Written by Alicia Lanides, Photographed by Liv Foltiny
The weather in Philadelphia on June 25, 2023, was moody and temperamental, swiftly switching from blue skies and sunshine to dark clouds and a heavy downpour, on and off, throughout the day and night. The sky was painted with a misty sunset palette and the breeze teemed with humidity and anticipation as I entered The Foundry in Fishtown. The reason I go into such flowery detail about the weather is that it perfectly matched the energy of indie folk songwriter Billie Marten‘s performance, supported by Olivia Kaplan—all-powerful but not without poise, melancholic, and oddly nostalgic. Lyrics that make you reminisce about summers past, chock-full of love, yearning, and lifelong reflection. This performance made for a perfect date night or perhaps a soothing celebration of the summer solstice. As I made my way up the stairs, I passed by the various heavyweight names on the wall, demonstrating The Foundry’s capability to launch artists into superstardom. I felt grateful to witness another metaphorical liftoff here tonight.
Southern Californian Olivia Kaplan opened the set, solo onstage, equipped with her hollow-bodied electric guitar, clad in all black, emphasizing her copper red locks. Her soothing voice provided the audience with a feeling of comfort and familiarity, a perfect way to establish the intimate nature of the set. Kaplan’s style of plucking and crafty chords pleasantly reminded me of Joni Mitchell‘s guitar-driven album Hejira, an all-time favorite of mine. Her lyrics are confessional and soul-bearing, especially on “Still Strangers,” which comes from the album Tonight Turns to Nothing (which turned two years old that day). “I’m Not Asking You to Love Me / I’m Just Talking About Some Company” she laments in a smoky voice. She also performed her new single “American Air”, which discusses the transient state of driving to Montreal and watching America “dwindle.” I was quite impressed with Kaplan’s gusto and songwriting chops, only to be pleasantly surprised by the fact that she performed in Billie Marten’s band. Her commitment to her craft was incredibly admirable and got me excited for what was next.
Before Billie Marten arrived, her band, consisting of Kaplan and percussionist Andrew Maguire, quietly set up on the unlit stage, camouflaged by the crowd’s chatter. When the Northern English native finally made her way onto the stage, she was met with roaring applause from dedicated fans, one of whom was gently resting her latest release, Drop Cherries, upon the front row barricade. Her long flowing blonde hair was illuminated by violet stage lights, casually dressed in a tank top and jeans. Billie’s vocals were truly ethereal and can effortlessly tug on your heartstrings. Songs such as “This Is How We Move” and the popular “La Lune”, are sentimentally crafted indie folk tunes that remind you of a cool, dewy breeze on a warm summer morning.
I thoroughly enjoyed Billie’s cherry wood acoustic guitar fashioned with steely, twangy, heavy gauge strings, a lovely contrast to her airy, dreamlike melodies (buoyed by Kaplan’s soaring harmonies and skillful subtlety on the electric guitar). The trio was completed by Andrew Maguire, whose virtuosity on the drums was elevated by various accouterments, such as brushes, mallets, chimes, and a woodblock. It fit Billie’s sound perfectly, added quirk without becoming an overdone gimmick, and made the overall performance that much more dynamic and enthralling. Billie heavily engaged with her audience throughout the night, asking which songs they’d like to hear as well as what Philly activities she should experience – cue the audience’s frustration when she announces her first baseball game will be the Mets and not the Phillies.
Interestingly, one of my favorite moments of the night was when Billie froze up, forgetting the lyrics to “She Dances,” cracking a joke about having played these songs for three months straight, before giggling and moving on. It was a refreshingly honest moment that seamlessly revealed her humility. To get the whole set perfectly right would seem almost too calculated, too rehearsed, but this honest slip-up gave me (and the audience) a glimpse into the artist herself, a human amidst the spectacle of lights and cameras. In between sips of her Guinness from a paper coffee cup, she asks the audience if anyone is in love “with someone who is very far away,” which stimulates a soft cheer from the crowd. She then plays “Willow” off of her new album, a sweet and confessional tune about wishing how your lover was “under the same star.” This song was a perfect example of what I view as Billie’s modus operandi- a confessional that is just as jagged as it is graceful, as passionate as it is soothing.
I had a prime view of the front row saturated with die-hard Billie Marten aficionados, filming on their cell phones in attempts to capture this cherished moment, and possibly to relive the moment without the inhibitor of tears in their eyes. They sang along to every word as if it had come straight out of their diary, exhibiting Marten’s refined yet relatable songwriting skills. Despite the passion I witnessed, the crowd was anything but rowdy, rather putting their attentiveness on display, hanging onto every word uttered by Marten while swaying gently in unison.
Towards the end of the show, a stagehand made his way to Olivia Kaplan, in his hands a mini birthday cake topped with a glowing candle, all to celebrate the aforementioned second birthday of her album Tonight Turns to Nothing. A rousing chorus of Happy Birthday was certainly in store. I was delighted that Billie had taken this moment to highlight the successes of a dear friend, and it created a real sense of camaraderie between the band members themselves as well as the audience in tow.
Sometimes, opening acts are often glazed over by the headliners, there only to provide a point of entry to the audience. Such was not the case on that night. Olivia’s solo set not only perfectly matched the aesthetics of Billie’s music, but her participation in the band as well as the celebration of her album release anniversary proved to me that there was a sense of care and respect among the two artists. I enjoyed this set tremendously, and if you have a chance to see one (or both) of these artists, I highly recommend your attendance.
Billie’s new album Drop Cherries is available everywhere now, as well as Olivia Kaplan’s new single “American Air.”