“I have never felt true to my age, and every time someone asks me how old I am, it’s like I’m lying,” says Billie Marten, certainly the epitome of an old soul if ever there was one. Not yet 22, the British singer-songwriter spent her mid-to-late teens releasing delicately rendered folk music across two albums and two EPs; though her work has always exhibited a precocious composure, her latest, Flora Fauna, out May 21 on IMPERIAL Music/Fiction Records, sees her shed the diaphanous layers, materializing into something fuller and more earthy. It’s a confident step away from the ethereal and into the reality of adulthood; on Flora Fauna, Marten feels less like a wispy daydream and more like a woman waking up at the end of the world.
“I think I thought I was very much an adult on the first and second albums, but I was so confused and so impressionable and was trying to put across this very, like, English lit, bucolic sense of personality, which is a section of my personality, but I’ve now realized that it’s not the entirety. That’s why all the artwork this time around is kind of confrontational and I’m literally eating mud to kind of get rid of that whimsical waif idea,” she explains. “I didn’t wanna be this kind of floaty ethereal waif anymore. I got rid of that person.”
Signing with Chess Club and releasing her debut Writing of Blues and Yellows when she was just sixteen, the boutique label no longer felt like “home” by the time they were absorbed by parent RCA/Sony (they’ve since become independent again). Though she went on to release sophomore effort Feeding Seahorses by Hand via the major, she amicably severed ties with her entire team apart from longtime producer Rich Cooper by the time she’d begun writing Flora Fauna at the end of 2019. “I just called him up and we started making sounds together again. And it was so quick and easy and natural to me and none of it was trying to force this particular image or writing style out – it was very immediate for me,” Marten recalls. She took up playing bass, which she says was a “huge moment” musically. “It just made all of these sounds come out louder and broader and more immediate.”
Marten had already been listening to a lot of Fiona Apple as she began recording Flora Fauna at the start of 2020. Apple dropped surprise opus Fetch the Bolt Cutters just as the pandemic put a temporary halt on that process, and while it was more stripped back and jazzy than the previous albums Marten had gravitated toward, it was an important reminder that Marten stick to her own vision. “We just began layering live sounds and re-amping everything and making sure everything had a huge backbone and was massive, essentially, in your ears,” she says. “I wanted that bass tone to be so juicy. I didn’t want any thinness.” Rather than rely on the quirks of incorporating organic sounds as she had on previous records, she wanted Flora Fauna to “feel a lot more live and present.”
That extended to the album’s themes as much as the instrumentation. The springy bassline of album opener “Garden of Eden” snaps around lines like “I’ve been growing leaf by leaf/Dying for the world to see” before bursting into a twinkling chorus. Metaphors meld the natural world with Marten’s personal and musical growth over the course of the record, making statements both direct and roundabout about humanity’s place on this earth.
Sometimes, that’s intensely personal – more than a few of these songs see Marten coming to terms with her human shell. While previous albums were abstract about her experiences with depression, Marten retains the poeticism while offering very literal insights into cultivating “a good healthy relationship with the one person that matters most” – herself. “Growing up I felt very alien to my body. I developed an eating disorder when I was like 13, 14, and I’m still battling with that now, but the past two albums I was not ready to admit that or address that at all,” she admits. “This album takes into account all those hypocrisies and the changing of minds that you have each day; whether you feel positive or negative about yourself fluctuates daily and I wanted to address that in every song.”
On “Heaven” she’s looking for salvation or relief, trilling the mantra “give my body patience to be free” over exotic guitar tones and fuzzy synth. Soaring strings lend conviction to Marten’s boundary-setting assertion on “Kill the Clown:” “After all I am not a baby doll/I’ve got bills to pay and they never go away… I see everything in color/And I’m done with that.” On the plucky, self-deprecating “Ruin,” she acknowledges she’s not always friends with herself, stretching her airy falsetto over an elastic alt-pop chorus.
“Something happens when you go through puberty and you develop more and become this womanly shape which is supposed to get you ready for making babies and being strong and traveling and whatever. When you just so don’t want that to happen, you just go into yourself and your posture gets really bad, and you’re trying to be this skeletal image of yourself, which is not accurate,” Marten says. But on album album stand-out “Liquid Love,” she does achieve some kind of balance, even if its only a self-soothing sentiment she aspires to – it’s a breezy, easy-going love letter to what her body is capable of in a sensual self-appreciation slow jam.
“That was one of the quickest songs that came out, cause it’s kind of this repetitive nursery rhyme chant thing I have going,” she says, referring to a repeating line: “all our actions are reactions.” She built chords around a sweetly hummed vocal looped with Cooper’s Yamaha sampling keyboard, added a lazy little bassline “just doing its own thing,” and paired a drum machine with a live kit for a nice mix of digital and organic percussion. “It’s an incredibly immersive pool of a song and it sort of opens you up into this world that isn’t really familiar, but it’s kind of comforting,” Marten says. “There’s no chord changes, no key changes, it just is what it is. I wanted to layer vocals and be my own choir… and then I wanted the main vocal melody to just be an ascending mantra.”
At its heart, the song is about creating a space to protect and cultivate her well-being. “I just wasn’t doing that and I wasn’t hanging around with good people that made me feel good and that’s sort of the first step I think. If you reflect good things they come back to you, and I was reflecting some bad, bad stuff throughout the past year and a half, two years. People have noticed that I’m smiling now, and that never happened. I can kind of carry myself a bit more,” she says. “It’s a big learning curve, for sure. But I’m definitely getting there.”
Marten isn’t wholly preoccupied with herself, but also her place in a world dangling at the precipice of an environmental apocalypse. Her focus on nature as a grounding force is evident enough from the title of the record, and while there’s a subtle vein of confrontation railing against prior generations’ disastrous stewardship of our shared planet, Marten sees climate change as a systemic issue rather than a wholly individual responsibility. “For me it’s about respecting the earth a bit more, and that could be completely impractically – it could be just thinking about it fondly, or making sure you’re walking every day or buying a new plant that makes you feel good,” she says. “Concepts like nature are so abstract and evocative and it can be anything you want it to be, versus very specific problems like self love and self hate and relationships. Knowing that something is that huge puts everything into perspective for me.”
Still, there are times when something as innocuously tragic as a one-legged pigeon sends her reeling into a “long boring old man rant about modern life,” as she does on “Pigeon.” “I’m a very sporadic writer – I’m not good at daily writing. I can only write at the point where something needs to come out of me right now, and it needs to be honest,” Marten says. “I was picking up all these worldly anxieties… just stuff you can’t control at all, things that will happen with or without you. To the point where I’m sitting down and writing, that’s usually just have had it.”
The album ends with a haunting push-and-pull; “Walnut” sees Marten opining the forbidden fruits of love from a nut too hard to crack, while “Aquarium” admits her reliance on friends and lovers alike (“I am too bold without them/I am too cold without them… Couldn’t count on any others,” she sings).
“I wanted to keep up with that cyclical theme – I liked the fact that [Flora Fauna] opens with ‘Garden of Eden’ and you’re set up on appreciation and positivity and growing and goodness, and then in ‘Walnut,’ I wanted to express the forbidden nature of love and nature itself and happiness and how you’re just always climbing through this cave or maze, and it’s more of a struggle than you realize,” Marten says. “Aquarium,” she adds, is a portrait of herself at her lowest points. “Excuse me while I lay here in the shade,” she pleads, retreating into said garden.
The religious allusions throughout the album are more of a Leonard Cohen-esque device for exploring mortality, Marten says, than an indicator of her own beliefs; her father is a “strong atheist,” and although she grew up going to church with her religious mum, “I was mostly just observing; that’s one of my favorite hobbies. I just love looking at other people’s lives and being very quiet,” she says. “But religion is often talked about within song because quite often you’re trying to describe something that is unattainable. It’s a good way to connect the abstract with immediate things.”
Marten has always been skilled at tapping into resonant imagery, but if anything, Flora Fauna feels like the truest rendering of her personhood to date. “I wanted to face things head on, and lyrically speaking, I got much less abstract and just said how I felt, and it felt amazing,” she says. “I didn’t have to carry the pretense of being an artist – and now I separate the two, you know? I’m not who I am writing songs and on stage, that’s not my entirety. I’m a completely different person when I’m not making music and that’s something to accept.”