Martha Tilston – The Tape: Album Review

Soundtrack album from the debut feature film by Martha Tilston.

Release Date:  24th September 2021

Label: Squiggly Records

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Cassette,/ Download / Streaming

You’ll know about Martha Tilston; daughter of the famed singer/songwriter Steve Tilston and stepdaughter of the late, great Maggie Boyle, she comes from a distinguished musical family.  She’s made eleven albums since she first came to our attention in 2000 – her most recent outing was 2017’s acclaimed Nomad and now she’s back, with a truly stunning multi-media project – The Tape.

Let me explain.  The Tape is Martha’s debut feature film.  Not only did she write the film’s script, she also directed the movie and took the starring role, and perhaps most impressively of all, recorded this amazing soundtrack album live, on set.

In the movie, Martha plays the role of Tally Green, a disillusioned singer/songwriter who, in order to make ends meet, takes a job as a cleaner in an empty, atmospheric, clifftop house in Cornwall.  The piano in the house attracts Tally’s attention and, with its help, she writes a new set of songs, which she records on an old portastudio, onto a single cassette tape.  When the house owner Leo, a corporate lawyer arrives, he is drawn into Tally’s world by the strength of her music.  The tape acts as a talisman, helping those who hear it to truly come alive; Leo quits his lawyer job to become a writer and Tally rediscovers the motivation and courage to perform once again.  As Martha explains: “…the themes of the film explore creative freedom and the courage to find it, the mythology in the environment and the impact we have on the natural world, how we educate our children, the magic of music and how art is a language that can tie all these things together.  It helps us come alive.”

What really pleases me about The Tape – Soundtrack album – is how effectively it stands in its own right – I’ll certainly be making sure that I catch the movie, but, really, Martha Tilston has produced a set of songs that, with or without any visual points of reference, reward deep listening.  These songs are truly beautiful.  The production is sparse – the main accompaniment is Martha’s piano, supplemented sparingly but wonderfully by James Patrick Gavin’s violin, some lovely acoustic guitar from Nathan Ball and the merest touches of double bass from Matt Tweed and electric guitar from Jean Danio – and centre stage is given to Martha’s awesome, versatile, voice and her enigmatic heart-baring lyrics.

As I listened to The Tape, I found myself trying to find parallels that would help me describe Martha’s songwriting and vocal delivery styles.  She certainly has Joni Mitchell’s talent for packing her songs’ phrases with meaningful words, there’s some of Laura Nyro’s sophistication in the way she delivers the songs and Sandy Denny’s vulnerability is all-pervading.  But really, those comparisons only give the slightest indication of what’s on offer here.  Martha Tilston is a truly unique talent.

Opening track Sadness Of The Sea is the perfect scene-setter.  Martha’s flowing piano and James’s beautiful violin combine perfectly as we get our first taste of that wonderful voice on one the album’s truly outstanding tracks.  Martha’s lyrical mastery is given an early airing on Come Alive – one of the album’s “focus tracks” – with phrases like “It’s between the noughts and the ones – that’s where the magic is really done” and her vocal delivery flits between being light as air for the “Come alive – that’s all we can do” refrain, and oozing frailty during the “Breathe out/Breathe in” coda.

“Bigger bridges than you have fallen before – and I still made the crossing” is the persistent refrain in the excellent Bigger Bridges – a song in which Martha’s emotions seem to surge between hesitance and determination, whilst sadness and wistfulness are the themes in the short, atmospheric Wild And Rocky Shores.  Things get particularly intimate for Say It Back, a song with a beautiful piano/acoustic guitar accompaniment, and inspiring lyrics that explore the difficulties we all experience in expressing our innermost feelings.  In contrast, the opening line of Western Sun: “I’m going to open my door, let the western sun light in…” heralds a song that is almost joyful and optimistic as Martha seems to grasp at the opportunity for emotional freedom.

The film’s co-star, Lee Hart, joins Martha for the recital of her poem, Goshawk Child.  Set against a backing of violin, guitar and piano, the recital is a short interlude that is both mystical and highly engaging.  The Cornish setting of The Tape is emphasized by the inclusion of the short traditional Dean Younk a Gernow (it translates as Young Man of Cornwall) before we get to one of the album’s real treats.  We Sang is delivered as a duet from Martha and Nathan Ball, who also perform together as Wookey, back in the real world.  It’s a wonderful acoustic guitar song with intriguing and entertaining lyrics that recall places and situations that have been enlivened (or made tolerable or memorable) by song, and which conclude that song is what makes us human and what gives our lives meaning.

Penultimate track, Oxygen, is perhaps, the closest thing on the album to an epic.  It’s a deep, somewhat complex, song with lyrics that contemplate how love can sometimes be stifling, rendering those “affected” gasping for oxygen.  Martha sounds genuinely strained and haunted as she sings, and the strings that dominate the accompaniment give the song an eastern feel.  Excellent!

Album closer, In This Song, transports us to a Tally Green concert, as Tally brings her set to a close.  In another wonderful, challenging piece, Martha (or Tally…) describes her song as a place where the participants in a strained relationship can safely meet – as the lyrics say: “You light a candle and I’ll meet you in this song – it’s the only place we can belong.”  An excellent song to conclude a fascinating album.

If any of this has captured your imagination, and I hope it has, you might want to pop out to a cinema near you and catch a showing of The Tape.  And if you’re especially lucky, you might get to see a showing where Martha also puts in a live performance and conducts a Q&A session.  Surely that’s an event not to be missed!

Watch the Official video to Sadness Of The Sea – the album’s opening track – here:

Martha Tilston Online: Website/ Facebook/ Twitter/ Instagram/ YouTube

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