36 questions to fall in love with Billie Marten
The singer-songwriter speaks to woo about love, joy, and confidence
image Katie Silvester
words Rhys Thomas
In 1997, a psychology professor called Arthur Aron led a study that set out to find whether intimacy between two strangers could be accelerated if they asked each other a series of 36 specific, personal questions. The idea being if two people are vulnerable and sharing their unguarded personal thoughts with each other, it brings them closer together. In one case, two participants of the study married just six months after. While there's no replacement for knowing someone for years, these questions can be really useful for getting deep with someone on the first time of speaking. And, considering time is something that musicians, actors and other busy and successful people are short on, we figured let's use these questions to make the most of it. Read on to go deep with Billie Marten.
Billie Marten is at her house in east London signing hundreds of things: LPs, prints, and posters. This is because her fourth album Drop Cherries is out later in the week. She keeps having to stretch out her fingers to help her wrist pain, and has "disassociated from the stupid silly signature" she uses.
Marten, now 23, says the record has been a two year process, but a lot of the music came just before they started recording the entire album over 11 days in September 2022, just as autumn began to creep in.
You can hear the signifiers that this is a record from Billie Marten. The lyrics are observational and sharp, the instrumentation is full of layers and textures, shimmering harmonies are a’plenty. But Drop Cherries also feels distinctly different to her previous work. There’s a practical element to the newness within the sound. Marten hasn’t recorded with a full live band for an album before. This latest album was recorded in Somerset and Clarbeston, a remote spot in Pembrokeshire. She would stay in Airbnbs and cook meals along with her co-producer, his assistant, and bandmates. There’s also a more emotional element at play: Marten is happier and more confident than ever.
“I don't know whether this is watching a lot of men do it and not really watching women do it, but I always struggle with the line between being confident and being arrogant. I used to just do a lot of apologising.” She says adding “I often feel like an impostor because I haven't studied [music theory]. I couldn't tell you what keys any of the songs are in. But my confidence is getting there. I'm realising I'm not incapable. I just learned things in a different way.”
Previously Marten has described her effort with music as looking for clarity. "When playing Drop Cherries live, it will be the most accurate representation of myself so far." She says. “The words still ring true, which is rare, because often you'll write something two, three years ago, and then you'll have to talk about it now and you've almost lost that train of thought. This one's more of a lifetime feeling.”
She has actively tried to be less self-victimising too. “A lot of my songs end up being like: I suck. Then listeners go: I suck too, let's suck together. And I think I was bored of that narrative that I'd carved for myself: the melancholic, whispering singer.” Jokingly, Marten says she's gone from sad guitar girlie to "full on happy legendary rock and roller". The new sense of joy is palpable.
Outside of the usual folk and alternative pop leanings to Marten’s music, linchpins of her world, the record borrows not from rock and roll, but more a more unexpected genre. "There's almost like, a jazz undertone, throughout the album. Both of the drummers have a jazz background. There's an element of surprise to it that I’ve really enjoyed and would never have found on my own."
Sound aside, Marten says there’s a general feeling of acceptance of the world and everything in Drop Cherries. “This is the first time my writing has come from a place of love and happiness and abundance, rather than: here's what I'm missing. Or I'm lacking this, or I'm not good enough for this.”
The other very present sound is that of love. Lyrically, the songs all show different slices of a relationship: the good, the bad, the sad, the happy. They form a whole that is tender and deep with a rumination on ideas of love: what we do for someone else, what we doubt within ourselves, what being cared for feels like. It’s all there, and much more.
Given the sharp and varied observations dotted through Drop Cherries, it’s clear that Billie Marten is a romantic: someone who thinks deeply about love in all its forms. Therefore, it was only natural to ask Billie Marten the 36 questions to fall in love.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
I just listed all my favourite musicians and thought actually they'd be cunty and annoying to talk to, and who wants to have dinner with a prick? So who would be genuinely lovely... Well, I'm about to go on tour with Mark Everett from Eels. I'm a big fan of the band too, so let's say him.
Would you like to be famous? In what way?
Famous people are notoriously, desperately, sad and lonely and I don’t want to ever reach that point where I have more money than friends. But I’d love to be famous so that I can play Sydney Opera House or The Royal Albert Hall, or so that I don’t feel like I’m living in a state of constant precariousness and instability.
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
No, but I certainly should.
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
Waking up to the sunshine, I’m entirely weather dependent. I’m really enjoying mornings at the moment and I make sure I’m not doing any work before 12pm usually if I can help it. I’d do the household chores: put the washing on, clean the kitchen, bring my plants out from the greenhouse. I’d make a meal for maybe four hours (a really well cooked curry or something, it’s all about the onions) and hope it’s delicious at the end of it. Lying down and reading my book, and having a bath.
When did you last sing to yourself?
Yesterday when I had to sing Drop Cherries to my iPhone.
If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
I’d want my 90-year-old mind with my 30-year-old body. But it’s like the question of the perfect house with the shittiest view or the opposite. Everyone says they want the perfect view when they really want the perfect house. I know that my body is going to crumble, it’s already going.
Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
I’ve thought about this recently. Part of me thinks it’ll happen sooner rather than later just because I can’t see myself as an old person sitting in her chair. Realistically, cancer will probably get me.
Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
Curious minds, we love music above everything else, and we really appreciate physical things like objects, the paper that gets delivered, or really good bread. Old-fashioned, tactile things.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
The people around me.
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
It was relatively idyllic and I think my parents were really good, but it would perhaps be not going to Jesus camp when I was young. Didn’t love that…
Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible…
Born in a house in Ripley, North Yorkshire. I went to various state schools, dad taught me guitar and mum had a piano, I started playing at seven or eight. Started putting videos on YouTube via my mum, at 12 one of those videos got the attention of London, I signed a development deal at 13, my first record deal at 15. A few more records, there, got dropped and signed another deal. I then applied for uni and didn’t go. Travelling and touring, lockdown, I’m here. Now I’m about to release album number four. I’m more happy about the world I exist in. Since 13 I’ve been working really hard to tackle those problems and get a better sense of mental health I guess.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
I’d love to be fluent in French.
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
Nothing. I don’t want to know anything before it’s happened to me.
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
Learning violin, but I have one now. A friend gave me one. Hopefully I’ll be doing that later on this year.
What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
This is super cheesy but finding my person, as in my partner.
What do you value most in a friendship?
What is your most treasured memory?
When I was a really small baby on the Whitby coast, which is where we used to go to the seaside. My older brother used to dig loads of holes in the sand and I, as a baby, would back into them like a truck and sit in the holes. I have a really good long-term memory, in a semi-photographic way.
What is your most terrible memory?
In 2012 I was staying at a friend’s house and there was no signal, I woke up to 1,000 missed calls from my mum. She drove to the house I was staying at and told me my dad had had a heart attack. He then had two more. But he’s fine today. He turned 65 this week.
If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
Nothing at all, I’m very content. Maybe I’d set up a charity for loneliness and old people.
What does friendship mean to you?
Friendship means isolating the thought of loneliness, and having a helping hand through life.
What roles do love and affection play in your life?
Little pockets of love every day keep people going. I love observing. If I’m on the bus with someone I know who hasn’t really been touched or had a hug in a while I’ll always kind of bump into them a little bit.
Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
Incredibly kind, generous, thoughtful, funny, handsome… not really a characteristic but I think it is for beautiful people, to be a certain level of beautiful.
How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
I do think it was happier than most people’s, there wasn’t divorce. I’m very lucky to have parents who love each other. We’re close, too.
How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
I love her to bits. I find that growing up the daughter-mother relationship is more difficult to navigate because of the hormonal surges and ancestral stuff put on you as a young woman, but we’re close.
I’ll start three sentences and you can end them.
You are in this room feeling… “low-level stress but mostly enjoying myself.”
Doing press is… “enjoyable, there are times when I’m not doing it where I don’t feel productive or accomplished. It makes me sad when I can’t just have a conversation and the questions are all predetermined, though.”
Spring is just about coming to life and that feels… “unreasonably joyful. I am looking forward to relaxing into the summer.”
Now complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share …
... my love for horse riding, not in a posh way, I’m from the countryside. I have to say that every time.
If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
Explaining my brain and how it functions, and the caveats of having depression, anxiety, eating disorder, blah blah blah, but none of those things are really relevant to me anymore. So I don’t think I’d preface anything.
Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
I like how clumsy they are. And their vocabulary, the words they use in sentences impress me.
Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
Plenty of those. The other day I was on the radio with Clive Anderson, he said “you’re going on tour to North America” and I, assuming he said USA like everyone does, said “don’t forget Canada”.
When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
Two weeks ago, I had a bit of a dip, my friend Katie came around and I just did a lot of crying.
Tell us something you like about your partner
We’ve done this!
What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
Well, I have it with food and the way people look…
If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
I think it would be genuinely thanking my mum for her. I don’t think I’ve been as nice to her as I could have been growing up and I think that would serve her the most relief.
Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
Despite loving things, I don’t think I’d take anything, but I’d probably take my guitar: a Gibson J45, from 1958. It’s the same age as my dad.
Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing?
My dad, yeah.
Share a personal problem and tell us how your partner might handle it.
An actual problem right now is that I can’t re-press my first two records for… reasons. It’s been a thing for a few years. He would probably say “just go into the building, find the physical things, and talk to someone about it in real time, and you’ll probably get your own way”. He is very practically able to sort things out. I’m more existential and the world feels like it’s too much, whereas there’s probably ways to sort a lot of problems out quite easily.
Billie Marten’s fourth album, Drop Cherries, is out April 7, 2023 via Fiction Records. UK and North American headline tour tickets are on sale now.
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