There is something wonderfully old-world and fascinating about Yorkshire-born songwriter Billie Marten. There is, as Marten has said in interviews, a photograph hanging above a piano at her family home – depicting nature, wilderness and the depths of the Yorkshire Dales. From an early age, no doubt gleefully experimenting with the keys, she fantasised about escaping into the photo and exploring its nooks, crannies and recesses – that same escapism, pastoral beauty and child-like innocence that runs right through her music. Against the cliché grain and expectation of most 17-year-olds: Marten is captivatingly incorruptible, incontrovertible and fascinating.
The young prodigy was nominated for the BBC’s Sounds of 2016 (Jack Garratt won it) and has been busy preparing her debut album – the intriguingly-titled Writing of Blues and Yellows. Maybe referring to shades of emotions – blue for sadness and yellow for fearfulness? – or tying into her love of art – many of her single covers are exquisite paintings as is the album cover – it is refreshing finding an artist (one so young) who puts thought and a sense of the profound into what she does. Tracks from the album have been released as singles and have given an impression of what Billie Marten is about. From the early cut Heavy Weather and the beguiling tenderness of Bird and Milk & Honey; through to the recent call-for-courage of Lionhearted – each framing a spectacularly pure and soul-kissing voice together with an accomplished and world-weary lyrical approach. Any ideals of what a teenage musician should sound like are dispelled by Marten’s cultured and bewitching vocals and common-sense approach to music-making.
Writing of Blues and Yellows sees a wistful, beautiful Marten painted into a pensive portrait – a young woman whose heart and soul belong to simpler, purer realms. That sentiment shouts loudly through opener La Lune. Breaking her back “in the heart of this land”: One imagines the tender musician looking for answers and struggling against the conditions. There are no signs of change – perhaps someone looking for peace or a place to call home – she is wandering and seeking safe haven. That breathless, seductive voice is partnered with nimble guitar and sparse percussion – the emphasis is on the heroine’s plight and that incredible voice. A song one becomes enveloped in and surrenders to – A soothing and knee-weakening statement that is much more than florid vocals and un-stereotyped lyrics – it is a deep and personal song from a human tackling loneliness, struggles and uncertainties with a resolute and moving song.
Towards the album’s second-half and the compositional elements start to become more defined and exposed. Hello Sunshine boasts an assured and smoky vocal but its blend of strings and textures evoke the biggest reactions and shine brightest. Similarly, it is the delicate and beautiful guitar plucks of Live that will get into the mind and project vivid scenes and landscapes. That track finds Marten wanting to explore the globe and “live by the sea”. Whether Berlin or somewhere further away: There’s cautious words advising her not to “go too deep” and become lost in the wide world – not to grow up too fast. Live is a song that has single status and brings all her strands and characteristics sharply together.
Mature and wise lyrics; a vocal that switches between chocolate-rich and deep hue; a composition able to balance strange weather and goosebump-inducing romance. Teeth and Untitled are the two longest songs on the album but ensure the final-third has ample fascination and depth – both preferring the consistency and solidity that has been proven throughout Writing of Blues and Yellows. Closing with the Edward Barton poem It’s a Fine Day and it finds Marten tackle a family song that she has a deep connection with – you can hear actual bird song from her garden at times. It is a perfect way to end the album and shows what an interpretive talent she possesses. The fact it was recorded on a terrible microphone and is so threadbare gives it an atmospheric, almost haunted sound that takes away the polish and lends the 17-year-old’s voice a far-away quality hard to ignore.
Writing of Blues and Yellows has many fine moments and never repeats itself. Personal demons and depression (Teeth looks at Marten’s bad headspace and mental health problems) and materialism are bravely explored on an album that boasts huge maturity, passion and intelligence. Perhaps the odd song (Emily and Green) play closely to other songs – without separating themselves from album companions – and it would be nice to hear Marten’s anger and dissatisfaction manifest itself more overtly and viscerally. She is a 17-year-old but one knows there is a raw and bluesy woman inside her soul that could give songs like Lionhearted, Milk & Honey and Heavy Weather additional candour, weight and definition. That said, there are so many positives one takes away. Milk & Honey remains one of the standouts as does the delectable Bird and Heavy Weather – It’s a Fine Day is a revelation and a wonderful inclusion. Marten’s remarkable voice ensures every track gets into the heart and seduces the listener while her lyrics are consistently impressive, personal and thought-provoking. Bringing elements of Solid Air (John Martyn) and Pink Moon into her own aesthetic works beautiful. An assured and captivating album from a musician who has plenty more to say. Writing of Blues and Yellows marks Billie Marten as one of Britain’s finest and more treasured young artists.