- 22 Jan 20
As part of our special songwriter feature, we're looking at the homegrown artists behind some of the most outstanding albums of recent months.
In an era of widespread political uncertainty, countless artists are opting for escapism in their work. Wallis Bird, however, is refusing to turn the other cheek. Her socially-conscious sixth album, Woman, released back in September, is a powerful call-to-arms that boldly confronts some of the biggest debates of our time.
“As time passes, it’s getting more and more urgent,” Wallis tells me. “The subjects that I was singing about on the album were very specific to a time. It’s interesting, because now I’m comparing them to anything that’s happened since, and I’m seeing the development of the themes.”
On her European tour, which included an acclaimed string of dates across Ireland, Wallis stripped back the frills to perform the new album as a compellingly raw one-woman show.
“It’s been amazing,” she smiles. “I want to present myself as a representation of a woman. I worked an awful lot of hours towards trying to project something that people will think about, and something that will be a representative of many different questions and thoughts.”
Of course, issues of identity and gender came under the spotlight this year more than ever before. With Woman, Wallis found herself coming to terms with an ever-shifting concept of womanhood.
“I always felt as much masculine as feminine,” she reveals. “I also spent a lot of my life being gay in secret. Woman isn’t about your gender, or what you think makes someone a woman – it’s about who you are in your heart. That also refers to transgender rights. If you feel like a woman, then that’s what a woman is.”
Bookending the album with some of the most crucial social issues of our time, Wallis has no qualms about the explicitly political nature of her songwriting – avoiding the head-in-the-sand approach of some of her contemporaries.
“We’re living in this next-day-delivery culture in the western world,” she says. “That makes you feel God-like – you can have anything as soon as you want it. You just consume, and you believe everything you hear. That’s when populism comes in, and when racism becomes rife. Human rights go out the window, because people have become complacent. Nowadays we have an awful lot to fight for.”
Indeed, opening track ‘As The River Flows’, inspired by the tragic death of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, contains some of the most starkly honest lyrics of Wallis’ career: “A baby lost its family, lost its life / Don’t turn your face away / Don’t tell me borders are for jobs and civic order / You want your palette white, you want it cleaned.”
On ‘Repeal’, meanwhile, Wallis plots the moving journey towards abortion legalisation in Ireland.
“That songs goes through the whole story,” she explains, “From one person talking about their own experiences, to a group of people talking, to the vote, and finally, to the moment when the result came out. It was a beautiful opportunity to mark exactly how I saw it, and how it felt. We really came a huge way together, so it was only right to represent it.
“This tour was the first time I’ve sang ‘Repeal’ on these shores. It’s amazing to be playing it for the people that actually made it happen.”
While it’s clear her love for Ireland still runs deep, Wallis is one of many homegrown artists who can no longer afford to live in this country while pursuing creative work, and is now based in Berlin.
“If you’re getting priced out of your area, you don’t have time to be creative,” she says sadly. “You don’t even have time to think, because you’re working two jobs – because the rent’s too fucking high. We’re going to end up with a faceless, lifeless, pointless working ant farm of a country. It needs to change. If every single artist in Ireland has to move away to make a living, to be able to afford to be creative, then who’s going to be left?”
“This country has so many beautiful people, and so many great thinkers,” she continues. “Forget about economists – we need to look at this land in a different way. We have to begin to feed back into the well of what’s happening here, and not just be looking abroad.”
Does she envision a time when she’ll return?
“As soon as Ireland starts to get with nakedness, I’d love to!” she laughs. “One thing that I love about living in Germany, is that I can be proud of my nakedness. You go to a sauna and you’re naked, or you go to the park and you can find a little nudist area. It sounds like a silly thing to say, but the most important part of life is food, our minds and our bodies. So as soon as ireland starts to have nudist parks, I’ll be over.”
“My dad reads every single Hot Press,” she continues after a brief pause. “He’s going to see this and be like, ‘God, my daughter’s talking about nudity! (laughs).”
While she might be waiting another few years for Ireland’s first nudist park, Wallis is decidedly hopeful for 2020.
“We’re either fucked, or we’ll just go for it,” she smiles. “I was thinking about it last night, and I realised that 20:20 is perfect vision. You never know – we might get almighty vision!”
• Woman is out now. See Wallis Bird in A Woman’s Heart Orchestrated at the National Concert Hall, Dublin (February 12, 13 & 19) and the National Opera House, Wexford (February 18).