“It’s her humour and bold honesty that makes Bird so special ” The Guardian “The intensity of Wallis Bird’s sound will pin you to the wall.” Sydney Morning Herald “The sheer visceral energy of Wallis Bird could kick-start an entire economy.” The Irish Times
It may sound like something out of Spinal Tap that Irish artist Wallis Bird lost all the fingers on one hand in a bizarre lawnmower accident as a baby, but it’s no exaggeration. Though most of her fingers were saved through surgery, one was lost for good. Happily it didn’t stop her picking up a guitar as a child, flipping it upside down to strum with her damaged hand, and carrying on as if nothing had ever happened. Today she’s a veritable virtuoso on the instrument, and with a chuckle she describes that fateful ‘Lawnmower Incident’ as having given her “her mojo”. That mojo carried her to record deals with Island Records and Columbia Records, several high profile awards and nominations, tours across the world with the likes of Rodrigo y Gabriela, Billy Bragg and Emiliana Torrini, and invitations to open shows for Gossip, Frightened Rabbit, and many others. The two-time Meteor award winner (Ireland’s national music prize) and two-time Irish Choice Prize nominee (equivalent of UK’s Mercury Awards) was born into a large family in Wexford, Ireland. She cut her teeth as a teenager playing cover gigs in pubs and learning to deal with drunken hecklers by way of cheeky comebacks and good-natured ripostes. Moving to Germany in 2005, she self-released the single Blossoms in the Street which spent twenty weeks in the airplay charts. It grabbed the attention of Island Records who signed her almost on the spot. Her debut album hit the Top 5 UK digital album charts and she continued to chart in various European countries with her subsequent albums.
Wallis has toured constantly, headlining over 800 shows in the past ten years. Over 30,000 people attended her last album release tour alone. Well known across Europe for her live performances, her 2016-2017 tour for the album ‘Home’, was expanded to include Australia and Japan for the first time. On the Australian leg of the tour, Wallis gained a new fan in cult artist Amanda Palmer, who tweeted repeatedly to her million-plus followers to go and catch a show. Palmer subsequently invited Wallis on stage for a duet during one of her festival appearances, and Wallis reciprocated by having Palmer sing at one of her own headlining shows. In 2018, Wallis embarked on a month-long tour of Canada, her first time in the country, tearing it up at multiple folk festivals including Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver, and coming home with a raft of new fans.
Most artists can’t sustain the kind of energy levels that Wallis exhibits on stage. Every performance is characterised by an almost startling passion; one that frequently leaves her breathless and her acoustic guitar strings shredded to pieces. Her refreshingly honest, self-effacing manner has endeared her to audiences of every kind, whether her own fans or someone else’s. Audiences will likely be invited to “show me your sweat patches!” when a grinning Bird wants them to throw their hands in the air and dance unabashedly. Or they might be told with a wink before a ballad “this is the one where you’re all going to take a toilet break, isn’t it?” Going from delicate whispers to explosive cries in a heartbeat, and inciting rousing sing-a-longs or spellbound silences, few can cast a bewitching spell over an audience in the way Wallis Bird can.
Indeed, when she hit a road-block during the writing of 2016’s ‘Home’, she did the only thing she could think of…something that would be un-thinkable to most artists. “I figured a 12 hour free concert would fix all the issues I had,” she recalls. Bird stepped onto the stage of Berlin’s Auster club at 1.30pm one cold January afternoon and stayed there until the early hours, raising money for refugee charities at the same time. Afterwards she even found the energy to play two encores. No surprise, then, that the Irish Times wrote that “the sheer visceral energy of Wallis Bird could kick-start an entire economy”.
Bird is currently focused on making her next record, which will be heavily soul-influenced, and is to be released in 2019. Always eager for a challenge to keep her on her toes during the creative process, instead of a 12-hour gig, this time Wallis is bringing the fans into the mix in a different way. She’s recording a series of covers, allowing fans to choose a song for each decade, which she then records within a few days. As she explains: “when I’m writing my own music, I give myself homework that keeps the engines oiled. Playing 12 hour free gigs to complete strangers is a great way, and another is dissecting a well known song, finding what it is that makes the song so special to the world and to me personally, and putting my own spin on it”.
Once the album is done, Wallis will be eager to get out on the road again. It’s unlikely that her shows will last 12 hours again, but of one thing you can be sure: few can enrapture an audience the way Wallis Bird can.