The great thing about Billie Marten is that a lot has changed – but so much of her has stayed exactly the same. I was one of the first journalists to review her 2016 debut, Writing of Blues and Yellows, and it remains my favourite album from that year. I adore the sound of her voice and the richness of the songs, the incredible sense of beauty and grace from Marten. She was still at school when the album was written and, like songwriters her age, her subject matter reflected the personal and home-grown. Three years after that debut, Feeding Seahorses by Hand finds Marten moving from Yorkshire to London and reflecting more on the political and social. Whereas the subject matter is more outward-looking and aware of the current times, that incredible voice and unique sensibility has not been damaged by the move to the capital.
In many ways, this second album documents this transition from the sensitive and prodigious Ripon-based teen to the London songwriter who still keeps things personal on Feeding Seahorses by Hand. There was a period, as Marten has explained, where she was really unhappy and album tracks such as ‘Blue Sea, Red Sea’ were born from that time. Having investigated every groove and fallen for every note on Writing of Blues and Yellows, one can see a distinct change in terms of political consciousness. Recorded largely to four-track tape at producer Ethan John’s Bath home, you can hear the sweat and commitment regarding passion and resonance, the songs sounding quite raw and bare rather than the manufactured polish that dominates the mainstream. If her debut album stuck (largely) with guitars, vocals, piano and percussion (with some strings), Marten has opened up the toy box for album number-two. There are more effects and quirky instruments paired with greater experimentation and sideways shifts. Marten is getting bolder as a songwriter and creator.
‘Betsy’ is the current single from the new album and starts rather differently to the opening tones of Writing of Blues and Yellows – stiffer and more rousing drums compared with the more elegant and tender guitar of ‘La Lune’ (Writing of Blues and Yellows). ‘Betsy’ sets out the stall of Feeding Seahorses by Hand: a more political and angered album. The song rallies against unnamed politicians and casts blame their way. The percussive smack and wavy guitars beautifully augment Marten’s unique vocal – she backs herself on vocals and creates something both hypnotic and tense. ‘Mice’ and ‘Cartoon People’ complete the opening trio of songs.
On ‘Mice’, she talks about her smile being on the “back seat” and “back wall”; watch her as she separates the ones she loves and hates – the fatigue is there and one gets a feeling of a young person looking for direction. Whilst Marten speaks of her contrasts – able to do things others cannot whilst doubting herself at every turn – there is this sense of revelation and reckoning. It is an utterly beautiful vocal turn that matches the finest performances from her debut. Anyone expecting Marten to cover her heavenly voice in electronics and layers of production fear not: as she talks about sitting on a “dead man’s bench”, we are almost dragged into her soul and it is mind-blowing. ‘Cartoon People’ is a shot at President Donald J. Trump, as told from the perspective of his daughter. It is a brave move from her and one that pays off. Sonically, there are more elements and songs seem busier and bolder. As Feeding Seahorses by Hand switches between the personal and political, here, we see a corpulent rat who is busy destroying the world alongside his wealthy and unconcerned daughter. It is an intriguing song to pick apart and proves that Billie Marten is deft and convincing when stepping into political territory.
‘Blue Sea, Red Sea’ holds similar cards to that of ‘Mice’. Its vocal might appear lighter and high-pitched but it hides scars and lingering pains. The heroine observes herself as a small figure that is struggling but does not welcome sympathy. There are Beatles-like instrumentation flecks and effects that suddenly come into the song and, with its addictive chorus, it’s a clear highlight. There have been a few singles released from Feeding Seahorses by Hand already but ‘Blood Is Blue’ is a new revelation to me. There are visions of the artist being bled dry and a slaughtered pig but, as she sees someone filling their plate and the heroine hitting her pale face, one wonders what the inspiration behind the song is. ‘Blood Is Blue’, again, nods to The Beatles – shades of Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine’s trip-out and psychotropic colours – whereas ‘Vanilla Baby’ takes us in a new direction. Sporting, perhaps, one of the best guitar performances Marten has ever produced, the doubled-up vocals juxtapose the lilting strings.
The heroine seems to be putting herself against ideals and expectations. She is only as good as “you want me to be” and picks the phone up only if she pleases – a very realistic exposition and explanation from a woman who is dealing with a lot. There is fickleness and mystery in a song that, at once, marks the changes between albums. On this number, the vocals seem more confident whilst there are more instrumental elements working away; a sense of pushing the studio and sonic envelope without losing focus. If Marten has chucked too much or lost sight of the Yorkshire scenery that won my heart then I would be disappointed. Instead, she has created this natural evolution and, damn it, our girl has grown up and is magnificent! The second half of the album opens with the boldest sonic sting Marten has ever provided. ‘Toulouse’ has a sort of electronic-buzz-drum that mixes Folk with something borderline-Trip-Hop. It is a wonderful cocktail that swims in the veins and (the song) provokes dreamy images and a return to her debut album – sorry to hark back but Billie Marten’s heart and soul, to me, always seem to nod home and where she spent some of her happiest days! In terms of romantic and sexual expression, Marten has definitely grown from the scenes of ‘Heavy Weather’ and its embrace/acceptance of the English conditions. Here, one gets a sense of something different…sweet and cute but definitely more adult than we witnessed in 2016. The chorus for ‘Toulouse’ is exquisite and reminds me of the greatest singer-songwriters. It is another clear highlight and a song that will bounce around the brain for months!
There are no bad or average songs on Feeding Seahorses by Hand: curiously, there are so many shades and tones to be found one needs to listen to the album multiple times to witness the full emotional impact! Consider the sounds of ‘She Dances’ (what is that percussive sound that runs throughout?!) and the sublime kiss of Marten’s voice. I love the guitar mixing with the kooky percussion; the images Marten weaves and, again, how she keeps the flames of her debut alive – but gives them an extra coat of paint and new sense of purpose. The final four tracks on Feeding Seahorses by Hand are among the best she has recorded. ‘Bad Apple’ is one of the more musically-simple tracks but the lyrics and vocal nuance is moving to say the least! I have listened to the song a few times through and am still unpicking it. Marten questions her conviction and, yeah, people are riding her! The switch goes from first to second-person and I love the use of a dropped apple/bruises; the way Marten blends images to create something both deeply intimate and oblique at the same time. Marten, herself, is questioning her mind and self and, by the end of the song, one wonders whether she found peace and answers. ‘Boxes’ has some more backwards vocals and percussion that actually sounds like it was beat from a box or two! Marten sings about a lack of ego and demure but talks about how we are “boxes on boxes, on boxes on boxes…”and brings in materialism – how we own stuff we do not need and how we are all tired out. We get some spacy electronics and warped tones and, whilst one wonders whether organ or cello would have added more emotional impact, it is truly impressive seeing Marten push in all these weird and interesting directions! If one can get out of the mindset of the forever-young heroine in Ripon and embrace a woman who is entering a new phase of life then songs like ‘Boxes’ sound completely natural – to me, I still hold Writing of Blues and Yellows dear but am agog at what Marten is doing with her music in 2019.
‘Anda’ uses colourful boxes to open the song and, like its predecessor, these boxes are used as metaphors. There is jangle and the ache of acoustic strings; the calm inside Marten’s soul and the sound of someone floating in the breeze. I return my mind the Yorkshire countryside of ‘Untitled’ and ‘Unaware’ and imagine the Billie Marten of now walking alongside her younger self; the two exchanging glances but both helplessly relaxed in their surroundings. Against songs of U.S. bigots and corruption, we get these spellbinding moments that bring us back down and provide something truly gorgeous. One might bemoan the lack of political songs in the second half of the album – I think it would have been too rough if there were too many political songs – but Marten is at her strongest when she brings us all into her heart and world. She has this innate ability to calm our anger and take us somewhere magical. We are all so stressed in this modern world and, stronger than anyone, Marten hugs us, makes us a cup of tea and lets us know it will all be okay. ‘Fish’ is a sensual, touching and delicious finale that sports exquisite wordless vocals and a childlike innocence. It is maybe my favourite vocal performance from Marten and proof that she is among the finest singers in the world today. You can play this song when you are feeling pent-up and dark and feel instantly better and safe. It is a song that you will want to play again and again and, even though Feeding Seahorses by Hand has twelve tracks with most of them over three minutes in length, you want more – the sign of a truly great album!
There were some great female singer-songwriters around in 2016 when Billie Marten’s debut arrived but, since then, the likes of Lucy Rose and Julia Jacklin have arrived with albums that sound sort of similar (in places) to Writing of Blues and Yellows. 2019 is a strong one for female talent and one can say Lucy Rose has similar vocal sounds; Jacklin covers similar sonic ground whereas there are other musicians who can match some of Marten’s thoughts and sounds. I thought this in 2016 and feel it now: Billie Marten is king of the queens! She is more intriguing, deep and varied than her peers and her voice more rounded; her words take you deeper and you feel closer-bonded to Marten than you do with anyone else. Maybe it is me but, having reviewed both of her albums, I still cannot think of anyone like her! One of my fears was that Feeding Seahorses by Hand would be this break away from the acoustic tones of Writing of Blues and Yellows and a sonic rebellion. There are some big audio and compositional moves here – from backwards vocals, strange effects and freak-outs – but the heart of the record still has that classic Marten unity of gentility, maturity and unbelievable beauty. She has stepped on and matured since 2016 but, as I mentioned, the same artist we loved back then has remained true and honest. It is too early to call which albums will define 2019 but I would be shocked if Feeding Seahorses by Hand missed out on the end-of-year-polls – Writing of Blues and Yellows was overlooked by so many critics and, whilst it gained a slew of four-star reviews, it did not translate into year-end plaudits. It would be a travesty if this was to happen again come December, but one cannot ignore the quality and majesty of Billie Marten’s latest album (credit must also go to producer Ethan John). Check her social media feeds to see where she is performing live and go see her if you can. I love this woman and everything she does and, if she continues to put out albums of this calibre, she will be an artist we all will be talking about in decades to come. Lofty expectations, for sure, but there are no lies! Billie Marten is a true star and someone we should all adore.
The album, Feeding Seahorses by Hand, is available from 26th April, 2019 via RCA. Pre-order here.