Interview |Martha Tilston – ‘If folk music doesn’t ask questions folk are asking, who will?’

It’s hard to imagine that Martha Tilston could have become anything other than a folk artist. When your dad is folk legend Steve Tilston, your parents run a folk night in Bristol, and Bert Jansch and John Renbourn frequently pop round for tea, it seems rather inevitable. Not to say that Tilston is a one trick pony – inspired perhaps by her artist mother, she funded 2005’s Bimbling through the sale of the album’s self-painted artwork, and  embarked on a career in acting in her younger days. But it was folk that exerted the biggest pull, and now an impressive nine albums in, Tilston is a solid fixture in the contemporary folk world.

Of the 60’s music that influenced her, Tilston draws especially on the socio-political element, writing about politics, social relationships and the environment. She has a vocal reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, a finger-picking style similar to that of Marissa Nadler, and an inventiveness and willingness to experiment all of her own.  Eschewing major labels and urban life, she now composes much of her work from the seclusion of her home in Cornwall. With the release of Machines of Love And Grace this year and a 2013 tour on the horizon, we caught up with this prolific artist to talk about such frivolous matters as music, art and integrity.

You had a very musical, artistic upbringing. Do you think you would have been a musician without this?

It’s hard to know, maybe – I think music is in all of us somehow – if it was in my bones it would have come out regardless. But I do feel blessed that it was so easy and unquestioned to follow our creative path regardless of the financial struggle that can accompany it. My parents are all strong and free spirits in their own way (I say ‘all’ because I really had four parents bringing me up). They all expressed themselves creatively and as kids we fitted in with that, watched, and it probably soaked in.

Your recent album – like your first – has a strong , political element. Can you talk about this?

I don’t know what to say about this. It is a delicate balance to reflect what folk are saying, and questioning without judging or having the answers. But I wonder, with the state of the world at present and the way we as humans are interacting with each other and nature, if being apolitical or avoiding politics is somehow more political? By this I mean, I may make a more commercially successful album if it were full of love songs and oblique references to the human condition, but we are at a crucial time in the human development with the environment and so much of our daily lives is controlled by big corporations. If folk music doesn’t ask questions folk are asking – who will? I may not always get it right, but in those songs I try to craft these questions carefully from personal experience and hope they don’t sound like just Guardian headlines…

What other things inspire you?

Nature  – crisp, sunny, winter mornings, the sea on the North Cornish coast. My kids, my husband, curry.

There are clear 60’s influences to your music- Joni Mitchell, Bert Jansch and so on – are there any contemporary artists you would rate?

Hiss Golden Messenger, Lou Rhodes, Kate Tempest, Dizreali, Nathan Ball, Carrie Tree, Clayton Blizzard- so many more….

How do you feel about the recent explosion in folk’s popularity?

It’s wonderful. There are so many sublime, traditional songs out there being performed by an inspiring wealth of new talent. I just hope that we stay free to comment on and question the world without commerce affecting our courage.

The artwork that accompanies your music has always been very important. Do art and music go hand in hand for you?

Good question – I suppose so, as I flip flop between writing songs and painting as my creative release. But I don’t feel I am a particularly strong painter, rather just learning. To be honest it’s just always been the easiest way to make the covers and for them to resemble the images that pop up in my scruffy imagination.

How do you feel your music has progressed over the years and what direction do you see yourself heading in next?

It’s been a fun journey – sometimes I turn off the road and try hacking a path through the brambles, sometimes this path leads to something I never would have experienced if I had stayed on the road, sometimes it just leads to scrapes on my legs and so I head back to the well-trod road. At the moment I am sitting on the grass at the edge of that road wondering whether to do something more trip-poppy or more traditionally folky – don’t know, perhaps I should write a film….Ah, but then the piano tuner came today and that’s where it all began for me – on the piano….

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Playing the lantern-lit ‘Small World’ stage in a Bedouin tent, on a beautiful summer evening at some festival [Small World Spring Festival]. With my wonderful band around me, friends in the audience and a brandy coffee at my feet.

How do you find the Cornish landscape inspires your writing, and could you write in a big city?

I have written in big cities – I tended to write songs about escaping to nature and, well, Cornwall. Now I am here – it fills my soul, but I find I am writing songs about big cities…erm.

You’ve always eschewed big labels. Would anything persuade you to sign with one? Is integrity more important than success?

It’s hard to see how, and indeed if, the machine is working, let alone who is turning the wheel, when I am a cog in it.

Catch Martha on her forthcoming tour:

Fri 21st Dec 2012 – Miss Peapods, Penryn, Cornwall

Sat 19th Jan 2013 – Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames

Wed 20th Feb 2013 –  Electric Palace, Bridport

Thurs 21st Feb 2013 – Colston Hall, Bristol

Fri 22nd Feb 2013 –  Stratford Upon Avon Folk Club

Sun 24th Feb 2013 – Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham

Wed 1st May 2013 – Biddulph Up In Arms

Sat 24th Aug 2013 – Purbeck Folk Festival