If there’s one question that informs Tor Maries writing as Billy Nomates more than any other, it’s this: whose voice isn’t in the room?
A beacon of brutal truth in an industry built on inconsequential bullshit, the Bristol-based singer-songwriter gives voice to the silenced, the disillusioned, the broken-hearted, and the burnt-out assembling brilliantly biting dispatches from the fringes of a society mired in austerity, inequality and insularity. Or, as Maries puts it, with trademark bluntness, “There’s too much music in the world already, so everything I make has to count.”
“Make everything count” might just as well serve as Maries’ creative mantra. From the impactful imagery powering her soulful and bleakly humorous songwriting to the economy of sound she achieves with her defiantly DIY approach, there’s not a superfluous detail in the entirety of Maries’ output as Billy Nomates so far. It’s this very combination of authenticity and searing insight that made 2020’s self-titled debut such a revelation, winning Maries admirers such as Iggy Pop, Juliette Lewis and Florence Welch. And as she prepares to release the excellent follow-up, CACTI, Maries is more focused on her mission than ever.
“This is the first time I’ve released a body of work that’s not in the pandemic,” she tells me from her home in Bristol over Zoom. “My whole existence professionally has been through pandemics, so yeah, I feel good about it. I’m quite anxious about it. I’m quite nervous to put it out into the world, but at the same time, you know, the life cycle of a record, it’s written a year ago and then it’s six months of press and single releases and planning. And so by the time it rolls around, you’re a bit over it, in all honesty. But you get to kind of ignite, you know, the original feelings you had when you first made it. And that’s a really nice thing.”
She says things are very different with Cacti compared to her debut album just a couple of years ago. “I think that first album was just a real stab at music. You know, I’m not a pro; I never considered myself a professional musician or songwriter. I was just somebody that dabbled enough with instruments to make songs and recordings. And so I think the first album just taught me to write and to just scratch and to just sketch. Because that’s now become my professional career. And at the time, I didn’t know I was doing it in that capacity. But then, when you get here, you realize that’s all anyone’s doing. You know, you think that stuff is just flailing around the edges, but actually, that’s like 80% of the work. So yeah, it taught me to just persevere and sometimes you have to stay up all night making something, you know, and that’s just how it is. And it taught me some discipline in that respect.”
Though every bit as unrepentant as its predecessor, the 12-track collection comes from a much more exposed place emotionally, finding Tor navigating her inner thoughts and confronting uncomfortable personal truths around past relationships and her own mental health as she moves into her 30s. As she puts it, “70-80% of being bold is about being vulnerable as hell.”
‘balance is gone’ tackles those struggles head-on, charting Tor’s attempts to find purpose as the rug is ripped from under her. On ‘saboteur forcefield,’ she lays bare her propensity for self-sabotage, an admission she hopes could be “the first step” towards unlearning some of those destructive patterns. Meanwhile, ‘spite’s “Don’t you act like I ain’t the fucking man” refrain serves as both a reproach to anyone underestimating her and as a personal pep talk. As she explains, “How are you going to deal with anything if you don’t have that self-belief?”
The album climaxes with a trio of tracks examining the eerie sense of apathy that still haunts Tor post-pandemic. Perhaps most stark amongst these is the album-closer, ‘blackout signal’, which sees her pining for a life beyond both the endless scroll and financial struggles, in lines like, “I dream of shutdowns now.”
“If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think a lot of us didn’t really want things to return to normal [after lockdown],” Tor says of the song’s context. “It was terrifying thinking about going back to that hustle because we got a glimpse of a very different life outside the walls of capitalism. And I don’t think we’ll ever know [that life] now. But that was a close moment, you know?”
Towards the end of 2022, Billy Nomates was invited to perform on the legendary British TV show, Later… With Jools Holland. It’s a show all UK music fans grow up watching and has been the launch pad for many of the biggest artists on the planet, from Taylor Swift to Adele.
“It’s quite surreal that I’ve done it, to be honest,” she says. “Like, that day went so quickly. I kind of just remember going in being like, oh, we’re on Jools Holland. Okay, Jools Holland is done. I think my episode was with Hot Chip. We had an artist called Abel Selaocoe, who was excellent. And oh, Suede were on as well, and an artist called Debbie. And it was fun. It was just surreal. It was totally surreal. It’s kind of like it didn’t happen, but it did.”
“I’m only interested in songs that you listen to and think you absolutely lived that experience,” she explains. “And that’s why I’m almost grateful that things didn’t work out for me when I was younger. That struggle has shaped what Billy Nomates is about, and without it, I wouldn’t have written half as insightfully or as meaningfully, I don’t think.”
Insightful and meaningful are the operative terms, for in Tor Maries, we have a documenter of post-Brexit malaise quite unlike any other, capable of scything through the BS armed with little more than a sticky, five-key synth and a brilliantly barbed couplet. And in CACTI, we have a fearless body of work that does justice to the complexities of its creator.
Watch the full interview below: