Interview: Wallis Bird

Words by James Hendicott

Sat quietly in the corner of the Vantastival festival’s backstage artists’ bar, nursing a pint and smiling behind a pair of thick black shades, Wallis Bird is nothing if not a genuine festival lover. She looks right at home amongst the family-friendly, love-and-flowers ethos of this new Louth fest, with watch faces and luminous colours accessorising her dreadlocks, and the effects of the night before still wearing off.

She spends large parts of our interview indulging in those well-worn festival asides: who to see (Wallis is particularly enamoured with Duke Special, The Cast Of Cheers and Sounds Of System Breakdown), and her previous festival highlights, from Glastonbury to that time she played in a festival toilet for… well, no real reason at all, apart from it seeming like a good idea. In fact, she loves the idea of this particular festival so much that she’s playing for very nearly nothing, just to help them through the financially difficult early years.

Relaxed and open-minded, Wallis has come a long way from the youngster who used to bring in bumper crowds at Dublin’s Mezz, closing countless open mic nights with storming sets that Dublin-based reviewers still reminisce about in hushed tones. These days she’s based in London, having moved to Germany in 2006 on the promise of a record deal just not on offer in Ireland, then shifting to the UK’s capital a year or two later. Despite all her travelling – much of which has been done outside of her music, despite recently achieving significant success in Germany, Austria and Switzerland – Wallis is still as much a part of the Irish music scene as she’s ever been.

Things have already moved on a country mile from 2009’s New Boots. “You don’t want to do the same thing twice,” she says, describing her newer material as being full of “false modesty, false honesty and blunt honesty.” The middle of Wallis’ festival set sees her entice an enraptured crowd to shout “shit” at her throughout the entirety of one of her songs, while she laughs contentedly, strumming away in her notorious ‘upside down guitar’ style. “It’s lyrically strange and very confessional, much more confessional than anything I’ve ever done”. One thing it emphatically is not is shit.

The sound of the still-to-be-released new album came together through some strange twists of fate. “There’s lots of strange synergy. The album’s such a patchwork. It was recorded in six different locations, including the DDR building in Berlin where they announced Adolf Hitler’s war was over, and a snowy cottage in Connemara, where I spent 10 days alone overlooking the Atlantic.” The songs were produced with the aim of matching location to mood: Connemara, for example, is the home of some of Wallis’ mellower moments, while the harsher locations see abrupt styles and harsh key changes, darker themes and experimentation (“I learnt to use Logic 9, and sometimes you can really hear the learning process”). Occasionally things even take bizarre environmental twists: one track contains a harmonious lawnmower. “At first I was annoyed,” she admits, “but it played exactly in tune, so I left it in. Then there was thunder at the perfect pinnacle of a chorus, and [on one song] my flatmates slammed the door at the right time. It’s been such a good trip, and I think you’ll hear that I’ve moved on a good bit sound-wise.”

Another aspect of New Boots‘ as-yet-untitled follow-up is just how individual it’s become. “I always had a thing where I wanted to write an album entirely by myself, with whatever instruments I’m even half-capable of touching. There are some really strange, personal sounds as well as the lawnmowers and lightning, for example my flatmates having sex during ‘Take Me The Long Way Home’. They loved it. There’s so much natural synergy.” Despite the confessional vibe, Wallis feels her songs should speak for themselves, and she shies away from the likes of Facebook and Twitter. “I just don’t feel the need to reveal myself in that way. I give enough of myself in my songs, and I don’t connect with that. You can already hear what I’ve gone through, and this is by far the most personally engulfing album of the three so far.”

That’s not to say Wallis won’t spill her heart a little in person. One of her strangest stories surrounds Irish songwriter and Lisa Hannigan collaborator Gavin Glass. As two essential parts of a social group that had never met, the two often joked with friends that they were married. The first time they met at SXSW, Wallis summarises as “the time we got married. He’s my husband if that means anything to you” – even though the two have no relationship to speak of. Whether she means that the couple are literally married or the idea is a continuation of their joke is difficult to say: Wallis is so laid-back you can almost imagine her marrying a stranger, but equally you can imagine her taking the joke to the media. We don’t want to say we’re completely buying, but we certainly wouldn’t put it past her.

Throw anything quirky at an invariably joyful Wallis – she’s the kind of person it’s impossible not to smile around – and she’ll probably give it a go. Her previous shows have included “a pig abattoir and a cemetery” – both just odd gigs she happened to be offered, apparently, though she seems to be actively looking for the opportunity to play a show in a cave, if only for the wacky acoustics. The novelty factor might be of interest, but it’s far from something Wallis relies on: her shows are energetic and crowd-pleasing, full of sing-a-long moments and invariably ended – after multiple breakages mid-set – by the singer ripping the what’s left of the strings from her guitar and holding it triumphantly above her head. And so she should: the new blend of old and new is every bit as sublime and loveable as Wallis always had been, even when it reaches its most personal, touching corners.

As published in AU Magzine, May 2011.

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