Billie Marten Talks ‘Writing Of Blues And Yellows’ & The Art Of Balance: Interview
Billie Marten sees music in color. No, really, she does. “It’s that synesthesia thing,” she explains. A condition that blends the five senses (the most common of which is seeing colored letters or numbers), the neurological phenomenon is actually what inspired the title of the British singer’s debut LP, Writing Of Blues And Yellows.
“I was thinking about all the songs collectively,” she tells us. “It’s a lot of blues, a lot of yellows, a lot of greens, a lot of oranges. So I just used that for the title.”
The concept couldn’t be more fitting, since the color scheme – and consequently the album – is ready-made for the fall. In fact, Marten’s soft croons about insecurities, loneliness and (at points) Emily Brontë are so delicate and warm, they reach Bon Iver levels of heartrending. And here’s the kicker – she’s only 17 years old.
Get to know the budding singer-songwriter below, as Marten talks to us about her latest project, balancing the personal with the professional and why she feels a particular kinship with the Wuthering Heights author.
I saw a recent tweet where you wrote about failing your driving test. How did that happen? Basically, I booked the test a little bit too early. I had about seven lessons, and then in the first two minutes of the test, I failed and almost killed someone, so it did not go well. And then, after the horrible first two minutes, I got no minors for the rest of the test. So I had to do the whole test knowing I failed. And now, I can’t take another one for nine weeks. So, all in all, it was great!
Is it hard balancing everyday things with touring, putting out an album and your music career? It sounds a bit silly, but I think everybody has other things going on in their lives all at once. So I guess it’s just like anybody else’s job versus home life. I’ll always keep the two running. I won’t ever stop coming home and stop doing normal things. I think it’s good to have that balance. Without one or the other, I’d probably go nuts.
Tell me about your single “Lionhearted.” What does it mean to be lionhearted to you? Well, the song is sort of the opposite of that and not knowing what that feels like. Because I’m not really one of those people. So I guess it’s kind of the sentiment that even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you sort of carry on and do it anyway.
When I watched the video for the song, the image of those girls breaking down a house and you just standing in the middle of the rubble is really powerful. How did you get the idea for it? I’ve only ever done a few videos, so I’m not an expert or anything. But I guess, I sent out this brief that was basically full of bright colors and kind of the opposite of what the song sounds like. I’ve always had a thing for orange, and the whole was sort of centered around blocks of colors, which is why we’ve got the blue room, the yellow room, and everything sort of monotoned like that. And then my director, Allie Avital, she came back and said, “How about we do this.” It sounded ridiculous, so I kind of loved that. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, so it turned out beautiful as well.
What kind of headspace were you in when you were writing the album? Some of the songs were written when I was 14. “Unaware” was one of [the first] songs I ever attempted to write. But it’s not like a concentrated album in that I sat down for four months and wrote song after song, and it all sounds along the similar vein. I think it’s all a bit unpolished, and it’s not very exact or anything. It’s what has happened in the last three years. The headspace – there’s been quite a lot of different ones in three years – so I guess from the start to the finish of the album, it’s sort of like everything from this ridiculous music scene to coming out of it a year later and still not really knowing what’s happening.
How much of the album is written from personal experience? I find it really difficult to write about other people because obviously I can’t speak for them. So I thought I’d be selfish and write about myself.
One song that really stood out to me was “Emily.” Who is Emily? OK, I take back what I said before about not writing about other people because that song is about the Brontës. I studied Wuthering Heights, and I went to Haworth where [Emily Brontë] was born, and I just thought we were quite similar people. I mean, obviously she was in a completely opposite world to the one I’m in. [The song is] a bit more eerie than the other ones. It’s not so light and fluffy, but I just thought that fit her. It’s all a bit grey and gets muddy towards the end of the song.
In what ways do you feel that you guys are similar? It probably sounds very strange, but I think she was one of those people that didn’t really fit in with the time that she was in. She kind of went away and did everything her way rather than following her family. Not that I’m not following my family purposefully, but she was one of those characters that you kind of empathize with, and in my head, we’re similar.
If you lived in another era, what would it be? It would probably be late ’70s/early ’80s. I would definitely not live in [Brontë’s] world because it sounds horrendous. But I think I’d be happy in the ’70s… People didn’t think things through as much as they do now. It was a lot more relaxed, and you could definitely get away with a lot more than you can now. And everyone is just kind of wearing a load of flared trousers and doing their own thing. Sounds good to me.
Is there one song for you that was particularly memorable to write on the album? I think probably “Teeth” was quite difficult. It’s the only one on piano and that’s not my most familiar instrument. So that was challenging. That song actually happened really quickly. It probably took about an hour, which never, ever happens for me. I mean, songs will come about after months. So in that way it sort of stood out. I guess I just had something to say, so it happened really quickly. It’s quite hard to sing. It’s just one of those whiny, struggling songs about life.
I’d imagine a lot of people will look to Writing Of Blues And Yellows for comfort and perhaps even a cathartic ugly cry. What kind of music do you look to for comfort? Oh, this is difficult. I think probably people like Joan Armatrading. My dad’s always loved her, and she doesn’t necessarily sing a load of sad, dreary songs, but what she sang is quite powerful. People like her or Nick Drake probably. I’ll always come back and listen to them.