Music

In Conversation with: Folk Starlet Billie Marten

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Billie Marten started quietly recording songs on YouTube at the age of eight. With no intention to promote herself, she just wanted to make sure her Grandparents, based in France, could hear her voice once in a while. It's funny how these things work out. 

At twelve, her cover of Lucy Rose's Middle of the Bed attracted thousands of views, catapulting her to the fame she never asked for. Now seventeen, she's released two acclaimed EPs, fronted the BBC Introducing stage at Reading, and been nominated for a prestigious BBC Sound of 2016 award. 

Writing about how the little things can be big things, she pens lyrics about how quickly you can lose yourself in a crowd and the torture of getting badly sunburnt. When we meet, she's just finished her prime spot at Citadel's Communion Stage, where she celebrated the tenth anniversary of the label alongside Matt Corby and Lianne La Havas.

It's boiling, and she's giddy from potential heatstroke and the hugeness of it all. "It's new for me", she laughs, "this support from complete strangers. It's so wonderful, but also feels very silly. I can't quite believe it." With her gorgeous debut album Writing of Blues and Yellows hitting shelves on September 23rd, we suspect she'll need to get used to it. 

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How are you balancing world domination with your A-levels?

I'll let you know when I get my results in August! The school have been really great, and they've let me do three A-levels instead of four. I'll usually have Monday mornings off, which is ideal as I'm normally coming back from a gig or something. I guess you just have to sit down and do it. Everyone has things juggle in life.

Do you come from a musical family?

Music is probably the thing that binds us all together. My parents and older Brother play instruments, and my Uncle is in a band. We used to play together quite a lot, and from an early age I couldn't wait to join in. 

Do you remember the first CD that you bought?

God, no. It was probably in a car boot or something. 

Do you still get nervous on stage?

Yes. Have you seen my knees?

Do you have any rituals that help get you in the headspace to perform?

I like to read beforehand. It's important to do something normal amidst the chaos.  

How about with writing? Have you always written your own material?

Since I was ten or eleven, yes. I love English Lit, so I used to write tiny poems and little stories and turn them into songs. Sorry, I'm going to have to grab one of those beers and put it on my face. I'm melting!

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That looks so good.

Take one, seriously!

What time did you wake up this morning?

My alarm went off at 8.15.

What did you have for breakfast?

A bowl of crunchy nut, and a croissant. 

Cats or dogs?

Cats. 

Town or country?

Country. I come from a tiny city (Rippon, in North Yorkshire), with only 10,000 people , so it's basically a town with a token cathedral. I was born in the countryside, though, and am very thankful to have moved back. It's so tranquil and beautiful. I love it. 

Who inspires you?

Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush. And John Martyn, who is just the God of all things. 

Where do you like to escape to, when things get loud?

Good question. Probably to the rapeseed fields outside my house, although it's the wrong time of year for that at the moment. Or to a little seaside town, because they're the absolute cutest. I've never been, but I'd love to go to Iceland. I want to end up there, hopefully. I'm going to try and befriend Sigur Ros after this. Maybe they can whisk me away. 

All images: Lubna Anani

Pre-order Billie's beautiful album here

Oh Comely at Citadel: Talking Songwriting & Spice Girls with Rukhsana Merrise

Describing a subject as effervescent is up there with the very worst of interview cliches, but Rukhsana Merrise is exactly that. Commanding centre stage at Citadel last Sunday, she belted out choruses with grace and wisdom beyond her years, encouraging the audience to love themselves and stay away from bad people. 

Offstage, she's warm and familiar. She laughs with her hair thrown back, makes jokes at her own expense, and rolls her eyes into the back of her head with comic disdain. As she twirls around dramatically in her satin cape and breaks into an impromtu rendition of Madonna's Vogue, I realise I've found my new favourite singer-songwriter among the grass. 

As her label celebrates its tenth birthday, we sat down to chat about tour snacks, Spice Girls and September Songs: the critically acclaimed EP recorded from her childhood bedroom in four short weeks. 

You have such a wide range of influences. Did you grow up in a musical household? 

My Mum did that thing where you play classical music to your bump in the hope it will make the child smarter, and she exposed us to everything and anything. It was a typical Black household in that we were always listening to reggae and R&B, but we also loved Leo Sayer and Karen Carpenter and Joni Mitchell. Joni is just perfect. When I got into Joni I realised I could write about anything. London also inspires me. It's such a melting pot that it can't not influence your art in some way. 

Do you remember the first album you bought?

Nirvana. I bought it in a charity shop for £2, purely because it had the artwork of the baby swimming with his willy out. As a teenager I was just like: "What the fuck is this?! I'll buy it". My first single was 21 Seconds by So Solid Crew. That combo sums up the conflicts of my personality perfectly. Part rock, part grunge, with full-on grime thrown in. 

 

I was amazed at how quickly you put together your EP "September Songs", challenging yourself to write and release a new track every week for four weeks. That must have been such an intense process. 

You could set a dinner table, and if the guests don't show up on time you'll start fussing over whether the napkins are folded properly. If you do something last-minute, you don't have the time to live with it. I was becoming an artist and I was finding myself and my sound, and I didn't want to put anything out that wasn't authentically me. At the same time, I had ninety recordings stored on iTunes and every night I'd sit and think "You've got to come out one day. I promise I'll share you.". September Songs was my way of putting fire under my own ass, saying "Ok. Let's go."

It's a really organic process. Not everyone would do it that way. 

Thank you. Yeah, it all took off from that. I got spotted by Communion and before I knew it I was saying yes to tours and meeting people from all around the world. I couldn't ask for a better label. They get me, and they allow me the freedom to take my time. I'm working on the album right now, and it's very nearly there. 

I wanted to ask if you had any rituals that help you get in the zone before you write or perform...

Conversations inspire me to write. You can spend weeks trapped in your own head lost for answers, and then a snippet of something someone else says spells it out. I've been known to snap my fingers and say "There's the answer to the question!". Performance-wise, I spend every moment before I go on trying not to wet my pants. I'll have a couple of Beers to calm down, and I always chew trebor mints.

It's weird that you say that, because I develop a compulsive tic-tac habit when I'm nervous. 

Yeah, man! It's the menthol. It's calming. Other rituals? Nah. Apart from meditating. I got into it when my Dad passed away about three years ago. He had cancer and I looked after him throughout, so once it was all over I felt very imbalanced. I needed to re-centre after all of that frantic running around and sadness so I tried it out and loved it. It's so calming. 

I want to do a quick fire round. What time did you wake up this morning?

10.38 am. 

That's very specific. 

Yeah, I was supposed to be collected at 11am and I woke up like "Shiiiiiit." I had exactly twelve minutes to get dressed. 

Did you have breakfast?

No, I didn't. I had a coffee. 

Dogs or cats?

Cats. I've got two, Snoopy and Tinkerbell. 

What's your biggest guilty pleasure?

The Spice Girls. 

Excellent choice. What's your favourite Spice Girls song? 

*Breaks into song* I wannnaaa make you hollerrrr! Holler, Holler, Holler, C'monnnn! I drive everyone mad on the tour bus with it. 

Which Spice Girl is the best? 

As Tomboyish as I am, Emma was my favourite. I love Baby Spice. She always had all the best ad-libs. 

And fluffy pens. 

Yes! And the best hairstyles and bobbles. Cute little skirts and tops. I like Posh as well, because no one else did and she got a rep for standing around doing nothing. But just look at Vics now. Go on, girl!

Do you have a favourite late night tour bus snack?

Digestives. 

Plain ones or chocolate? 

Plain. All the way.  

Yes! The plain ones are woefully underrated. 

Exactly. Thank you! A chocolate digestive is like "Hey, pass the wet wipes! I'm everywhere! I'm melting!". Everyone complains that I choose the most boring, tasteless snacks, but to me they're perfect dunked in a cup of tea. I love digestives. I hand them out like a Nan. 

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

The Mad Hatter, because it would be a mad hatters tea party. Tim Burton, so I could inherit some of his craziness and use it to inspire me. And my Mum, so she knew it was real and that I wasn't just going off on one. And because she's amazing. She's such a strong woman. I always run to her immediately. It's boiling. Shall we get a beer? 

All images: Lubna Anani. 

Rukhsana shares more insight in the pages of our upcoming Letters Issue, in stores on 11th August.

Her label, Communion Records, are celebrating their tenth anniversary. Find out how you can join in the celebrations here, and keep an eye on the blog for more Citadel coverage coming very soon. 

Oh Comely at Citadel: Communion Records Turns Ten!

This Sunday, we're heading to Citadel--one of London's happiest new festivals--to celebrate the tenth birthday of Communion Records.

We'll be cartwheeling across grass, pretending we have something in our eyes throughout Sigur Ros' set, and sipping pimms with the brightest stars and friends of the label, including Lianne La Havas (who shared a lemon tart with our very own Tamara Vos back in Issue 26), Matt Corby and Rukhsana Merrise (who makes an appearance in our upcoming Letters Issue). 

Read on for details on how to join the party and plug into our Oh ComelyXCitadel playlist, featuring the very best the day has to offer. 

Lianne La Havas shot by  Francesca Jane Allen  for Oh Comely Issue 26, available  here.  

Lianne La Havas shot by Francesca Jane Allen for Oh Comely Issue 26, available here. 

Communion started out as a lovingly curated club night in a sweaty West London basement. Since then, it's expanded across both sides of the Atlantic and morphed into a fully-fledged record label, promoter business, publishing company, radio show and festival. Despite huge success, the brand has remained true to its heart: curating and producing music loved by musicians fans alike while offering a safe space for artists to stay true to their own identities. 

As well as hosting a stage at Citadel, the label are organising free gigs across London to mark their milestone and say a very special thank-you. Rae Morris and Michael Kiwanuka have already taken to the stage, and more artists will soon be announced on the label's website. 

Record Stores are stocking a limited edition "Then" and "Now" vinyl, featuring early workings from the likes of Ben Howard and Daughter, as well as new material from Bears Den and Twin Peaks, among others. 

Can't wait 'til Sunday? Shut the door, plug into our playlist here and get excited. We'll see you there.

In the meantime, follow Communion on Instagram here and keep an eye on our own account over the next week for snapshots from the day.

Song Premiere: Xylaroo

words Linnea Enstrom

3rd May 2016

At first, Xylaroo’s carefree guitar melodies and high flying harmonies paint a sun-drenched scenery in the listener’s mind. An open sea. The wind in your hair. That type of thing. But there’s more than a sparkly surface to their songs. The London duo - consisting of sisters Coco and Holly Chant - write about being lost and lonely and drinking too much. And about the courage of carrying on, throwing your darkness aside for a moment and feeling unashamedly alive.

Born in Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong respectively and counting places like Sri Lanka and Maidstone their homes, the sisters seem to owe their music’s uneasy vibrancy to having braved the unknown time and time again. They’re now settled in London (at least for now) and have crafted their non-stop journey into songs from the heart.

Today we’re proud to premiere their new track Narwhal, the B-side of their new single On My Way. Over email, we spoke to Xylaroo about growing up on the road and their debut album Sweetooth, out in June.

What do you want to achieve with your music?

We just want to make good music and don't have many expectations beyond that. It would be nice if people found some kind of meaning in it and if our songs could touch people - make them feel something and maybe even make them think a little differently about things.

You contrast upbeat guitar melodies with confessional and sometimes rather dark lyrics - for example "the lake is big and I'm nothing at all" on Narwhal. What's the reason behind that?

It all started with Rilo Kiley. We always loved how sweet and innocent their melodies were when compared to the lyrics. If you’re talking about dark and gloomy things, it’s good to throw in a little happiness, sweetness and sunshine. We're just playing around with associations and expectations. Our music is confessional because writing is kind of therapeutic, so things we’re worried about, ideas we like and personal experiences all get thrown into the mix.

You've lived in a lot of places. How have the traveling and constant upheaval influenced your sound?

Moving around has had a great influence. We write about what's around us and every place we've lived in and traveled to has its own idiosyncrasies and distinctive overtones which evoke feelings and memories that colour our music and give it ‘Flava Flav’. Quite a few of the songs on Sweetooth were written in Sri Lanka and are about things that happened there or at university in London. We’re also half-Papua New Guinean, so there have always been a lot of singing and a love of music in our family - traditional and modern.

When and how did you first get interested in music?

Our parents always played music around the house and threw parties. Our dad's a civil engineer and we used to go on long car journeys, so we'd sing a lot in the car. One time when we were younger and living in the Philippines, we sang - or yelled - Christmas songs in the car and the army pulled us over because they thought our car was stolen and that we were kidnapped children screaming for help. Hopefully we don't sound like screaming, kidnapped children anymore!

What's it like making music together as sisters? How does working together creatively affect your relationship?

Coco: I fucking hate Holly. She's a bitch to work with, but she writes good songs so I can't really complain.

Holly: I think it brings us closer together.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

Our last advance. Times are rough in London. No, but seriously… but seriously.

What's the idea behind Narwhal?

It’s about a breakup and feeling like a small narwhal in a big pond. It's kind of sad if the only shoulder you have to cry on is a narwhal's. They like to dance and are not good listeners. It's also just a song about being down in the dumps and drunk.

Interview with Colour Me Wednesday

words Laura Maw

25th April 2016

Colour Me Wednesday, in their own words, are a DIY feminist vegan indie pop-punk band, fronted by sisters Harriet and Jennifer Doveton, with bassist Carmela Pietrangelo. Infectiously catchy, their songs cover left-wing politics, mental health, feminism and veganism. Their new four-track EP, Anyone and Everyone, is full of their trademark sugary pop and punk candour, and accompanied by hand-made collaged CDs made from recycled materials in Harriet’s shed.

I met with Harriet and Jennifer before their gig at DIY Space in London, to talk about their new EP, riot grrrl and collaging.

Could you tell me a bit about making your EP?

Jennifer: I wrote Don’t Tell Anyone, the first song on there, for my solo project and Harriet really liked it. It’s about how there are certain things you just can’t change. The chorus is about not wanting people to know how hard you try if you fail. You can try and change yourself, but you just have to accept who you are.

Harriet: We’ve been playing that for about ten months, but all the other ones are really new. I wrote Two-Fifty For You Girls about white men telling me to stay out of politics, but they also want me to go out and vote for who they tell me to. A lot of the lyrics are based on real comments we’ve had, so they’re essentially quotes. Then we’ve got Horror Story, which is about paranoia when you’re making friends in your mid-twenties because you have no idea of their history. It’s about having that trust issue.

Did you make the artwork for the EP yourself? I love the collaged zine feel of them.

Harriet: Yeah, it was the size of this table! We did it on Jen’s floor and collaged the background and taped it down. We had to stand on a chair to photograph it and I was holding lamps by Jen’s legs. We live in such small spaces as well so it was quite hard! The vinyl isn’t made yet, but we have loads of handmade CDs.

And they’re all different, right?

Harriet: Yeah, it’s what we did when we first started the band. We just made everything ourselves from recycled stuff in my shed.

Do you just have a shed full of different collage materials?

Harriet: I do! It’s 100 percent collage.

Jennifer: And Stephen King novels.

Would you say the DIY/riot grrrl ethic influences the way you make your music?

Harriet: My first influence was Juliana Hatfield, but she was never put in the category of punk, which isn’t really fair because her music involved a lot of distortion. After I started playing guitar, when I was around 20, I got into riot grrrl.

Jennifer: I think it was part of a pool of influences, rather than being the only one. I’ve listened to a lot of Bikini Kill and what I’m most struck by is how bands like that inspired our generation. There are plenty of criticisms of it, like it was very white, but I think you can pick the good bits of the past.

You can choose what you bring forward... Speaking of riot grrrl and DIY, I was going to ask Harriet about Kate Nash, because you toured with her with The Tuts. She’s one of my favourite artists. How has she influenced your music?

Harriet: I remember being on Tumblr about four years ago seeing pictures of Kate Nash. She was playing electric guitar instead of keyboards and we noticed her transitioning into quite a punky style. We got in touch with her and sent her the music video Jen made for The Tuts and she just loved us. She’s really supportive of female musicians. I’ve got her album Girl Talk in my car, I listen to it all the time - it’s such an amazing album. That definitely influenced my songwriting.

What do you have lined up for the summer?

Harriet: We just got announced for a festival called Handmade in Leicester.

Jennifer: Our bassist Carmela’s solo project, Ay Carmela, is going on tour with my solo project, Baby Arms. After that we’re doing a European tour!

Colour Me Wednesday’s new EP is out now and available to buy here.

Music Interview: Thao and The Get Down Stay Down

There’s a surprising exuberance to A Man Alive, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down’s new album. Not because the San Francisco band, fronted by Thao Nguyen, are in any way inconspicuous--their live sets are known for their raucous energy--but in the light of the painful story at its core.

This is the first time Thao has used her eclectic take on rock to look inwards and explore her relationship with her absent dad. The result is empowering in its resilience. The vulnerability of her lyrics and high pitched vocals are contrasted--elevated even--by the insistently assertive beats and bass lines. Speaking to Thao just before the release of her sixth LP, I’m reminded that emotional hardship is a nuanced experience, full of intensity.

What have you been up to today? I spent most of the day hiking and by the ocean. It was sunny and warm and almost windless, which is a rare gem of a combination for San Francisco, so everyone stays outdoors for as long as possible. 

 

What drove you to create A Man Alive? As I began writing songs for the new record the only ones that were taking hold seemed to be about my relationship with my dad. I think they had to get out and their insistence drove the making of this record. I was reluctant at first to make something so personal. But I'd also reached a point in my life where I was ready to delve and confront in a way I hadn't been before. I started to embrace the idea of making something much more personal and direct for my own sake.

 

What were you inspired by at the time? I'm always most inspired by what I'm reading, and when I'm in songwriting mode I'm especially susceptible and seeking. In the beginning stages, it was Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead. After one particular passage, I wept. I was struck by how much of my life and my dad I saw in one of the characters. Then I wrote Astonished Man, our most recently released single. It helped set the tone and precedent for the rest of the record. 

 

The tension between your feelings about your dad and the forceful sound is gripping. How did you go about this theme from a songwriting perspective? The two priorities of this record were to be more emotionally and sonically forthright. I wanted this record to better capture the emotion and energy we have playing live. I believe this record does that in a way none of the others have. I've always veered toward sublimation and it was very freeing and satisfying to be honest and express grief and joy and anger and hopelessness and optimism in equal, upfront measure. I also wanted to have fun and scream and dance and communicate with the audience on a more substantive and vulnerable level every time we performed.

Your previous album We The Common was inspired by your work in a women's prison. What prompted you to write about something more directly personal for this album? My early thirties. In all seriousness, I don't think I've allowed myself to be that vulnerable in my songs or my live performance. That's changed with age and experience. Writing, recording, and touring We The Common was so rewarding and rejuvenating and it led me first to my community and my city, and then to myself. There's only so much time you can go looking outward if you still have some inside business to sort out. 

 

You studied Sociology and Women's Studies at college. How has that affected your work as an artist? My intention in school was to go into social justice work. I found very quickly I didn't have the constitution to be on the front lines of that work, and I have so much respect and gratitude for the people who do. I believe I'm most effective using my job as a touring musician to help support the causes I love, and I promised myself I'd always keep those causes as close as I could. That allegiance gives me so much; it makes me want to make the best thing I can, and do as well as I can, that I might develop a sturdier platform and be of greater service, and it keeps me from getting carried away with myself and hopefully from becoming an asshole. 

 

What can you tell me about your song Astonished Man? It helped set the tone for content, but it also helped set the sonic tone for the album. It was one of the first songs recorded, and we knew pretty much right away that it would be the album opener. I have a lot of affection for this song because it captures an equanimity, compassion and optimism I don't always have. 

 

Also, making the video for Astonished Man was so fun. I had to call my mum and warn her about the - I think tasteful and nuanced - blood and gore. She did not take well to it upon first viewing, but has since warmed. It’s not a mum-friendly video.

A Man Alive is released on the 4th of March.