Wallis Bird on how a move to Berlin helped lay the foundations for her new album,
Escaping London for Berlin had a drastic effect on Wallis Bird’s sonic palette. The Wexford woman talks about her newfound empowerment (and club beats) with Lauren Murphy
We are all, to some degree, a product of our environment. Wallis Bird has personified that maxim more literally than most throughout her life. Growing up in Wexford as the youngest of seven kids, Wallis soaked up the music of her siblings’ record collections from an early age – “everything from metal to dance”. Her dad was a DJ, her maternal grandfather a singer of political songs, and her first stint in a recording studio was at the age of 12, when she and a friend recorded a four-track EP of songs they had written.
With so much music flooding Bird’s upbringing, it was inevitable that she would find her way into a musical career.
“I remember writing a song for my parents when I was about three or four, and I insisted that my mam sit down and listened to it,” chuckles Bird, who is currently on a brief sojourn at the family home in Enniscorthy. “When I started actually putting a song together I was about 12, and I remember realising what a chorus was. That was really how it started.”
After a post-Leaving Cert stint on Ballyfermot College of Further Education’s famous “Rock School” degree programme, Bird found her musical feet, initially in Germany and then London. She lived in the latter for seven years, writing, gigging and developing her feisty folk-pop sound.
Creative sponge that she is, Bird’s fourth album, Architect, is informed by Berlin, her most recent living and working environment. It’s been quite a journey to produce what may be her most ambitious and diverse work to date, as exemplified by its dance-oriented lead single, Hardly Hardly.
In 2007, at the age of 23, fresh-faced and wide-eyed, Bird scored a deal with Island Records for the release of her debut album. Spoons sold reasonably well, but she admits that the reality of a major-label contract is a different prospect from the dream.
“I got a big kick in the teeth shortly after my first record came out, because yeah – you do think that it’s all going to happen for you,” she says. “I signed a big worldwide record deal and I just went ‘Jesus, I’m famous’ before I’d even played my first gig with them. Not even my team – who were absolutely beyond amazing and have totally routed my path throughout my career – could take the ego out of where I was at that time. I became this really obnoxious young girl, but I learned a lot about the amount of work it takes, and how you can fall flat on your face.
“Success is just a mirror that you put in front of your face, really, isn’t it? After developing such an ego and my whole team and my band really disliking who I’d turned into, I had to change. I wouldn’t have had a friend left in the world if I hadn’t.”
Change was crucial when Bird was first gathering the building blocks for Architect – so much so that she has described the album as “the culmination of a long journey of self-discovery and reinvention”.
“I just felt like I was floating through life for a long time, that I hadn’t really touched adulthood, or something,” she says, shrugging. “I was floating around in London, a city that I wasn’t really happy with at all. I wasn’t doing anything creative, I wasn’t writing. I said to myself, Okay, I guess I better start thinking about a new album, but I realised that I had nothing demoed, written or sketched – nothing.
“That’s when I went right, okay, I have to wake up now. I just looked at my life, and I realised I wasn’t happy where I was: I wasn’t happy in the relationship that I was in, I wasn’t happy in the house that I was living in, and I hadn’t been for a good while. So I just said I need to get up, get out of here and do something different and just shake myself up and be myself again.”
The shake-up entailed upping sticks and moving to Berlin, where she had spent time touring and recording in the past.
“It was kind of spontaneous; I decided to do it, and then three months later, I was gone. I took everything with me and nobody had a chance to ask, are you sure? You know when you have this feeling of being a teenager again? You go out every night and you do everything on your own terms and you go quite wild; that was the reinvention, I suppose.
“The first six months was just partying, and after that, I was like, Shit! I have an album to write!” She laughs. “I thought, okay, well I’ve had a great time and I’ve got plenty to write about now, so I just opened up a project [on her laptop recording system], pressed record and just literally lashed out whatever came out.”
The “partying” element undoubtedly informs the clubby beat of the aforementioned Hardly Hardly, but vague traces of Berlin’s
vibrant dance and electronica scene can also be heard on I Can Be Your Man and Gloria.
“Subconsciously, all of the dancing and the lifestyle that I was leading was leaking into what I was playing,” Bird says. “And I realised a lot about cardiac exercise, too – that it made me much fitter and my mind much brighter, so I didn’t really want to write anything that was slow-paced. At the very most, I wanted to write a very physical waltz. I realised that I still loved some things that I loved when I was a teenager, like dance music, so I opened that can of worms up again.”
Architect isn’t all clubby floorfillers. While some of the songs are about empowerment
“I think Ireland’s become very young again. There’s kind of this invincibility about us, in that we’ve had every shit in the world thrown at us”
and taking control of your life, others, such as
Holding a Light and The Cards, are especially intimate, “like having a conversation with myself.
“I couldn’t totally go down the dance route completely, it wouldn’t be me,” she smiles, shrugging. “I come from a storytelling background, and I really adore long, fleeting melodies and finding my way around a chord structure on an instrument; sticking with four to the four or a backbeat serves a certain purpose, but not a ‘thinking’ purpose.
“But I had a lot of searching to do with this album. A song like Gloria feels like it wasn’t written by me – it was like my conscience was telling me that I needed to do a runner from this useless, demeaning relationship that I was in, although I didn’t see it at the time. A song almost becomes a tarot card of your life; you turn it and it tells you what you’re like.
“So there’s a sense of me searching out what I should be or could be doing, and putting a mirror up to my environment, and then the song will either tell me much later or immediately, ‘This is actually what you’re doing right now’. And I’m like, Oh, right! Thank you!
“So they’re friends, almost. They’re spirits guiding me along the path.”
Having spent so much time outside Ireland over the past decade, it’s not surprising that Bird has created a decent fanbase on the continent, the result of having “played nearly every shitty ashtray to every beautiful venue in every small town in Europe”. Does that mean that it’s hard to identify with the Irish scene and what’s happening at home? Could Bird’s wandering spirit possibly settle back in Ireland some day?
“Of course I can see myself coming back to Ireland. I’m here so often that I feel like I could never not be Irish. I can’t leave my roots behind me at all. I think Ireland’s become very young again. There’s kind of this invincibility about us, in that we’ve had every shit in the world thrown at us. I think there’s this real
make it happen, we’re gonna do it attitude right now, and I’m enjoying that, even from afar. I actually think I’ve brought some of that attitude into this album.”
As for where Wallis Bird goes next, creatively and geographically – who knows? She will, as birds are wont to do, “go where the wind takes me.
“It could be death metal next,” she says, laughing. “I’m after getting through this, and I did r’n’b on this record, which I really can’t stand – so I don’t know what’s next. Hospital muzak, maybe?! We’ll see. I have no idea. But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?”
Architect is out now. Wallis Bird plays Dublin’s Academy on April 25th; Monroe’s Live, Galway on April 26th; and Cork’s Half Moon Theatre on April 27th
Wallis Bird: her new album is the culmination of “a long journey of self-discovery and reinvention”. Photograph: Jens Oellermann