Tor Maries discusses what went into her second post punk album as Billy Nomates, and why we need more than awareness to deal with mental health issues
The clouds are gathering in on a dismal Bristol day, but Billy Nomates, who now calls the city home, is still in high spirits. Her pet cactus, one of a collection of plants acquired recently, is peeking into shot during our Zoom chat. “I live by myself, so sometimes it’s just that thing of my mental clarity sometimes coming from watering the plants,” says the artist otherwise known as Tor Maries. CACTI, her upcoming second album, doesn’t just take inspiration from the botanical haven of a flat that it was partially recorded in, but also the pricklier aspects of life as it currently stands. “I had the title before I had anything. I knew it was gonna be about survival,” she reveals. “There’s something so symbolic about them, they’re just these odd things that look kind of unapproachable, but they’re just part of nature. They’re just doing what they need to do.”
The dreaded ‘difficult second album’ is somewhat of a music industry cliché at this point, but given Tor’s critical acclaim to date, it wouldn’t be the most unreasonable assumption to make that she might be feeling some unease ahead of the release. After all, her 2020 eponymous debut received praise from Iggy Pop, Florence Welch and Juliette Lewis to name a few and an Album of The Year nod from BBC 6 Music. For Tor, however, CACTI was a different beast entirely, being anything but difficult. “I feel it’s a broader representation of the way I write and who I am as an artist,” she says. “I think you can get quite boxed in early on in your career.”
Frequently included under the ‘earnest post-punk’ umbrella, her mostly self-produced follow-up is as acerbic as before, yet sonically covers far more bases, dipping its toes into Americana on tracks such as ‘fawner’, ’80s power pop on ‘spite’ and synth-led indie on ‘blue bones (deathwish)’, a Catholic spread of influences thanks in part to her music-teacher father. Her debut was a pandemic baby, born with a silver tongue rather than rosy chubby cheeks, but it’s not a time that Tor looks back on fondly, given the precarity of that period. “I’m glad that I’m still here to be able to put another album out,” she says, looking relieved. “I was gonna say less fractured world, but who knows?! But in a hopefully less completely uncertain environment than my first album was.”
Part of the change in environment came from Tor being able to dedicate all of her time to music, a privilege that was completely new to her. “My life had changed as I wasn’t working a 9-to-5 job anymore,” she says. “I’d always made music late at night after work.”
Her life would alter even further due to the pandemic, presenting a unique moral quandary over whether to lean into the unprecedented events and rally against the government and overt displays of societal inequality, or focus on the more personal existential issues that were raised as a result. Tor chose the latter.
“Like most people, I had this time to sort of think, and I didn’t want to talk about the pandemic really,” she says. “I think what I was trying to do, maybe it’s selfish, but I wanted to ignore the apocalypse and focus on relationships.” As a single woman in her 30s, she can’t really be blamed for wanting to lean into what this truly means in this day and age and the “human spectrum of emotions” that she was overcome by, especially as the pandemic seemingly exacerbated what it meant to be truly isolated.
“I think it’s difficult for anyone navigating the world in a career by themselves at any age,” she states. “And I think for women especially, there’s a lot of pressure to have it all and be successful.” For Tor, there is an element of tightrope walking that feels at odds with her true self, an authenticity that was essential to the messaging of the album. “That idea that women can be successful but not too successful. There just seems to be an element of that that’s still entrenched in things. And I have definitely felt the pressure to be less sometimes. And that’s hard because it’s not natural. I’m just a soul. I’m just a person and I just want to deliver things how I deliver them.”
The complexity of the human psyche lies at the heart of CACTI, and is something Tor is continuing to learn and grow from. The pressure is explored on ‘saboteur forcefield’, an airy synth track that speaks to one of the most frustrating psychological phenomena around – imposter syndrome: “There’s a lot of guilt, it never goes away.”
Despite her successes and genuine self-belief, Tor isn’t immune from the age-old bad habit of self-sabotage, something she is still trying to grapple with. “You don’t always know you’re doing it until you sort of look back at a situation,” she says. “It’s kind of a bit of a constant battle, that one of essentially feeling worthy. I struggle with it.”
With all of the lockdown household bubbles and government-imposed ‘sex bans’, coupled with society’s general disdain for any woman past the age of 25 who might dare to exercise vague quality control when it comes to inviting a partner into her life, it’s no surprise that it was a period of time that inspired Tor creatively.
“Being a single woman’s hard,” she says, exasperated. “And just figuring it out and actually just surviving, where we are and what we’re going through is quite a lot, you know? Without everything else that interrupts it.”
These nuances of survival mode are perhaps best encapsulated in ‘spite’, which speaks of the “fake it till you make it” mentality with its “don’t you act like I ain’t the fucking man” refrain, a mindset that many have to adopt in order to be viewed as equals. “You know, Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce, I have Billy Nomates,” she chuckles. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the two in any way, but in that headspace of ‘No. Fuck this, I’m here’.” She speaks of the need for women to go into situations tooled up in our best metaphorical Gladiator-esque armour, remaining stony-faced when confronted with opposition. “We’re not supposed to hint at the fact that we get so frustrated that we feel violently moved by it, because that’s not something we’re ever really allowed to express.” With sad girl indie and male manipulator music being popular subgenres of indie music today, this same arbitrary labelling of music isn’t so readily ascribed to male musicians who are open with their emotions, she believes. “It’s totally okay for men to express it in their work, but sometimes I just want that equal billing. We have the same spectrum of emotion.”
This spectrum is explored from the off on album opener ‘balance is gone’, an earnest exploration of the mindset when things are off-kilter. “It just represented where my mental health was at,” she admits. “It’s quite brutal but that’s how it is.” The brutality of recognising one’s mental health is perhaps not in its most stable state was one that Tor was initially a bit apprehensive about putting out into the ether, but it made the cut for that very reason.
“I often write things and I hear it back and go, ‘Oh, are you okay with that going out into the world?’ And often the answer is no,” she says. “That’s normally how I know that I need to do it because it’s tapped into the thing that is uncomfortable or on the edge. But it’s still terrifying for me to put it out.” Despite her openness, Tor questions whether it is something to truly be proud of. People are often told that we’re brave for speaking openly and honestly but in the same breath chided for oversharing, especially when there are “real problems” going on in the world. “If I’m being brutally honest, there’s just a lot of stigma and shame. I fear, especially being a female artist in the industry, that I don’t want to be painted with the ‘crazy’ brush a little bit,” she sighs. “It’s a deeper conversation, it’s more complicated and like any human being’s mental health, it’s just not one colour and it never will be.” Opening with the line “My inner peace is broken into five / I meditate but I am not alive”, it’s a damning reflection of a world that tasks individuals with mediating their own mental state through self care practices, without addressing the impact that societal structures have on mental health. No man is an island, and the individualisation of care for one’s self is a frustration that Tor and I share.
“Awareness is like the hot word, isn’t it?” she believes. “If I’m aware that my foot’s on fire, my foot’s still on fire. I don’t know if being aware of it changes that.” With all the ‘Awareness’ days and ‘Be Kind’ hashtags, there is the argument that the mental health rhetoric rarely goes beneath the surface and focuses on ways to cope with rather than improve circumstances. “It’s still a good thing that we talk about it but the funding and the infrastructure for people’s mental health just isn’t there. A lot of it falls back on, ‘get your crystals out, have a massage’, and it’s like, no, can you fund some actual therapy? Can our government actually put some infrastructure in place?”
Whilst the intention of CACTI was to focus on the interpersonal relationships in Tor’s life, it was impossible to explore these without the wider context of societal inequality at the hands of a “concerning” Tory government and the knock-on effect that this has had on her livelihood and wider music industry practices.
“I think the music industry needs to just be aware that it is becoming very singular and how it addresses that, I’m not entirely sure,” she argues. “The funding just needs to be there. If you’re going to cut the arts out of education, you know, that’s where it starts.” As someone who admits to struggling in school (“I failed my Music GCSE”), she believes that greater class consciousness is needed in the music industry and more support given to working class voices through funding and sharing of resources and information. Though it’s become a bit of a running joke that every new post-punk band that emerges consists of public school-educated sprechgesangers, it’s not far off from where things could head if more isn’t done to nurture working class talent.
“The music industry will have to pay the price because, if we’ve got one type of music, we essentially have the same class voice throughout the whole of the next 20, 30 years,” she says. “Where’s the representation? So I think we do need to be really careful on a broader cultural level that we aren’t just shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Ultimately, her main hope is that musicians from a similar background are able to find their way into the industry and are given the support they need to succeed. “Someone’s probably being rejected right now, being told that it’s not worthwhile for them right now. And hopefully they find a way, regardless of our horrible systems, to entertain us in 30 years, which will be very noble of them.” Having found her way through the horrible systems to entertain us in the present, despite struggle being integral to the Billy Nomates story to date, Tor views her ascent as less noble, more necessary. “It’s a bunch of songs written from different experiences, conflict and an array of emotions,” she tells me in her signature bluntness, shrugging. “And if that resonates with people – great.”