding some grand philosophical secret, one that only she will ever know, “I have a roof over my head, I have socks, and I can feed myself. That is good.”

Billie Marten doesn’t waste time looking back at what could have been. She dives head-first and powerful, straight into the deep end. Playing it safe is boring. David Bowie told us that.

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'Flora Fauna' is out now.

Words: Jessica Fynn
Photo Credit: Katie Silvester

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