The Architect: An Interview with Wallis Bird
Wallis Bird’s fourth album, Architect, is an examination of self and the space it inhabits. Laura Macdougall talks to her about the new foundations on which the album, and a renewed sense of self, were built.
Photographs © Jens Oellermann (Click images to enlarge)
Last year was one of personal and emotional upheaval for Irish artist Wallis Bird; compounded by the fact she was disillusioned with London and finding it difficult to write she decided to move to Berlin. She immediately threw herself headlong into the city’s hedonistic lifestyle and vibrant house music scene. The result is Architect, her independently-released fourth album. The city’s influence on the record is palpable: like Berlin, Architect defies easy categorisation. The opener, ‘Hardly, Hardly’, is a club anthem that immediately makes you want to take to the dancefloor, but it’s followed by the sexy, provocative, funk-inspired ‘I Can Be Your Man’ (the lyrics of which were motivated by Russia’s draconian anti-gay laws). Across ten songs, Bird moves seamlessly between genres, although long-term fans will be pleased to hear acoustic tracks ‘Hammering’ and ‘River of Paper’, which demonstrate that Bird hasn’t completely left her roots behind.
As creative and spirited as Architect is musically, lyrically it is complex and profound, as Bird explores the effects of unrequited love, denial and not being true to oneself. Inspired by the need to find a home and regain control of her life, Architect represents a very personal journey for Bird. A rollercoaster of emotions and experimentation, Architect is also an intense experience for the listener, and one that reveals further layers each time. I spoke to Wallis about her move to Berlin and the effect the city has had on her music, her life and her approach to songwriting.
I read somewhere that the title for this album came first. Did that affect your approach to the album and the writing process?
Yes it affected it greatly. I became obsessed with the process of how a house moves from concept into something tactile. My process was from idea to vinyl. Having the title first was basically the bones of the album’s making; the process became a visual building. The materials used as the building blocks, the space, the resonance, the emotional vibe of the rooms, the facade and how it was decorated inside was a wonderful visual for me to attach everything I worked on. The timing, production organisation, lyrics, instrumentation and arrangement, right down to the symbolism and product artwork, all came down to the blueprints we laid out. We were all the architects for this record. It was a gorgeous and free-flowing process for me.
Architect starts with a disco/dance-inspired bang but ends with some much quieter, acoustic tracks. Was the structure of the album something you had in mind from the beginning, or did it evolve organically?
It evolved organically. It’s pretty much chronologically based on my first year living in Berlin… Madness and wildness at the start, then I began to settle in, then the summer kicked in and more madness was afoot, until I had to slow down and actually apply myself to finishing the album and reflect on the decisions I had made up to that point. Personally, it was my wildest year to date, hence the very spontaneous flow of the album.
There’s a sense of experimentation and unpredictability about Architect. Do you think it’s important for artists to be constantly challenging themselves and developing as musicians?
Art needs to shock itself to evolve civilization, but art needs reflection to evolve itself first. Everyone knows that a copy of something is never exactly the same as the original, but we continue to make them because to reflect is to finally move on, because something naturally changed in the process. Therefore patterns are important for chaos. Choosing to let go, so to speak. That’s my main influence – change.
You’ve spoken a bit about the influence of Berlin and the house music scene there on this album. Does this mark a definite change musically for you and are you happy with the direction you’re headed?
Nah, the only definite musical move for me is the next one. I have no idea where the muse will take me. I only follow her. This album was for now. I’ve enjoyed learning reverse polarity of my natural rhythms by learning house rhythms, so I can only continue to learn from that shifting of my natural style.
You’ve moved around a lot – from Ireland to London to Berlin. Is experiencing different places/mind sets something that helps you as a musician, or do you think the need for a base and a home is important? Do you think you’ll be moving on from Berlin anytime soon?
I won’t be moving from Berlin any time soon. This place is is my inspirational mecca. Like I say, the spontaneity, the chaos, the buildings, the space, the flow of cultures, the pace, the government, the vibe of a city – everything about that is a story and a song. I know that after almost ten years of living on the road, I was really grateful to spend this record primarily at home in my home studio surrounded by everything I own in the world. It was like a gift.
Architect lends itself to the idea of something solid and constructed, but in the album’s lyrics (and the video for ‘Hardly, Hardly’) there are also interesting references to the architecture of ourselves and the idea of self-discovery. What was the influence behind this?
Churchill is quoted as saying, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us”. That quote moved me like no other. I just realised that through my own rootlessness and migrational lifestyle, I was only identified by what I was wearing, or what I was projecting pretty much, so it led me to self-search, seek home. I sought it in the warmth of love, intimacy and shared moments. That was the roof over my head for a long time. After a while I just wanted to take something back for myself, offer someone else shelter.
Your lyrics are quite focused on love/sex/hurt and a sense of breaking free and coming through the other side. Was this album something of a cathartic process for you?
Immensely. I’m in a fantastic place right now. It was a great empowering movement, this last year. I even managed to get the object of my affections for this album, in the end. That’s the most cathartic thing!
What other artists should we be listening to right now?
St Vincent. Villagers. V.O. Herons! and of course Moloko (it’s un-fucking-believable how ahead of their time they are!)
Can you tell us anything about what we might expect from your live gigs? I know you have one London date next month…
Wildness, sex, depth, a lot of the audience singing, and I feel like I’m not even aware of how much emotion is in me for this record. I’ve found it hard to tame the heart in rehearsals!
Is there a song you’re most looking forward to performing live?
I am very much looking forward to singing ‘I Can Be Your Man’. It’s very challenging live, and must be nailed, and I love a challenge!
You can see Wallis rise to the challenge as we know she will (she’s incredible live), at her London gig at the Garage on May 11.