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Towa bird lead

On the Rise
Towa Bird

25 June 2024, 10:30
Words by Kelsey Barnes
Original Photography by Sophie Barloc

Fuelled by the artistry and musicianship of Jimi Hendrix, Towa Bird is bringing a new perspective to guitar-driven pop, driven by a love of the performance space.

Towa Bird isn’t exactly sure what emotion she should feel right now. Years of work has been leading up to this moment — the release of her debut album American Hero — and yet for her it doesn’t exactly feel like it’s really happening.

“It’s hard to know what to feel,” she says from her home in Los Angeles. “It’s my first big project release, so I should feel excited but I also feel a little anxious. I think that [excitement] will come when people begin receiving the album, but for now, I’m just a little apprehensive.”

When speaking with Bird, it’s clear that this is one of the few times, at least in her adult life, that she has experienced anything other than unbridled confidence. It was the same confidence that made her create her TikTok account back in early 2020, the app becoming a place to upload videos of her guitar solos of various songs. It ended up being the catalyst for everything that followed — reaching 1.1 million followers on the app, artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish calling themselves fans of her, and, of course, a record deal. It’s everything that came before that, though, that is the DNA of her debut album, American Hero.


Despite its title, Bird is not American — she was born in Hong Kong to British and Filipino parents and spent most of her childhood moving between countries. The cyclical routine of packing up her life, getting dropped in a new country, having to meet new friends, and then leaving again made the younger version of Bird much shyer and timid. “I was shy, especially into my teens,” she says, reflecting on her childhood. “I was quite socially awkward which, when people learn about me now, they are surprised by that. I was moving around so much — I’ve lived in four countries now and I’m only 25. Moving around when you're 11 or 12 is already hard enough, and trying to make new friends is really hard, too. Because of that, I resorted to hanging out in my room which meant a lot of time playing guitar.”

Jokingly, Bird describes herself as an “iPad kid” simply because it eventually led her to pick up a guitar — all thanks to being left to her own devices in her family’s home in Hong Kong with unrestricted internet access. “I didn’t feel represented in the media. There wasn’t a cartoon character or story that resembled my upbringing and who I am, but the first thing I remember watching and feeling really excited and drawn to was a Jimi Hendrix documentary. I watched that when YouTube still let you have illegal copies of full movies on there and I just remember thinking, ‘He’s so cool, I want to be exactly like that.’”

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That 90-minute documentary instilled a newfound excitement for Bird, almost acting as the end of one chapter of her life and the start of a new one. Music became both a place of refuge and a space where she could express all the overflowing emotions she was keeping contained. “I just remember jumping on the couch and feeling so, so energised by what I had seen. I thought, “I’m going to do that. I don’t know how, but I want to play guitar.” With her father’s classic rock records to reference and a newfound love for Hendrix’s knack for performing and playing, she picked up her father’s three-string guitar and began teaching herself how to play.

She formed a band at 14 and played across Hong Kong in dive bars and festivals, eventually ending up at Goldsmiths University in London to study popular music. Like any true student of Hendrix, she dropped out after two years to properly lean into her music career. She produced and wrote for other artists and made her aforementioned TikTok account. Four years (and a few months) separate Bird from her first upload to now, 10 days before the release of American Hero. Bird spent the time in between to craft her sound, meticulously pouring over every single detail — from the tracklisting to specific guitar riffs — to make sure it was fully representative of who she is.


“I’m pretty precious about the order of the songs,” she admits with a laugh. “The first track ‘Intro’ into the second, and the second song into the third, all of them have to be correlated. There are ties between songs because I wanted it to sound like one cohesive moment rather than 13 separate ones. That was really fun to play with, it was my first adventure into a more cohesive world.”

What is the foundation of American Hero is Bird’s commitment to her live performance. Throughout our chat, she mentions leaning on her live shows almost as a guide of sorts — something that she has to think about with every move and decision she makes. “I’m sorry I keep bringing up the live show, but even the setlist is important to me,” she states. “The listener goes through the songs in a way that I intended them to listen to, so there are ebbs and flows in the tracklist to almost mirror that. It’s all very intentional.”

The word intentional is one that, as soon as she mentions it, encapsulates everything Towa Bird is. Throughout her interviews, she’s candid about giving a shit about her music at a time where being nonchalant — or worse, apathetic — about one’s work, fanbase, or the like can sometimes be celebrated. “I definitely give a lot of shit about this [her music],” she admits. “I give a lot of emotion to it and it’s really important for me to have people receive a full piece of art.”

“Last Dance” is one of the album’s standout tracks, a song that has some of Bird’s best tongue-in-cheek wordplay, like the lyric “I made it a point to disappoint you.” She wrote the song with one of her good friends who, like Bird, is an artist themselves. Despite that, they never thought to write something together. “You forget how talented your friends are because you see them in certain social spaces and you just hang, you don’t see them to work. At one point we thought, ‘We both do the same thing, why haven't we thought about doing that together?’ That song [“Last Dance”] is about our friendship, we wrote it together about us. I was excited to bring it to her. It's a song about your one mate who you see once every six months and you just pick up right up where you left off. We can cut all the small talk and just hang out together.”

Much has already been said by Bird herself about her love for playing live, but it’s even more obvious when you see her live. Her performing persona is a part of herself that she describes as “special” when she taps into it, almost like a switch she flicks as she steps onto a stage. In turn, she’s magnetic as she performs — it’s almost impossible to take your eyes away from her as she, in her words, “rips” on the guitar. “My favourite part of the job is being a live performer — it’s why I was so keen on making sure that the studio recording would encourage people to come to a live show. I want people to listen to American Hero and have it feel like an invite or a ticket to come hang out.”

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Opening up for Renee Rapp across the UK and North America resulted in a lot of new eyes and ears being exposed to her for the first time, resulting in her own feverish fanbase who are as obsessed with her live shows as much as she is. For Bird, seeing people sing her songs back to her is an experience that is equal parts gratifying and bewildering. “I had written the bulk of the album [on the North American tour for Rapp] and I was almost trialling the songs and seeing people’s live reactions for certain things. It was very affirming to get off the road and go into making American Hero with that knowledge. It made me feel more secure in it.”

Even though Bird didn’t feel represented growing up, she hopes that American Hero can find a home with fans in Asia. “I deeply care about bringing alternative or guitar music to certain parts of Asia because growing up there, I know people like it. There aren’t many bands that come from that part of the world so it’s quite underground. I know people want it, so I’m excited to maybe, one day, go back there and play and see if people gravitate towards it like I did.”

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With the release of American Hero, Bird feels like she’s been existing between two chapters of her life — eagerly (and anxiously) waiting for her debut album to drop while also already working on new stuff. “I’ve been working on American Hero for two years and a lot has already changed. I’m working on the next stuff which I’m excited about. It’s interesting to be promoting this record and simultaneously working away at future work. I’m really proud of American Hero even though it does feel a bit like, ‘Can I close that door and go into this one yet?’” she laughs.

On the track “Deep Cut,” Bird sings “you’re a story that I tell to my friends.” How exactly does this story — the one that makes up American Dream — get passed down from her to her listeners? “It’s an introduction to me, all of the things I think about and care about, the things I love and hate, and just how I go about life. I spent so long making each part perfect because I want it to be recreated live on stage. That matters so much to me. This is the beginning of our journey. I hope, fingers crossed, I can make more than one album and build on this journey, too.”

American Hero is released on 28 June via Interscope/Polydor

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