A star of the local scene making a name for herself further afield, Newcastle’s Martha Hill has been all over Europe and always seems to end up back home. Settled into the slower pace of life that lockdown caused, her latest EP 'Dog-Hearted Man' is a reflection on exactly where she is right now, musing on being a 20-something with a lengthy career already on her shoulders. From softer tracks like 25 to the beloved Boom which was a staple in her early sets, it takes you on a tour of Martha’s artistic development over a distraction-less year. A further step in constant development, 'Dog-Hearted Man' is joyous yet refined, offering a more mature take on her upbeat signature sound.
Starting out as a busker, her music is inseparable from its place of origin, infused with northern spirit and humour. Refusing to shy away from the local slang or accent she’s picked up in her time as an adoptive Geordie, her music and work with her festival Women Are Mint are all about making space for proud mouthy northern women.
In between gushing about her various new hobbies of surfing and skateboarding, we caught up with Martha to talk about the product of her productive lockdown, her love for the North East and lack of plans for the future.
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A beautiful elephant in the room, we’re both from the North East which is very rare in music. I’m from Middlesbrough…
I actually love Middlesbrough, it’s class! I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland so Glasgow is a bit of a home show. But after Glasgow and Newcastle, Middlesbrough is my favourite place to play. The people are so sound there. The first time I was there I played a market called Orange Pip and it started raining like real torrential northern rain, and everyone got on stage with me and did a stage invasion to stay dry.
What made you settle in Newcastle?
I’ve got cousins that live in the North East and they were playing in ska bands and going to festivals and doing all these things that I’d dreamed of doing but just didn’t happen in my little seaside town. I came for the first time when I was 17 and started busking on Northumberland Street before going off traveling. Whenever I ran out of money I’d come back to the North East, busk then get bored and go off around Europe again like a cycle. It ended up being my base.
When you’re growing up in the north there’s always a kind of a pressure to leave and move to somewhere like London to make it. How did you resist that?
I actually think being based in the North East has been a total asset to me cause people are like ‘oh you’re not in London, that’s strange’. And the scene here is just so solid, Nick Roberts at BBC Newcastle has been such an advocate and really instrumental to my career, and Rianne Thompson that does BBC Introducing Tees. We all know each other and you go to the pub and you bump into everyone, it’s a real tight community.
And cause there’s not as many of us, all the genres support each other so it’s not as competitive, it’s great. And honestly, how can you afford to live in London as an emerging artist?
You can really hear the Northern humour in your work, is it important to you to maintain that identity in your music?
I think it’s important to write in your own voice and I’ve always been an advocate for singing in your own accent and not trying to put on an American or a London accent which a lot of people do.
I love when you hear singers and you can hear their accent, like Nadine Shah is a perfect example, she’s got such a beautiful, unusual voice and she emphasises the Geordie to the extreme. It’s pure Northern and it’s so interesting as a result. You get too many people all sounding the same, especially women, you get a lot of ‘I’m a girl and I’m singing in this soft nice accent’ so I think it’s good to try and have your own voice.
By doing that and running Women Are Mint, you’re doing such great things for representation and getting the North East scene out there. What led you to starting the festival?
I got hired by Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle to run a series of events getting in women artists to perform then do a question and answer session on different topics like pro-choice and disabilities. It was so interesting to hear all these viewpoints from women and seeing the same problems coming up every single conversation. I’ve always been a feminist but it really opened my eyes to the bigger picture and how big of an issue gender inequality is.
I felt like it was super important to stick with it and grow it once those sessions ended so I turned it into a three-day festival. I basically just book all the acts that I want to see live and my birthdays in May so I’ve essentially made a three-day birthday party.
What was the process of writing the EP? Was it done during lockdown?
It was a total mix of songs written within the last 12 months and then 'Boom' was written years ago but I’ve always wanted to bring it back so it’s been really nice resurrecting it. I don’t tend to sit down with a theme and write, I try to write whenever stuff comes to me and then pull a theme together later on.
And what ended up being the overarching theme this time?
I think the best song to sum it up is '25' which is a really short interlude-y song about reflection and nostalgia when you hit your mid-20s and settle down a bit more into your life.
What made you decide to bring 'Boom' back now?
It’s always been there in the back of my mind to bring it back as it used to be everyone’s favourite song in the set.
I remember once when I was touring in Italy there was this bald Italian man called Mauricio that absolutely loved 'Boom' and he’d keep coming up to me mid-set to asking me to play it. I like the mood it creates. I started working with my producer Julian Flew and I just knew he would get it right so I felt like it was time.
Having had a year where you couldn’t gig and try songs out on tour like you did with 'Boom', do you think it’s effected your creative process? I had to focus on songwriting as a technique rather than something that comes to me. I think it was really helpful to not just rely on all the noise and external influences like going to gigs and going traveling and having to just sit on your own in your own space day in day out and then create. It’s definitely been interesting.
So now we’ve had 25, so what do you think 35 might be like? What’s next for you?
God, all I know is that I need to get away this winter, I’ve got the itchiest feet I’ve ever had. I’m getting married in September, I want to try living somewhere else for a bit, I’ve been learning clarinet, started getting Spanish lessons, took up surfing.
Other than that, who knows. I think it’s not healthy or sensible as an independent artist to set yourself goals because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. In this career when you’re constantly living for the next release and the next playlist and the next gig, you really have to respect the journey and see how far you’ve come. I think looking backwards is more important than looking forwards.
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'Dog Hearted Man' EP will be released on June 25th. Martha Hill will play a full UK tour this October.
Words: Lucy Harbron
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