Wallis Bird has today released her long awaited new album titled ‘Hands’. To listen to ‘Hands’ is an event for the ears. You can get more of the story behind that in the interview. But to listen to an album recorded within and reflected of the times they were recorded in can be an introspective experience if done by the right artist. Wallis is that type of artist, in my opinion. An already unique artist in her own right, her style and signature sound is expanded musically, lyrically, and socially. This is a timestamp for societal humanity as well as the times we are currently in, and, what I would call, a time-capsule album.
In this interview we get a glimpse of the mind of a true musician and passionate human being in the form of a really good conversation. We get to know a little about Wallis the artist as well as Wallis the person. Both are great and both are as inspiring.
‘I Lose Myself Completely’ Video
Directed and Animated by Fergal Brennan
Produced by Wallis Bird & Adam Fitzsimons
Special thanks to Brenda Kearney, Kevin Ryan, Mike Ahern and Wendy Slatkin.
Thanks to all the archaeologists, historians and curators that do the painstaking work of unearthing and preserving these artefacts.
Unless created by the author, all other images contained therein are in the Public Domain (CC0 licence), obtained from Wikimedia Commons.
The front cover of Irish born, Berlin based Wallis Bird’s new album features a black and white photograph of a hand. A cursory look might not reveal anything unusual, but it only takes a moment to recognize it’s no ordinary hand. In the shadows there’s a stump where the little finger should be, and something seems off about the other digits too.
Some will understand its significance: they’ll have seen it strumming an upside-down, right-handed guitar, picking in unorthodox style, forming unconventional chords. The hand, you see, is Wallis Bird’s, and it’s there because, having spent much of her life trying to exist despite its restrictions, she’s reached a point where she recognizes that, in many ways, it’s always been vital to her lived reality.
With this has come a realization of “who I am, what I am, and what I don’t want.” Hands documents her subsequent process of change, and its consequences, with typically distinctive style, making it – Hands down, naturally – one of the most honest albums you’ll hear at a time when honesty is at a premium.
If 2019’s exceptional Woman represented an ambitious state of the world address, Hands – also known as Nine And A Half Songs For Nine And A Half Fingers – finds Bird turning the spotlight onto herself, raising issues that are sometimes far harder to confront, only to emerge optimistic and whole. Among these are issues of trust, alcohol abuse, stagnation, self-censorship and self-improvement, some addressed through personal recollections of crucial moments accumulated over the last two years. Each, however, is delivered by a voice uncommonly blessed with joy, ingenuity and empathy.
Where its predecessor was bathed in soul music, Hands adapts sounds from Bird’s early childhood. Barring the intimately confessional ‘I’ll Never Hide My Love Away’, its songs are flushed with bright colors, many familiar from the 1980s and ‘90s. Its bookends are ‘Go’, whose smooth R&B inflections provide a neat bridge from the album’s forerunner, and ‘Pretty Lies’, its euphoric conclusion powered by forty chunky chord progressions. In-between, Hands rarely pauses.
The jubilant ‘What’s Wrong With Changing’ appropriates the rhythmic discipline of Janet Jackson’s Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and Janet., and ‘I Lose Myself Completely’ revels in Trevor Horn’s work, while the grinning ‘No Pants Dance’, written after witnessing neighbors celebrating lockdown’s end, would have delighted Prince, and ‘Dreamwriting’ – “a reminder to myself of one of my most favorite memories in recent years” – is full of warmth, lyrically and musically.
‘Aquarius’ dreamy chord changes and unexpected pedal steel, meanwhile, help unleash some of the prettiest instrumental sections 2022’s likely to enjoy, and there are pensive moments, too, not least ‘The Dive’, which describes a gesture Bird treasures as “one of the most brave and romantic memories I own” and which wields a muted trumpet and Mediterranean guitars while its melody skips along dreamily as though through a summer meadow. If the sonic palette is different, then, Hands is still defiantly, happily Wallis Bird.
“Hands for me is a symbol of humanity, connection and time,” Bird elaborates. “Humanity because, as babies, a first sign of our knowledge of existence is through our connection when we grip another human’s finger. If we don’t have Hands, are we lesser humans? No. Connection, because Hands represent tactility and expression, a physical language that links our imagination and our reality with each other’s. Finally, time, because some of the first examples of civilizations were hand paintings on cave walls, some of those Hands missing fingers, celebrating their story of existence.”
Hands’ themes, though, are obviously personal. “At 18 months old I fell under a lawnmower and cut all my fingers off,” Bird states simply. “Four were reconnected. One was lost. This led me to relearn how to hold things, and, when the time came, to play the guitar differently. As a toddler, I remember seeing those cave pictures and being fascinated. What happened? How painful was that? This shaped me: I wanted to draw my heart like that, to celebrate time, scars, stories and humanity on a wall where others could too.”
As 2019 came to an end, Bird found herself with time enough to reassess her relationship with her hand – and indeed herself – so decided to take a rare break. She’s released six albums since 2007, for which she’s won two Meteor Awards, Ireland’s annual music prize – mostly recently for Best Female Artist – and a prestigious 2017 German “Musikautorenpreis” (Music Author Prize), not to mention two further nominations for the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent to Britain’s Mercury Prize. In addition, she’s racked up over a thousand shows during the past decade, earning a reputation worldwide for passionate, energetic, good-humored concerts.
She began her sabbatical by quitting alcohol, a decision at the heart of ‘I Lose Myself Completely’, and four days later, she recalls, “I went to Philipp Milner (producer / musician, Hundreds)’s house to make some music, and my world opened up like an orchid.” Subsequently, she details, the album “was recorded in fifty weeks, primarily in Philipp’s farmhouse studio in Wendland, my studio in Berlin, and Marcus Wuest’s in Sandhausen, where I’ve recorded all my albums.”
Hands was completed with ‘The Power Of A Word’, a hushed showcase for shimmering synths and a notably ethereal vocal. At the heart of the track – as with so much of Hands – is self-examination, change and acceptance. “Up until recently,” Bird concludes, “I simply treated my hand as something additional, not primary to my story. 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?’ My story had been one of stubborn ‘I can do it just as good as anyone’, but this new chapter in my life has been about letting go of over-controlling, handing things over to others, being comfortable with my surroundings and colleagues, and knowing I’m understood. Right now, I’m a passenger, a guest in my life, because the album has been so collaborative and so out-of-bodily written, almost hypnotically. And I love it!”
And it shows. So let’s see those Hands in the air. After all, there’s a lot to celebrate here…
About Wallis Bird
Irish born and Berlin based, Wallis Bird has released six albums since 2007, for which she’s won two Meteor Awards, Ireland’s annual music prize – mostly recently for Best Female Artist – and a prestigious 2017 German ‘Music Autoren Preis’ (Music Author Prize), not to mention two further nominations for the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent to Britain’s Mercury Prize. In addition, she’s racked up over a thousand shows during the past decade, earning a reputation worldwide for her legendarily passionate, energetic and good-humored concerts. Wallis has also previously found a champion in American artists Amanda Palmer, and the Irish Times once noted that Bird’s irrepressible trademark energy on stage could “kickstart an entire economy”.
Photography by Tobias Ortmann.