Wallis Bird is doing the work
On her seventh album, Hands, Wallis Bird is interrogating the zeitgeist as she sees it. Reckoning with the crumbling of political systems, as well as her own, sometimes unflattering journey, she emerges full of hope for the future.
“It’s just a stunning time to be alive,” says Bird, her Wexford accent barely dimmed by a decade of living in Berlin. “We’re moving into such an emotional and inclusive age. I think people are really interesting right now, because we’re showing vulnerability but we’re also showing the strength to be very loud when we don’t agree with something. In my lifetime, that’s only really happened in the past five years, and it’s fucking wild.”
Bird takes our Zoom call on her phone out in the garden of the farmhouse she and her girlfriend Tracey have recently bought, together with two other couples, on the outskirts of Berlin. The sun is out but its warmth is unreliable in these weeks of early spring, and she’s pulled a green hoodie up over her woolly hat to stave off the chill. The house and its cavernous barn are not yet fully habitable, but after major renovations Bird’s co-op hope to build a community there, complete with an art and performance space and an emphasis on joy. If that sounds hippy-ish, so be it.
Inevitably, Bird’s change in lifestyle was prompted, at least in part, by the coronavirus pandemic. But it also owes a debt to the long and sometimes painful process of self-examination that informs a large part of her new album. Subtitled ‘Nine and a half songs for nine and a half fingers’, Hands holds up a mirror to Bird’s life story, both visually and lyrically. Her left hand on the cover, with its lawnmower-lost little finger, signals a change in the way she wants to tell it. “Up until recently, I simply treated my hand as something additional, not primary to my story,” she explains. “But, during this pandemic, when everything in my usual life was scattered, I found myself wondering ‘Who am I? What am I? What story do I leave behind?”
Similar thoughts had already begun to percolate in the back of her mind by the end of 2019. Coming off the back of touring her sixth album Woman, a soulful, politically charged, state-of-the-world address, Bird found herself questioning the worth of it all. “Maybe it’s an age thing but I didn’t see it coming,” she says. “It sort of crept up on me, this feeling of wanting to have my things around me and wanting to be with my loved ones longer. I wanted more time to myself, rather than being at the service of music all of the time. The well was running a bit dry.”
Needless to say, a global pandemic was not exactly what she had in mind. But in some ways it offered her a new perspective on the ideas of togetherness and unity that have long been a common theme in her songwriting. Here, for the first time in her lifetime, was something that really was affecting everyone, albeit to different degrees. “There was something about the existentialism of the early pandemic that made me think that if I couldn’t draw something from this crazy situation, maybe I would never find inspiration again,” she says. “We didn’t know if we were going to get sick and die. It felt like the world was ending. Our loved ones and everything we do for love and money were put out of reach, and sort of held like dangling carrots over all of our heads.”
Who am I? What am I? What story do I leave behind? For Bird, those questions, in the context of the times, “influenced everything”. Suddenly having all the time in the world, with no outside demands, showed her what she was doing rightly and wrongly in her life, not only in her career but how she behaved with her loved ones. “It was all held up in front of me,” she says. “I had to kind of look at it and say, ‘Well, where are we right now?’.”
When it came to the political zeitgeist, Bird’s ideas were clearly outlined. The challenge was figuring out how to communicate them. The songs wanted to be pop but the lyrics had bite. “I wanted to talk about what is happening in the world, which meant broaching subjects that just aren’t that sexy” she explains. “I think the pop world can be a very painful place because it’s rooted so much in commercialism and fakeness, but I love it! I fucking love good, clever, beautiful pop! But coming from a folk background, which is so much about lyrics and integrity, it’s a challenge to sort of straddle the boundaries. I didn’t know how it would be received but I was like, well, maybe we’re all gonna die so I’ll just go for it.”
At her manager’s suggestion, Bird reached out to producer Philipp Milner of German electro-pop trio Hundreds, whose 2020 record The Current she had loved. Bird admits that she was apprehensive about their collaboration at first. Having lost her finger at just 18 months old, she has spent much of her life trying to prove herself and “show off too much about what I can do well”, which doesn’t always lend itself to compromise. “I knew before I went to his studio that it was going to either be terrible or it was going to work, because Philipp is such a private and gentle soul and I’m – I suppose – less so,” she says, flashing a wry smile.
Given Milner’s clean-living lifestyle, Bird decided to give up alcohol a few weeks before going into the project. She made other changes to her lifestyle, too, and took some online courses to learn how to improve her production and engineering skills. “Even just knowing that I was going to work with him, I began to try a little harder,” she says. “I wanted to be prepared, to go in with a totally clear mind and be more efficient in his world.”
What Bird was not prepared for, though, was the profound effect their collaboration would have. She describes it as “like a door being unlocked” inside her, opening up her world “like an orchid.” “Working with Philipp made me realise that collaboration can sometimes expand your entire world,” she says. “Which, in turn, opened up my mind to letting go of control a lot more, and that’s actually helped me in all facets of my life, not just musically.”
Beginning in December 2020, Bird and Milner spent 50 weeks “just doing whatever the first fucking thing was that came into our minds, with no expectations,” grabbing whatever instruments were at hand and going in whatever direction the songs wanted to go in. “From the moment we stepped into the studio it was all so fluid,” she says. “Just pure joy and pleasure. So much laughter. It was like doing my dream job at the perfect time of my life.”
The energy and experimentalism she describes are perfectly captured in the two lead singles, “What’s Wrong With Changing?” and “Pretty Lies”. The first is, in a sense, a potted history of Bird’s personal and political milestones, referencing the Iraq War, racism in David Cameron’s so-called Big Society, and major reform back home in Ireland, with the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage. On paper, it’s a song that shouldn’t work, but Bird’s delivery is nothing short of sheer exuberance. Drawing rhythmic inspiration from Janet Jackson’s game-changing run of albums from Control to Janet., she rails against the old guard who are clinging to a status quo that’s inexorably doomed.
“It seems to be that the revolution is being televised after all,” she says. “Politics has become little more than a show: far too fickle, far too fragile. Those who do benevolently work in politics to made positive change are often so bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape that it’s almost impossible for them. It’s been left to the people – to us humans living our everyday lives – to be the makers of change, revolting against social systems that are too slow to change.”
“Pretty Lies” stands out at first as Hands’ most obviously pandemic-related song, but then quickly morphs into its most bewildering. A loose conglomerate of synth sounds and lyric ideas that builds to a long and wacky instrumental, it’s several songs smashed into one that somehow makes sense.
“It’s a non-song song, the 9.5 song on the album,” Bird explains. As she tells it, after a valiant struggle to pin the song down and mould it into a coherent shape, it ended up writing itself. “The song would just never, ever click,” she says. “Sometimes the music has its own personality and I have fucking nothing to do with it. I’m just sitting there like, okay, I’ll play this fucking chord then, fine. You want to do this for three minutes? Okay. You’re just a vessel. You’re just a fucking monkey playing the music’s tune. That’s rare and that’s raw, and I love that for this song. It was just a joyride for me, to be honest with you. I was very much in the passenger seat.”
“Aquarius”, released as a single in April, was similarly headstrong. Starting life as “a super slow piano song that took itself way too seriously,” it eventually morphed into a sophisticated, chorusless pop track complete with slide guitar (played with a spoon), lavish chords, and a drivetime-friendly beat. At one point, Bird says, she made a version with some “fucking mental synth that was some art bullshit.” “It was either too little or too much, so it was a process of trying to find an even keel.”
Lyrically, the song is concerned with feminine divine power; on the one hand it’s a celebration of her mother and the story of Bird’s own birth, and on the other hand it emphasises the political imperative of kindness and having the right to make your own choices. In one short verse, Bird touches on abortion, euthanasia, gender identity and feminism. “Pretty fundamental stuff,” she says. “But these are really intricate things that have become part of the big conversation about control, and who controls what in life.”
Bird’s late grandfather on her mum’s side was a folk singer and political songwriter, well respected within his community for keeping the local politicians in check. I ask Bird what he might have made of Hands’ protest pop. She grins. “That’s a lovely question! He’d probably be like, ‘What are you doing? Maybe you’re taking it a bit too far.’ But I don’t think so at all. I wouldn't say that my music is rocking the boat that much. Anything I want to say, I try to approach it carefully. So I think he’d be okay with it. Jaysus, I hope so. I mean, you can’t be one way and expect people not to learn from that.”
Learning from others is something that comes up a lot during our hour-long conversation. Bird is frank about going through a rough patch with Tracey in recent years. Reaching what she describes as “a make-or-break moment” in their relationship, she decided to seek professional help. Though she was initially sceptical about needing therapy, she says she was blown away after just one session.
“What I didn’t realise before was that, in my world, very few people take precedence over what I do, or decisions that I make,” she says. “To give you an example, I would do things like go away for three days and not contact anybody to let them know I was alive. I might have been thinking about them the whole time but thinking of someone and showing them – proving to them – that you care are two entirely different things. I was the boss of the bus, and the basic respect for other people in my life wasn’t there.”
"A lot of people these days are rightly talking about consent and entitlement to sex, and it’s that realisation that you aren’t entitled to anything. It’s a fucking two-way street.”
She also came to understand that she had an unhealthy relationship with sex. “I felt like I was owed it,” she says, shaking her head. “A lot of people these days are rightly talking about consent and entitlement to sex, and it’s that realisation that you aren’t entitled to anything. It’s a fucking two-way street.”
Through therapy, Bird realised that in some ways she was “having to be mothered” by Tracey, and “having to be told what a good relationship is”. She learned that it’s not enough to tell someone you care; you have to prove time and time again, through actions not words, that you are doing everything you can to make things work. “I had to learn that process in a very awkward way by almost losing a really amazing relationship just because I was being stubborn,” she says. “Every day’s a school day.”
On Hands, the personal and political combine most affectingly on the gorgeous “The Power Of A Word”, the final song to be written for the album. Coming together in just a few hours, it’s partly inspired by Bird’s revelations about her relationship and partly by the ignominious departure of Donald J. Trump. “The effect of having him in power in the US for four years was such an upheaval,” she says. “He claimed to know words and to have the best words, but he was upending language. But words are sacred and they have consequences.”
I ask her if we, as a society, can ever get back to respecting the power of words. “Yeah, I really do think so,” she says, swatting away “a very unusual bug” flying around her head. “I get the feeling that we’re living in a time where everything is sped up. Emotional intelligence and thought processes are sped up. We’re much quicker to read a room and read people and decide who our allies are.”
“I feel like evolution has moved drastically in terms of who we are as people,” she adds. “We’re almost writing out the recipe of what makes up our personalities and deconstructing what it means to be a human. Which is something that wasn’t really done in my parents’ generation, or even in mine. I have a lot of faith in how fast things are moving now. It can take just half a generation to move away from whatever legacy or tradition is holding us back.”
I point to the growing popularity of sobriety among young people as one example of how things have changed from our generation (Bird turns 40 in December, despite what Wikipedia says). She nods in agreement. “I’m always really impressed by young people, and I love to be around them. They’ve got a lot worked out, and I feel like they are looking at people our age and thinking, all of you need therapy. Like, they are looking straight at us and seeing exactly what we need to deal with. And drinking too much is one of those things.”
Discussing the ‘80s-influenced “I Lose Myself Completely”, with its a-ha–alike intro and Trevor Horn production values, Bird is upfront about her history of alcohol abuse. Drinking, she says, used to completely control her. “I always thought that being drunk was a part of my personality. But after I gave it up, I learned how to do all the stuff I used to equate with being inebriated without being drunk. I realised that drinking doesn’t help my creativity, it stunts it. Being drunk would put me in vulnerable positions where anything could have happened to me. What I used to see as being wild and fun I now see was sometimes just being fucking dangerous and self-sabotaging. Now I genuinely can’t touch the stuff.”
Bird is full of praise for the younger generation of socially conscious musicians, singling out Dublin’s Orla Gartland as especially exciting. “She’s of the age where she’s really coming into her power and really knows what she is doing,” she says. “She’s also really generous with sharing information on how she’s surviving and flourishing in the music industry. I think in the next 10 years her career is just going to absolutely explode and she’ll become even more influential.”
Bird has thoughts, too, on the current issue of artists feeling forced by their labels to try and go viral on TikTok. She is a natural at social media – her posts are creative, funny, authentic, and (most importantly for the algorithms) regularly updated – but she recognises the additional pressures that these platforms put on creators. “Some people say I share a bit too much, but what else can I do?” she says. “The industry side expects artists to treat social media as if it’s just as important as the music. But they don’t want to give you any training or put some budget aside for it. You basically have to go ahead and do it yourself, so they can reap the rewards of you being unabashedly and ragingly yourself. It’s like, yeah, fucking thanks for throwing me under the bus there!”
For Bird, at least, putting in the work seems to be paying off. Radio support for the singles from Hands has been strong – not only in her home countries Ireland and Germany but also in the UK, where her work has not always got the traction it deserves. “It’s funny, you kind of stop giving a fuck and that’s when people start to pay attention,” she says, laughing. “I’m so fucking happy right now. The work is working for itself.”
“I'm really proud of my team, to be honest with you. We've stood together for nearly 20 years now, and there’s a different kind of vibe happening with this record. People that we love and people that we’ve looked up to are starting to get hold of it. And there’s a private joy to that, because in my heart I knew that I loved this album, probably more than any of my other albums. The emotional connection I have with it is one of pure pleasure, because I wasn’t sitting there pondering the whole time, I was just having the craic.”