Billie Marten was just 17 when she released her debut album, ‘Writing Of Blues And Yellows’ in 2016. Growing up in rural Yorkshire, the flora and fauna of the natural world framed much of her early writing. In fact, it was really all she had to go on, still at school and living at home – as if gazing out at the wider world from behind glass.
On ‘Aquarium’, the final song on her new, third album ‘Flora Fauna’, Marten is no longer the girl behind glass, but the artist in front of it, looking back at her younger self from a wiser, louder – and occasionally wistful – perspective. “I need friends and I want lovers,” she sings as she moves through the adult world.
As an English singer-songwriter with a folk lean and a thoughtful, literary outlook, comparisons to Laura Marling were rife during Marten’s first forays into music. For both artists, the natural world is more than an influence – it’s a language for emotion. But in the five years since, amid many global, political, and musical shifts, Marten left home for London, and her sound slowly followed.
Her second album, ‘Feeding Seahorses By Hand’, documented new life in the big city: books, political observations, customers she encountered in the pub where she pulled shifts. And London continues to play a part on ‘Flora Fauna’, from female street safety to pigeons. “I am sick of branding and one-legged pigeons,” she reflects during a Tube journey, confronted with the city’s grubbier side.
London’s presence also filters through the album’s sound – and Marten’s attempts to break out of the sweet folky box of her first record. Only a few songs are led by acoustic guitar – ‘Pigeon,’ ‘Kill The Clown’, ‘Aquarium’ – but they’re propelled by something more urgent, accompanied by vivid strings or brisk percussion.
To describe ‘Flora Fauna’, Marten uses words like “sunny”, “abundance”, “joy”, “a green bath”. These songs certainly come from a happier, self-assured place, from jangly ‘Heaven’ to pop jaunt ‘Ruin’, the latter recalling Angel Olsen’s sprightly ‘What It Is’. The whispery vocals of Marten’s earlier records linger, but the writing feels more improvised and immediate, like a lively chat on the phone rather than a long, laboured diary entry.
She’s clearly grown comfortable to throw a little caution, though it just makes you want her to throw a lot more. The trifecta of looped vocals, synths, and keys on ‘Liquid Love’ sound unlike anything she’s done before – and unlike anything else on the album, which at times clings too hard to a certain timbre.
But there’s a dark edge to the album’s sunshine. End-of-days basslines and flickering synth structure every song, many of which deal with tough, uncomfortable feelings. Lead single ‘Garden Of Eden’ opens the album not with lush hedonism but an ominous bass riff, as Marten contemplates burnout and self-neglect: how we’re all too busy competing to live to actually live, a criticism surely relevant to the pressures and pace of her industry. Meanwhile, on the growling ‘Human Replacement’, a girl walks home alone at night. Everybody knows how that story can end.
This is the urban Marten, worldly-wise and far less green, but processing her surroundings with the same magpie gleam she possessed as a rural schoolgirl. “I’ve been growing leaf by leaf / dying for the world to see / ready,” she sings at the beginning of ‘Flora Fauna’. Ready, too, to put down roots in new sounds, colouring her future promise with shades beyond blues and yellows.
Listen to Billie Marten talk through ‘Flora, Fauna’ in depth in our new episode of the Sleeve Notes podcast