Martha has to date charted her own course as a singer songwriter, gradually staking a claim to a successful career in the folk world, but has said that she always had it in mind to make a traditional album. She finally picked up the direction the drive and the courage to immerse herself into the world of folksong, following a benefit concert for her stepmother Maggie Boyle, and has turned to family and friends, gathering all of the people who have helped to make the music such an important part of her life. What a talented bunch they are and the resulting album, The Sea, is beautifully crafted album, packed with wonderful singing and playing some great nautically themed song choices and a few surprises into the bargain. The album was mostly recorded in a cliff-side cottage in Prussia Cove in Cornwall with the slat spray in the air, and it sounds absolutely fabulous.
If Martha Tilston was always going to make music, given her father and step mother are both significant members of the folk world, she did so in her own sweet time and when she eventually started, on her own terms as well. Even as a babe in arms, Martha was a regular at the folk club in Bristol, run by her parents, Steve Tilston, whose own music career had already begun, and her mother Naomi. Regular house guests included the likes of Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and John Renbourn, just family friends, who would sit in kitchen trading songs and stories.
When her parents divorced Martha moved with her mother to Surrey. Her new stepfather was theatre director Frank Whately whose own Geordie and Irish heritage gave him a love of traditional folksong. It was in this environment that Martha first mastered the piano and then taught herself finger style guitar, inspired in particular by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, both musically and politically, picking up on the anti-war elements and social conscience of the 60’s singer songwriters. Martha also proved to have some of her Mother’s gift for painting, but as the new household was regularly visited by actors and other theatre professionals, so she started to drift towards acting.
In Bristol meanwhile Steve and Maggie Boyle were together, and Martha refers to her filling that house with songs. As a youngster Maggie had joined a branch Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Fulham, an organisation dedicated to promoting Irish traditional folk song and dance, Martha was in turn introduced to the richness of this culture. The album notes credit Maggie as the single most important inspiration for Martha’s own singing, with the moving dedication, “Thank you, it’s because of you that I sing at all.”
None the less when Martha did start she didn’t follow her stepmother and Father into the world of traditional folk singing or the folk club circuit. Instead Martha became attracted to the alternative festival scene, through lifestyle choices and her keenly developing social conscience. She became part of the travelling troupe that were known as the Small World Solar Stage, before forming a duo with Nick Marshall called Mouse. The pair released a couple of albums following the turn of the millennium and toured extensively, without gaining much success, until eventually financial pressures took their toll.
Martha started releasing her own albums thereafter and even set up her own label as the means to do so. First there was a lo-fi CD called Rolling and then the somewhat fuller Bimbling, funded by selling her paintings. With Ropeswing the following year Martha had added a band, although it was Of Milkmaids And Architects, that she really started to cross back into more mainstream music circles, even picking up a Folk Award nomination, and building a solid reputation on the live circuit.
The Sea will be her fourth full album since that release in 2007, along with a compilation EP, suggesting that any move into the mainstream has resulted from, or at very least come with a creative surge at the same time. Mostly of course, except for the odd traditional dabble here and there, it’s been all her own material and in the course of creating that Martha has attracted a number of fine musicians to her cause. Several of whom are on hand here. After going under the name The Woods around that Ropeswing album, the latest incarnation is The Scientists and the bouzouki of Matt Tweed, the guitar of Nick Marshall, Tim Cotterell’s violin created the foundation of the songs here.
More importantly, however, this is an album about family and the people that Martha refers to as making folk music an integral part of her life. Naturally enough that includes her father Steve and stepmother Maggie Boyle. To some degree it was a benefit concert for Maggie, to raise money for medical treatment that gave Martha the courage and inspiration to delve into the folksong tradition. Although she may have always felt she was going to at some point, there’s a sense that Martha had to do it right, bringing with it an undercurrent of pressure, with Steve and especially Maggie, setting high standards for her to aim at. It’s easy to say from listening to the finished work that she needn’t have worried, however, as the record sounds fabulous and with the theme linking the songs, there are some interesting narrative choices, adding another level of enjoyment.
The opener, Lovely On The Water is instantly entrancing and Martha’s voice, light and airy, almost ethereal with its gentle tremolo is an immediate hook. She’s joined on the track by Maggie in a gorgeous duet, with her stepmother’s sweet yet fuller less decorous delivery creating a perfect compliment. The sleeve notes tell of the lyrics being written on a piece of paper that kept surfacing, almost nagging to be recorded and also setting this project in motion. The arrangement is beautiful with interlaced guitars, bouzouki and fiddle given ebb and flow by Martha’s partner Robin Tyndal-Biscoe’s inventive, rolling percussion. Maggie also adds a flute that hits right at the heart of this sad tale of lovers parted by war and the duty to set sail.
The Lowlands Of Holland takes another aspect of the same theme, with a young man forced to leave his lover, never to return as he falls in combat. It is also introduces the Whately branch of the family, with Martha’s uncle Kevin Whately, the actor proving that he’s a surprisingly capable singer. It’s another exquisitely sad lament and Kevin displays an unexpected tenderness, as Martha’s voice tremors with the full anguish of a woman left to mourn. Again there is a haunting flute added by Maggie.
The next song breaks from the tradition and is Martha’s own Shipwreckers, Which incorporates part of a Kipling poem in its choruses. It’s a co-write with her friend Matt Kelly and features the cello and voice of Beth Perry. The subject of wreckers is controversial and the idea that people would deliberately lure ships onto the rocks has largely been debunked, but there are strong stories from Cornwall, where Martha lives and salvage from wrecks and smuggling were certainly rife. Martha has simply let her imagination free with idea and the arrangement is equally adventurous.
Joe Tilston, Martha’s brother, is on hand for Shallow Brown, a slave’s lament turned into a shanty and adapted from a version by Johnny Lamb (Thirty Pounds of Bone), who learnt it from Mary Hampton. This version was recorded in an old fishing warehouse in Falmouth, where Troubadour studios is to be found, and swells with the salt sea and salt tears. Following on, Martha’s former Mouse partner Nick Marshall courageously takes on Blackwater Side and does a very good job of it too, with a little almost minimalist piano from Martha, who gives a notable credit to Anne Briggs for the last verse, whilst perhaps channelling some of her spirit into this lovely, lithe version.
Martha’s two father figures also feature with Steve Tilston joining her for The Fisher Lad Of Whitby (listen below) and Frank Whately revisiting his Geordie roots with The Waters Of Tyne. The first is handled with considerable restraint, although again the arrangement sparkles with banjo added by Tim Cotterell. Frank, although not a professional singer also handles his duet well and Martha’s notes recall him singing some fairly lengthy ballads when she was a child, although this is short and very sweetly done.
In between those two comes The House Carpenter and features her friend from the festival circuit, Nathan Ball, who proves an excellent guitarist with a smoky edge to his voice, as the tragic tale of love and honour unfolds. But perhaps saving thes best for last,is another of Martha’s own song, The Mermaid Of Zennor, which features the voice of her friend of Cornish stock, Steve James, along with flute from Maggie and Bath’s cello adding to the house band. It takes Martha’s childhood memories of ythe Landscape around Zennor Hill and Penwith and submerges us beneath the waves with a tale of enchantment and magic. But we’re not quite done as there is a surprise reprise of Whitby, with sister Sophie rounding off the family connections in style.
The Sea is a powerful statement of the journey that Martha has been on and is brilliantly conceived from start to finish. Martha is strong enough to lead her significant guests through a set of salt tear tales, laced with the swelling tides of emotion, the human tragedies and the magic that unfolds. Her band The Scientists have excelled in helping to realise these songs and Martha herself has never sounded better, the playing and singing throughout is simply sublime. Her extraordinary family have encouraged her and bestowed their musical gifts and here, Martha uses those gifts most wisely and graciously, resulting in a beguiling record of captivating beauty.
Review by: Simon Holland
Sat 18th Oct 2014
Miss Peapods, Penryn, Cornwall
Wed 22nd Oct 2014
Colston Hall 2, Bristol
Thu 23rd Oct 2014
The Railway, Winchester
Sat 25th Oct 2014
Boiler Room, Guildford
Tue 28th Oct 2014
GLASTONBURY Assembly Rooms
Wed 29th Oct 2014
MILTON KEYNES Stables (Stage 2)
Sat 1st Nov 2014
St Laurence Church, STROUD
Sun 2nd Nov 2014
DORCHESTER Arts Centre
Wed 5th Nov 2014
NORWICH Bicycle Shop
Thu 6th Nov 2014
Sat 8th Nov 2014
Tue 11th Nov 2014
Trades Club, Hebden Bridge
Thu 13th Nov 2014
Bush Hall, London
Visit Martha’s Website for full details and ticket links: