Tone Talk with Billie Marten

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Photo by Katie Silvester

Billie – born Isabella Sophie Tweddle – got her early start in music thanks to parents who surrounded her with the music of Nick Drake, John Martyn, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, Loudon Wainwright III, and northern folk artist Chris Wood (who once told a nine-year-old Billie to “go for it!”). The family lived in the pastoral rolling hills of Ripon, North Yorkshire, where Billie grew up in and around the Dales.

Towards the end of 2019, Billie underwent a total overhaul, leaving Sony and choosing a new management team. She then went back into the studio and reunited with producer Rich Cooper – whom she worked with on Blues and Yellows – Billie felt empowered to experiment and rediscover herself. “I picked up the bass instead of the guitar – which made all my rhythms different because I can’t play bass,” she laughs. “That made everything a lot punchier and more direct.” With Rich adding drums to the songs as they were being written, the sound they developed together was one with a rapid pulse and rich instrumentation. The list of inspirations Billie brought to the studio roamed from krautrockers Can – “their rhythms are just bizarre, and don’t make any sense” – to Broadcast, Arthur Russell, and Fiona Apple. “It was such freedom to play, and just be, and explore different corners of me that I hadn’t before.”

The result was a breath-taking new record, Flora Fauna dropping today, May 21, on IMPERIAL/Fiction Records. It is a confident and full-chested album that sheds the timidity of Billie’s previous work in favor of a more urgent sound. The songs tell a story of personal growth and what it takes to flourish.

 

 

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
Tone is responsible for the feeling that comes through you as you listen. It projects a mood and coats a song in whatever emotion fits; it’s highly important to me, and I feel like it’s gotten meatier and warmer over the years, but also a lot tighter and clear cut. It depends on who I’m working with, but each demo fits in the warm bracket.

What are your favorite tonewoods?
I’m very fortunate to own a 1958 acoustic Gibson; it’s rosewood and has the most beautiful worn-out but never thin quality to it. It really cuts through everything on record, and if I’m playing with the band, it definitely holds its own. As for newer models, I’m very fond of a company called Farida who do lovely small batch guitars, and they use a mix of rosewood and cedar; everything comes out much warmer and richer – like a hot bowl of soup, great for demoing.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I’m pretty plain and simple when I go about writing and usually rely on more organic ways to create effects, and that part comes when we’re in full recording for album mode. So I tinker about with the basic tremolo / chorus / chandler set up when I need to – I find it works better with bass also. One of my first musical purchases was a little US Fender Bronco, and it never fails – zero buzz from that little guy. Re-amping was the saviour of Flora Fauna; we did it with practically everything.

What about strings?
My Pa raised me on Elixir 11s, which I now understand is quite rogue, especially for a quiet acoustic player, but I’m into Ernie Balls at the moment.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
If I can – base it around a live raw acoustic performance and build up from there. Sometimes that’s just not possible, though, and it’s more of a slower, meticulous game to get the right sound bed going. As much organic sound as possible is my preferred way – if it can be made via the human body or objects around the studio, then I’m into it.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I don’t! I think that’s a myth, and one should try to never sound the same twice (within reason). Because I’m a solo artist, I usually have a different mix of friends playing with me on each tour, and that could mean full expansive band set up, or just me and my long time TM / MD Jason (he plays half a kit of high-hat snare and kick and we track through the bass on a 5 channel Kemper), OR it could just be me solo. In that case, I rely on space and really work it to my advantage, not trying to push or reign in anything too hard.

What does your practice consist of?
Picking a new setlist order, running that through a handful of times, and going for it.

Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to pick up the guitar and play?
There’s a mixed bag of things my Dad first taught me as a kid. Most memorable are “In My Time Of Dying” / Led Zep with the slide (so incredibly satisfying); Yes’ “Roundabout” (just the intro); “In My Life” /The Beatles, “Bookends” / Simon and Garfunkel, and this obscure blues progression he got taught once but neither of us know what it is or where it came from.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Please do it! And learn all the stuff even though your brain doesn’t really want to, but learn it, so men don’t have to teach you later on! That’s where I’m at at the moment, and I wish I got to grips with the production/gear talk/physics of it all sooner. My pride is definitely struggling, and I’d hate for that to put people off music.

RELATED STORY: 
Billie Marten Debuts New Video on NPR | LP Out 5/21
via IMPERIAL/Fiction Records

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