Dancing Wiv Herself: An Interview With Billy Nomates
Catching up with one of Iggy Pop’s new faves
The Bristol-based Tor Maries, 32, has been making music as Billy Nomates since just before the pandemic, another major and unique talent sidelined by unthinkable developments in the world.
Nomates’ self-titled debut album, with release delayed until the tail end of 2020, arrived after impressing Sleaford Mods and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, who runs Invada, the label she’s now signed to. With minimal additions to her home demos made after trading her guitar amp for a laptop, she found a unique voice pitched between Courtney Barnett’s spoken slices of life made more bitter and capitalism-weary, Neko Case’s wobbly left-of-center twang, and no-nonsense minimalism based on synthpop and sticky basslnes. I’d never heard anything like it, and it remains my favorite album of the decade three years later.
Maries followed it up with 2021’s more club-ready Emergency Telephone EP, her first record with the ravages of Covid in its DNA, and now it’s getting a proper follow-up album, Cacti. Recorded at Barrow’s Invada studios, it’s a more expansive and relaxed record with fewer diatribes, though its most intense moments (“Balance Is Gone,” “Spite”) are also its most pop. But “Same Gun” sounds like Spoon, and growers like the title tune and “Saboteur Forcefield” come on a lot less strong than the way the debut grabbed you by the throat with its own rules.
With fuller instrumentation, more stylistic variation, and beautiful harmonies on a single like “Blue Bones (Deathwish),” which stars the most arresting hook on the record (“death don’t turn me on like it used to”), it doesn’t stand a bad chance at breaking pop, which would be well-deserved. But Maries takes nothing for granted. We talked on Zoom about Cacti, her remarkably spontaneous interpretive dancing, and her secret history of great cover tunes.
Hey! How are you doing?
Good, thank you! Who’s this? [Gesturing to the cat visible in my lap on camera.]
This is Sam.
Hello Sam! It’s a very cold but sunny day here. What about you?
I’m good, I’m on day five of Covid so… [Laughs.]
I know how that goes. Not too long to go hopefully then.
So what do you feel the biggest change was between writing the debut and Cacti?
So many is the truth. You know, that first album was written in a pre-Covid world. We don’t even know how huge the difference is, because we’re just so far into that now that we can’t even remember pre-Covid almost. It was pre-record deal, I was working two jobs with no expectations for [Billy Nomates] other than 50 Bandcamp followers hearing it. Very, very different life and headspace, which was only really three years ago so it’s quite wild. Cacti is from a completely different place, so life has changed very dramatically. Physically where I am, I’ve moved house like five times in the last three years. What I’ve been through, what I’ve experienced. Huge, huge difference.
I hear a lot less talking between the sung parts, did you have a conscious desire to move away from that?
When I made my debut, I hadn’t attempted music for a long time and, um…I wasn’t really sure how to go about being melodic, really. I’d always sung and done things but I didn’t think I was a really good singer so it just came out the way it came out. Around the time I had done my EP [2021’s Emergency Telephone], I got a little more confident about putting melody at the forefront. I wanted to really go after a melody and commit to that. So yeah, I did consciously move away from it. In all honesty, I thought there was a lot of sprechgesang or whatever it’s called about and I didn’t want to be just another artist who was doing that. I knew I could do other things.
Right, I was wondering because of that whole wave of UK artists right now, not just your friends in Sleaford Mods but Dry Cleaning, Yard Act, and other groups who do talk-singing. You’ve also talked about how this record has a wider emotional palette than the debut. Are there more vulnerable songs here that you were holding over from that period?
It’s interesting because not really! I was writing how I was writing in 2020. That group of songs all fit together. That was how I knew how to approach music on that basic level, a laptop in a kitchen doing it. I wanted to approach Cacti with a sense of representing the internal. And really showcasing that…for me it was interesting to have to sit with it for so long. So many things with the vinyl shortage and wait time…in an ideal world it probably would’ve come out last year. As an artist, I’ve moved on quickly from that debut. I feel like I’ve always written this way; I understand as a listener it could be seen as a big leap, but it really isn’t. It just so happened that I hadn’t done that yet. A record takes about a year and then you have the wait time for it to come out, so you move on quite quickly.
I feel like on this record you run in the direction of the more melodic choruses from the debut whereas Emergency Telephone went further with the dancier aspects. This one feels like more of a rock record.
I don’t know if I see Cacti as more rock and roll, I just see it as an amalgamation of…I don’t really see myself as a particularly great musician, I’m not an accomplished player of anything, I’m just somebody that whatever is put in front of me I will make a song or do something with it. That’s what happened with Invada Studios, I’ve never worked there before or had that opportunity to have an upright piano in the room or to have an old Wurlitzer synth, bits and pieces around there to play around with. That’s where I‘m happiest anyway, to experiment. Not particularly a conscious thing to make any sort of sound, it was just like, what have I got to work with? These are the songs and this is the feeling I want to get out there. I’ve seen it described as seven or eight different genres. They all just come back to “it’s a pop record” and I agree with that.
Oh yeah, I mean rock encompasses a lot of different things, too.
A bunch of things on the first record and “Fawner” on this one reminded me of Neko Case, but then a big, new-wave arena-pop song like “Balance Is Gone” brings Joan Armatrading to mind.
This record I had a lot of ‘80s radio on at my flat, I didn’t listen to any modern music but ‘80s radio stations I would wake up with. They’re just epic melodies. It’s all melody, ‘80s songs. I think it crept into my psyche a bit.
Do you come up with a lot of your dance moves while you’re writing a song in the kitchen or singing along with ‘80s radio?
Absolutely not. I’m not a dancer of any kind and I’ve never choreographed anything in my life.
It’s all improvised?
I truly have two left feet. It’s really one of the wishes of my life that I could dance but I’m incredibly dyslexic and dyspraxic. My cognitive memory when it comes to movement is terrible. It’s just kind of an explosion of movement because it feels like the right thing to do and I don’t have to follow anything. There’s no structure. The idea of choreographing something fills me with dread. [Laughs.]
I figured some kind of practice went into it because it fits your music so well, your movements fit your rhythms. Someone could move around onstage and not really know the beat of their own songs, but you do have a style.
I write my own music and I 90 percent produce it all myself so I live with every beat, I live with every note, I know it inside-out on a cellular level. So it’s choreographed somewhere in there.
VIDEO: Billy Nomates “Balance Is Gone”
Did your interest in moving around onstage predate your diagnosis of dyspraxia?
I’ve just always done it with Billy Nomates. I got diagnosed really late in life so I was sort of lucky that I even got diagnosed. I worked for an arts university at one point and just sort of fell into [stage performance]. There may be some unconscious link there, being told that you have these things and there’s a part of me that if you tell me I can’t do something it’s the thing I want to do. Being told “You have no coordination” and going out and making a living performing. I suppose it does require a certain amount of coordination, except I’ve done it my way and there isn’t really any.
Likewise, I was wondering if dyslexia played a part in devising lyrics for that half-talking style of singing, which is such a different way of consuming information than reading lyrics off a page, especially emotionally.
Dyslexic writers are some of my favorite writers and I didn’t even know they were dyslexic. But I think there was a certain style I’ve always been drawn to, so being diagnosed was like — and not even mildly — I think they were a bit shocked with some of the tests I took, like, “How have you coped with it until now?” That high on the spectrum. I think everything made a little more sense after that. If somebody’s going to find a different way of doing anything, it’s just infinitely interesting. On the vinyl there’s a lyric sheet and I went to the designer to oversee it and format it in the record and they said, “You know this is just full of typos, do we correct it?” And I was like, “No, because that’s the way the words come out in my head and I think it’s important that it’s spelt wrong.” Some people will be really fucking frustrated. [Laughs.]
You named the album Cacti because the plant epitomizes survival, do you feel that’s a major theme of the second album’s lyrics or more just the idea of a second album in general?
I think it’s a bit of both. I’m genuinely surprised to even have a second album based on the last few years. Like, literally physically surviving the last few years.
“Blue Bones” sounds like it’s almost explicitly about falling out of romance with death as an idea. Which feels like a linear progression after “No” was this great statement-of-purpose song to introduce Billy Nomates as a project.
You think, “Oh, there’s no thread here” until a fan goes, “That makes perfect sense!” [Laughs.]
The songs on the self-titled record had a very particular working class bent to them — about how impossible it is to make political change under capitalism. Do you feel like you have new angles for writing about work again now that we’ve been in a pandemic for a few years?
I wrote those songs from my experiences up til like 28, my entire 20s was just in and out of several jobs. Like everyone else — especially now in the U.K., like fuck — in so many respects I was just trying to get by and trying to have a good time. You just do your best and try to get where you are. But having the world shut down, I didn’t really have a choice. The jobs had at the time were such low hours that I was the first to get cut off. I had a year of no work but also no income from music…I had stuff waiting in the wings but it wasn’t out. And now trying to pursue this full time and how different that is again. I’ve had a lot of different experiences with the work world now. I don’t know what my overall take on it is, other than…it’s just all a hustle. It’s a hustle where you’re not in work, it’s a hustle when you’re in work. It’s a hustle for your dream career and there’s a hustle to just hold down a fucking day job. [Laughs.]
Would it go against the whole Nomates persona to hire a backing band one day? Or do you think self-reliance is a big theme in both the sound and the concept of what you’re doing?
Self-reliance has been at the forefront thus far but I think the preconception has been that I’m against it when I’m really not. It has been, again, a form of survival to operate this way so far; I’m not the sort of artist who has carte blanche over what they want to do, I don’t have a million pound deal. Paying a band with Brexit and the rest of it, it wasn’t really an option for me. I think it speaks more about the music industry than it does for me. Operating as a solo artist I can do pretty much everything in my own home, but no, it’s not something I’m against. Progress is inevitable at some point; where that point is, I’m not entirely sure. We’ll see where it lands.
VIDEO: Billy Nomates “Saboteur Forcefield”
Are there any bucket list artists you still have yet to connect to or work with? I know Iggy Pop and Florence Welch are among your fans.
I mean, they’re pretty cool. [Laughs.] I’m a real fan of the way that Steve Albini works. He said some really nice things about me early on, and I think whatever he does is always interesting. He has the same work ethic that he started with before and he makes the same kind of music that he believes in and he has always railed against everything else. Anyone that’s really original or carved their own or gone against what’s expected of them or what everyone else is doing.
Now you’ve got me looking forward to your own Rid of Me.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about is Bits, this collection of covers you put out before your label deal. You remade some of my all-time favorite songs: “Once in a Lifetime,” “Dancing Wiv Myself,” “He Drives Me Crazy.” Plus Tom Jones. Will those ever see official re-release?
[Laughs.] That’s really funny. It’s all on an old laptop that I think died! And me being a terrible person, I don’t think I backed it up. I put it out at one point so I may have to ask a fan on Bandcamp to re-upload it or send it to me.
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