Yorkshire's own Billie Marten at the Crescent


Lydia Chowdhury on the intimate gig to celebrate the release of the singer's album Drop Cherries

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Image by Lydia Chowdhury

By Lydia Chowdhury

Entering the York Crescent Community Centre, as many a good gig starts, Billie graced the stage. She wore a pale green strappy top and bootleg jeans, clad in an acoustic guitar (sometimes switched out for electric). The whole audience looked up at her expectantly. She replied to the floor full of eager eyes with some small talk. She was just in Canada, and now, her second stop of the tour, York. An unusual choice, but not for Billie, who was brought up in Ripon, a short fifty-minute drive up north-west.

Perhaps it was the hazy, smoky lighting or the extra glass of wine, but Billie Marten was especially entrancing onstage, more so than in her music videos. The lively chatter fizzled out and I’m sure I heard someone gasp quietly as she walked into view. Silhouetted against the stage light behind her, she smiled tentatively while she set things up.

It took a tricky joke and an awkward laugh to break the silence of the audience who were rapt and attentive. Billie eased out a few “yes’” when she asked if anyone was from York.

It was clumsy and imperfect yet that made it feel both intimate and endearing. The stage was crowded with a violin, drums, guitar, double bass, wires, keyboard, bass guitar, band members, and the floor crowded with fans, ranging from twenty-something-year-olds to middle-aged couples. Many people clutched onto plastic cups spilling with overpriced beer.

A couple plucks into Billie Marten’s hit song ‘Vanilla Baby’ from her 2019 album Feeding Seahorses by Hand, she adjusted the tuning pegs and turned to Anouska, a second-year Sociology undergraduate at the University of York. Anouska confessed she knew the song on guitar. Billie helped her up onto the stage and gave her the electric guitar. They played together, Anouska on electric and Billie on acoustic, sharing glances while the audience cheered and whistled them on.

Later Anouska and I discussed Billie in the little pub corner of the York Crescent, tucked out of the way of a busy stream of bodies exiting the building, onto the road. Anouska told me that she had loved Billie in lockdown. “I was like… I’m going to learn all the songs”, she said. “She has a good vibe and energy and you just feel sort of safe”, but obviously it was “super terrifying” to be up on stage with her.

Anouska stumbled a bit with her chords, in fact, so did Billie at one point. They laughed about it and continued to play. The delicate finger work on guitar played around Billie’s floaty voice:

“Today, I feel close to ill

It seems to be alright

Steady hands and steady feet

I push you far behind”

The night had a really intimate, collaborative feel, with people dipping on and off stage. The next person on stage was Harry Francis Smith and Billie gushed over his talent with the violin, viola, cello and over his relentless support.

They played ‘Devil Swim’ and ‘New Idea’, some of Billie’s more melancholic, slow songs from her new album Drop Cherries. The strings felt rich and gentle, they melted into Billie’s airy singing. Unlike many of her songs, which are folky and warm, these songs seemed more wistful – ‘Devil Swim’ had the refrain “nothing left to cry about”. Yet, they were, of course, immensely beautiful.

Clara Mann, opener for Billie Marten on her tour, walked onto the stage and everyone on stage gathered round. The stage transformed into a kind of musical nativity scene, angelic and calm. They sang ‘Lionhearted’, ‘Acid Tooth’ and ‘This is How We Move’. It was close quarters, the violin bow brushed past Marten’s blonde hair that glowed in the stage lights.

The musicians’ closed eyes sensed and searched for the music that tied them all together, dipping under and above soft diminuendos and crescendos. Billie quipped about her songs in the breaks between, breaking up the seriousness of it all.

“Okay we’re gonna try another new one, cause we get bored easily. It’s called ‘Swing’,” she said before they played the unreleased song. Then, after, “Just a bit of fun that one…. Do you hate it?”.

Billie smiled as waves of crescendo washed over her voice, the soft intensity of everyone playing and feeling the music. ‘Nothing But Mine’ was the last song before everyone faux left the stage in preparation for their encore. Cheered back onto the stage, amid “One more” chants, Billie joked, “You have to work as well, we all graft in our own ways”.

“How do you guys feel about some light swaying?” she teased the audience before playing ‘I Can’t Get My Head Around You’, the most popular from her new album Drop Cherries.

“Look at all you lovely swaying swayers!”

She credited her band and implored the audience to cheer louder for them before slightly digressing into a discussion on rejecting big consumer music corporations that do little to support the artist. Afterwards, I managed to sneak in a quick question whilst she autographed t-shirts:

If you could summarise the concert in three words, what would they be?

“Magnetic, Heart-warming and Extraordinary”

I’d agree with magnetic and heart-warming, yes, but since extraordinary is more generic than I’d like (I can’t blame her, I did put her on the spot), I shall include my own; serene.

It was truly an ethereal, calming experience.