Artist Spotlight: Billy Nomates

    Billy Nomates is the project of Bristol-based singer-songwriter Tor Maries. Her father was a music teacher who played in rock bands all his life, and though she learned to play the fiddle growing up, also lying around the house were guitar, drums, and an always-slightly-detuned piano. After being involved in various bands throughout her early 20s, Maries was ready to give up a career in music until a Sleaford Mods concert she attended by herself in 2019 reignited her passion for songwriting; she took her stage name from an insult someone threw at her during the gig. Billy Nomates’ eponymous debut album, recorded with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and released in 2020 through his label Invada, felt relentlessly forceful and pertinent upon release, and Maries understandably had to shift her focus for its follow-up. Co-produced by James Trevascus, CACTI still has songs that bristle with fierce intensity, but Maries allows herself to take a softer and more nuanced approach to emotional honesty, not least because the biggest enemy she’s facing down is apathy itself. “When I felt everything so sincerely/ Why’ve I gotta tear it into little pieces?” she wonders on ‘saboteur forcefield’, yet still manages to find peace – and herself – in all the brokenness.

    We caught up with Billy Nomates for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the ideas behind CACTI, being an introverted animal, new beginnings, and more.

    CACTI has been out for a few days now. How are you finding the response so far?

    I’m trying not to read anything, is the truth. I’m sort of glancing at things when I need to, but because this is my second album, my third record, I’m learning every time something comes out that what anyone thinks of it changes nothing. It’s done. I feel about it how I felt about it. I’m really trying to stick to my guns on that and not be too swayed by how many stars out of 20 someone gives it. It’s all totally irrelevant, it’s just a piece of work. That feels like a growth thing, because two years ago, I wasn’t that way at all. I was really like, “What are people saying? Have I done something good, do people like it?” And it’s so bad for you creatively to start thinking that way, it’s really destructive. So, one ear to the ground, but mainly sort of looking the other way.

    On a personal level, do you feel as close to the songs as you did while making them?

    I think I’ll always feel close to these songs because it feels like a real internal manifestation, CACTI. It’s very much inwards-looking, and it’s only a year ago, so it feels fairly fresh. To go out with it this year feels like the right thing to do. If you asked me at the end of the summer, I’d probably say, “Yeah, I’m done with it, that’s all exhausted and I feel very different.” But it feels about right at the minute. And that’s a privilege, because you can very easily feel very out of sync with – I know that with COVID and my first album, I couldn’t tour it for the two years that it was out, and then I toured bits of it and I was so out of sync with it. So to be in some sort of alignment with it is really nice.

    On the surface, the title of the album might seem to represent the spikiness that a lot of people associate with your music, but it really cuts deeper than that – not only is there less of that sonically on the new record, but CACTI becomes more a symbol of survival. Does it hold different meanings for you?

    It’s nice that you derive that, because that’s very much how it feels. It’s why there’s no desert or plants everywhere, the imagery isn’t really around that, because it is more the symbolic nature of what that feels like and looks like, and it’s CACTI as an idea. Sonically, it was interesting to experiment and just play with things. That first album that I made was made at home in my sister’s kitchen, it was made with primitive tools and I hadn’t made an album before. With CACTI, I had the opportunity to use the studio and to use things in it and that was a new experience. It felt like the right time to experiment with what I could do with that and still maintain a Billy Nomates kind of sound and feel. It’s interesting because I feel like it could have gone either way; it could have gone way more spiky, and that could happen still, but it just didn’t feel that way, the last few years. I wasn’t left feeling like I wanted to make a particularly angry album. It felt very different to that, and I feel like all you’ve really got as artist is how you truly feel. So CACTI was born out of that.

    I’ve had moments since it’s out where I sort of cringe a bit, I’m like, “I can’t believe people are hearing this.” But then I’m really glad I made it because it’s hard to put that sort of stuff out there, especially when you’re an artist that’s been called fierce and bold and fearless. CACTI’s a little bit terrified of itself, you know. I’m glad that me and my co-producers pushed that through. It could have gone either way, and it opted for a slightly gentler approach. I really enjoyed thinking gently about music, rather than thinking, “How can I make a banger?” It was like, “How can I make something that fits with where I’m at?

    Do you feel like that gentler side came out of necessity?

    I think so, because like I said, I didn’t really feel angry about the last years. I felt a mix of overwhelmed and still making sense of it, the sort of grey apathy that it left us all with. Especially with songs like ‘Apathy’ where I talk about things like that, people are like, “Oh my god, that’s a real thing!” It’s been nice to have conversations with people about it because I thought it was just me feeling like that. I thought I just lost the plot and I couldn’t do anything anymore.

    With a lot of post-COVID albums, we tend to think it represents the trauma of the past few years, but what I feel with this album is that you’re looking further back to see where those feelings are actually coming from and why they were brought up.

    My most vivid is moving from – I was staying at my dad’s house through COVID on the Isle of Wight. It was nice to spend time with him. It was very isolating, because I was putting my album out in the world literally on an island where I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t see anyone and nothing was open. At the end of COVID, I moved to Bristol to start this album. I met people, you could go to the pub with people, you could say hello to people – it was still a bit precarious, but it was like having to relearn socializing and all of that again, relearn making connections. For me, it was interesting because it really brought out – I struggle with that anyway, and COVID  just set it back like 10 years.

    To this day, I find it really hard. Even though it was release day on Friday, I went and signed some records, and then people were like, “Should we go out for drinks and celebrate?” And I was like, “Uhh, I’m just gonna put a DVD on, it’s been a really hectic day.” And that’s me all over. COVID didn’t instigate these things, insecurity or social anxiety or anything – what it actually did was kind of feed them. Because it was like, all of these things that you have, they’re actually gonna come in really handy over the next 2 years, because you like being by yourself and you like making excuses so you don’t have to do things or go places. I was so lucky in the fact that I was working but never had to leave the house, there’s a real introverted animal in me that loved it. And that’s primal, isn’t it? If you’re quite a natural introvert, that’s in us. It doesn’t take much for that to really come out.

    I think the juxtaposition of the songs ‘spite’ and ‘fawner’ is interesting, because they sound like the most self-defiant and introspective songs on the album, respectively. But even though they take different approaches, it feels like they come from a similar place of learning to be comfortable with truths about yourself, especially when it comes to expressing love.

    It’s really nice to hear you say that – you’re an introvert, right? You’re an introverted animal, you’ve understood this. It absolutely comes from the same place, and it’s absolutely driven by the same emotion. I find care and love and all these emotions very difficult, and as a socially anxious person, the lines are always blurred. I would love to have black-and-white love and there not be this grey area of also a bit of hate, also a bit of resentment, and also “fuck you” – this grey place. ‘fawner’ takes on different meanings for me every time I play it, and it’s definitely an introvert sort of love song.

    You make a lot of bold choices musically, but ‘fawner’ feels to me like the most raw and scary thing that you’ve put on the album.

    I remember doing it and it was one that I said to my co-producer, “Put that in the bin. That can never see the light a day.” And it wasn’t on the album tracklist for the whole four or five months that we were living with it. And then, towards the end of sequencing, they were like, “Why don’t you just put that on there?” And I was really scared to put that on there. It’s played live as well, the recording of that is me and my guitar and it’s done in one take. Everything about it is supposed to feel like a vulnerable moment, and it is because there’s really not much armor around it. It’s an interesting thing to do, to understand vulnerability as kind of the ultimate, terrifying, defying act. Took me a minute to get my head around that, but you can put something sonically and emotionally and physically powerful out there, and then you could put something like ‘fawner’ next to it, and actually, sometimes ‘fawner’ can outrun it.

    People may have pointed out to you the line “Death don’t turn me out like it used to” from ‘blue bones (death wish)’, but I think of the hopeful sentiment that follows it: “The end don’t get me high like the start to.” What kind of beginning do you envision at the end of the record, after what you describe as “the death of everything real”? is it hard to imagine any hope left after that?

    When I played around with ‘blackout signal’ as an ending, I had a few people say, “Oh, it doesn’t leave me particularly hopeful.” [laughs] And I get that. I never want to like offer too much of a resolution for people, because I don’t think life does that, is the honest truth. But one of my favorite writers died recently, Raymond Briggs, he did The Snowman and When the Wind Blows. There’s an amazing quote by him that says, “I don’t believe in happy endings. I don’t write happy endings because my parents died and my pets died, and that’s life.” And it doesn’t make it less of a beautiful story because of it. It always resonated with me; there’s something about reality and not offering a solution that’s an interesting thing. But I think there is hope on CACTI. The very nature of it is hopeful in its own weird way. The fact that it exists and the fact that it’s talking about its own survival is hopefully a triumph.

    What is the beginning that I’m talking about? Well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the beginning of something in you. My whole existence as Billy Nomates, everything around me has been total chaos. Something in you is always going, is always ignited, something in you keeps the thing alive. “The end don’t get me high like the start do” – the start is always within us. We’re always starting again, regardless of everything.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Billy Nomates’ CACTI is out now via Invada.

    Arts in one place.

    All our content is free to read; if you want to subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date, click the button below.

    People are Reading