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Wallis Bird

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Emily Ginsberg
ginsberg@bighassle.com

Biography

Though Woman represents Wallis Bird’s first domestic American release, this Berlin-based, Irish musician is no ingenue. Over a career beginning in 2006, she’s won two Meteor Awards, Ireland’s annual music prize – most recently for Best Female Artist – and a prestigious 2017 German “Musikautorenpreis” (Music Author Prize), as well as picking up two further nominations for Ireland’s equivalent to Britain’s Mercury Prize, the Choice Music Prize. She’s also delivered five albums, performing some 800 shows this past decade alone, and her legendarily passionate, energetic, good-humoured concerts have earned her countless admirers, not least Amanda Palmer. “My jaw hit the floor,” she’s said of watching Bird play. “I saw her come off stage and all of her fingers were bleeding, and I was like, ‘You!”

Bird, of course, has never conformed to artist stereotypes. One reason is that – in what might seem, looking back, to have been a calamity of Spinal Tap proportions– she surrendered a finger on her left hand in an ‘ill-advised’ battle with a lawnmower aged just 18 months. (The other four were fortunately saved by surgery.) Her reaction was typically indomitable: as someone who’d been playing the guitar since she was six months old – with pictures to prove it! – she simply made the best of what could have been a catastrophe, flipping her instrument upside down to strum with her damaged hand. Today, she’s a veritable virtuoso on the instrument, describing the fateful ‘lawnmower incident’ as having given her her ‘mojo’.

The timely Woman is without doubt Bird’s most polished yet emotionally raw album to date. Unsurprisingly, if you ask her what major life changes have inspired her since 2016’s Home, her last album, she’ll offer a lengthy list. “Well, the world’s changed a lot,” she’ll begin, “and I’ve changed with it. The #MeToo movement, ‘Repeal The 8th’, marriage equality in Australia, ‘Black Lives Matter’, Trump, Brexit, the rise of racism, the death of countless musical icons, the environmental crisis… And,” she’ll add, wryly, “I’m 36 now, so I’m officially a woman…!”

The answer’s typical of Bird: short but substantial, as serious as it is witty. More importantly, her response refuses to differentiate between her life and that of the world’s. This was never more important than on her sixth album, a daring synthesis of her singer songwriter roots and passion for, among other genres, soul music. Its intentions are best illustrated by ‘That’s What Life Is For’, a firecracker hurtling from personal to universal in little more than two minutes, laying out the album’s manifesto with breathless excitement: “Re-write the rules/ They’re written by fools/ Hey, we could be equal/ No one would lose/ And that’s what life is for…” Accordingly, Woman – written and almost exclusively performed by Bird, with regular associate Marcus Wüst as co-producer – represents Bird’s transparent attempt to speak out against injustice and counteract apathy through bold, blunt confessionals. “Like most artists, I’ve probably shirked my responsibilities at times so as not to rock any boats,” she reveals. “But I decided it was time to change that.” Her goal now is to animate and agitate, and Woman – eleven songs long but 37 minutes short, pointed, powerful, and packed with truths and levity – does just that. More significantly, it insists our lives are intertwined with inescapable consequences.

Bird’s new ambitions are probably best demonstrated by Woman’s bookends. ‘As The River Flows’ is dedicated to Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body was photographed in 2015 on a Turkish beach, and it’s intended, she reveals, to dispute ideas of the ‘right kind’ of immigrant. The closing ‘Repeal’, meanwhile, is a moving response to Ireland’s 2018 abortion referendum, a call to arms and a reminder that “what’s good for me is good for you”. Immensely personal, with spoken contributions from Bird’s own girlfriend and prominent activists, its crescendo of voices – including a recording of the roar of uncontainable joy which greeted the result – sends shivers down the spine. These aren’t the album’s only political gestures: ‘Love Respect Peace’ was written as a mantra, “in the hope of someone singing these words out loud, even subconsciously,” and ‘Woman Oh Woman’ is “my proud gay homage to beautiful songs where men used words like ‘woman’ as pride and protection.” A poignant declaration of love, it takes as its inspiration tunes like George Harrison’s ‘Something’ and Elvis Costello’s ‘She’, whose sentiments, she explains, “always made me wish for the day I could express such things to my partner. Now I’m there.”

Then there’s ‘I Know What I’m Offering’, amid whose low-slung groove and shimmering strings she faces, then overcomes – with a heartfelt rasp – her relationship’s shortcomings. It epitomises, in its subtle but effective embrace of gospel, funk and soul, the sizeable musical leaps this fiercely independent singer-songwriter has made since her debut. Nominated as Artist of the Year at the 2019 International Folk Music Awards, Bird might seem an unlikely candidate to combine styles which can seem incompatible, but hers is an inclusive domain. “Folk and soul are my two feet, my arms are punk and Irish trad. My head,” she adds, smiling, “is in the air, and my heart is in the right place!” Nods to soul are in fact conspicuous in multiple ways, from ‘Love Respect Peace’, whose title evokes recollections of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Love, Peace & Understanding’, to the Prince-like funk kicking off ‘Salve’, a warning about social media’s poisonous effects. There’s ‘Grace’ and its gospel inflections, too, and ‘That’s What Life Is For’, whose euphoric rush is reinforced halfway through by the joyous introduction of a choir. Needless to say, there are also – as one always expects of Bird – moments of intimacy on Woman: ‘Brutal Honesty’, about the urge to put one’s emotional house in order; ‘Time Is Not Waiting’, which Bird feels may be “my best work in years”; and ‘Life Is Long’, whose recollections of a family weekend in West Ireland encompass a vitalcarpe diem mindset: “Life is long/ But the time is short.” It even begins with a recording of her parents from that trip.

This, perhaps isn’t unexpected: Bird spent her childhood blissfully happy in Wexford, Ireland, growing up in a family distinguished, she says, by “loads of noise, loads of character, lots of twists and turns, craziness, comfort, sneaking, rowing, hugging. My parents are relaxed about the big things in life. They were never scared to work, never judged their success on their status, and were never scared to go against the grain. They allowed us to make mistakes and try shit out.” Perhaps as a result, Bird headed towards the Irish capital as soon as she’d left school, and, at the age of 23, moved to Germany for a year, enjoying success with her first single, ‘Blossoms In The Street’ (2006), which spent twenty weeks in the German airplay charts and earned her a deal with Island Records in the UK. She relocated to London, releasing her debut album, Spoons, in 2008, and New Boots, its follow-up for Columbia Records, in 2009, with each release accompanied by heavy touring, including shows with acts as diverse as The Gossip, Billy Bragg, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Emiliana Torrini. A third, self-titled album came out in in 2012, and that same year, disenchanted with London, she returned to Germany and settled in Berlin, before releasing Architect in 2014 andHome two years later.

Many of Woman’s themes are encapsulated by its cover, drawn by Spanish artist Maria Torres. The singer points out, too, how the ‘M’ in the title is smaller than other letters. “13.9% smaller, to be exact: that’s the wage gap in Ireland.” Inevitably, Bird can’t wait to take these songs out on the road, where her substantial European following was boosted during her last tours by concerts in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. For this album, she’ll also add the US. This time round, though, Bird knows there’s more at stake. At Woman’s heart lies the concurrent urge to tackle injustice and celebrate the good in human nature, themes demanding immediate attention. “I want more empathy in the world around me,” Bird concludes, “so I’ve started by writing it into my life. I want to fill rooms with these words. I want to hear these sentiments uttered out loud, and for people to get used to hearing themselves say them. Ultimately, I want these words written into their lives.”

And thus, an age-old proverb is once again validated: no matter how hard they try, you cannot keep a good Woman down.

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