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October 2021 / People / by Liz Skone James

Exclusive Interview: Birdy

Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum recording artist Birdy reveals how she harnessed heartbreak to write her haunting new album.

Photography by Suzie Howell | Styling by Holly White | Hair by David Wadlow | Make up by Lisa Potter-Dixon

Five years after the release of her third album, Beautiful Lies, singer-songwriter Birdy released her latest, Young Heart, at the end of April this year. Written from her own experience, the record, which is at once raw and beautiful, tells the story of a first major relationship breakdown, exploring the fallout from this: the loneliness and the heartbreak. Next month will see her first live performance of this work, at the O2 Forum Kentish Town.

“It has been so overwhelming,” she tells me. Fittingly, for these times, we are talking over Zoom; Birdy is on holiday in Cornwall. “It really has been an amazing response. A lot of this album is much more personal; I was much braver than I have been before. I think that is why I probably feel more connected to it than previous albums. It was also much harder to write, for that reason, which is why it took so long.”

At just 25, it seems incredible that Birdy has recorded four albums, let alone had the time for such a long career break, but she has been making music since she was tiny. “My mum is a concert pianist, so she taught me the piano, and then, when I was about seven, I started writing these little classical piano pieces,” she recalls. “And then, one day, I just decided to start singing over it. And I think my parents were listening at the bottom of the stairs, thinking: what’s wrong with her? Because they were really melancholy songs,” she laughs at the memory.

Birdy wears: dress by Alessandra Rich (hurrcollective.com)

That she had talent was obvious. Aged 12, Birdy won the under 18’s category of a talent competition, going on to post a video on YouTube to thank those who had voted for her. It was spotted by a record label, and the rest is history. “They got in contact,” she explains, “then I spent two years writing songs and I signed a publishing deal. And when I was 14, I did this cover of Skinny Love, and that’s when things took off,” she explains. That song, a Bon Iver cover, made it on to the Radio 1 playlist. A year later Birdy received a Grammy nomination along with Mumford & Sons for their song Learn Me Right, which was included on the soundtrack to the Pixar film Brave. In the same year she was asked to perform at the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in London. “It is one of my most favourite things I have ever got to do,” she reveals. “It was just so moving – a very special moment for me.”

Looking back on that time is surreal, she says. “I don’t think I took it in at the time; it was quite hard to understand what was happening,” she admits. “It is only now, looking back, that I realise how overwhelming it was. We were travelling everywhere and doing shows.” All this at the same time as attending school, like any normal teenager. I wonder how this worked. “I can’t really remember,” she laughs. “It was probably in the summer holidays. It must’ve been, because I never took too much time off school. It was really hard for me to explain to my friends where I had been and what I had been doing. If you haven’t been there yourself, it is impossible to explain.”

At the tail-end of the whirlwind, settling down to begin work on something new was hard. “I think I needed some time at the beginning. I just wasn’t ready to write,” she tells me. “So, I did have three months where I went to India and tried to forget about it completely. A lot of that… being there… the landscapes… being somewhere different… I found that really inspiring.”

Birdy wears, left: dress (thevampireswife.com) Right: dress by Alessandra Rich (hurrcollective.com)

Back in the UK, the words still weren’t coming. “I wasn’t having much luck writing in London,” she says. “I felt like the music didn’t have the right feel. It wasn’t quite right.” At the time, she was listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell, and, inspired to give her music more of a West Coast, Laurel Canyon feel, she decided to spend some time in LA. “Being away from home and out of your comfort zone, I think that can be quite good for writing. It really helps me,” she explains. “I wanted to just go there and see… I met a few people and suddenly it felt right for the first time. I stayed in Topanga Canyon in this beautiful old house with lots of windows. It was just so lovely being there. I had my friend Lotta staying with me. Actually, she took the picture on the album cover while we were there, and she kind of documented that time.” The photograph shows Birdy, sitting with her guitar, covering her smile with a hand draped in a knitted, multi-coloured striped shawl. With its washed-out colours, and slightly fuzzy focus, it does have a very ’70s feel.

Having found her muse on the other side of the Atlantic, Birdy also spent time in Nashville. The undisputed home of Country storytelling, she tells me that it felt like the best place to finish off this folk-influenced tale: “this album really felt like it needed proper stories. There is no pressure there; it is very authentic and feels like people just want to have a nice time making something beautiful. I just loved it there. And then I met Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian – we wrote together first, and then they produced the record.”

Birdy flew home from Nashville at the beginning of last year. “I got back literally as the pandemic hit,” she reveals. “We had done all of the recording, and after that it was just the mixing, and I could do that from home – over email and listening to stuff. Actually, it was nice, in a way, because I had a bit more time to focus on the artwork, and we had that year to just get it right. Maybe it would’ve come out sooner in different circumstances, but it was a good thing in the end.”

Birdy wears: black floral top and skirt (brock-collection.com) and earrings, vintage 

Piano-led, poetic and very personal, the sound is something of a stylistic departure for Birdy. “The last record, Beautiful Lies, was very dramatic and quite ethereal. Very different to this one,” she agrees. “Almost the opposite. This one is very raw and stripped back, and quite close and personal. I think with the last record, when I was touring, I felt like it was more of a performance. Rather than the real me. It was kind of like a character that I was playing. So, I think that is why I wanted this one to feel very different.”

Mixing aside, Birdy sat out the worst of the pandemic in her family home in the New Forest. “We were very lucky,” she admits, “because we have lots of outside space, and we are by the sea, so we could swim and stuff. I was just doing lots of countryside things – I rescued a duck, which was quite a good distraction from everything that was going on,” she laughs. “There was this little duckling who was around a week old, and she was found in a neighbour’s swimming pool. We live close to lots of lakes, so I tried to find her family, but ended up raising her myself. She grew up, and disappeared back into the wild… She has since come back a year later, with her own ducklings,” she smiles.

Mental images of the little duckling being fed by hand bring us nicely to an explanation of Birdy’s own name. “My real name is Jasmine,” she says, “but my parents have never called me that. I think that my mum named me, and then thought, ‘that is definitely not her name’. When my parents were feeding me when I was a baby, they said I would open my mouth really wide, like a little bird. So, they called me Birdy.” With a name like that, a career in music was almost inevitable.

Birdy wears, left: dress by Alessandra Rich (hurrcollective.com) Right: dress (thevampireswife.com)

I wonder if the extended period away from the real world proved a good opportunity for writing, but Birdy shakes her head. “I am only just starting to think about writing again now,” she explains. “I think because it was four years writing the last album, I was quite ready to have a break for a bit. It will be interesting to see what I took from that time – you just take everything in, and then it is in your subconscious. For me, anyway. So, I am sure there will be some ideas inspired by that time …”

Birdy is back in London now – Westcountry holidays aside – and pleased to be in her own place in Notting Hill. “I had been back at home for such a long time, so I was ready to leave,” she laughs. “I had just moved to a new flat before the pandemic, and there was nothing really in there. So, I am slowly making it into a home now, but it is taking a while.” It is perhaps unsurprising to hear her describe her style as bohemian and a bit ’70s. “I live near to Portobello Road and there are so many amazing second-hand things on the market. I love finding cool and unique things. That’s really good fun,” she reveals.

A country girl at heart, Notting Hill felt like a safe choice to Birdy: “Lots of my family are there, and so it feels familiar, like home to me,” she explains. “I remember going up to visit and being in that area seeing my cousins. So, it is just very familiar to me. It is a really beautiful place – all of those painted houses are really lovely. I need to escape every now and then, so I do go back to the New Forest from time to time, but I really like London.”

Birdy wears: dress (emiliawickstead.com) and earrings (fashionology.nl)

It is fitting, then, that Birdy’s first live show in some years will be right here in the Capital. Something she is very excited about. “I have had some of the songs on this album for four years now, and I haven’t had the opportunity to play them for anybody, so, yes, I am really excited,” she nods. “We did a live stream in April, and it was amazing, and I loved it, but it is not the same. You don’t have the same energy that you get when there are other people there with you, listening.”

Will there be nerves beforehand – especially after such a long hiatus from live shows? “I love the performing, but I do get nervous beforehand,” she agrees. “Once I am on stage, I love it. The hardest bit for me is actually the talking. With the singing I am fine; it is having to talk to the audience that I find really scary. I am shy, and I think that I just feel more confident singing, I’m not sure why that is. It is really nice to be able to connect with people between the songs though, and it does make a huge difference if you are able to do it. So, I am trying to get better at it.”

Though she has toured all over the world, Birdy confesses that watching live music was never really something she did much of herself. Something that she intends to put right now that it is once again possible. “When I couldn’t, it made me realise how much more I should’ve been doing it. So, now, I would like to start going to lots more concerts and seeing people,” she tells me. “I was quite bad at it before – probably because I was always so busy. I just didn’t do it enough. I would love to go and see Wise Blood at some point. I think she would be amazing live. I mean, there are so many people I would like to see…” Sentiments I share wholeheartedly: the return of live music is most welcome, and I, for one, can’t wait to see Birdy’s comeback.

Birdy will be performing at 7pm on 21 November at the O2 Forum Kentish Town

Birdy wears: top (victoriabeckham.com) and trousers (emiliawickstead.com)