Since releasing Branches Untangle back in 2006, Wallis Bird has established herself as a vital voice in Irish music. On top of this, she’s a raucous live act. Now, with five albums and a big pile of awards behind her, she feels it’s time to speak out. Wallis Bird has set her sights on injustice, apathy, and more. Her new album, Woman, confronts these difficult issues, without ever giving in to cynicism.
Wallis is currently touring the United States ahead of the new record — Woman arrives on September 27th. Thankfully, she found time for a quick chat with HeadStuff. We cover empathy, artistic responsibility, her life in Berlin, and, of course, the new album.
A general lack of empathy seems to be a big societal problem at the moment, so I was delighted to see empathy at the heart of Woman. Is common understanding the key to a healthier political climate, and a better world in general?
Ah thanks petal. Yeah, I think that’s it. So far that’s how I see it. Respect for our common understanding, patience and listening to each other seem to be the key ingredients to a safer more equitable existence for all of us.
You’ve said that “Like most artists, I’ve probably shirked my responsibilities at times so as not to rock any boats” — it seems that now, more than ever, it’s difficult to keep art and politics separate. Are artists obliged to tackle these issues? Is it even possible to be an apolitical artist today?
I see them as hand in hand. The arts mirror the system and the people so I think the day of lazy commercial songwriting is over. I’ve recently been teaching songwriting and was giving a bit of tough love to the students to say “look, we gotta be saying something now, so don’t waste a line, dig deeper, we need you”. Yes it’s absolutely possible to be apolitical. I mean simply in the reasoning there must be if there is political music. Songs about a guy taking a girl out etc. are non-political but not apolitical, yet a woman taking a woman out is political, I wonder what apolitical music would be. It’s a conversation you’ve started in the car here!
Is there anything specific that sparked you to confront your “responsibilities” with this new record, or was it a combination of factors that pushed you to speak up?
It’s just time. That’s really just it. Well, the big thing is us as a race, we have to upend our ways because currently, we are a virus that Mother Nature is fevering away, the environmental crisis is upon us. Since the #metoo movement it’s enabled women to expose our abuses as a means for progress for women’s safety. This is a huge social turning point of our time, and we’re living it. We’re also coming from 2 generations of no world war, to dictators measuring the size of their nuclear weapons, dangling them at us, to white supremacy gaining dangerous political traction — there’s a vast awakening, and reckoning of the human race. The time is now.
The record is 37 minutes long — very refreshing with the current trend toward releasing lengthy albums for streaming numbers — but it manages to cover a lot ground in eleven tracks. Can you pick out a unifying theme throughout? A message you wanted to convey, consciously or otherwise?
The primary theme of the record is
These may seem too simple, but I’ve chosen them so that people use these words in a casual way. To say them out loud, bring them into their day. Your words are your portrait and I want people to verbalise these sentiments, so they’re painted all over the record.
Your work ethic when it comes to gigging is pretty remarkable, how do you balance this with your writing? Do you come up with new material on the road? Or hibernate now and then to write in peace?
I do hibernate 🙂 — funnily when I’m gigging I use spontaneity to jam and find new ideas. I also push the song I’m singing just a little further to see where it could go. I don’t lose the run of the song. I’m definitely a purist that way, I don’t like to fuck with the original too much when I’m playing it for other people, but respectfully I like to take it on an amble at concerts. That opens up happy accident new chords or lyrics which means I’m constantly writing, in even the slightest way. It keeps me oiled for the hibernation writing!
Social media, unavoidable as it is, pops up on Woman. Regarding something like the tragic image of Alan Kurdi (‘As The River Flows’), has social media desensitised us, or illuminated these kinds of issues on a global scale? Is a healthy relationship with social media possible?
It is possible and it’s absolutely necessary. We’re still only in the birthing stages of the Internet. We’ve seen the major possibilities and we’ve gone down the rabbit hole and even god knows how deep that goes, but what’s certain is that it seems like it could be limitless, so we have to use that responsibly. I imagine somewhere along the way we will develop more general media “manners”. Such as no media an hour before sleep, no phones at the meal, no sharing of personal data to tabloids, far more content control and far more psychological therapy for those who actually control the content.
The Internet is a world on its own so I treat it with respect. I post with intent and I don’t really scroll mindlessly anymore. Small steps but they’ve made a massive change on my habits — I read more books, I daydream more, I sleep better, I’m more mindful in general.
You’ve had support from the likes of Amanda Palmer, an artist with a pretty sizeable platform. Does this kind of public acknowledgement have a discernible career impact? Or is it simply a kind gesture from a peer?
It’s a big honour, she’s been very good to me, she’s an example to all artists and folk — we should be helping each other! I don’t like to coattail, I find that so hard so I take the moment with deep personal gratitude and usually can’t ask for more than that.
You’re touring the US this month. You must be looking forward to bringing a song like ‘Grace’ to a live audience where it matters the most?
Yes, I can’t help it but ‘Grace’ was written specifically for American politics and the oafs in power. So the connection is strong. Now that I’m here though I see I’m preaching to the converted, so there’s rather a solidarity towards singing these new songs, rather than finger pointing. They’re already doing that themselves far greater than I. It’s so interesting being here in this climate, I feel like it’s really made the country grow up rapidly. I mean that in the most respectful sense, but I really haven’t experienced the macho “We can be whoever we want to be” attitude I did the last time I was here. I think they’ve brought it too far, Trump is a direct example of rewarding that attitude and now they’re reconciling.
Closer to home, ‘Repeal’ is a moving reaction to the 2018 referendum. Could you even have imagined such a momentous result back when you released your first EP (Branches Untangle) in 2006?
I did imagine it. I knew it would happen early in my lifetime at least, because as dark as Irish moral conduct was in 2006, a groundbreaking resilience and scornfullness grew against the church and state relationship, like a boil being lanced and I’m honoured to have experienced and been a part of that.
On a more personal note, I’m wondering if living in Berlin has emboldened your approach to art and songwriting at all? Is there a sense of freedom in Berlin that, perhaps, is still lacking in Ireland?
There is a freedom in many ways in Berlin that’s not in Ireland. One big one is how children are raised & the common treatment of your fellow man. In Berlin you are responsible for yourself and you are responsible for those around you so common sense is key here. There is no helicopter parenting, Germans are not encouraged to consume, be branded. There is heavy trade/handywork education, sex positive education, they don’t have a “sue” economy, or a rich economy with a huge housing crisis because of greedy landlords and politicians. The folk are keen to watch their politicians under a critical eye because of their past. Economically they’ve been frugal and took care to spend on necessary things such as state-funded childcare, well-built houses and playgrounds — and it shows.
Renting rights lay on the side of the renter so people can afford to live in the city still. That gives people free time to think or simply experience life, so it’s still affordable. I’m being harsh towards Ireland but it’s reached boiling point and these things are currently changing. Ireland right now is an intensely passionate and grassroots land, dealing with its past and moving forward in the totally right way.
When Woman draws to a close, what do you want the listener to take away from the record?
I want it to be something people look back on and think “wow, we’ve come so far from 2019”.
Wallis Bird releases Woman on September 27th via Mount Silver Records/Caroline International. For more information and live dates check out her website here.