Yorkshire singer-songwriter Billie Marten has had a whirlwind couple of years after an overwhelmingly positive response to YouTube videos for her grandparents landed her in the musical spotlight. Her soft and haunting voice coupled with acoustic guitar skills and piano backing has sent shivers of excitement down the spines of music fans around the country. And she’s only seventeen!
Teen Vogue observed that: “While her stripped down songs feel like a warm whisper, the lyrics are louder and more poignant than those uttered by many veteran musicians well before her time.”
This week, the rising star had a chat with Source about school, songwriting and why your alpacas choose you, not the other way around.
How are you today? Are you skiving off school?
I went in this morning and did some lessons, collected some work and left. Today I have a few radio appointments.
You were Annie Mac’s tune of the week last week – what does that feel like?
Oh it’s ridiculous honestly, just madness!
What was it like going in to Radio1 to be interviewed with her?
I’ve been in and chatted to Huw Stephens before, he’s been really lovely and supportive of me which is nice but obviously it’s a huge thing every time I go so I’m very nervous. And I’ve got a really bad radio voice but it was good, I survived!
I’ve been watching your videos and noticed they all have a rural theme – does that reflect your home life?
Definitely, I’m the opposite of a city person, although I do have to go to London a lot so I like it when I’m here. I’m quite a shy person so I like the countryside in Yorkshire and we managed to put that across in the videos. The Bird video is actually in the Lake District where I’ve never been before and it was one of my favourite pieces so that worked out really well.
Heavy Weather is quite an intense video – could you tell me about the ideas behind it? (A man in standing fully-clothed in the shower in a state of anguish then faints.)
I wrote the song about how you can get totally overwhelmed in a place. Often, you can be sat somewhere and feel hideously lost so we were lucky to have good video treatments.
[A treatment is a short piece of prose detailing what happens in a music video.] The one I chose is all about the character not seeing things clearly and feeling that struggle. The actor is unbelievable, there were lots of amazing one takes and he played off himself. I thought that to put all that emotion across would be really difficult when all you’re looking at is a shower wall. Then we went to this crazy deserted beach called Dungeness with a load ship ruins on it. I loved being there and I hope it helped convey the message of the video.
Do you have quite a lot of input on the videos?
The director will send in a treatment and then we’ll talk about how we’re going to do the technical side of the shots. Then I’ll make some suggestions about things we could do or what people should be wearing so I do have input which is nice because I want to be involved in everything. Being involved in the process shows you how many things are involved in music which aren’t music. So many people have a valuable input.
You played the BBC introducing stage at Reading last year, what was it like going from small gigs to a festival?
That was the biggest deal ever – super, super scary, but the opportunity was great. I was doing exams this year so I couldn’t do a lot of shows. I did Barn on the Farm in Gloucester which is a really friendly festival. It’s tiny but everybody gets to know each other and by the end of the week everybody has enjoyed loads of great acts together so you make loads of friends. I did that with the band. Other than that I did local little gigs and got myself back into it because I hadn’t done any in a while. I went to Leeds this year as a regular customer and it was great.
Our readers are in school or have just left, so they’ll fully understand the struggle to juggle studying and hobbies, but launching a musical career takes more commitment! How do you manage songwriting and studying?
I’ve always pushed the fact that they are two totally separate things, so I’ll get into school mode and sort that out first and then if I have to do something music related, I totally switch focus. I never talk about it at school or mention anything that happened. If I’m going down to London and have a spare few hours, I’ll get an essay done.
Do you have a special place or routine where you write?
There are peaks and troughs of busyness, so I don’t have a set routine. After releasing material, everything is manic and you’re moving about a lot so there’s no time to write but for me it’s always spontaneous. I’m really bad at setting myself time to write but it’s usually at home and I can’t do it without tea! If I forced myself to write then I wouldn’t come up with anything decent. I do try to find as much time as possible but it’s difficult.
You study creative subjects (English literature, French and art) at school – does that help with your songwriting?
Oh yeah, I think they balance each other out, especially English when you think about poetry and language analysis. That helps you think about what you want to say and sculpt the sentences in a better way.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I listen to as much music as possible. I love my record table and I listen to vinyl all the time. I enjoy reading and also the odd bake! The Great British Bake Off was brilliant, I loved Nadiya –[Hussain], I thought she was great.
What artists do you like?
I like a massive range but my main influences have been Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and Nick Drake – the classics. They’re similar, all along a folky vein. But I will listen to artists like Radiohead or Elbow or Kanye West too.
So you played your first London gig recently and you’ve got a tour coming up. How are you feeling for it?
Pretty nervous if I’m honest. I had to get all my work from teachers and call the heads of departments to say that I’m going to be off for two weeks. So I’ll be taking all my work with me and doing that at the same time. I really can’t wait and everybody has been really supportive so I’m nervous but excited!
We’ll see you in Oran Mor in Glasgow – have you been here before?
I have been once before a few years ago but in very different circumstances. I came up for a singing competition called Festival for Stars which ended up being horrendous. It was so corporate and weird.
Oran Mohr is a big old converted church – it’s beautiful, I think you’ll love it.
I’ve always wanted to sing in a church!
You were discovered on YouTube. Would you advise people keen to follow in your footsteps to start that way?
Definitely. I was 11 or 12 and put a song up and the video got loads of hits. I didn’t understand how quickly it could spread. I was super young and it was crazy. If you have any doubts about doing it then just go for it because I definitely didn’t think I was any good and those videos are horrendous but here I am now! BBC Introducing are great, you can just send your songs in and on the off chance they’ll like them. It’s an easy way to get your music out there. They invited me in to do some nice radio stuff and put me up at Leeds and Reading. People just need to get their material out there. Also just stick to being yourself! I think it’s the most horrendous thing when artists come out and they’re pretending to be something they’re not.
Lastly, I saw you met an alpaca recently. Can you tell me about that?
[laughs] I have this weird obsession with alpacas, I can’t explain it. I think they’re beautiful and I love them, so for my birthday I got given a walk with some alpacas as a present. The alpaca actually chooses you based on your personality.
Like a hippogriff?
Literally, that’s what it felt like. So I went on a walk with them for an hour or so and bonded with them. I just love them I don’t know why.
Discover the beauty of Billie Marten’s voice on Spotify and check out her shiny new video for Bird, released last week. Her four track EP will be out on 13 November, and we wish her the best of luck with it!
Given her raw talent, down to earth nature, understated style and natural beauty, this Yorkshire lass is going places without a doubt. In a world of over-styled pop princesses and industry marketing gimmicks, she is just herself and that is truly a breath of fresh air.
Catch Billie on her tour at Òran Mór on 28 October where she will be supporting fellow singer songwriter Lucy Rose – get your tickets here.