Billy Nomates’ ‘blue bones (deathwish)’, the first single from her new album ‘CACTI’, contains a lyric that nobody can ignore: “Death don’t turn me on like it used to.”
Prior to the song’s release last April, Billy Nomates, the project of Bristol-based songwriter Tor Maries, was known as a spiky, fiercely independent spirit; a sharply-pointed riposte to the very concept of a modern popstar. Her jabbing, provocative vocals were only matched in the confrontation stakes by the DIY brutality of her arrangements, marking Maries out as one of the most idiosyncratic new arrivals in British music for some time. But in delivering a lyric as foreboding and emotionally intimate as the primary hook of her comeback song, Maries embraced honesty like never before.
“I didn’t feel any other way than a little bit vulnerable and broken,” she tells NME about her state of mind at the time of writing ‘blue bones (deathwish)’. “You have to just lean into the truth of how you feel, and so I did.”
The Billy Nomates heard on ‘CACTI’ is an altogether more nuanced and complex character, for whom self-doubt, inner turmoil and mental health struggles tussle for control with the defiance, outrage and determination that defined her 2020 self-titled debut. With this newfound emotional depth comes a far greater musical variety, with Maries finding the patience to take deep, soulful breaths between her outbursts. What made Billy Nomates stand out before still remains, but what has been added this time around makes her sound all the more compelling.
“It was important to me to show that other side,” Maries explains. “I would like people to understand where that comes from, and it’s probably not where you think. It’s complicated to write stuff like that, especially as a naturally introverted person who just tries to create a bit of armour to get through the world. I don’t want to be doing the punk thing to reject the term ‘punk’, but I’ve always struggled with it. I just write songs: I write quite soft songs with an acoustic guitar, I write slow things on the piano. I’ve always written that way, it just so happened that I didn’t put that on Billy Nomates records before. The rebellious side of me is like, ‘If you’re gonna say I’m this, I’m absolutely not going to do that.’”
Maries is the first to admit now that her debut album was the result of a sudden flurry of activity that she herself had not anticipated (“I’d absolutely made this thing that I didn’t think anyone in the world was going to hear”). Catching the ear of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, who agreed to release the album on his label Invada Records, those same original home recordings, including ‘No’ and ‘FNP’, served as the world’s introduction to Billy Nomates.
Maries’ journey to her second album has seen her wise up to the realities of the music industry, and now, even if she is conscious of the pressures of expectation, it is her inner voice that drives her: “Anyone that knows me will tell you the biggest pressure comes from myself. People try, but trust me, I will go harder. I want to push it to new places, places where you’re not entirely sure what you’ve created or what you’re doing.”
It is that commitment to pushing her own boundaries that has ultimately led Maries to cast the spotlight upon her innermost thoughts. From the opening lyrics of album opener ‘balance is gone’ (“My inner peace is broken into five / I meditate, but I am not alive”), it’s clear that Maries is willing to put her own intimacy on the line.
“Confidence, hope and all the fierceness [of Billy Nomates], it doesn’t exist without some absolute brokenness as well, and feeling quite dark,” she explains. “It’s not this sudden shift of ‘COVID broke me’. No, I was broken! I’ve always had depressions, I’ve always had these real parallels in my life. It’s probably not helped massively by then being a part of a music industry which is still quite volatile. I try to be open about it, but I don’t know how much it helps to go into too much detail, other than to just make [a record] that stands back and looks back over it all holistically. That’s the complicated nature of life, isn’t it? You can feel like you’re really on top of this stuff, and you can grab it, make something out of it and put two fingers up to the world. But then, the next day, it will just come for you.”
‘CACTI’ is far from being one-note in terms of its emotional pacing, though. Amid the introspection, Maries’ front-foot, take-no-prisoners approach that blazed a trail on her debut is still fully intact on tracks like ‘spite’, its refrain of “don’t you act like I ain’t the fucking man” echoing her sentiments to NME in 2020 that “in a world of Yes Men, I’ll be a No Woman, thanks”. “I’m still angry,” she says now. “I’m a woman in the modern world, of course I’m angry!”
Survival and ultimate triumph are both recurring motifs throughout ‘CACTI’. Maries’ trials and tribulations of her journey through the music industry were once documented with eye-opening clarity on a daily basis via her Twitter account, where she was characteristically outspoken as she tirelessly exposed the everyday misogyny and institutional shortcomings that she was forced to deal with as an independent female solo artist. Last summer, however, she deactivated her account.
“There’s something about Twitter that whatever you put, somebody will just find a way to call you a cunt,” she says. “There’s a part of me that just started to think, ‘I don’t want to be known for a Twitter persona, I don’t want to be able to sell records because I told you what I was feeling that day’. I was done with that. Maybe you need to know where my gig is, or where to buy the record from. Other than that, let’s get rid of that shit.”
Maries is keen to point out, though, that she still hasn’t escaped all the online negativity. “Just because you hear me on the radio, I’m still up against people that fucking hate what I’m doing, and they want to let me know. [Success] can be presented like it’s this place where you’re always celebrated and you’re in this state of constant gratefulness, when actually [some] days are really hard and a lot of people are still very angry about what I do. Particularly in England – in Europe, they’re a bit more accepting.”
After moving into her father’s house on the Isle of Wight during lockdown, Maries returned to Bristol in 2021 and set about writing the songs that make up ‘CACTI’. Generally beginning with playful improvisations on her trusty M-Audio keyboard synth (something that is rarely out of her reach), she expanded those basic compositions with guitar, bass and drum machine parts until they reached a place where she was comfortable enough to take them into Barrow’s Invada Studios.
Working closely with co-producer James Trevascus (Nick Cave, PJ Harvey), Maries took advantage of the menagerie of instruments on-site. From the crunchy, serrated guitars on ‘spite’ and the vintage organ-like sound that haunts the beautiful ‘roundabout sadness’, to the flashes of found-sound atmospherics such as the pub chatter heard on ‘fawner’, ‘CACTI’ boasts a fully fleshed-out sonic palette that matches Maries’ heightened ambition.
Nevertheless, halfway through the writing process, she was ready to abandon the whole thing. “James fished at least half of this album out of the bin,” Maries tells NME now. “I was convinced, like, ‘Nah, it’s crap. I shouldn’t be writing songs, who put me here?’ I’m just riddled with self-doubt. If my self-doubt doesn’t end my career, I’ll be annoyed.”
This self-doubt continues to linger despite the strength of the finished album. The expansion of her sound, Maries feels, is likely to prove divisive among her existing fanbase. “My honest feeling is I might lose quite a lot of fans from it, but maybe I’ll gain some, so I don’t know. I’m always surprised. I just put stuff out there, and then people make of it what they make of it. But my gut feeling is that it will get a mixed reaction.”
The Billy Nomates live show may be even more distinctive than her records: Maries, alone on stage with just her laptop for company, channels an incendiary form of interpretive dance to match her tempestuous vocals. It may have been a style forged more out of necessity than design, but Maries certainly sees no need to change it up with album two.
“Look, I played in bands forever and no-one gave a fuck! The minute I did it this way it got people’s attention, so I have to take heed of that sometimes,” Maries explains. “I don’t know if I’ve said it enough, but as much of an artistic decision as Billy Nomates is, it’s also a reflection of the times and post-COVID Tory Britain, where it is incredibly difficult to make a living as a musician. It’s a fightback against that, it’s ultimate resistance: it’s me saying I’ve found a fucking way. It might not be for everyone, but you know what? I actually can’t afford to take a band out across Europe, we can’t get there, we can’t do it. I can sneak past like this, and I can still make music. It’s a get-around, and I’ve just made the most of it.”
This is the contradiction of Billy Nomates: on the one hand, she is constantly second-guessing her own success, while on the other she is simmering with anti-establishment zeal. Above all, though, the Billy Nomates of ‘CACTI’ is here with a message about the power of just hanging in there. Many of us are familiar with the idea of a spirit animal, but when Maries brought a cactus into Invada Studios one day, she discovered her spirit plant.
“I put it on the side and every time I went in, I would see it. I soon unravelled that the whole thing [of ‘CACTI’] was about the symbolic nature of survival. It was really about how to survive and how to grow in a place of absolute hostility. Cacti are symbols of outside survival, and that’s how this record felt on a human level, and it’s massively felt like that on an artistic level as well.”
Billy Nomates’ new album ‘CACTI’ is out on January 13