INTERVIEW: ‘The Tape’ (2021) – Martha Tilston Makes Her Music Come Alive On Screen

When the opportunity to watch Martha Tilston’s debut feature film The Tape and interview her about it arose, I jumped at the chance because of how unique the project is. Set against the backdrop of picturesque Cornwall, the film tells the story of Tally Green, a singer-songwriter who struggles to make a living by cleaning houses. After Tally meets disillusioned lawyer Leo (Lee Hart) while staying at the house she’s currently been assigned to, she gives him a cassette tape of brand-new songs she has recorded — a decision that causes the direction of both their lives to change. Not only does Tilston play Tally, she also directs the film and performs an entire soundtrack of songs she recorded during the shoot. The Tape was released in select UK cinemas on September 24, and just a few days before, I was able to have a chat with the creative force behind it over the phone.

Hayley Paskevich: I am here to talk to you about the film The Tape, which I had the pleasure of watching. The Tape is unique in how it weaves together music, mythology and contemporary romance. How did the idea for the film come about?

Martha Tilston: Well, I was traveling around on tour, and we do cover quite long distances. Ever since I’ve been a kid, I kind of [created] stories in my head when I’m traveling. And this is just a world that started to form in my head, and I was just imagining this girl called Tally. I was thinking about the housing situation as well down in Cornwall, there’s lots of second homes in [those] sort of old fishing villages, and a lot of them are empty now, which is a real shame. And I know other young families down here, looking for places to live. Lots of people living on boats, and all kinds of things and in vans. Anyway, I imagined this girl Tally and she gets a job cleaning an empty house, and she finds a piano and music comes back to her. In my life — I’ve definitely found different instruments have brought song back to me and sort of invited me to start writing again. So it just sort of started creating — it was just like a story I wanted to follow in my head, if that makes any sense. Before I even knew I was writing a film, I was just creating this little world and it just sort of flowed from there. I kept on going back to it. And then I talked to my bandmates about where the story was going. And then this idea came to me, “oh my gosh, if I did it, and if I play Tally, the songs that she creates and records in the house” — you know, when she finds this four track recorder — “I could actually record them in the film.” It excited me, that idea of trying to capture music in a raw way in the action of a film. And then once I got that idea, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to make this now.” [Laughs]

A poster for the film 'The Tape'. A woman faces away from the camera wearing a long floral dress with short sleeves and holding a cassette tape out. A guitar rests on the rocks behind her, and she faces the sea. A four-star review of the film is featured, as well as the film's title in big bold letters with stills from the film underneath. The poster also includes the tagline and the tagline "find what makes you come alive"
Image courtesy of Sparky Pictures

HP: I think that’s super cool how you were able to actually record the album live while you were recording the film. Talk about the ultimate kind of creative melding of worlds there.

MT: I’m really glad we did it. And it added more pressure. But you know what? I’d say, directing, writing, acting in a film anyway felt like, why not just throw in another challenge? [Laughs] And also it’s kind of good for my ego, because you can’t get it perfectly right, you know? I’m used to recording in all kinds of studios, from like, quite high-end ones to recording in the woods, and with my friends and my band. Quite often, it’s the magical locations where something happens. It might not be the perfect take, there might be the odd moment of, you know, missing notes. But something “other” is there. I kind of knew it wouldn’t be perfect takes. And then letting go of it was quite liberating, really.

HP: There’s kind of a beauty in that imperfection too, like a magic in it being this raw creation that’s not totally polished. Since The Tape features music from your upcoming album, I was curious as to what you wrote first, the songs or the script.

MT: Oooh. Some of the songs were old songs that were floating around, and I didn’t know what they were or why they came to me, interestingly. So they ended up fitting perfectly in the film, like “Bigger Bridges.” [Sings] “Bigger bridges than you have fallen before.” That was written years ago, and I never really knew for what situation. Some songs I write about my life and my experiences, and others come to me — there’s something familiar about them. Like, I’ve definitely felt heartache, which we all have, you know? Like, “I’m broken. No, I’ll survive this.” And I guess it’s [“Bigger Bridges”] saying that. So it’s a feeling I’ve definitely felt, but I didn’t know why I wrote that in that moment. And then it just felt right for the song. And then others, maybe the seed was started before, but once I started writing the film, it helped me write the song to finish it off. And then others were written purely for the film. Yeah, it’s a mixture.

HP: That’s really cool to hear. That song “Bigger Bridges” was a great song for Tally’s character. I understand that you raised money through virtual crowdfunding in order to help make this film a reality. What was that process like for you?

MT: It was amazing to have that support. I just feel quite blessed with the people that have supported my music, you know? It’s just been incredible over the years, I’ve felt completely held and carried through all kinds of stuff by the generosity of people who listen to my music, and support and follow me through that. So that was amazing that people got really involved in that. And it’s quite confronting. I’ve never done anything like [crowdfunding]. I’ve always had deals or funded my albums in the usual ways. So this is the first time I’ve ever done anything where I’ve kind of opened up the whole crowdfunding idea, but then it was quite a bit more money than we need for an album. [Laughs] I really felt the importance of making it soon. We got part funding through crowdfunding, but also we got part funding through private investors as well, which has been amazing. And also Falmouth Uni, you’ve got a film school there, they helped out. So it was a bit of a patchwork. But it was incredible to have people support me. And yeah, it was great. I painted again — I had some paintings I never knew what to do with, and also, I painted some pictures for it. And just to sell those was — to pass those on — was great. You know, pass on my first ever guitar, and things like that. It felt really good to turn art into art a bit, you know?

HP: Oh, yeah. That’s so exciting. And the fact that you had so many people you were able to collaborate with, like from different sides of it. Like you mentioned, the film school and the crowdfunders. It’s really neat when everyone kind of believes in what you’re doing.

MT: Yeah, that’s it.

A woman with brunette hair singing and playing the piano. She is seen from the side, wearing a blue dress with orange flowers. She has a makeshift studio setup in front of her, including a creatively fashioned mic.
Image courtesy of Sparky Pictures

HP: The Tape is your feature film debut, congratulations by the way. How did you find the experience of shooting this film in comparison to your previous directorial work, the performance-based documentary Cliff Top Sessions?

 MT: Thank you. Well, it’s so different. With Cliff Top, I get to be a curator and put together my favorite songwriters I’ve ever worked with. Most of them are pretty under the radar I guess, some are quite well-known. And I get to pretty much sit back and even though I play a song, that’s my least favorite moment is when I play. [Laughs] We all do — we all love getting people we love together, don’t we? But to get that kind of talent together in a house, and put a Neumann mic and amazing recording equipment and a camera in front of them, and watch them pass the guitar round, and that magic go round was just one of my favorite nights ever. But [it’s] such a different experience to doing a proper feature film shoot. Again, to be honest, I was just massively held by the crew. I mean, I just loved them. Hilarious as well. [Laughs] Really, it was an intense film shoot. We did most of it in 21 days.

HP: Oh, wow.

MT: Yeah. And then we all stayed in this big clifftop house — not all of us, but a lot of us did. And that was amazing, ’cause it just felt like some beautiful kind of Cornish holiday boarding school film shoot kind of thing [laughs] and really helps us all get into the zone. And that was when we were recording the album as well, we were all on site. And you know, wake up to that Cornish air and in between shoots we could jump into the sea and swim. Yeah, it was a very magical experience. The DP, she is out of this world, Mary Farbrother. The tone of what she captures, and how she shoots. She was like my film school, really. And of course, Laura [Giles] the producer, who just believed in it from the outset. You just took that, “Well, we’ve got to make this; this is great. Let’s do this,” the whole way through. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this, but sometimes we do a project and it is hard work. But it’s like you’re pushing a concrete wheel, but it’s turning, and it keeps turning. And other ones, they jam right? And it keeps jamming and you think “Hang on, something’s telling me not to do this.” And I’ve definitely had things in my life like that, or relationships or anything. But you’d just keep meeting a jam, you know, “ah, friction.”

HP: Sometimes it’s so seamless, and then other times, it seems like there’s a roadblock when you’re trying to just get through, yeah.

MT: Totally. So with this, I had a lot going on. I had little kids. And I was thinking “What am I— this is crazy,” you know? But I thought to myself, “I love working hard. I don’t mind working hard, I really believe in the film.” I like the fact there’s a love story. But really it’s the other stuff in the film, the questioning of our environment, what we’re doing to it, and the mythology and coming alive, and all the sort of themes I believe in so much. So I was pushing this sort of wheel round, and it just kept moving. So I thought “Well, as long as it—” [laughs]

HP: As long as there’s momentum here, yeah.

MT: It just kind of happened like that. And then directing was such a joy, I just love directing. And the acting was challenging. To [act] and direct and do it all in one go; you know, film acting is challenging. It’s beautiful when you hit it right, the feeling. And you know the lens is on you and you’re having a moment where you’re utterly in something, and something magical is happening. It’s beautiful. But it takes a lot of your energy and soul. So yeah, I just had to pull reserves of energy out of my bone marrow that month. [Laughs]

HP: You mentioned mythology in reference to the film. So the characters do talk about Celtic folklore, particularly the myth of the Selkie. What is it about the specific mythological creature that you felt thematically lends itself well to the story you wanted to tell?

MT: The changeling is the obvious thing. There’s a big thing particularly cool about changelings, like, mothers would give birth to a changeling that might be like an animal that turns into a child, a child turns into an animal. A Selkie is a type of changeling. It’s just the idea that to change is inevitable, and we change quite a lot. But sometimes particularly in the West, we can be very stuck from a young age of what we’re going to be and what we are, and what we define ourselves by. And then before we know it, it might be our job that defines us and how we earn our salary. But the older we get, the harder it gets to make these changes and find the courage to make these changes. The idea that there’s [another] us in us, this other — there’s the seal in us. [Laughs] Or there’s a child in the seal. So there’s that whole thing of just reminding us we can change, like it’s never too late to tap into what makes us come alive. Never, never. In fact, today is the most important day to do what it is that makes us come alive. But there’s also a thing in Cornish mythology, I think in the Celtic mythology as well, to do with Selkies as the warning. The warning to fishermen or the warning of storms to come. There seems to be a strong link to the origin of the story of the Mermaid of Zennor. The legend is she still surfaces up — her and her husband surface up to warn sailors of storms. It just felt like Lamorna, the little girl in the film. Again, I didn’t want to pin it down too much to make it obvious. I wanted it to be one of those things in the film that people might discuss for years going “What does it mean?” So maybe I shouldn’t tell you. But there’s something about Lamorna and the warning, and what the warning might be.

HP: Your character Tally uses an imaginative simile when she talks about inspiration, saying it’s “a bit like an invisible dog.” Is that how you personally think of inspiration, and what tends to inspire you the most?

MT: Yeah, I think it is one of the ways I look at inspiration. That came from how I sometimes do it. ‘Cause I’ve written since I was a kid, and I’ve always written songs. My father’s quite a well known songwriter, so I was brought up in that world of writing. I’ve just witnessed and been part of the whole cycle of creative flow, when it is and isn’t there. And, it’s fascinating. I enjoy the journey now more because I feel less of a slave to it. And now it does feel like this dog that sometimes walks beside me. And it’s such a joy to walk with it, and not take it for granted. If it needs to go off, it needs to go off. And that’s something to do with my energy and why I’m sending it away. And sometimes that can be the way with creativity, you know? What inspires me? Love, nature, humans.

HP: All those themes certainly come through in your music.

MT: That’s good to hear.

A silhouette of a dark-haired woman singing and playing the piano. She is seen from the side, and has a makeshift recording setup, including a creatively fashioned mic.
Image courtesy of Sparky Pictures

HP: Tally is also shown to be protective of her work, valuing the originality of the single tape she records instead of wanting her songs to be mass-produced. Do you share a similar sentiment when it comes to your own relationship with the music industry?

MT: Yeah, I’ve had quite a journey with the music industry. I was sort of involved quite young, and with a music manager who suggested I [have] a nose job. [Laughs] You know, would change my songs and kind of make them sound kind of more commercial. I got off that wave pretty early ’cause it felt so wrong to me.

HP: You knew it wasn’t the path you wanted to go down, yeah.

MT: Yes. I can remember thinking “What are we doing? Literally, what are we doing?” [Laughs] I just couldn’t. Getting older, I feel like a woman now that I learnt how to say no, and just trust my path. But when I was younger, I just found it really hard to say no to all these amazing opportunities just ’cause it didn’t feel right. But I just ended up playing very underground, got a duo together called Mouse. And we just secretly went around festival stages, late at night, and played and built up this following. The wave was curving that way, so I let go of the whole music industry side that, you know, I have now. I now work with some lovely people in the industry. And of course, there’s beautiful people in every walk of life. But just when we capitalize on art, it’s just something I have to not take the energy on too much. But I certainly know people close to me  — particularly women — have some pretty full-on moments where the industry just, you know… That’s kind of Tally’s backstory. I kinda don’t want to give away her backstory, ’cause it kind of was my secret when I was playing her. But there’s stuff where, you know, a young woman in the music industry getting pregnant is not looked on kindly if you’ve got an album coming out. And this has never happened to me, but this is an unsaid thing. I think it’s a lot more welcoming now. But even when I started touring with babies, it was like, you know, crazy. Like you know, [there] wouldn’t be facilities for a girl to go to the toilet or anywhere to breastfeed backstage you know?

HP: Oh, wow.

MT: Yeah, it’s changed. It is changing. We can talk about it, and people talk about the “Me Too” movement, but I don’t know how much it’s really talked about in the music industry. If you listen to a radio station, the men will generally be up to the age of 60. But you’ll rarely hear women over 34. 

HP: That’s a good point, the women fade out age wise sooner when it comes to what they see as marketable. And the men keep going for years.

MT: Yeah, but there’s so many immensely awesome women touring, writing incredible music. And we need to hear from that age group, the priestess, you know?

HP: Absolutely, yeah.

MT: All the years we valued those women guiding us and they’re silenced. Anyway, it’s not really looked at yet in the music industry. But to be honest, I just surround myself with just beautiful people that I want to work with now. Sometimes, when you can’t change a machine, you just need to make a machine you like. [Laughs]

HP: People who understand your creative vision and aren’t trying to change it or doctor it into something you don’t want.

A woman with dark brown hair facing away from the camera. She holds an acoustic guitar in her right hand while facing the sea.
Image courtesy of Sparky Pictures

MT: Yeah, you know? Literally I wrote a song for the Occupy movement, in America, the Wall Street Occupy movement years ago. And then within a week, I had an American bank asking me— they put my music on an advert and then were just sort of doing the final check, “Can you okay this?” And I was like, “Uh, no.” [Laughs] No way! You know, it was a beautiful advert, it was all sea pier. And there was cheerleaders, and it was all saying how it’s a community bank — it was a massive bank. And they were like, “Well, you can give the money to charity.” I was like “No, no, no, I just don’t wanna — it’s not my thing. So I guess that side of Tally definitely came from my experience. I’ve never regretted it, not one second. Even when I was hard off with a little baby, I just was like, “No way, I just don’t want to—” I wouldn’t judge anyone else for using their music, by the way, or any of their art to do advertising. That’s what most people have to do now. Like that is the way to make money, it’s crazy. But I do mind that it has to be the way to make money. And I do feel like there has to be some routes open still for music that’s not got any kind of capitalist agenda apart from, maybe, making money for itself, but not because it’s trying to sell something. So that resonates for me, because I’ve been through that, yeah.

HP: You wanted to keep that artistic integrity. Tally and Leo’s connection sparks a renewed sense of creative joy within them both. How did you go about finding the perfect on-screen partner to play out that relationship with? Did you have an actor in mind, or how did you know he [Lee Hart] would be right to play Leo?

MT: It’s so funny. Lee was in my mind, right? Okay, so Lee and I were at drama school together years ago. And we in fact had a relationship, there we go! And we— [laughs] years ago, you know? We stayed friends, and we’ve worked together a little bit now and then since. But, in my mind, when I was writing, I thought, “God, this is Lee!” And I was like no, no, it can’t be, it’s got to be something, I can’t just fall back on—

HP: Art imitating life a little, yeah.

MT: Yeah, maybe throw the net a bit wider, Tilston, you know? [Laughs] But it’s just funny, that was just the character. So then, I think subconsciously I wrote it, thinking, “Well, it’s him that’s gonna play it,” but telling myself it’s not him that’s gonna play it and looking around for other [actors]. We screen tested a couple of other guys and looked around a bit. But it was just me. I just knew he has the ability to give the depth. He was astounding. When we were at drama school, he won the Laurence Olivier Award for most promising young actor and—

HP: That’s amazing.

MT: Yeah, he’s awesome. I mean, he was the actor of the year kind of thing. So I just knew he could give depth to it. And I really wanted Leo to have many layers, again, that we don’t know about or hear about in the film necessarily. So it was Lee, it was just no doubt. And he came and did this audition. And his screen test, it was just out of this world, it was ridiculous, yeah.

A bald man wearing a collared shirt and suit jacket while sitting in a chair. His left hand is raised to his head and he looks deeply in thought, with a workshop full of odd objects as his backdrop.
Image courtesy of Sparky Pictures

HP: That’s really cool. Again, it just ended up coming together, kind of a full circle thing for you in that way. I was also curious, because the film is called The Tape, is there a cassette tape of your own, either something that you’ve recorded or something that was given to you, that has a special place in your heart?

MT: Oh, that’s a lovely question.

HP: Thank you.

MT: Oh, you know what just comes to mind actually is — oh, god, I actually feel like I’m going to cry — is my first-ever cassette that I had that I played out [laughs] on my deck till it completely broke. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, Simon & Garfunkel, my mom gave [it to] me. And it just opened my world and changed my world and rocked my world, and I disappeared into my bedroom. And many, many worlds were created in my head and taken to the underground subways. And yeah, Simon & Garfunkel, it would be, definitely.

HP: Aw, that’s beautiful.

MT: Yeah, amazing.

HP: Which quote or lyric from The Tape do you feel best encapsulates the film’s message? Like if you could pick one line from the film, or one of the lyrics that you think best conveys the overall message, which one would it be?

MT: Okay.

HP: I personally think “come alive” was a really great one that’s evocative.

MT: Yeah, I’m gonna say “come alive.” Come alive. That is all. That’s all we have to do, yeah,

HP: Yeah, no, that’s perfect. Thank you again, Martha. This has been really wonderful. And like I said, I enjoyed the film. I wish you the best of luck with it now that it’s finally making its way out there in the world.

MT: Thank you so much, I’m really glad you enjoyed it. That’s good to hear. Thanks so much, that was fun.