Bird on the wing
Meteor Music Award winner Wallis Bird truly is a hippy for the YouTube generation. But as Brian Finnegan discovers her sincere feelgood intent is tempered by steely determination
When wallis Bird was named Best Irish Female at the Meteor Music Awards in February, she was so shocked she hardly made it to the stage. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "When I did finally get there, I didn't know what to say. I had built myself up not to get it so I wasn't at all prepared." In reality it's more like Wexford-born Bird has been preparing herself for the moment ever since she popped out of her mother's womb 28 years ago. "For as long as I can remember I've been singing for other people," she says. "I think the first thing that came out of my mouth was probably a song of some sort."
If the talent was there from the start, the resolve to make a career out of it set in very early too, probably galvanised from the moment the five fingers of her left hand were severed by the blades of a lawnmower in a childhood accident. Three were sewn back on again, but it meant that life for Bird, who is left-handed, became about overcoming the odds. Determined not to let the accident dent her passion, she learned to play a right-handed guitar upside down and went into the studio to record her first EP at the age of 12.
"I think I still have a copy of it somewhere," she says. "It was called Mainstreet Falls and I recorded it in a band a few friends I met at the Community Games formed. We didn't realise what we were doing, really; we were just entertaining ourselves."
Bird has a habit of talking about the trajectory of her career so far as if it's all accidental, but underneath her happy-go-lucky exterior, the heart of an extremely driven woman beats. Offered a music publishing deal when she was just 16, she turned it down. "If I took it I would have been bound into a contract and I realised I wanted to take my own road," she says, before telling me that her subsequent years at Ballyfermot Rock School were spent avoiding a nine-to-five and simply having a good time.
For "having a good time" insert "honing musical skills", because, far from lazing about with her guitar down the students' union, Bird was playing in Dublin city bars several nights a week "in front of crowds of drunken people" to earn a crust, and within three years she was touring across Europe, to wherever anyone would listen to her.
"I've been on the road ever since," she says. "When I'm not, I go a bit stir crazy. I love travelling, hopping on buses, trains, airplanes -- that's where I get my inspiration. I bring a guitar wherever I can, but if I don't have it I have a hundred instruments in my head with which I can write. My music takes me everywhere and I'm never short of a sound."
Just how that sound might be described uncharacteristically stumps her. "I should know the answer to that question by now," she says with a nervous laugh. "I've had years to think of it. It's eclectic. It's passionate and it mixes a lot of styles like folk, rock, pop, jazz... It's fresh, I hope; it's honest."
The word "honest" peppers so much of Bird's conversation that at one point she says: "People who talk about being honest all the time are usually telling lies. I should stop using that word so much."
But it's hard to think of Bird without that word to the forefront. There is nothing artificial about her. Her self-depreciation, her belief in the 'lucky accident' of her career, the happy-clappy desire to bring people together with her music: it's all charmingly real. She's a kind of Joni Mitchell hippy for the YouTube generation.
"I want a sense of understanding out there," she says. "I want people to listen to each other. I'm singing about things that are very personal to me, but they're universal too. When I write something, I know that people might end up singing along with it so I think about them expressing themselves through my music. I write lyrics such as "Oh, life, I love you to my bones" because that's a wonderful message. If you can get people to sing along with you and believe it, there's a real sense of sharing something."
It may sound airy-fairy, but it's true. Bird's live performances are steeped in the feelgood factor. She works a kind of magic on her audiences, the simple girl singing simple lyrics that somehow get to the heart of the complications of our emotional lives.
Perhaps this is why she won her Meteor award in the most hotly contested category this year. Up against Laura Izibor, Julie Feeney, Valerie Francis and Dolores O'Riordan, she pipped the cream of Ireland's female talent to the post by sheer dent of her positive energy.
"It's a sad mouth that can't rejoice," she says. "Wherever I go I'm shoving a guitar into other people's hands, making them sing. I rope people into singing on my albums, into singing at my gigs. Life is short. There's no point in thinking you can't do something. I really like breaking down that barrier between thinking you can't do it and actually doing it. That gets me great places."
A happy accident? Not on your nelly. HQ
Wallis Bird's album New Boots is out now. She plays The Academy on March 24th