It was during the summer of 2019 that Tor Maries had her revelation that would later become the manifesto of her debut single as Billy Nomates, and it can be summarised in two short letters: No.
“‘No’ was a word that I didn’t learn to use until a year ago. By not using it, I didn’t really have a lifestyle that I liked,” she tells NME over Zoom. “From the minute I started saying ‘no’ to stuff, doors started opening. It sounds really negative, but to me it was a really positive find. ‘No, I don’t want to do that’: there’s a power to it. If you learn to say ‘no’, it gets somebody’s attention. In a world of yes men, I’ll be a no woman, thanks.”
The ‘No’ single and its June follow-up ‘FNP’ are both propelled by the same take-no-prisoners state of mind. Maries’ spoke-sung snarl cuts through the sparse, self-styled DIY arrangements to create a slowly insistent screed against the pressures of the old ways of thinking and behaving. Billy Nomates may be the name, but her forthcoming self-titled debut album would certainly play well alongside the likes of Patti Smith and Eleanor Friedberger.
Originally slated for release in May on Invada Records, the you-know-what pandemic has meant that the record has now been delayed until August 7. “I initially freaked out,” Maries admits. “I thought back in April that the world may never be the same — will we just wait forever if we delay? But it was a good call.”
It was on the train home from her final day in the studio producing the record alongside Invada’s Geoff Barrow (also of Portishead) and Stu Matthews that she first read about coronavirus, such is the album’s symbiotic relationship with the pandemic. Indeed, in the post-COVID reality that is now beginning to dawn on us, her tales of class struggle and social inequality are set to ring truer than ever.
“I’ve never really had money, but I was the poorest I’d been a couple of years ago after working a load of minimum wage jobs,” Maries explains. “I was miserable and poor and unfulfilled: I couldn’t write about fancying someone or anything nice. I thought: ‘If I’m going to write again, I have no option but to write about “ah, it’s all crap“.’”
Maries says that she considers herself to be on the edge of working class, but she does rue the absence of the full range of voices in music. “You don’t see a lot of working class people in any arts, you have to really look for it. You’ll instantly notice them, though, because there’s a tone of voice that’s allowed to come through that you haven’t heard for a long time.”
One of the most visible examples of this in recent years is Sleaford Mods, and frontman Jason Williamson appears on the bitterly sweet Billy Nomates track ‘Supermarket Sweep’. Aside from the obvious kinship that they share musically, the two artists also have roots in the East Midlands (Maries is originally from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire) as well as another more pivotal connection.
“I went through quite a bad depression stage,” Maries says, referring to the inception of the Billy Nomates project in early 2019. “I had a few months where a relationship had broken down, I was sleeping on my sister’s couch, I’d gone into a real funk and just didn’t want to leave the house or see anyone. I saw Sleaford Mods were coming to Southampton, so I just got a ticket by myself. I remember being in the crowd watching the warm-up band — Liines, a really good band — and some drunk guy shoved me on the shoulder and shouted: ‘It’s Billy no-mates!’ I’d just started recording at the time and I didn’t have a name. It’s genuinely one of those moments that I’ll never forget. That guy was a fucking genius.”
An entire rogues’ gallery of modern British character tropes are subjected to the Billy Nomates magnifying glass on the album: the posturing privileged, the Brexiteering nostalgists, the gig economy employers and, perhaps the most stomach-churning of all, the sleazy, lecherous types outlined on ‘Fat White Man’. Maries is firmly of the opinion that the music industry itself has some considerable work left to do when it comes to correcting its gender practices. “I can say that as a female in male bands growing up, I had some terrible experiences. But I think it’s changing at quite a rapid pace now, which is great.
“But there is still stuff behind closed doors,” she continues. “There’s often this micro-aggression where no-one really wants to say what it is, but you pick up on it. There are examples currently of bands at the moment who are quite happy to use feminism as a flag, but when it comes down to it, they do very little to actually perpetuate change. In fact, their attitudes themselves are quite the opposite of that when it comes down to it.”
Maries’ own experiences in bands made up the first “seven or eight years” of her time after moving to Bristol. “We were alternative folk that thought it was very arty — it was hideous stuff.” Eventually, everyone “got bored and got mortgages”, leaving her at a loose end, whereupon she eventually relocated to Bournemouth.
Life as a solo artist, however, has given Maries the control that satisfies her creative itch. “Now I just want to make stuff very selfishly. Eventually I just thought: ‘Why not?’ If I like it, maybe somebody else will like it.”
As soon as the current malaise passes, Billy Nomates will be out on the road, continuing to build on her already enviable live reputation. If she can capture the imagination of Geoff Barrow and Jason Williamson with nothing more than a few social media posts and an early single or two, then there’s no telling her limits when her excellent debut album is finally unleashed.
Billy Nomates’ self-titled debut album is set for release on August 7.