Songstress Martha Tilston is currently ensconced by the sea in Cornwall, some 175 miles away from her West Country childhood home of Bristol. Her parents, folk legend father Steve Tilston, and artist mother Naomi ran a folk night at Bristol's historical venue The Louisiana, where, according to family legend, baby Martha would often be "parked in a basket underneath the cash desk" and accordingly, she grew up amongst the happy bustle of touring musicians who'd congregate at the Tilston home for rehearsals and short stays; John Renbourn and Bert Jansch were regular houseguests. "It just seemed normal to me at the time" says Tilston. "I thought everyone's Dad wrote songs. To me, Bert and John were just friends of the family who'd turn up from time to time and play guitar around the house." When her parents divorced, Tilston relocated to Surrey with her mother and theatre director stepfather, while Tilston's father stayed in Bristol with fellow folk singer Maggie Boyle, who filled their home with "beautiful Irish singing". In Surrey, Tilston mastered the piano and fell in with the actor friends that made up her stepfather's social circle. Drama studies followed, and she appeared at Edinburgh Festival, but the tug of her musical lineage set in, and by her late teens, Tilston has taken up the acoustic guitar and taught herself the fine art of fingerpicking, finding her voice — a shivering, autumnal bird-song evocative of a young Joni Mitchell — along the way.
Out of the home—grown British folk and crackling US vinyl that permeated her childhood, Tilston found herself drawn to folk's protest spirit and its themes of social justice, particularly the poignant anti—war messages explored by iconic 60s songwriters such as Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell. "I find the really obvious protest music stuff hard to digest" says Tilston. "But I liked Joni's message because it was always so gently pointed". Tilston crafted her own anti—war anthem, Saddest Game, in 2004, for Big Issue's Peace Not War compilation, an early foreshadowing of the eloquent, politicized questioning that suffuses her latest LP, Machines Of Love and Grace, a collection of subtly charged acoustic folk songs tinged with electric guitar and touches of electronica. The title, with its juxtaposition of clinical robotic and sentient warmth, is a nod to a beat poem by Richard Brautigan and the BBC2 documentary that lifted the poem's title: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. "The programme blew me away. It tackled a lot of the questions my peers are asking: how the finances are run, how we've let machines take over and how those machines run us". Like Mitchell's Woodstock, which painted an image of exploding bombs transforming into butterflies, Tilston's Machines ponders the conflict between human life and the machinery of modern age, posing an affectionate response to Mitchell's River on Machines song Butterflies, asking: "Did you ever find that river to skate away on?"
Tilston began her musical tenure in folk duo Mouse, with Nick Marshall, releasing debut album Helicopter Trees in 2000 and a follow up, Mouse Tales, in 2001. She remembers those first few years of writing and touring, especially with the Small World Solar Stage as magical. "It was a bit like running away with a circus, a troupe of musicians and a Beduin tent". However solo adventures called, and she released her lo-fi debut, Rolling, in 2003, while touring Ireland as support for troubadour, Damian Rice. Tilston's earthy compositions and delicate melodies earned her a growing audience, but she declined the lucrative offers from established record labels, choosing instead to set up her own label, Squiggly Records. Inspired by Damian Rice's self—produced, home—recorded hit debut, O, she funded the pressing of her next record, 2005's Bimbling, through the sale of the album's canvas—painted artwork – an impressive feat for an artist plumbing her way in a pre—Kickstarter era. 2006 saw her team up with band The Woods, an outfit that includes long standing accompanist and producer Matt Tweed, as well as guest players such as Lamb bass player Jon Thorne (who guests on Machines) to release Ropeswing, and by 2007, Tilston was opening the Acoustic Stage at Glastonbury with songs from her album Milkmaids and Architects, garnering a nomination for Best New Act at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. But as Tilston's star drew closer to the mainstream, she found she preferred smaller, intimate gigs, and felt more at home strumming out sets at low-key campfire jams and underground folk festivals. By 2009, Tilston's vocals had been courted beyond the folk world, by trip hop producers such as J—Spool and Tru Thoughts Records, and pop group Zero 7, who invited her to guest and co-write on their album, Yeah Ghost.
Tilston become aware of a growing personal disconnection from the recent commercialisation of parts of the folk scene, as the pop world commodified folk's brightest talents. "A few years ago, folk went very mainstream. It was good in a lot of ways, because it meant loads of people were taking up instruments and learning the old songs". But it also felt incomplete. "There were lots of beautiful folk songs sung by talented new artists, but the world is in crisis and it felt weird that folk, which by definition is the people's music and a vehicle for expressing their fears and concerns, was totally avoiding this crisis and not acknowledging it. There is an elephant in the room who's name may be Woody Guthrie".
She was already penning the nuanced, politicized songs that would make up Machines when she heard PJ Harvey's protest masterpiece, Let England Shake, and the reception to that Mercury Award—winning album assured Tilston that the spirit of protest music had been truly revived. "It just feels right for now. And it feels right to be a little braver. I think a few years ago it would have turned people off, but I think people are hungry for that now." Like Harvey, Tilston underpins her pastoral narratives with meaningful contexts, such as lead single Stags Bellow, a stirring paean to freedom and the wild deer that roam the parks of Richmond and Bushy. Tilston's songwriting is far too grounded for vacant romantic escapism, and eschews the hoary 'moors and maids' folk imagery of old for gentle, probing meditations on modern concerns such as consumerism (More), urbanization (Suburbia), unheard voices (Silent Women) and with Wall Street, the disastrous ebb and flow of stock market tides, a paced, determined number Tilston wrote one morning in a Cornish beach shack, inspired by the then—emerging Occupy movement. She's performed at demos and marches, and played a set at Climate Camp in 2009, but Tilston considers herself too nomadic to hitch her star to any wagon. "I feel strongly about not getting stuck in any one scene; I try to weave my music through the world without becoming ingratiated to any one group." And as Machines of Love and Grace attests to, it's a creative independence that pays off: "I feel like it's a truthful record" she says, with a quiet, modest smile.
Martha Tilston Discography:
- 2012 "Machines of Love and Grace" — Squiggly Records through Proper and available from this website shopfrom 22nd October
- 2010 "Real" — Squiggly Records. Only available from this website shop and at Marthas shows
- 2010 "Lucy and the Wolves" — Squiggly Records through Proper and available from this website shop
- 2008 "til I Reach the Sea" — Squiggly Records EP download only
- 2007 "Of Milkmaids and Architects" — Squiggly Records through Proper and available from this website shop
- 2006 "Ropeswing" — a free downloadable album gently circulating the planet
- 2004 "Bimbling" — Squiggly Records, distributed through Proper and available from this website shop
- 2003 "Rolling" — only available to download