Wallis Bird Asks “What’s Wrong With Changing?”, Talks New Album ‘Hands’ (INTERVIEW)

Irish singer/songwriter and performer Wallis Bird released the challenging album, Woman, in 2019, leaning into Soul music and taking on global ideas that later crystallized for her as the “fall of empires” in our current world. Moving in 2020, she didn’t intend to work on new music, but rather have some down time, however, getting towards 2021 she yielded to some helpful encouragement to try something different and collaborate with others to expand her sound.

The changes in Bird’s approach to her own music while working with Philipp Milner of the band Hundreds as Producer have been eye-opening and life-altering, and led to a more Rock and Pop based approach on the new collection, Hands, due out May 27th. Lyrically, the new songs delve more deeply into Bird’s own life experiences as a foundation for asking bigger questions, like her powerful singles, “What’s Wrong With Changing?”, “Pretty Lies”, and her latest, “Power of a Word”, due out March 4th. I spoke with Bird about the revelation she experienced as a songwriter and recording artist when coming to work with Philipp Milner, the role that performance plays in her life, and more about the question she poses, “What’s wrong with changing?” 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I heard that when you were planning for 2020, you thought you might take a little more quiet time anyway. Was it strange to have it enforced in that way? 

Wallis Bird: One thing that helped that entire, visceral wiping of the calendar was that we were all in the same position. I think that for many years, I was kind of waiting for the conveyor belt to stop because it had gone a bit too far. Also, I think the pendulum was beginning to swing a bit too far politically and in terms of divisiveness. I felt like I was turning pages of George Orwell’s book. I thought, “I guess something’s going to happen.” Then, sure enough it came around, and I accepted it. It was wild like the Mayan calendar, the end-times. 

HMS: Were you thinking of some of those things building up when you were working on your previous album, Woman? It seems to address wider, global themes. 

WB: I remember thinking, when I was writing Woman, that it felt like I was writing outside of myself. I knew the meaning would come to me later. With this album, it was in a similar vein, not expecting to feel anything yet since I was only just beginning to realize that Woman was about empires falling. Hands wasn’t so much relating to a feeling of not being able to do anything as to a feeling that everyone was beginning to understand that we needed to listen and guide ourselves more together. For the next couple of records, I’ll still be finding out what Hands is about. It feels like it’s about rebuilding, though, and these albums are preparation for rebuilding.

HMS: That makes sense because if Woman was about empires falling, then the next stage would be foundational, asking, “What’s the next point just past the zero point?” Do you feel that you discover more about the songs once you’re able to perform them?

WB: You’re getting me thinking about the next one, since this one is already finished. When I’m writing a song, it definitely helps to perform it, even if it’s in a skeletal stage. I love playing that for people because I get a lesson. Peoples’ faces change, their breathing changes, and that tells you if something is working with a song or you should change something. It’s also an adrenaline rush. I always liken performance to stand-up comedy because you have to be so prepared for your punchlines to hit correctly. It is a performance and I lose myself completely. The important parts of the song are in the performance. I work to make them as poignant and immediate as possible.

HMS: Is it true that working on this album crept up on you as a kind of surprise?

WB: Yes, it is. This was a two-year period, and for the first year I kind of did nothing. I think my team was hoping I’d make an album, but I didn’t feel it. None of us knew what we were doing in the world in 2020. After a year, my manager said, “I think you should work with others.” I said that I was happy to, though up to that point, I would say that I was fairly controlling. I always needed to show that I was capable to play all the instruments on my own. My manager suggested Phillip Milner, who plays with Hundreds. I said, “Fuck it.” Philipp lives in a farmhouse in the country with chickens. I already really liked him and loved his music. I thought, “What’s the worse that could happen?” 

We spent a couple of days getting to know each other. On the third day, he opened up a synth, and put on a terrible recording of a song that I had made, and said, “What do you think of this?” My jaw dropped. He was like a key turning in a lock that I didn’t realize that I needed. He took the burden of creating off of me. He just kind of showed me where I could go. It was the first time I ever handed Production over in that way. I sat back and watched a maestro at work. I learned so much. Man, it was like being born again or something! It was like a wound healing. Everything happened within weeks. The album happened straight away and then it was about a year of chipping away at it. It was mega.

HMS: That is such an amazing story. It’s great to be reminded that whatever we think our path in life is, new things can happen out of nowhere if we’re open to things. Though it must have been scary to hand things over.

WB: That being open to things, I think, is the key. I try to surround myself with people that I trust but trusting someone else with your creativity is hard. Because if you do, and you don’t like what happens, it’s very hard to leave amicably.

HMS: I’ve heard plenty of stories to support the idea that finding the right Producer can be life-changing. How did this difference with Philipp affect the sound-direction? There’s more of a Rock and Pop influence on this album, I noticed. 

WB: When I knew the date was set for me to go to Philipp’s house, I kept in mind what his music is like, and I opened up my mind to working in his way. I began to put songs together with him, with staccato timing in mind, because he works as an electronic Producer. I kept tight timing in mind when writing to make it easy for him. I began to write with synths in mind because he’s a synths professor. His album with Hundreds was my favorite of 2020 by far and I had listened to it many times. 

I was already a big fan before we started working together. The chord structures and melodies that they use really appeal to me, so it felt like I was throwing on an old coat. But I also love how they always do something differently every time, and that’s my bag as well. I knew I was going in with a wealth of my knowledge and was going to add the wealth of a jazz maestro’s knowledge and an electro maestro’s knowledge. So I began to move my creative mind into his world, and that did affect the writing, definitely.

HMS: After the initial songwriting, did you continue to shape the songs?

WB: I always have to go the long way around the initial story or idea that I’ve written. I want to make sure that I’ve covered all the angles to make sure that the first one is the right one. I find that doing that also helps me to prepare myself for playing it live. That’s equally important to me as the studio. I put them on the same echelon. With this record, I wrote it so quickly that I didn’t even know how to play the thing. Then I had to get into the song and understand it. It’s kind of “post-work” for “pre-touring”. 

HMS: I did get the impression from your past work that live playing was very important to you. 

WB: I love every moment of a show, and for each show there’s a split second you’ll remember and take it with you forever. But with recording, there’s posterity. It doesn’t go away. If you put something on your record, it’s there forever, so I spend a huge amount of time going through the lyrics that I write. I go through them with my loved ones and make sure to suss them out so I can stand by them. I love both recording and playing. 

HMS: Some people are scared of the word “posterity”. It’s kind of refreshing how directly you address that. 

WB: I teach songwriting, though it’s more like facilitating, where I give students a kick up the arse if they can do better. I don’t like cheap songwriting, like “Baby, baby, hold my hand.” Nope. I say to them, “You have the power to change peoples’ thoughts and you have to be careful with your words.” I’m kind of tough love when it comes to songwriting.

HMS: Your single, “What’s Wrong With Changing?” pretty much exemplifies everything we are talking about. It’s a serious song since it’s posing a question that’s as big as the ones The Beatles’ posed. It also has a very driving rhythm and some spoken-word lyrics that remind me of protest songs. Were you thinking big thoughts for this one?

WB: Yes, definitely. A song like that was a fire in my belly. I’m careful with how I treat people and I’m careful with words. I don’t mean to offend and I’m not out to ruffle feathers at all. But I just want to know what people are going through. I’m hearing the stories from people, and seeing things socially, and I see such a fear now. I’m just saying, “Think about how you want to be treated, and treat others the same way.”

I thought it was really important to write this song because I really love Folk music, and Pop music really needs the Folk ability to talk about what’s happened in the past couple of years and to reflect on social system and social policies. It reminds people that every single person has an effect, no matter how big or small you might be. We are one giant energy together and we have to look at what we are doing. So this song is saying, “This is my short life, and look at what has happened in my adult life. If this can happen to me, tell me your story out loud. What’s going on with you?” It encourages people to change and be ready for anything. A lot of stories and explanation comes from simply listening and not always having an opinion. But for this song, I have to have an opinion, so I base that on my own experiences in life.

HMS: That’s how I felt listening to the song, as if it’s boiling things down and asking, “What am I sure of?” It gets down to essential elements, like: What is change? What is our reaction to change? What is a negative thing? Well, that would be rejecting all change out of fear instead of working through what change means. 

WB: This song is a sister-song to a song from Woman, “As The River Flows”, which is about supporting migrants and defying racism. This song is set in a more “right now” moment of vast, very noticeable change. I did a bit of a weird thing, as well, with the chorus, and repetition. I love kids and kids love repetition, so I’m often thinking about kids when I write songs. I want to see kids singing about love, being challenging, and overcoming. But this song is very wordy at the beginning, and it’s referencing America and Black culture, as well as Rap music as a form of poetry. I want to reference how powerful that’s been in moving culture forward. When I get to the chorus, though, I use a childish repetition, but I also leave a big space between “I want to know…” and “…what’s wrong with changing.” There’s a little bit of silence to think for yourself.

HMS: It’s like a space for the audience to bring in their own response. That’s one’s going to be great live.

WB: I’ve been putting together a great band and we have concerts booked. There will be some summer shows, but hopefully autumn will be restarting things. We’ll try our best! 

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