Return of the protest song
‘We are going headlong for a war if we don’t cop on and if we don’t wake up now,’ Germany-based Irish songwriter Wallis Bird tells Michael J McDonagh
WALLIS BIRD (born 29 January 1982) is an Irish musician. She has released five studio albums, including Architect in 2014 and Home in 2016.
She has won two Irish Meteor Awards, Ireland’s annual music prize – mostly recently for Best Female Artist – and her prestigious 2017 German Musikautorenpreis (Music Author Prize), as well as two nominations for the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent to Britain’s Mercury Prize. This year she was also nominated as Artist of the Year at the 2019 International Folk Music Awards
You now live in Germany but are still writing about Irish issues and themes?
“Yes, I’m living in Berlin for nearly seven years now.”
This, your sixth album, is different because it deals with lots of Issues like the Repeal Bill in Ireland.
“Yes, this is a totally different approach to any of my previous work really because that was always kind of universal and broad but this one is talking about specific issues.”
Pop and rock these days seems to be very bland and safe and not full of protest like it was for my generation where we had the likes of Bob Dylan and Christy More?
“I love Christy Moore. Do you know Christy’s sister Anne Rynne? You should check her out, she is brilliant, and she is bringing out a record this year.
“She just started playing music four or five years ago and I love his brother Luka.
“I’m a massive fan of Luka Bloom we did a couple of shows together, he is such a wonderful man. But I am friends with Anne, and we have played together, and I would really recommend her, she is great.
“But yes, you can see it happening already these types of songs are becoming popular again as for a long time they went.
“What are you going to say about a generation that have just been spoon-fed consumerism and commercial- ism? And with social media and the internet and we are just in the middle of a time when we are being blasted with information and feel we have become a bit lackadaisical with that but now we are kind of waking up and thinking ‘Oh that is not very healthy’, with so much consumerism ruining the planet in front of us so there is a lot of waking up going on.
“There is a lot of change afoot with human interaction with themselves and the planet. We are now really starting to understand all this new information that we have got since the Internet basically.
“I think the younger generation is at last realising the good and the bad of the last 40 years, for a long time there was a thing when an artiste could not rock the boat or say too much any import and there were no revolution songs, as they did not fly on mainstream media.
“Now people are waking up, we have been asleep. We have also been in a period with no war and a period of suppression of human rights but with what’s going on now, especially in America, we are going head- long for a war if we don’t cop on and if we don’t wake up now.
“So now it is time for artistes to speak up. There is always a period when you have to.”
Who were your influences? I see you have been compared with Janis Joplin, a singer from my time
“Well I would have said a lot of soul music from the segregation times, those kinds of real and positive songs concerned with what’s going on.
You mean like Marvin Gaye?
“Exactly, he had something to sing about and was great. He had the message that was love for one another and that was extremely political at the time.
“He was asking such a pure question ‘What’s going on?’. The lyrics back then were just so meaningful. I find that a lot of hip-hop now is where the poetry is at. I wouldn’t be a massive hip-hop fan myself, but I suppose that’s where the revolution/protest songs are now.”
You getting the Folk Award was quite amusing, you recently played the Cambridge Folk Festival and I don’t think they are quite ready for you yet. So why folk music?
“Well I had been doing mostly folk festivals and playing folk for the whole of my life and every time I go to folk festivals, I realise that’s where my audience is, honest to God, from babies to the opposite end of the spectrum.
“I’ve never had a ‘hipster’ or ‘cool’ look, my audience is so broad. I’ve gone completely solo now and for at least the next two years I have decided to do all my shows on my own with- out a band to define it down to a single person on the stage.
“Folk audiences are far more accessible to other sorts of stuff than they used to be when they were about extreme traditionalism, but folk music has always been about mirroring the time and what is happening at the time.
“It is always about people it is folk music. In that case when you go to a folk festival now it embraces what makes people move and it brings in people from all sorts of music and it is very varied now.
“They have their finger on the pulse and reflect what is happening.”
You have lived on the European mainland for a while, do you still feel the pull of your Irish roots?
“For sure, because I have moved away does not mean I am not interested in what’s going on in the country. It makes me more interested. Being away brings out a pride in where you are from, and we are recognised all over the world. It is very unusual but Paddy’s Day is celebrated all over the world and wherever I go, because I come from Ireland and people recognise that
“It is very unusual, but Paddy’s Day is celebrated all over the world and wherever I go, because I come from Ireland, and people recognise that, they say, ‘Oh you are Irish’ and the Irish are liked.
“Here in Germany Celtism, and Irish folklore and music are very popular, and they are very accepting of me over here.
“I could not believe it when I first came overcame over and was surprised that a country where the mother tongue is not English could go so crazy for Irish music.
“It is a feeling really, isn’t it? There is something different about an Irish person and a German person but they just like Irish people.
“You look at your country and the choices that are being made and I would definitely be more involved and pay more attention to it.
“I think that happens a lot to people who move countries in general. They tend to look back to where they came from with clarified perspective, so they pay more attention to the choices made.
“When you are there in the thick of it you can’t see the woods from the trees but if you are away you observe things more and ‘Oh God, yes!’
“People away feel things more intensely and are more opinionated about their country.”
Your guitar style puts you in the same company as Django Reinhardt.
“I play left-handed now (because) I fell under a lawn mower when I was a baby. It was pretty bad for my parents, when you think about it. I was looking after my friends’ ten- month old baby and I was thinking ‘Oh God! You’d hate if anything bad happened to a child!’ so I feel bad for my parents as it must have been hard for them.
“Having said that I really don’t feel bad about it, and love that it happened to me, as it is a reminder of my fallibility and that I am mortal, and I have received an awful lot of love and affection.
“I was 18 months when it happened and when I was growing up people would say ‘Oh you have a handicap’ and I would say ‘Absolutely not, I do not have a handicap’. I can play harder and I’ll show you I don’t have a handicap.
“You just find a way, like the drummer in Def Lepard who lost his arm in a motorway crash and the band said take your time and they were behind him.”
We’ve interviewed a lot of pretty good and successful musicians who went to Ballyfermot College, was that a real help for you and was that how you ended up in Germany?
“Yes, that’s exactly how I came here. My college did an exchange workshop for a week in Germany. I met my manager.”
Woman by Wallis Bird is out 27 September