Wallis Bird
Wallis Bird

The front cover of Irish born, Berlin-based WALLIS BIRD’s new studio album features a stark, black and white photograph of a left hand.

A cursory look might not reveal anything unusual, but it only takes a moment to recognise it’s no ordinary hand. In the shadows, there’s a stump where the little finger should be, and something seems a little off about the other three digits too.

Some will swiftly understand the picture’s significance: they’ll have seen it strumming an upside-down, right-handed guitar, picking in unorthodox style and forming unconventional chords. The hand, you see, is WALLIS BIRD’s, and it’s there on the cover because, having spent much of her life trying to exist despite its restrictions, she’s reached a pivotal point where she recognises that, in many ways, it’s always been vital to her lived reality.

With this has come a realisation of, as she puts it, “who I am, what I am, and what I don’t want.” HANDS documents her subsequent process of change and its consequences and does so with typically distinctive style, making it – hands down, naturally – one of the most honest albums you’ll hear at a time when honesty appears to be at a premium.

If BIRD’s last album, 2019’s exceptional Woman, represented an ambitious state of the world address, embracing contemporary themes like Trump’s presidency, Black Lives Matter, Brexit, Ireland’s abortion referendum, the environmental crisis, and far more besides, HANDS – also known as NINE AND A HALF SONGS FOR NINE AND A HALF FINGERS – finds her turning the spotlight onto herself, raising issues that are sometimes far harder to confront, only to emerge optimistic and whole.

Among these topics are issues of trust, alcohol abuse, stagnation, self-censorship and self-improvement, some addressed through personal recollections of crucial moments accumulated over the last two years. However, a voice uncommonly blessed with joy, ingenuity, and empathy is delivered by each of them.

Where its predecessor was bathed in soul music, HANDS instead adapts sounds from BIRD’s early childhood.

Barring the intimately confessional ‘I’ll Never Hide My Love Away, on which she’s accompanied by just her acoustic guitar, its songs are flushed with bright colours, many familiar from the 1980s and ‘90s. Its bookends are ‘Go’, whose smooth R&B inflections provide a neat bridge from the album’s forerunner, and ‘Pretty Lies’, its euphoric conclusion powered by forty chunky chord progressions, which, Bird says, “point out the predictable unpredictability of us humans and of Mother Earth. We have no idea where we’re going but we can make an educated guess. One has to somehow take risks, however difficult it is, but not blindly.” Clearly, she speaks from experience.

In between these two songs, HANDS rarely pause for long. The jubilant ‘What’s Wrong With Changing’, for instance, appropriate the rhythmic discipline of Janet Jackson’s Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and Janet., and ‘I Lose Myself Completely’ revels in the sound of Trevor Horn’s most commercial work, while the grinning ‘No Pants Dance’, written after witnessing her neighbours celebrating lockdown’s end in memorable style, would have delighted Prince, and ‘Dreamwriting’ – “a reminder to myself of one of my most favourite memories in recent years” – is full of warmth, lyrically and musically.

‘Aquarius’ dreamy chord changes and unexpected pedal steel, meanwhile, help unleash some of the prettiest instrumental sections 2022 are likely to enjoy.

There are pensive moments, too, not least ‘The Dive’, which describes a gesture BIRD treasures as “one of the bravest and romantic memories I own” and which wields a muted trumpet and Mediterranean guitars while its melody skips along dreamily as though through a summer meadow.

If the sonic palette is different, then, HANDS is still defiantly, happily WALLIS BIRD, full of trademark flashes of wit, perspective and insight.

“HANDS for me is a symbol of humanity, connection and time,” BIRD elaborates. “Humanity because, like babies, the first sign of our knowledge of existence is through our connection when we grip another human’s finger. That alone signals impulse and vulnerability. If we don’t have hands, are we lesser humans? No. We develop another type of ‘paw’. Connection, because hands represent tactility and expression, is a physical language that links our imagination and reality with each other. Hands represent making, doing, giving, receiving, and identity expression. Finally, time, because some of the first examples of civilisations were hand paintings on cave walls, some of those hands missing fingers, celebrating their story of existence.”

HANDS’ themes, though, are obviously personal.

“At 18 months old I fell under a lawnmower and cut all my fingers off,” BIRD states simply. “Four were reconnected. One was lost. This led me to relearn how to hold things, and, when the time came, to play the guitar differently. As a toddler, I remember seeing those cave pictures and being fascinated. What happened? How painful was that? It couldn’t have been too painful, because they were proud enough to celebrate by drawing their pain on a wall. This shaped me: I wanted to draw my heart like that, to celebrate time, scars, stories and humanity on a wall where others could illustrate their own too.”

As 2019 came to an end, BIRD found herself with time enough to reassess her relationship with her hand – and indeed herself – so, as she began to recover from a year of heavy touring, she decided to take a rare break from her hectic schedule.

She has, after all, released six albums since 2007, for which she’s won two Meteor Awards, Ireland’s annual music prize – mostly recently for Best Female Artist – and a prestigious 2017 German “Musikautorenpreis” (Music Author Prize), not to mention two further nominations for the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent to Britain’s Mercury Prize. In addition, she’s racked up over a thousand shows during the past decade, earning a reputation worldwide for her legendarily passionate, energetic and good-humoured concerts.

She began her sabbatical by quitting alcohol, a decision that’s at the heart of ‘I Lose Myself Completely’, and four days later, she recalls, “I went to Philipp Milner (producer/musician, Hundreds)’s house to make some music, and my world opened up like an orchid.” Nonetheless, she resolved early in 2020 “to do nothing, to vegetate, rest, read, listen to music, watch movies, and stay indoors.” Doing nothing, however, somehow included making an album, which, she details, “was recorded in fifty weeks between December 4th, 2019 and November 27th, 2020, primarily in Philipp’s farmhouse studio in Wendland, my studio in Berlin, and Marcus Wuest’s in Sandhausen, where I’ve recorded all my albums.”

HANDS was completed with ‘The Power Of A Word’, a hushed showcase for shimmering synths and a notably ethereal vocal. “I’ve noticed that, when I think I’m finished, that’s when I should change up, do something drastic and push the last kernels of ideas out,” Bird says. “This was one such occasion. I studio-swapped with a friend, in dire need of a change of scenery, and wrote the song up to the second verse before I’d even taken my jacket off in the hallway. I stepped into his kitchen, threw my bag open, and wrote the rest in a matter of seconds, then recorded the heft of it in the following three hours, so powerful was the urge for the song. And that was when I knew I’d written the whole album.”

At the heart of the track – as with so much of HANDS – is self-examination, change and acceptance. “Up until recently,” BIRD concludes, “I simply treated my hand as something additional, not primary to my story. But, during this pandemic, when everything in my usual life was scattered, I found myself wondering ‘Who am I? What am I? What story do I leave behind?’ My story had been one of stubborn ‘I can do it just as good as anyone, but this new chapter in my life has been about letting go of over-controlling, handing things over to others, being comfortable with my surroundings and colleagues, and knowing I’m understood, I’ve proved my worth, ‘Look at what these beautiful people in my life are capable of!’ And I trust them because they know me. I’m a passenger, a guest in my life, because the album has been so collaborative and so out-of-bodily written, almost hypnotically. And I love it!”

And it shows. So let’s see those HANDS in the air. After all, there’s a lot to celebrate here…

Watch/ Listen to ‘Queer Conversation’ where we meet Wallis to discuss her new album