Joy and Queerness in Holy Catholic Ireland
In conversation with Wallis Bird.
Image credit: Jens Oellermann
When I call Wallis Bird, she’s sitting in her home studio drinking a cup of tea. She seems relaxed, almost sleepy, as it’s only 9 am Berlin time, and this is the first of many interviews in the lead up to her New Moon Tour.
I ask her to tell me what she can see, and it’s clear that poetry comes naturally to this singer-songwriter; she describes, “the sun...peeking through some Rembrandt-kind of clouds. There’s a glow coming into my sitting room, I’ve got all of my instruments all around me. I’ve got a large window that looks out onto the street and I’m on the fifth floor, so all I can see is sky.”
Woah. We get stuck in.
Have you always recorded out of your home?
No, not always. My first few records were primarily done in studios, and then from my third record on, I started to record myself because I’d become proficient enough in recording. So then I started setting up a proper studio at home, and over time it just sort of built. Nowadays I have a nice setup and if all I have to do is jump out of bed and go into the studio it’s great. It makes for instant creativity to have something with you at home. By now, recording has become so easy for people that most musicians would have some kind of a setup in their house.
Has it given you a different writing and recording experience, changing from being in a studio to being in your home?
It’s very different in the way that a lot would come out at home that wouldn’t come out in the studio. Dreamscapes, daydreams, easygoing, vivid stuff would happen when I just wake up from a dream and I have an idea, I come here and I start to record. So there have been countless songs that have come out of nowhere, or seemingly out of nowhere, that have just happened from that first waking moment, and that’s something that wouldn’t happen to me in the studio.
Whereas, when I’m in the studio it’s a soundproof room, so I can express things that I can’t here in the privacy of my home. Oftentimes there’s a lot of emotion that has to come out before you can get substance of what you’re writing. I don’t want to scream mad crazy things into the house or into my neighbours, so I have less worries in the studio.
Do you find yourself becoming a bit insular when you record?
At home, I tend to have this feeling that I’m being listened to, and I realised it’s because I’ve been touring my entire life and I’m used to being in a room where I listen to people and people listen to me. Being on stage is a kind of conversation. I realised that I feel like I’m constantly being listened to because I have been, for most of my adult life. So when I go into the studio I’m like, “Finally I feel alone.” There’s something about being in the studio, something about the security of being in a soundproof room, and people absolutely leaving you alone.
And do you enjoy that conversation? Do you enjoy performing?
I live for that. I’m one of those artists that’s very happy on stage. Not everyone is but that’s absolutely where I would be quite happy. That’s why I tour so much, I love it: travelling every day, coming to a new venue, meeting new people, seeing old friends. I find it like travelling with a concert at the end.
And you’ll be travelling quite soon. Will this be your third visit to Australia? The first since marriage equality was legalised!
It is! Yeah! Just my third! I feel like I’ve been there quite a few times now, it’s so intense every time I come. But I was there the morning that it was legalised! I was in Mullumbimby.
I wanted to ask about your new song, ‘The Ocean’. The music video was accepted into the Mardi Gras film festival, and you’ve described the song as a love letter to your younger self. Can you talk more about that?
Sinéad McDevitt, the director—she’s such a wonderful person, she’s such a poet, she’s got poems for eyes—we realised somewhere along the line that what we were doing was something we hadn’t seen projected to us when we were younger, and we would have loved that. We would have loved to be in a world where this was acceptable, without even needing to have a poignant reason for making ‘The Ocean’. We felt that it would have been a beautiful world if we had it growing up in a time when it was just course of life to be with a woman or be with someone of the same sex—to just be queer at all. For the young people, it’s especially important to lead by example, and we found that it was the right time with the right story, the right song, and she was the right person to bring out the stories of this song. It became something extremely personal for the both of us to tell this story. It was very freeing for us.
It was very emotional to watch. Did you see yourself in either of the characters?
Yes definitely. I do believe that the camera work for me is some of the luck, the serendipity, the reason for two people coming together. The ballet of the camera work just blows my tiny mind. With Sinéad, we had spoken in such great lengths about personal things that my partner Tracy and I do, to bring this story home and condense it into a story about her and I. Each move in there is depicted through these conversations Sinéad and I had about things that we do or ideas that we have, not just physical but metaphysical things that bind us together. And then of course the dancers Yukino McHugh and Olivia Kingston. All I asked is that they have chemistry. They had to be able to pull off this affection and respect. As long as they have affection and fun then they can build their own character. The way they are with each other, it’s as if they’ve been together forever. It really took legs, it was so beautiful to watch. I had no idea that the chemistry would be so strong.
But Sinéad really took it home. It was the right timing and I’m so lucky to have met her. We’re going to work together in future as well.
The team for ‘The Ocean’ was all women and 50% LGBTQ+ people. Did you feel like that helped you bring that vision to life?
I’ve never worked with an all female anything since my secondary school—we were an all girls school—and that was the most I’ve been singularly around women. To be an adult and working on a love project with professionals and then realising afterwards, holy shit that was all women, it worked just as well if not better. There’s this urgency, there’s a hunger. And there is always a comfort and drive from working with solely other women because we pushed each other and we were more careful, we were more thoughtful, let’s say. Working on anything with just women, I think we should do it more, it’s special.
It’s something about the shared language of women, which is something that I'm writing about now. I’ve been kind of honing in on what is intrinsically feminine and femininity itself. It’s been an interesting journey because nowadays the conversation is much more open. Men are much more in tune with the cyclical movement of the body of a woman or the adjoining of the feminine spirit. It’s becoming ever more powerful at the moment. We’re at a good time.
Do you find that movement is happening in Berlin where you are now?
I think it’s happening all over the world. Even in the smallest villages, the most obscure parts of the world, it’s reaching out. I believe that we are almost like the roots of trees, us humans, we’re affected through electrically charged energy which permeates throughout the whole world. I believe this movement of gender—let’s say feminism—is moving so strongly to create a gender balance, and also to create awareness that there’s not just yin and yang, that they meld. They are oil and water but they must join together. In the earth and blood of the people there is a change, it’s almost like a polar shift. We’re becoming aware of ourselves, our surroundings, the link we have with our bodies and our minds, and the world in which we live, the universe in which we’re floating. It’s not just that women are becoming stronger within ourselves, it’s universally very strong at the moment. I’ve believed that my whole fucking life and now it’s actually happening.
This acceptance and joy in this change you describe, is this something you want to bring to your new music?
Joy and love and respect have been the main things in my music since I was a kid. I tried to fight it and tried to rewrite it but there’s no point. I feel anchored in it. Something I’ve fought hardest in my life is love, respect, peace, and just relenting and saying, “Yep this is me! I’m that writer who writes about positive analytical change.” One of my new lyrics is: “I’m an angry pacifist.” I drive positivity through everything I do.
In doing that as well, there’s also the extremely dark side of love. It’s a fine line between love and hate. I’m really quite aware of it being so close the other, at the turn of a dime love can turn into hate. It hasn’t been an easy life I’ve had, but my main anchor to get through life is positivity.
When do you think you’ll release the new album?
We’re aiming for release at the end of September. The lovely autumn period to wind down and reflect.
Growing up queer in, shall we say, Holy Catholic Ireland, did you find yourself leaning on this sense of positivity?
It was hard. There was a sickening, crippling fear of getting caught. I’d feel like vomiting a lot. And I also felt like I was being told god is a beautiful entity and that he loves me no matter what. Well if he doesn’t love me for this then go fuck yourself! What you’re preaching is pure lies if you can’t believe what you’re preaching.
I always lived in fear but I also knew it wasn’t just angry Catholicism. I knew that there was love there. There was a point maybe when I was 17 onward that I owned my Catholicism that I grew up in, and I prayed, and I went to church, and I was a model christian: I helped out at church, I did a lot of charity work, I was kind to the people around me—all the kind of things you’re told to do to be a “good” Christian. There came a point where I said, “If you can’t deal with the fact I’m queer then that’s your problem.”
But then when I left home, that’s when I just trusted people themselves for their actions, and didn’t trust the entire Catholic church. I trust people who believe and have faith and pray to have their own peace of mind to be a good Christian, but I don’t trust the institution as a whole. I would love for it to reprimand itself in front of everything and own up to its heinous crimes.
Hopefully that wave of change will carry on to these kinds of institutions.
The hardest thing to do for yourself is to own up when you’ve wronged people or admit that you’re an arsehole. If you want to consider the Catholic church as a person then it’s the biggest arsehole in the world.
Let’s talk about your upcoming tour to Australia. Are you going to be playing songs off the new record?
Oh yeah. That’s the perfect time to start, with people who want to hear it. Obviously, I ask, “Do you want to hear a new song?” And if the reaction is, “Uuuuh...” Then I do it anyway [laughs].
When you play new songs to an audience, do you tend to workshop afterwards with the feedback you receive?
Yes absolutely. Ever since I started playing live, I was either trying out new songs or new riffs: that’s kind of one of my styles, that I’m not stuck to a structure. I just want to get up there and entertain and do something raw and real. I feel like every gig is an opportunity to learn something. I’ll get up there and try a different lyric even, because songs develop as old as they live, they always tell a new story. Even the change of one single word in a song can change the entire meaning. So sometimes I’d make a mistake even, and think, “Holy shit! That’s opening a whole new meaning from the song.”
I’ll be taking the new songs in front of brand new people because you get the most raw, candid reaction when playing in front of new people. It takes them out of their comfort zone—it takes me out of my comfort zone—so you get an honest reaction. You find out where’s weak and where’s good. I like people doing stand up smaller shows before taking their show on the road.
It’s nice to start this again because the tour’s kicking off. Here I go! This is it now, now I’m mentally there.
Do you find touring mentally draining, or more invigorating?
I used to find it got draining, but now when it gets that way I change it up. Years ago I used to just turn up and play, have a load of drinks after the show, go home and sleep then start again. It wasn’t fun, and I missed a lot of chances to see places. Nowadays I prepare everything I can. I’m off the drink for an entire year so I can tour soberly.
It won’t be the first time that I’ve toured sober in Australia. The first time I toured sober because it was my first time in this territory, and I really wanted to feel what was to be felt. Nowadays I go swimming, and I do sports, and I eat local food, and see the countryside, and get a feel. I invite friends to see the show, and I invite strangers to see the show so we can have a kind of raw feeling every time I play somewhere.
We have to wrap up the call, so I tell her that I’ll leave her to finish her cup of tea before the next round of interviews. She laughs, and ends the call like I’m an old friend: “You have a lovely evening. I’ll talk to you soon, petal. Bye, love, bye!”