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 post-punk, to the economy of sound she achieves with her defiantly DIY set-up, 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 including Iggy Pop, Geoff Barrow, Sleaford Mods and Steve Albini. And as she moves now onto album number two, Maries is more focused on her mission as ever, not least because the path to this point has been nothing short of torrid.
Raised in a working-class household in Melton Mowbray, Maries inherited her love of music from her father. A huge fan of both smooth Americana and acerbic punk – from John Denver and James Taylor to The Stranglers and Stealer’s Wheel – Maries’ dad was a music teacher at the local comprehensive school. Wisely, he took a hands-off approach when it came to tutoring his own children, which only served to pique Maries’s curiosity at the instruments lying around the house, from guitar and drums to the always-slightly-detuned upright piano. At the age of six Maries was recording original songs on a four-track recorder, and by her preteens she was seeking out “any opportunity” to pursue music, singing in the school choir and playing guitar in a succession of bands with friends.
Today, Maries credits her relentless drive to those oppressive, small-town surroundings. “When you’re at a comp in the Midlands, you need some form of escapism,” she laughs. “It’s like, please tell me there’s something better than this!” After being rejected to study music at BIMM alongside her bandmates, at 16 Maries moved to Bristol regardless, undertaking shop work while pursuing the band on the side. “We were convinced that we were gonna get signed by a major label,” she grins. “So it was like, right: let’s all live together, live on the dole and write music. And it was just a fucking nightmare.”
Following the band’s acrimonious split, Maries swore off music entirely, burned by the experience. “From the ages of 23 to about 28, I just had no interest in music,” she explains matter-of-factly. “I didn’t write, and I wouldn’t even go to gigs, just because I was so fed up with it not working. Music felt like a rich person’s hobby, to be honest: it just wasn’t something that people like me could afford to do. I vividly remember feeling like music was a club that I was never going to get into. So I just thought, well I’m not standing outside anymore: I’m gonna go do something else.”
Swapping Bristol for Bournemouth, Maries settled into a quieter pace of life, making rent via a series of unfulfilling but stable office jobs. But when – following the collapse of a relationship – Maries was left broke and sleeping on her sister’s sofa, while still working multiple jobs, she fell into a deep depression.
“The end of my 20s was kind-of terrifying, thinking about what I’d achieved and what I’d not achieved…,” she sighs. “I just freaked out, and it was like you’re either gonna leave the country with every bit of money you’ve got and do something crazy, you’re going to take a bottle of pills, or you’re going to make an album. Either way, you need to choose how you’re going to direct this energy because otherwise you’re gonna explode.”
Setting up a makeshift studio in her sister’s kitchen, and borrowing her brother-in-law’s equipment, Maries started writing her debut album as Billy Nomates, a pseudonym inspired by a heckle she
once received attending a gig alone. Her only goal for the album was “total honesty”, and she was amazed to find a lifetime of frustration pouring out of her, as she skewered dead end jobs (‘Supermarket Sweep’, ‘Call In Sick’), hipster culture (‘Hippy Elite’), sexism (‘No’), and an array of societal inequalities.
Perhaps most powerful, ‘FNP’ found Maries baiting the powers-that-be in her defiant sprechgesang, over a skeletal arrangement of motorik beats and staccato synths. “I will not quietly exist over here in a corner of society that they hope disappears,” she sneers, adding, “That has more soul than their tiny minds could handle.”
Around the same time, Maries saw Sleaford Mods live on their ‘Eton Alive’ tour and – blown away by their unapologetically lo-fi musical approach – was further emboldened to pursue her own unique vision unfettered. Sensing they were kindred spirits, she sent demos to the band, who reached out and introduced Maries to her current management. In turn, Maries’ manager shared her music with Geoff Barrow, who promptly signed Billy Nomates to his imprint Invada Records. With some final production touches from Barrow – and a guest appearance from Sleaford Mods on ‘Supermarket Sweep’ – Maries’ debut album was released in August of 2020.
Looking back on the experience now, Maries feels deeply conflicted. “Holding the physical record in my hands was such a highlight, like, fuck I made that! But [with the pandemic] 2020 was such a fucking clusterfuck that I don’t necessarily associate the album with good things: I associate it with all these panicked phone calls. At one point, it almost wasn’t going to even be released at all, and when it did come out it was pushed back.”
Nevertheless, ‘Billy Nomates’ was a critical success, and with songs from the record receiving heavy airplay across BBC 6Music, Maries’ star was firmly in its ascendency. In the autumn of 2020, she appeared on Sleaford Mods’ single ‘Mork n Mindy’ and went on to be the main support for their ‘Spare Ribs’ tour a year later, while in April 2021 Maries released an acclaimed EP of lockdown compositions entitled ‘Emergency Telephone’. But, as Maries explains, behind the scenes things were far from rosy.
“I was deeply depressed. I spent the third lockdown holed up in the spare room at my dad’s on the Isle of Wight, just counting the days and feeling very, very detached from all this cool stuff that had happened around the album. All I could think was that this career that I’d waited all my life for had just totally crumbled.”
It was in this mindset that Maries wrote ‘Blue Bones’, the excellent first taster from her as-yet- unfinished second studio album. A gentle, 80s-influenced, synth-pop bop, it is – ironically – a celebration of life, finding Maries staring down her own suicidal impulses with the refrain, “Death don’t turn me on like it used to.”
“It was the first thing I wrote when I got back to Bristol,” she explains. “For me, Invada Studios is just such a hopeful place to be. The fact I’m even in that room, I’m constantly like, fuck! How did I make it here? So I wrote the song instinctively, like, come on, snap out of it.”
It’s a song that will doubtless resonate with anyone still processing the trauma of the past two years, and the eerie sense of apathy that lingers. Indeed, Maries is the first to admit she’s “still recalibrating” post-pandemic, an idea that she already can see percolating through some of the new songs, alongside heartache and more political themes.
“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 documentor of post- Brexit malaise quite like any other, capable of scything through the BS armed with little more than a sticky, five-key synth and a brilliantly barbed couplet.
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