Enniscorthy singer-songwriter Wallis Bird has undertaken a great journey along the Continent in recent years. Ahead of her next swing of Irish gigs, including headlining Ballincollig Winter Music Festival, Mike McGrath-Bryan hears about the road, the process and the future.
As the noughties wore on, music was shedding its skin, emerging from an almost unrecognisable place compared to today. The tail end of the CD boom spurred the major labels on to fuel a series of almost completely artificial hype trains on both sides of the pond (as most vividly discussed in Vice’s recent expose on NME Magazine’s editorial workings circa 2002) and over here, the singer-songwriter bubble was aided in part by the might of established music media. Amid all this sat Wallis Bird, a folk singer from Co. Wexford with a most unusual playing style, necessitated by a childhood accident that saw the citóg play a right-handed guitar upside-down. Signing with Island in 2006, Bird rode a wave of success with debut album ‘Spoons’ that saw her traverse the continent in support of such disparate artists as Gabrielle and Billy Bragg, before 2008 follow-up ‘New Boots’ brought along a full touring itinerary including Montreux Jazz and Pukkelpop festivals. From there, Bird struck out on her own as an independent artist, encountering great success both at home and in Germany, where she now resides.
The topic of the comforts of home, whether here or in Berlin, has been at the forefront of her work in recent years. 2016 album ‘Home’, released on digital and vinyl formats, has been the focus of Bird’s touring throughout 2017 after its release the previous year, and already, she has carved a very definite place for the LP in her own headspace as a creator and as a person. “I am getting closer to this record as time is passing. The more I play the songs, the more insight they give me. I know that sounds vain, but I intentionally wrote this album to honour the best time of my life, and to return to it when life is less good, and use it as a springboard to feel better and work better.”
Art is often the product of its surroundings, and in the process of creating a work to fortify her own mental health, Bird constructed a working and living environment conducive to creativity, and the process unfolded almost despite itself before her over the following 24 months. “(I woke up) every day with a smile on my face, knowing that all I (had) to do today is write music! I was given 2 years with very little distraction to write and record this record, so I pumped gratitude and positivity into everything because of that chance. I worked with the environment, the season, weather, resources, lust, spontaneity, and (on a constant basis). I decided there should never be anger or boredom in the making, because there’s too much to learn. For example, I’d work a month in light, then in darkness, then intensely on instrument development, switch to lyrics for when that got samey, then focus on recording technique, then focus on something else, constantly move to the other song, take a week off, spend time with friends, go swimming. Keep instruments all around me, all over the house, have the studio ready to record in minimal effort, play play play, press record, maybe take a walk, daydream, take a day off freshen up, keep going. It was all about discipline and freedom of mind. I treated it like a masters’ thesis.” After that experience, and changing the pace of her life and processes, Bird is happy to confirm she is building on that foundation for her next long-player. “Having a great time so far. I’ll be immersed all this year, thankfully.”
Bird’s touring itinerary, once out and about, could be generously described as unforgiving. She’s been touring ‘Home’ fairly hard over the last year, including dates across Europe, Asia and Australia. But when asked to compare the globe-trotting experience to playing Ireland, there isn’t even a comparison to be made. “Nothing like a home gig. It’s the familiar vibe, the family, the friends, everything about being home. It’s wilder than anywhere, and I imagine a lot of that is because of the excitement I have coming home.”
As touched on earlier, Bird is far more in control of her music compared to the height of the singer-songwriter thing here in Ireland. Her management seems absolutely devoted to her, she’s self-releasing records, etc. Bird is keen to divulge how it all gets along. “It’s about mutual respect within your team. I’m not an island, there is no way I would want to do this on my own. Working independently means thinking long-term, and that means life-changing decisions, and a team you have to put your hand into the fire for. You have to love your environment, and nurture that, as you would your wife. And it’s not work, it’s fucking art and soul and culture – it’s important. Show your backbone. What do you represent? Do the people who represent you make you proud, and can you trust them with your life to hide a body for you, and you do the same for them? You have to be real with each other and be able to talk as openly and as respectfully as possible. In our case we don’t fight, we talk. And have fun! Don’t just make it all about the work. In my case we started out as a team, and I now consider them brothers and sisters, and that’s not a cliché. We love who we work with, we aim to be craft- and longevity-driven, and work with people with a genuine love for the bigger picture of true art for art’s sake, so with that as our base, we can’t go wrong. It’s all about the people. Are they nice? Do you work harmoniously? Now look forward and work together.”
One necessary evil of being an independent musician today are streaming services. Spotify and the like have attracted plenty of derision for anaemic royalty rates and changing the attention span of younger and more casual listeners, but for Bird, the knowledge from who’s listening and where via the platforms is indispensable. “My music and my biography is available at all times all over the world, a dream I didn’t even have in 2000! The stats are important, and certainly help in many decisions like choosing what to play at a TV appearance, who to reach out to on social media to tell them that we’re coming to their town, all of this works hand in hand. Using your knowledge in a positive manner is all in your interest.”
Bird’s January swing back through Ireland takes in a headlining slot on the first night of Winter Music Festival on January 25th, to kick off the festival’s ninth annual event. Supporting will be Canadian folk wunderkind Kaia Kater. She’s done her reccy on the gig and is enthusiastic. “I’m just looking forward to being immersed in what seems like a one of a kind, inspiring, natural and fun vibe. We’re delighted to be invited!” With a new album on the slow boil, and touring winding down in the early part of the year to facilitate same, it seems like business is picking up. “I think this will be a pretty serious year for me. I think there will be big decisions this year. Think it’s gonna be an important year for me, I feel it.”
Wallis Bird plays the White Horse in Ballincollig for the venue’s Winter Music Festival on January 25th. Support from Kaia Kater, kickoff at 8.30pm, tickets €25 from box office and whitehorse.ie.