In ‘Feeding Seahorses by Hand’, Billie Marten finds her artistic identity by combining an array of sounds with her own journey of personal development.
Something fascinating about music is its capability to evoke certain emotions across different groups of people. Playlists are a great example: nowadays there are playlists for nearly every mood that thousands of people follow, thousands of people that live in different places, that are of different age, and yet they all listen to one playlist full of mellow tunes that is said to be suited for “chilled Sundays” or to be played at the coffeehouse, as early risers sip on their long black americanos and skim through the newspaper.
‘Feeding Seahorses by Hand’ – Billie Marten
Billie Marten’s Feeding Seahorses By Hand feels like a playlist of its own. It is the perfect soundtrack for a walk on a Sunday morning, or for an early evening glass of wine by the fire. Its soothing and almost therapeutic tones blend with the atmosphere, delighting the passive listener without requiring too much attention for them. However, it is also a treat for the more attentive listener, showcasing unexpected hidden gems in the production of some tracks, and a clever play with rhythms, amongst other surprises for the music geek.
From the very first track, “Cartoon People”, it is made clear that this is not the ordinary folk, singer-songwriter album, and that there is going to be a certain degree of experimentation throughout it. Opening with an intro that features echoey synths, it almost feels surprising when a fingerpicked acoustic guitar comes in. As the song evolves, the instruments come and go, with an electric guitar popping every now and then with melodious embellishments and delicate drum playing. The beauty of imperfection is embraced, slightly distorted sounds and background vinyl noises, intertwining with Marten’s whisper-like voice.
Hold me, it’s a crisis
that we’re pulling towards
Cartoon people fighting an American war
A critical observation of Donald Trump’s performance seen from his daughter’s point of view, “Cartoon People” exemplifies a change in Billie Marten’s songwriting: “I feel like I’m more awake to society than I was aged 15. That’s bound to happen. This record is definitely not as much about me. It’s about my view on other people, other things”, she says about the new album.
Another example of this shift in lyrical themes is previously released single “Betsy”, in which she criticizes politicians for how they failed to serve society:
Glory days are gone
Heaven knows we’re doing it wrong
Sleepy daydream boy
This world is no man’s toy
The main hook in “Betsy” is not the vocal melody, but a consistent melody played on electric guitar and consistently repeated throughout the song, bringing the different parts of the song together, and captivating the listener from beginning to end, in what feels like a hypnotic cycle.
A tapping pattern and a shaker intertwine with a rhythmic guitar in following track “Blood Is Blue”, in which the artist takes a more experimental approach, incorporating glimmering synths and the occasional, perhaps unnoticeable for some, dissonant line.
Following “Blue Sea, Red Sea”, one of the most up-tempo tracks on the record, “Vanilla Baby” strips it back, its main features being a plucked pattern on acoustic guitar and Marten’s effortless singing. The solemn tone of the song seems to mirror the lyrics, which feel like an insight into someone’s troubled mind:
Pages after pages I write for me and no one else
Standing tall, no brick in the wall
I take care of myself
Fickle is as fickle does
As solitary links
My, oh my, it’s hard because she says just what she thinks
Introducing the second half of the album, “Toulouse” is the result of people watching, noticing the most mundane details and putting them together into an exquisite account from the perspective of the observer. It is a good example of how the album paints a picture of the outside world from Marten’s perspective, rather than focusing on herself as an individual. Having moved to London after leaving school and started working in a pub, Marten enjoyed observing the constant stream of characters frequenting the bar, which is reflected throughout this record.
Next track “She Dances” brings in even more sonic diversity, introducing a Latin feel via clave rhythms and jazzy extended chords. Although this variety is appreciated as an overall feature on the record, sometimes the experimentation seems unnecessary and takes away from the song. For instance, the ongoing dissonant, high pitched line in the background of “Bad Apple” does not seem to enhance the song in anyway, but to distract the listener from its essence instead.
Navigating throughout different sounds, Marten keeps exploring until the end of the record, introducing a rockier sound in “Boxes”, to then return to her staple mellow songwriting style with “Anda”, and finishing it off with graceful vocal harmonies featured in final song “Fish”.
Coming over two years after the release of debut album Writing of Blues and Yellows, Feeding Seahorses By Hand reflects the development in Marten’s songwriting, prompted by her own personal growth and increasing maturity. Showcasing an innate gift for songwriting, it is impressive that such a cohesive piece of work has been put together by such a young person. With her career just starting to take off, Marten’s latest retcord foreshadows a promising future.
📸 © Billie Marten