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Biird ready to take off

Lisa Canny told David Hennessy about her new all- female traditional music collective Biird who are looking to change the narrative around women in traditional music.

Lisa Canny from Mayo grew up steeped in the tradition of Irish music winning no fewer than seven All- Ireland Fleadh Cheoil awards.

These days she is more difficult to categorise as she fuses trad with other genres in her solo material.

But she is now launching Biird, an eleven piece all- female collective staying faithful to the tradition they come from but with a mission to change the narrative around women in the genre.

They have already played their first show in front of a packed Trafalgar Square for St Patrick’s Day and will play their first ever headline show at the London Irish Centre this week.

The other members of Biird include Laura Jo (vocals), Zoran Donohoe (harp), Sal Heneghan (violin, harp, piano), Miadhachlughain O’Donnell (vocals), Aisling Sage (violin, fiddle), Niamh Hinchy (vocals), Aoife Kelly (violin), Ciara Ní Mhurchú (fiddle), Hannah Hiemstra (drums), Claire Loughran (uilleann pipes, flute, harp), Laura Callaghan (guitar), Laura Doherty (guitar) and Nicole Lonergan (fiddle).

All accomplished and revered musicians, between them the supergroup have 600k followers and 65 million views.

Lisa Canny told The Irish World: “I have always been drawn to female musicians and artists.

“Everyone from Dolores Keane and Mary Black to Lisa Loeb or Cyndi Lauper.

“I was a massive Spice Girls fan as well growing up and of course trad was my main thing and my first musical language and my first musical love.

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“I think the combination of all of those influences had a huge part to play in coming up with the concept of Biird.

“I was noticing the more I was getting immersed in trad and in trad groups there was a very stark difference in the amount of female musicians in these lineups in comparison to male musicians.

“I was in many a group where I was either the only female or one of two females with another five or six guys.

“I think very subconsciously I was noticing that.

“I really enjoyed playing with other female musicians and having that kind of sisterhood in whatever lineup it was.

“I think the idea started to kind of come to me.

“I probably threw it out as a wild drunken idea one night, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to put an all-female trad group together?’

“In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s where the idea came from.

“I think it was a bit of me noticing that it was needed and also trying to live my Spice Girls dream in the music that I loved.

“That’s going back 12 years and slowly but surely then, as I sat with the idea, more and more I started noticing biirds.

“I started noticing girls and musicians on the scene that were all incredible.

“I saw that there was a real disparity between what was in the industry, how they were representing women and how women were actually representing themselves in the scene.

“I wanted to bridge that gap, change that narrative.

“I was kind of seeing all of these female musicians that are all incredible musicians but who have their own individual style of playing and their own voices, their own things that they stand for.

“I didn’t see any representation of that in the professional scene.

“I slowly plucked them all and pulled them into a corner in the session or the pub or whatever, and told them about this idea.

“It was organic in that respect.

“But the original Biird lineup was put together in 2020 and then of course, COVID hit and put a stall on things for a while.

“It was inevitable that it would finally come to fruition and thankfully, I’ve had the time to kind of get it together this year.”

While women in trad have been depicted in big Rose of Tralee style dresses, Biird looks to get away from that with their distinctive and unique look.

“Another thing that I noticed along the way in building Biird was how many incredible artists are coming out of Ireland at the moment.

“Not just musicians, singers and dancers but designers, graphic designers, lighting and sound designers.

“As I was coming up with the concept of Biird, I was also collecting ideas on who we could collaborate with that would help us bring the vision of Biird to reach its potential.

“We have teamed up with designer Rion Hannora from Cork.

“She is one of Ireland’s most exciting designers and stylists.

“We convinced her to style the Biird shoot which was no mean feat.

“She styled us in all Irish design and mostly all Irish female design.

“That is something that we want to continue doing with Biird as well so that we can cross platforms and help spread the gospel that is brilliant Irish design.

“We will continue to collaborate with Irish designers to broadcast across the world the immense talent that’s coming out of the country.”

You have been called yourself a ‘disgrace to the tradition’ but tradition dies if it doesn’t evolved and it is important to push boundaries, isn’t it?


“It is important to have people right there at the core keeping that gate locked, keeping it very traditional, and keeping your regional styles of playing alive, keeping the old repertoire at the core and making sure that the new musicians coming up are taught all of that old repertoire.

“You have to know where your music came from, I believe, to have the licence to then explore where else it can go.

“So me being called a disgrace to tradition, although it was a little disheartening at first because I felt like the community that had raised me was maybe- some of it at least- turning its back on me, I have since realised that all of the people who have kind of brought trad where it is now probably came up against that at some point.

“I know that The Chieftains did, now they’re considered one of the pinnacle points of traditional Irish music across the globe.

“I know for a fact Gerry O’Connor did, he was the cool cat back in the day on the banjo and he hugely inspired me to think outside the box a little bit.

“That’s always been the way and it always will be the way.

“Anything that is pushed, then there’s always going to be push back but I think that’s part of what makes something exciting and that keeps it alive and current.

“And as long as we still have the gatekeepers there at its most fundamental, calling people disgraces and making sure that the core of the tradition is kept alive, then we’re all good.”

I didn’t think about that. Obviously you can kind of laugh about it now, include it in  your press etc but it was hurtful when you were called a ‘disgrace to the tradition’, was it?

“Absolutely, of course.

“It was, is a huge part of my identity as a person and then additionally as an artist which is my biggest passion.

“I grew up in the trad community.

“From the age of five I would be going to up to five classes a week: Group classes, sessions.

“I started gigs at 14, started teaching at 14.

“It was a huge part of my formative years which of course then meant that it had a huge influence on my personality.

“I went on to study it in UL as a degree and then went to do a master’s in ethnomusicology with a focus on Irish traditional music.

“It was my whole life up until I kind of started to make my own music and realised I was interested in other genres as well.

“So to kind of hear then from your peers or from people that you look up to that they think what you’re doing is disgraceful is, of course, a knock to your self esteem and a feeling of being pushed out of or rejected by your community.

“But of course at the very same time I was seeing that for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

“There was many, many people who were also reaching out to me to tell me that what I was doing was inspiring them or that it was refreshing to hear and to see.

“I believe that all of those experiences have led me to creating Biird.

“Biird is liberation from all of that old school, outdated infrastructure that’s there but it’s not in opposition to it either.

“Every tradition needs time and space and careful consideration to grow and to move with the times.

“All of us come from Irish trad backgrounds and communities that raised us that we are still very respectful of.

“And we were lucky enough to be in the era or the generation where professionalism in trad is an option.

“That’s really thanks to the bands that have gone before us.

“Also the likes of Riverdance that came out in 1994 and just burst the market open across the world.

“The problem is that what came after it was an awful lot of copycat shows and an awful lot of the same.

“It is just time now for somebody to stir it up and update it again and not just keep conforming to the same template.

“Everything needs to kind of eventually evolve and we’re here to take that next step.

“Biird is Irish traditional music with a new image and I think the industry are going to absolutely lap it up for that reason.

“It has a very, very clear sound but it has a completely new image.

“I think it will fit all of the moulds that many of the industry have but that is not our main focus nor our interest.

“If I have learned anything from my own career in the last few years, it’s that you don’t necessarily need the support of major labels, major publishers, any of that like you used to.

“We can very much control the narrative and our own journey ourselves and we intend to do that until the right partners come.”

Biird’s journey started in Trafalgar Square on17 March.

“I don’t think many bands can say that their first ever show was in front of 8,000 people.

“We’re booking shows across the country and there are very, very exciting opportunities coming our way and we haven’t yet released anything.

“The gig bookings are coming in fast and strong so it looks like we will be announcing a tour in Ireland quite soon and then we’ll definitely be aiming to release something by the end of the year, maybe a whole album by January.

“We’re on our own journey already and it’s very exciting.”

Biird play their first headline show at the London Irish Centre this week.

“The London Irish Centre are incredible for a number of reasons.

“It’s that little slice of home in the middle of this mad city, but it’s extra special to have the support of them for Biird.

“Annie Mac booked us for her book launch.

“She was the one to say, ‘Let’s get this going. This is incredible’.

“So an iconic, inspiring woman giving us a helping hand to get up and going which is exactly the type of energy that we want in Biird.

“We got up and played a few tunes and they (London Irish Centre) took the chance on us that time based off Annie’s endorsement of us.

“Then immediately after Melanie Simpson at the London Irish Centre contacted me to say, ‘How do we get you in here? What do we do? How do we make this work?’

“Melanie’s a visionary herself and it was wonderful to have a woman be our first booker.

“I was delighted to be able to give her the debut headline Biird show.”

While Lisa herself has been long term based in London, most of her fellow biirds are all based in Ireland.

“It’s definitely no mean feat managing a band of 11 people and especially 11 busy in demand musicians.

“Actually we are a collective rather than a band so there’s always going to be 11 musicians in the lineup, but the lineup can change slightly.

“We have a pool of 20 musicians all formally under Biird thus far.

“It’s also part of what we want to do, we want to be able to give the opportunity to many musicians in Ireland and Irish musicians from all over the world to come and join us when the opportunity arises.

“It just goes further on then, that we will want to do different lineups of Biird for years to come so when we’re old and grey and don’t want to tour anymore, then hopefully the next generation of biirds will come up.

“I have my eye on my two nieces already telling them they’re the future of Biird to make it a collective that lives on far past our touring capabilities.”

Where did the name Biird with two Is come from?
“The idea of Biird came to me because it’s a word that first of all has a connotation of female.

“It has been misused in places as well as a kind of a derogatory term towards women and I wanted to reclaim it for us.

“I wanted to reclaim it for women.

“I thought it also makes a lot of sense with the idea of us kind of flying the coop and branching out and exploring new ground.

“And then the two Is could be a representation of 11 or it could be the two middle fingers pointing up. It’s up to interpretation.”

In addition to their main show at London Irish Centre on 25 May, Biird will also play a matinee show for kids in the afternoon.

“We aim to do as many matinee shows as possible or wherever possible when we gig because we want to ensure that what we’re doing also reaches the younger generation and the next generation.

“We think education is hugely important so as part of our mission, we will be doing as many matinees for kids as possible.

“It’s important for the next generation to see that there can be an all-female group.

“It’s important for them to see that they have the licence to express themselves in many ways as artists, including in their image and fashion sense, and it is just another way to express yourself.

“There isn’t enough role models doing it in trad.

“That’s why we want to encourage as many matinee shows as well.”

With Biird taking off, will it stop you working on your own stuff or will we get new music from you in the near future also?

“Yeah, I think I am happiest when I have way too many things going on.

“I realise it kind of makes sense anyway because as we discussed earlier the thing that I hear a lot from the industry is to pick a lane.

“Well, I have so many lanes I want to go down and so many creative ventures I want to explore.
“I think I am just always going to be one of those artists that has many projects on the go.

“For example, I also have Mom + The Rebels which is a duo of myself and Dejay Edmund.

“We mix Irish trad and gospel and pop which is the Spice Girl in me, that Spice Girl itch getting scratched.

“I have a lilting duo with my best friend Niamh Hinchy. We mainly exist online but we hit 55 million views this week and that is scratching that itch for me.

“And with Biird I’m getting to really focus more on the trad side of me and the trad arrangement and the instrumental music scratch.

“Then with my own stuff, it’s what comes out of me when I sit down to write and create.

“They all fulfil different purposes and I love being able to move from one to the next.

“It keeps things interesting and it keeps me interested.

“It definitely doesn’t deter me from doing one or the other.

“Actually they each inspire the next so you will definitely be seeing me still as active doing my own solo stuff.

“In fact, I’m working on my debut album with my own project and I’m very excited to release that music to the world as well.”

Biird play London Irish Centre on 25 May with a main show at 8pm and 3.30pm matinee kids show.  For tickets and more information, click here.

For more information about Biird, search Biird on social media.

Lisa Canny plays The Sugar Club in Dublin on 30 May and London’s Fiddler’s Elbow on 6 June.

For more information about Lisa, click here.

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