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 homegrown 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 antiwar 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 antiwar anthem, Saddest Game, in 2004, for Big Issue's Peace Not War compilation, an early foreshadowing of the eloquent, politicized questioning that suffuses her penultimate 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 selfproduced, homerecorded hit debut, O, she funded the pressing of her next record, 2005's Bimbling, through the sale of the album's canvaspainted artwork  an impressive feat for an artist plumbing her way in a preKickstarter 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 JSpool 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 her next album Machines when she heard PJ Harvey's protest masterpiece, Let England Shake, and the reception to that Mercury Awardwinning 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 thenemerging 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 and her new album The Sea both attest to, it's a creative independence that pays off: "I feel like both, though very different in repertoire, are truthful records," she says, with a quiet, modest smile.

Of her latest album  The Sea  Tilston says Ive always had it in mind to make a traditional album. Singing trad songs is what I grew up with, not just from my father (Steve Tilston) and step mother (Maggie Boyle) but also on my stepfathers side of the family with its Geordie heritage (her stepfather is Frank Whately and uncle Kevin Whately, the actor known for his iconic roles in such beloved TV series as Lewis and Morse as well as movies like The English Patient). As noted earlier (above), among the family friends of her childhood was the legendary Bert Jansch (and Martha includes Black Waterside as a nod to his influence and presence in her work). The Sea is a brand new album of traditional songs about the sea and the stories of those whose lives are intertwined with and guided by contact with it. Each song has one of the above-mentioned family members, plus brother Joe Tilston and friends, singing or playing with Martha and she says: it has been a beautiful experience. We recorded most of it in a cliff side cottage in Cornwall and enjoyed trying to capture the magic and treachery of the deep.

I wanted to include she continues people in the project who have made folk music integral to my own musical journeys. Last year, at my step mums Northern benefit gig, to raise money for her treatment for cancer, I was consumed by the beauty of the folk music being played and struck by what an important influence Maggie Boyle has been not only on me, but on so many in the folk world. She has been quietly, humbly getting on with making beautiful music whilst supporting so many other musicians, and i just thought I have to do this, and do it well if I can, but most importantly let go of any self doubt and make it happen.

Most of the songs were worked out with my house band  The Scientists (Matt Tweed, Nick Marshall and Tim Cotterell) - then the guest singer/player would add their own magic, sometimes just small sections, sometimes the whole song as more of a duet. We went with what sounded organically best for each track. Due to the geography of where we individually live, and because my family are busy away working, touring and teaching, we often would only have a short slot to set up recording gear and capture them. But it seems to have worked well.

Nick Marshall was integral to the whole creative process, often introducing a beautiful guitar line to what I had conceived for the song to hang on. Matt Tweed would then add his unmistakable wizardry on bouzouki, Tim Cotterell came down to the cottage in Prussia Cove, Cornwall where we recorded and he would just close his eyes whilst playing as if the song instantly took him to a different sphere. There was a bit of cross pollination to the recordings; so we have Maggie playing flute on songs on which she is not the guest singer and John Thorne (Lamb) is playing double bass on the Lowlands of Holland (on which my uncle Kevin Whately sings, revisiting something he did prior to his acting success).

The end result is music that is captivating, beautiful and as much a joy to listen to as it, undoubtedly, was to make. Traditional folk songs about the sea, collected, sung and played by Martha with family and friends; a personal and family testimony to the power of song and traditions forged by kith and kin.


Martha Tilston Discography:

2014      The Sea  Squiggly Records
2012     "Machines of Love and Grace"  Squiggly Records
2010     "Real"  Squiggly Records
2010    "Lucy and the Wolves"  Squiggly Records
2008    "til I Reach the Sea"  Squiggly Records EP download only
2007    "Of Milkmaids and Architects"  Squiggly Records
2006    "Ropeswing"  a free downloadable album gently circulating the planet
2004    "Bimbling"  Squiggly Records
2003    "Rolling"  only available to download