“There sometimes is that pressure, but you just have to shut it out.”
From the moment I heard her faultlessly deliver Bon Iver’s Skinny Love in 2011, I’ve been a card-carrying Birdy fan. She walked, barefoot, straight onto my revered roster of female voices that are both delicate and mighty, alongside artists like Tori Amos, Roisin Murphy, Delores O’Riardan, Eddi Reader and my beloved Sinead O’Connor.
Born Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde, Birdy is a childhood nickname that just made sense and was, let’s face it, less of a mouthful. I went on to name a pet after the songstress; something I promised myself I wouldn’t tell her when I first interviewed her earlier this year. When I inevitably blurted it out, she agreed that Birdy is a bloody great name for a cat.
She’s every bit as sweet as you’d expect her to be but I wondered was this ethereal, elfin vibe we’re sold a reflection of who she really is? There’s certainly an element of it about her presence – she’s someone I’d be reluctant to curse in front of. But she’s also funny, warm and infinitely likeable.
The third single from Birdy’s upcoming album Portraits dropped on the morning of our call and confirmed something the first two tracks teased; we’re getting an all-new Birdy this year. Paradise Calling joins Heartbreaker and Raincatchers in a move towards a very different sound, and three’s a trend.
It’s old school Birdy meets 80s alternative. There are echoes of Blondie, Kate Bush and New Order, but they’re infused with that gentle melancholic heart we know and love. If there’s one thing Birdy does well it’s instant nostalgia and yet, with all its retro-inspired oomph, Paradise Calling still manages to feel fresh. Lofty musical analysis aside though, it’s also just an absolute bop.
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While the lyricism and weight of her voice on the tracks we’ve heard so far are unmistakably Birdy, the style is undoubtedly a departure. Her many musical influences started to weave their way into her psyche from the literal crib, as baby Birdy listened to her concert pianist mother playing in the next room. Her first gig? James Blunt of all people. And the very first album she owned was Avril Lavigne’s debut record.
So where did this new – yet old – sound emerge from? She explains: “It started with listening to PJ Harvey and Portishead, when I was recording. And then I started listening to Prince, who I’ve obviously always loved. But I just kind of became obsessed with the drama of the 80s and the passion. And also the mix of electronic music with acoustic instruments – Kate Bush does that a lot and it’s just so beautiful. It kind of feels very otherworldly and but still very real and emotional. David Bowie does it as well.”
Evolving as an artist is often a natural thing, especially when you’ve been doing this thing for as long as Birdy. At just 26 she’s about to release her 5th studio album; mind-boggling maths until you consider that she started at just 15. With each new record, she seems to come back stronger and more fully-formed. But does she feel pressure to reinvent herself each time? “There sometimes is that pressure, but you just have to shut it out because you can’t follow that when you’re trying to make music. It has to come from within.
“And it’s always going to be different anyway. It’s not possible, I don’t think, to stay the same. Unless you’re trying to. And I always absorb what I’m listening to. So when I started listening to all the 80s music, I just took it in and that’s what came out. So I think it’s just impossible to follow that pressure and to be led by it. You just can’t.”
As recording artists go, Birdy manages to keep her private life to herself quite successfully. In fact, her anti-showbiz persona is almost part of the appeal. Everyone knows who Birdy is and yet, we almost don’t want to know any more – surely the holy grail in an industry that expects social media oversharing as a given. I wonder if that’s a conscious decision based on how she wants to present herself as an artist; is the mystery all part of some record boss’ master marketing plan? Or did that state of play just naturally evolve? “It’s not something I’ve really thought about,” she says. “I mean, it’s good to kind of know where your boundaries are, if someone’s asking things about you. But I think it’s just the way I am.
“For me, it’s just about making music. And that’s all I’ve ever really cared about; making something that I love. And yeah, I’m out there putting all my energy into that. The other bits – it’s just never really been what I’ve been after, or looked for.”
Birdy’s 2021 album Young Heart was probably the closest we got to delving into Birdy’s world, as it chronicled her real life heartache after a relationship breakup. Putting out tracks that laid her heartache bare, like Nobody Knows Me Like You Do and Deepest Lonely, was as terrifying as it was cathartic for the singer, as she explains: “I think that’s why it was kind of such a difficult record for me. I was aware it was going to be just open for everyone to see. And I really wanted to make sure what I was saying was how I felt, and that I said it the best way I could say it. So I really overthought a lot of that record.
“But I love it so much. It just took so long for me to be okay with letting it go. But I think I needed to do something like very raw at that time.”
The 26-year-old has done so much already, but has plenty of plans left in the tank, both in and out of music. “There’s so much I want to do. Some of it just seems unachievable at this stage. Like I’ve always wanted to be in the circus, but I feel like you need training from when you’re like three-years-old to be able to do that. I’m starting a bit late,” she jokes. “But I’d love to do something really fun like learn to do trapeze.
“I also love painting and I can imagine as I get older and I’m not doing so much music, maybe I’ll start doing that. It just takes so much time and it’s really hard to do at the moment.”
As retirement plans go, it’s a pretty dreamy one. But I wasn’t about to let her skim over this trapeze business. If you’ve seen Birdy live, you’ll know that her performances are all about her voice and she doesn’t generally break up the music with too much chit chat. But should we dare to dream of some day seeing a theatrical trapeze element, a la Pink, in the middle of Skinny Love? Convinced she’ll think my question is completely off the wall, she surprises me by saying: “I can totally imagine it for this record, actually. And for Raincatchers – that was my initial idea for the video. I said, I’m going to learn to do trapeze. But it was too much – we just couldn’t do it in time. I would love to incorporate it if I could though, somehow.”
Whether or not we see this little bird take flight any time soon, we’re sure to see a more animated version of the previously shy chanteuse, she tells me: “There’s definitely going to be a lot more movement in my work. I’m dancing a lot in the Paradise Calling video. I have an amazing choreographer but I’m just so uncoordinated. My arms and legs just don’t talk to each other. It takes me hours to do one thing. But I’m kind of getting there and yeah, it’s fun.”
We haven’t seen Birdy duet in a very long time so I ask if there’s anyone she dreams of collaborating with and she doesn’t hesitate to answer. “I love Anohni and the Johnsons”, she proclaims. I nod enthusiastically imagining Anohni’s (Formerly of Anthony and the Johnsons) rare sound blending beautifully with Birdy’s. “I covered her song Bird Guhl when I was 15. I sang it at the Paralympics opening ceremony. I just love her voice so much – that would be a dream.”
With just a fortnight to go to the release of Portraits, we talk about how excited she is for people to hear her latest offering: “It’s very electronic and yeah they’re still sad songs, but they’re kind of power ballads. And there’s pretty much only one piano song on it, which is strange for me.
“My favourite song is I Wish I Was a Shooting Star, which is very inspired by David Bowie and a bit of Radiohead and The Pixies. I loved making that one, just sonically, because it’s like that feeling of shooting into space and becoming a shooting star, and I wanted it to feel that energy. It really goes off at the end and it just gets really epic, which I love.
“But it’s about someone who feels invisible trying to break through and be heard when it feels like the world’s against them. So it’s got a real angsty feeling about it.”
Birdy’s new album Portraits is out on August 18th
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