With an eye on the changing social and economic landscape, folk artist Martha Tilston is leading a revival of the protest song, discovers Caspar Walsh
Protests songs were part of the musical fabric of my childhood. Maybe I took my eye off the ball between the Pistols, Lennon and the occasional Billy Bragg anthem but there seemed to be little on the protest song horizon between the seventies and the noughties.
However, along with the times, something is changing. PJ Harvey has won The Mercury Music prize with her sabre-rattling album Let England Shake, and Leonard Cohen is back on the mainstream scene (after a decade living in a Buddhist monastery) with the positive, life affirming new album, Old Ideas.
A surging folk revival, dubbed nu-folk or future-folk, is producing a raft of powerful protest songs, fuelling a new generation of young people into positive action.
One of the rising voices for a new generation of protest singers is Martha Tilston (daughter of singer-songwriter Steve Tilston). A below-the-media-radar, nu-folk star, Martha has impressed her legions of fans in recent years with her commitment to putting her money where her musical mouth is. She refuses to jump into the mainstream for the sake of recognition – even with lucrative advertising deals on the table.
Martha believes there is hope for our collective future and is passionate about the dialogue created between her songs and her audience. She sings from the depths of her soul, and her sharp, intuitive and insightful view of the world is a beacon of light in dark times. Shine on.
Caspar Walsh: How much of your writing is focussed on carrying a message?
Martha Tilston: To begin with I found it quite hard to be brave enough to say what I wanted to say. I’ve always been politically heartfelt since a young age but I probably didn’t let myself write the songs that I really wanted to write for fear of being one of those protest bands which I found hard to listen to.
I didn’t want to preach, especially when I hadn’t worked out loads of stuff myself. As a folk singer and writer who’s trying to feel the temperature and gauge how everyone else is feeling, there are questions that I really want to ask. There’s lots of questioning happening right across the board. It’s not just a left wing or right wing thing, it seems there’s something happening where we’ve now got enough courage to question systems we’ve been living under for a long, long time, and that’s coming through in my music.
I’m trying to be brave really. We wrote a song for the Occupy Wall Street lot in the first two weeks when it was a complete clamp down and there wasn’t anything in the papers. I don’t feel I am massively political but I think there is a waking up happening generally.
Do you feel there’s been an absence of positive protest songs in the last few decades?
Oh definitely, definitely. I only dared put a maximum of two protest songs on each album. I think we all to some extent had our blinkers on. I think we’ve all been wrapped up in the comforts of the west and only now are beginning to realise how uncomfortable that jumper is; it’s more like a straitjacket.
But now everybody seems to be in agreement that the system that we trusted to run things is no longer working. Although I have held back until now, the protest songs on the new album have absolutely poured out of me, like the flood gates have opened.
Simon and Garfunkel had a huge influence on me when I was growing up; they were so politically questioning.
In the light of loss of trust in the old economic and social systems, do you think music has a power to convey important messages?
I’m sure, yes but I don’t think artists should ever know that, because the knowing can lead to the belief that you have power and that can be dangerous. I think this is all about having a conversation. There’s a real place for peaceful questioning.
How big a part do you feel music plays in bringing across a positive message?
Loads. It’s amazing. When you’ve been so lost and you realise you’re not alone; when you look round and see that there are other fishing boats in the sea, that there is quite a few of you and together you may be able to work out how to get back to land; when you can sound your horn to the other boats to find your way back; it is an amazing and a beautiful thing, and so important.
We’ve become dependent on the system and have for the large part forgotten about nature. What I would love is for us and for kids to have an image in our heads of what is positive that involves nature and technology. We don’t have to go back to mud huts. We are going to turn this round, this is an amazing time, we are waking up. It’s very visceral, we are so alive now, this is a great time and we can really make this beautiful.
Below is an exclusive preview of Survival Guide To Window Spiders, a track from Matha Tilson’s fortcoming new album, Nomad, will be released later in 2012.