Billy Nomates: Anger is an Energy
When Tor Maries – better known as Billy Nomates – was working on her upcoming second record CACTI, she would head to Underfall Yard when she wanted to listen to her demos.
The place is a historic part of Bristol Harbour, on the city’s Spike Island. An oasis of colour and postcard prettiness against the post-industrial gloom of the rest of the landscape, it’s still and peaceful there. The fairy lights decked up on the waterside pubs twinkle picturesquely and, at sunset, the view of the sky turning pink and orange behind rows of pastel houses is breath-catchingly beautiful. When I visit with Maries one late afternoon in November, I experience the serious compulsion to eat a roast and get under a blanket.
In a lot of ways, however, the cosy inertia of the scene feels at odds with Billy Nomates’ distinctly uneasy and angular music, which sees her spectacular, riptide singing voice surging over urgent synths and guitars, grasping for meaning amid the turbulence of what it means to be a person in the world today. But then, Maries has always felt dissonant herself – an “outsider” with “imposter syndrome”, as she puts it – so perhaps the tranquillity of Underfall, with its massive moored boats, was actually the perfect setting for ironing CACTI out, in all its emotional complexity. Opposites attract, after all.
When we meet, Maries is polite and even a little reserved. A bottle green canvas jacket hangs over her shoulders, and the bleached mullet she wore when she broke through a couple of years ago is now an earthier blonde. She speaks quietly and listens intently, self-describing as a “total introvert” with “massive social anxiety”, though on record, she is a dynamo. To listen to Billy Nomates is essentially to hear someone pouring out everything they’ve been holding in.
“Billy Nomates is the shield for Tor, but it’s the vehicle for so much within me,” she explains over coffee in a Bristol city centre café. Her voice – rich, deep and powerful, squarely in the tradition of force-of-nature vocalists like Sinéad O’Connor and Hayley Williams – is by turns a knowing purr, a wrenched howl, all tension, some release. On stage, usually alone with only a backing track and lights for company, she compels the eye, twisting from the waist and jerking her limbs like a woman exorcising herself. You get the sense she needs it.
Raised in the Midlands by a single dad who played fiddle and guitar in bands, and taught music at the local comp where they went to school, Maries and her siblings had a musical upbringing coloured by their dad’s time living in the Shetland Isles. Though there were no formal lessons, the family home was full of instruments. “My earliest memory of music is having a small fiddle and learning Shetland tunes, and that being my first introduction to melody,” she remembers, her sleeves pulled around her hands as she sips a cappuccino. Music was just an ordinary but intrinsic part of life. “You’d come in from school, you’d eat a Penguin biscuit, then you’d play a few chords on the upright piano.”
As she got older, Maries knew she wanted to pursue music seriously, and by her early 20s had started to play in bands – but nothing stuck, and she grew frustrated. “It just felt so transient,” she tells me. “So I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just not going to do it.’”
A fallow period of four or five years followed. “I didn’t write anything. I was in quite a bad and boring relationship. I just worked and thought, ‘Well, that’s me now,’” she says. But at the end of her 20s, she “hit rock bottom” – the relationship “exploded”, her job went to shit, and she found herself living on her sister’s couch – and the old musical impulse reared its head. “I just picked it up again,” she says. “Music always made me happy. Even when I was just writing for me, it was a space of safety.”
After a burst of productivity over only a few weeks, Maries created the first Billy Nomates album – her 2020 self-titled, written at her sister’s kitchen table and released amid the pandemic. She chucked it out into the world anticipating nothing back, but revelled in the personal catharsis. As so often happens when your expectations are low, the world bit her hand off: soon she was collaborating with Sleaford Mods, her furious, sneering track Call in Sick (“Who goes in on a Friday? Come on, who goes in on a Friday?”) became an anthem for fed-up workers in bullshit office jobs, and she was signed to Invada Records, the label run by Geoff Barrow of Portishead and BEAK>. Quickly, music went from being a personal outlet at a time of crisis and turned into the genuine career Maries had always hoped for.
That first record was defined by a lo-fi sound, with scratchy guitars playing a more prominent role than its flashes of electronic elements. Maries’ delivery on tracks like the sarcastic No (“No I don’t fit in your pocket/ I won’t shave everything off, I’m not 12”) was spit-drenched and seething, which led many in the music press to categorise her as “a fierce punk artist”, she says with a slight side-eye. So for her second trick, CACTI, she wanted to do something different.
“The minute someone calls me [that], I’m just absolutely going to do the opposite! I’ll probably put a ballad out,” Maries laughs. “I did feel that was the narrative, so I definitely didn’t want to do the first record again.” CACTI, made over the course of a year at Bristol’s Invada Studios, with her co-producer James Trevascus, is sonically much heavier on the synths, and leans poppier (Spite, for example, has an irresistible, dancefloor-ready chorus), embracing the punchy, 80s radio power hour sounds she loves.
“I think of 80s music in that way that it was always so emotional – it’s not sad, it’s devastating!” she says, hands at her chest, citing Kim Carnes (of Bette Davis Eyes fame) as a particular inspiration. It follows, then, that in terms of all it expresses, this record is a progression from the curled lip snarl of the first.
“It’s just a spectrum of emotions and experience; feeling helpless, spiteful, sad, lost and an overriding sense of apathy about everything,” Maries says. And it does feel like we are hearing her truly cracking herself open, her wild voice always teetering on the brink of something, as her lyrics sort through topics from the weirdness of life post-pandemic (“I dream of shutdowns now,” she sings on the moving closer blackout signal) to her own mental state. “Does it frighten you that I’m still driving?” she asks on the wiry balance is gone – a question that manages to sound both vulnerable and like a threat.
“We live in such a fucking apocalyptic time, it just feels like it could all explode at any point,” Maries says of the conditions she feels CACTI is responding to. “And if there’s not five threats over here, you’re dealing with the cost of living, day to day. It’s just a very intense world to navigate. Selfishly, I want to lean into feelings and emotions.”
“Billy Nomates is the shield for Tor, but it’s the vehicle for so much within me”
While CACTI is a much broader work than her first LP, the anger that drove her debut still remains – a fibre-optic thread sewn into every song. “If you’re a woman in the modern world, your underlying feeling is anger,” Maries explains. Music, then, “feels like a safe place to put that energy, if you’re just angry at the world, it’s quite hard to function, or trust people, or do anything. You have to let go a bit. It has to go somewhere.”
This strategy is resonating, as her profile grows along with her sound and stage presence. In late 2022, Maries gave an electric performance on Later… with Jools Holland, and most of the shows on her subsequent UK tour sold out. She’d be the first to tell you that she still feels “like the imposter in the room” and like it could all be swept away in an instant – but anyone who sees her perform will know that Maries is exactly where she ought to be. Billy Nomates will play shows across the country again in the spring, communing with the crowds who feed off her magnetic energy, as she lives the songwriter’s life that she longed for. It’s a long way from her sister’s kitchen table, and she marvels at all that has happened over the last couple of years.
“It’s funny how you arrive,” she says. “It’s not always in the way you’d expect.”
CACTI is out on 13 January via Invada Records