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‘It’s all driven by complete vulnerability’: Billy Nomates on new album Cacti

Cacti, the upcoming new album from Tor Maries, better known as Billy Nomates, sees the artist bare her soul in a way that might surprise fans of her 2020 self-titled debut. Here, she tells Headliner about embracing her vulnerability, artistic misconceptions, and why she’s always liked the idea of ‘being the wild card option’…

“I’ll catastrophise a cup of coffee,” a warm and disarmingly open Tor Maries laughs at one point during the course of our conversation. “Anyone who knows me will tell you that I catastrophise everything. There is this misconception that Billy Nomates is this very fierce, powerful thing, and it has that side to it, but I want people to understand that it is only driven by complete vulnerability and fragility.”

To casual fans, or those with only a passing knowledge of Billy Nomates, these words will likely sit at stark odds with the fearless, at times confrontational persona that Maries has carved with her alter ego over the past three years. The punchy, homemade beats and snarling delivery that largely defined Billy Nomates and 2021 follow-up EP Emergency Telephone were laced with post-punk agitation and a bristling sense of restlessness that was perhaps best exemplified in her minimalist yet mighty live performances. Backed with nought but a backing track as she dances and paces the stage, these very singular shows added further to the DIY aesthetic and general look of an artist possessed of a cast iron, all-conquering confidence in her ability to take on the world.

Of course, for those listening closely enough, traces of the vulnerability and fragility she speaks of have always been detectable just beneath the surface. And on Cacti, she takes a hammer and chisel to that coarse veneer and allows those qualities to flow forth. Lyrics that may previously have been spat or spoken are given more melodic form, delivered with a freedom that exposes the raw power, beauty and emotion in her voice in ways that weren't quite as obvious last time around. Similarly, the music on Cacti feels less abrasive, less tightly wound, and all the more potent for it. An expanded sonic palette also results in greater dynamics, from the chugging riffs of singles Balance Is Gone and Spite, to the low key melancholy of Saboteur Forcefield and Roundabout Sadness. In essence, it’s a fuller body of work than it’s predecessor. And according to Maries, a more truthful one.

“For me there are different elements to it [Cacti], and I haven’t really spoken about relationships or certain feelings and emotions,” she explains. “I tried to tap into a more vulnerable side. I feel very vulnerable after the past few years, and artistically I never wanted to shy away from that. It was important for me to start being a bit more honest about that. And hopefully I’ve done that, not just with the lyrics, but sonically as well. I wanted to bring in softer sounds. I read a lot about the first album and that post punk tag that follows it around, and it’s not a dirty word, but I don’t feel like it’s every really suited me. I hope this album will shift people’s thinking a bit. It’s not a bad thing, but I don’t think it’s every properly represented me. I always knew that, but you have to show it.”

A lot of my conversations are quite apocalyptic. You just have to battle through it. Billy Nomates

At the time of our conversation, Maries is enjoying a well-earned break before gearing up for the launch of Cacti on January 13. She’s rather generously given up a chunk of her day to talk to Headliner from a sun-drenched spot in the Canary Islands: “I’m sat in the sun, I’m near a beach, I’ve got my little 12-key synth to play with in the evenings… life’s good,” she beams.

Her location may well be responsible, at least in part, for her bright disposition, but there is a discernible air of ease and contentment in her manner that can’t all be attributed to a holiday in the sun. Not only has she just produced an impeccable record in Cacti, she is also preparing to release it into a very different world to the one that spawned her debut.

“I started work on this album about a year ago,” she recalls. "We’d only just come out of lockdown and were still finding our way. Through lockdown I had to move back in with my dad on the Isle of Wight because things just disappeared overnight. I just put my first record out and I had no idea how I was going to survive in the world. So, knowing I had another album with Invada Records (a Bristol-based label and studio founded by Portishead’s Jeff Barrow) to crack on with, I moved to Bristol, and started work immediately.

“I set up at Invada, had my little station there, and between there and my flat I just started writing," she continues. "I seem to work best working really intensely for four or five weeks, not leaving the studio, and then I’ll just put it down for a month and forget I was even doing it. So I was trying to trick myself all the time into not being too close to it, which is really difficult when you’re a solo artist, as you’re creating everything, you’re stitching everything. But it was important to me to write something that felt a long way away from Covid. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I think a lot of people felt like that.

“And I didn’t want to get too politically driven with it. I would never shy away from brining politics into my work, but I was also just bored of it all! In the UK, it’s just dreadful at all times! And it dominates most conversations. And I feel like a lot of my conversations are quite apocalyptic – isn’t the world terrible; there might be a nuclear war; Covid might come back. These constant conversations about how dreadful everything is… sometimes you’d just rather talk about a relationship, or something else. It’s a tidal wave of crap! You’re constantly trying to battle through it, and it can so easily consume your life. So, it’s nice to try and escape from that and find a way out of it. This album did that.”

While the tonal shift between the two records is evident, and indeed, one that Maries was keen to develop to the fullest, she also points out this was fuelled by a desire to reflect her emotions at the time, as opposed to a purely stylistic deviation.

“It wasn’t a deliberate decision, it’s just the way I felt,” she explains. “With the debut I felt angry and I felt fierce and I always want to do myself justice artistically. I lean into where I’m at at the time, as that’s the most honest thing I can do. And I’m glad that changes. I don’t want to be sassy and angry all of the time,” she laughs. “I didn’t sit down and think ‘I want to make a softer, polished record’. It took me by surprise. And there is every kind of expectation that if everyone is calling me this fierce post punk artist, the ultimate rebellious nature of me went, ‘I’ll show you who’s not post punk!’”

So how did she go about funnelling that new state of mind into music?

“Well, the biggest difference between making these albums was that, with the debut, and I don’t know if this is good or bad, I never expected anyone to hear it,” she says. “Truly, honestly. I wasn’t with a label, it was made completely selfishly for my own pleasure and release. So I had to get my head around the idea that people might hear this one [she laughs]. Which does put you in a different headspace.

“I took my time with it, and I had Invada Studios, so I’d load up a very primal recording software, get melodies and lyrics, then amble down to Invada and pull out old synths and start experimenting. And that was a total playground for me because I’d never had that before. To be able to use some of the odd things in the cupboards and odd sounds and old drum machines was really exciting. You’d go in and be like ‘what’s this?!’ and it was some cranky old thing that was used on a Portishead album, and it was like ‘no way’! So that was new, and I guess that it influenced the sound. So as much as it feels like mine, it has this nice Invada stamp on it as well, which fits with me perfectly. I’m a big fan of theirs.”

Maries’s connection with Invada Studios came about as a by-product of her relationship with Sleaford Mods. The electro punk duo – if such a description is adequate – have been vocal champions of Billy Nomates from the beginning, calling on her services as a guest vocalist on their 2020 single Mork n Mindy. They also share the same management, and via a series of connections, wound up in contact with Barrow and Invada, to which she soon signed.

As Maries puts it, the label/studio's commitment to supporting new music is “invaluable”, particularly at a time when the odds are stacked more heavily against independent talent than ever before.

“It’s really important that those places exists for artists, because without it you can’t develop in the same way – to go to a studio and understand how to use things; the way a studio works; to have those experiences of going from your bedroom to a recording studio,” she elaborates. “And Jeff is just a massive supporter of music. He wants you to develop as an artist. He wants you to do your own thing and he puts his trust in what you do, and that is the biggest thing you can do for an artist. It’s been amazing and I couldn’t speak highly enough about that space and that crew and that label.”

I'm in control of Billy Nomates and I'll do what I want with it. Billy Nomates

Away from the studio, Maries is also looking forward to touring a record that still feels fresh, which, she says, wasn’t the case when she finally got round to touring a debut that was released just a few months after the onset of the pandemic.

“To be brutally honest, when I first got out with that album, because it was a year later, there was this terrible disconnect that happened, and I felt very much that its time might have passed,” she reflects. “The first few shows back I was very worried about it. But I have worked through that and had a really busy summer, and it was great to get to Europe, and for shows to be sold out and everyone knowing the words was mind-blowing,” she smiles with genuine disbelief. ‘So I’ve worked through that and now it’s really exciting.

“Also, I’m riddled with self-doubt. So, to know that people want to see it and enjoy it comforts me and reassures me that it’s going to be OK. And it’s an odd thing that I do… it’s not a standard setup. So, I would understand if people don’t get it or it’s not their cup of tea... it is what it is. But when people really get into it it ignites your fire. And I really like to have music out that’s in line with how I feel, as that’s how I like to perform it, and that doesn’t happen so much when you’re performing stuff that was written over a year ago.”

Does she ever find audiences perplexed at her live shows? Perhaps expecting a band or some form of live musical accompaniment?

“You do sometimes,” she laughs, as we prepare to say our goodbyes and offer our thanks once again for such a generous donation of her time. “They don’t usually know what to expect. And people do say things like, ‘you’d be great if you had a band’, and it’s like, well, I’ve never written that way, I’ve never performed that way. It’s been this way since day one for me and I don’t know any different. I write, produce, and then I go and perform it. It is what it is, from my sister’s living room to a festival stage, and I’ve never wanted to tamper with it too much. It’s slightly different to what’s out there and I’ve always liked the idea of being the wild card option. That comes with positives and negatives. I’m open to the fact that some people are quite disappointed if they’re expecting a live band.

“And I think it’s important you see female artists being the captain of their own ship, and to know that I’ve driven the whole thing. People can make of it what they want. As long as enough people are intrigued by it and I can keep doing it then I will. You just have to do what feels good. And it could change in the future. I feel very in control of Billy Nomates and I’ll do what I want with it.”