Wallis Bird photos by Tobias Ortmann
Wallis Bird Takes Hands On Tour Across America
Irish-born, Berlin-based singer/songwriter Wallis Bird has been on tour of the United States for the first time in four years, bringing with her the music from her seven albums so far, the most recent of which was Hands, released in 2022. Taking in both the East Coast and the West Coast, her shows brought her into observation of her audiences in a way that she occasionally shared on social media with her trademark candor. Though a lot of things about touring have become more difficult, some things that have happened culturally may be helpful to artists, she feels, including an acceptance of openness among artists and fans and the general movement towards more people having their say in a public way.
I spoke with Wallis Bird about her impressions of touring the States post-pandemic, the current climate for artists trying to tour, how she feels when operating on social media, and about her galvanizing song and video for “Go” from her Hands album. If you’re going to Folk Alliance International this year, you’ll be able to catch Wallis Bird there, too.
Americana Highways: I hope that the impact of recent years on America hasn’t surprised you too much in your return to the States for this tour.
Wallis Bird: You’re definitely not alone in that in America. In Germany, in Ireland, and in most of the countries I’ve been around in Europe I can see that they have been hit pretty heavily. I’ll tell you what surprises me is that America has gone so f-king expensive. Oh my God. We were only here four years ago and things felt regular. Now it’s a big surprise.
AH: It is really crazy. If you had come six months earlier, you would have experienced that even more. Prices have actually gone down a bit lately thankfully. It’s still bad. Gasoline and groceries have been outrageous, not to mention clothing.
WB: The pandemic has been eviscerating, then there’s the Ukraine war. What a time to be alive. But I’m getting along good, I have to say. I wouldn’t be able to do this without the sponsoring of Irish culture. I’m out here on the Irish cultural government’s dime. For them it’s an investment. I’m a good investment in that I never cancel tours or shows. I reach out to a broad spectrum of listeners and I’ve been going for a while, so there are reasons why they choose me. But in my mind, I’m here on a job, so I have to do right by the cultural attache of Ireland.
I have to talk about my experiences in an open-minded way. But this all would be completely unaffordable for me otherwise. I hate fucking talking about money and music! But it’s become a subject for me because touring in Europe is now about asking, “How much money am I going to lose this time?” Which is something that was never there before. A ton of my peer musicians have said, “I have to tour in a very different capacity than I did before.” Like well-known artists. So it’s just a really different world, but I’m here for it as well. I’m trying to pay attention.
AH: I think it’s a very changed situation, but hopefully it won’t be quite this brutal after a little time has passed. Have you revisited any of the same venues that you’ve played before, or are you playing totally new places this time?
WB: I’ve revisited two of the same venues. Last time I was here, I played eight venues and this time around, I’m playing twelve. It’s East Coast, then West Coast, whereas last time the furthest I went inland was Nashville. We just arrived in Seattle and it’s a very different country over on this side, I feel.
AH: I’m from the East Coast and I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest, and I found it really beautiful, and yes, quite different. It’s been such an important place for the arts and music, so I can imagine it’s a great place to play.
WB: I’m happy to go anywhere because I love travelling and I try to use the day to experience the city. Then I’m more into what’s happening rather than just going from venue to venue. These days, you have a duty to talk about your experiences online as an artist, and I’m glad to see it because I watch other musicians talk about their experiences of touring. It gives me a better insight. I feel like on social media, you can’t really hide yourself and should just be yourself. Even if you are trying not to give away who you really are, you can never really hide it. There’s something interesting about social media mixed in with the music business these days, especially since the pandemic. We’re all reaching out en masse because we’ve experienced things together.
AH: During the time when people were separated, a lot of musicians created some really close ties online with their communities, and there’s no real end to that. It keeps going now. Now it feels like the musicians are taking people with them as they go back on the road. Do you feel you have to or should create posts while on tour?
WB: At the moment, I’ve noticed that I’m showing a lot of architecture. One of my things I love to do is go around cities at nighttime. I’m a sucker for lights. I’ve loved them since I was a baby. I’m kind of f-king sick of showing videos of myself playing online, so I generally prefer to show something else, like chats I’m having with people, or the architecture I’m seeing. That, to me, is something that is the interesting part about traveling. You’re somewhere that someone on the other side of the world can see and might be interested by.
Right now, I’m sitting at a window, and I’m looking at a five-lane highway in Seattle. It’s just a constant stream of cars. I’m wondering where they’re going and where they are coming from. You can also see the state of the city from this elevation. I’m on the 15th floor and from this viewpoint, I can see building works, how much money is running around the city, and whether people are working in their offices. There are a couple of Presbyterian churches looking at me, but no Catholic ones. There’s a medical center and the biggest buildings around me are to do with medicine. Everybody in Europe knows that the health care in America is comparable to Europe.
So those differences and similarities are what I’m looking at on social media. I also have to do my job, which is to promote stuff, but I have to do that the way that I enjoy it. Social media says that you have to be pretending to live your best life every day, which is not the way that I like to do it at all. I have to do it the way I want to do it that’s interesting to me. It expresses what I’m experiencing. I try to piece together what I’m seeing.
For instance, there’s also a ton of homelessness around the corner from where I’m staying, and I compare that to parts of Berlin, where I live, where there’s a ton of homelessness. I ask myself why.
AH: It’s like turning the camera around, so the camera of social media is not on your face, but it’s facing outward at what you’re seeing and experiencing. And the sense you make of it. Social media can be very heavy if you can’t find your own version of enthusiasm for it.
WB: I also find it amazing how people are saying, “No, I don’t want to work right now.” What they mean is they don’t want to be exploited! They are being called snowflakes and not up to the job, but they are just saying, “I’m allowed to be upset. And I’m allowed to discern.” There’s an allowance happening now that wasn’t happening before.
AH: It’s interesting to see what happens when that balance shifts and there are more people who don’t want to work under such conditions than those who want them to. Then the conversation shifts. It’s really close to that median-line right now and people are having their say.
WB: Yes, it’s cool! Everyone’s having their say, and it’s cool!
AH: How are you finding the audiences and the performances? Are you playing the songs from Hands? I know live shows are tremendously important to you.
WB: I notice that there are a higher number of people coming to the gigs than there were before. I don’t have a lot of exposure here [in America], so that’s really interesting. I play stuff from my back catalog first to see what people dig. I have seven albums out now and it’s lovely playing somewhere with a blank canvas. It gets exciting when someone asks for a specific song and sometimes chatting with people after the show, they say that they have known me since my first record, Spoons.
I’m not in America that often, so everything feels new. I’m finding it charming that music reaches out to different people, at different stages of life, in different parts of the world. I never get tired of the experience of traveling to the other side of the world and discovering that. There’s a lot to be said about traveling and the message of your music traveling. There’s a big message coming through in music, and people like what they like. I always get excited to encounter people at concerts and find out how they’ve gotten in touch with it and what it means to them. I haven’t stuck to one genre over the years, so I find the audiences are as mixed as they can get, and that gets me excited.
AH: The album Hands has a lot of cool videos out. One song and video that really caught my attention was “Go.” How do you feel that fits in with the bigger ideas on Hands?
WB: That song was brought over from my previous album, Woman. I wrote that while working on Woman, and I really wanted it on there, but in the end decided not to. I did that because I felt like it was a really clear movement in the direction of where I was going [next]. That defined Hands. It was so early in the conception of it. I always say that there’s music being written in the background all the time, subconsciously. Your music is basically walking you down the road and telling you what the story of your life is.
“Go” was written subconsciously about what Hands was going to be. It was saying, “Will you just let go of some stuff, Wallis, and trust that everything around you, that you’ve built, is a solid structure? Let the work work for you.” When I began writing Hands, “Go” was always at the forefront, and I spent a ton of time on that song. It got rewritten three times, but as always happens, I went back to the original. That’s because it was the purest reason behind Hands. It was a new chapter.
This was all during a real end-times reckoning [during the pandemic]. You couldn’t touch anybody, you couldn’t hug anybody. Maybe you were going to die yourself. Then there was that song, “Go” saying, “Crash now and do everything in your own fucking time now, but whatever you do, go forth with an open mind and trust that what’s happening is meant to be.” That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s very hard to trust yourself a lot. I think it’s an age thing, too, though, because when you get older, you say, “I need to loosen up a bit and let others take the reins a bit.” Hands was about letting other people take the reins and handing it over. It was a way of making contact when contact felt impossible.
AH: The video is really beautiful. There’s a really cool effect of having multiple versions of yourself in the video. How did that come about?
WB: Initially, I had a director involved, and I turned to the director and said, “I just don’t see me doing this video anywhere else but my home. I just don’t see me doing a big music video for this. I just want to film myself being alone with my thoughts.” I wanted myself and my subconscious dancing around each other, and sometimes dancing with each other. I was wearing clothes that my mother gave me and I was dancing in my home. I also wanted to tip the hat to the dance videos that have become super-popular again. Dance needed a resurgence in a visual media. Photographers and dancers are the least appreciated in the visual media.
Now, I can only dance the way that I dance, and the house is messy because I was just alone in my space. It’s a very DIY music video, but that was how I felt like I should approach it. The song is about coming to terms with coming out of a pandemic after all.
Thanks very much Wallis Bird, for talking with us.
Find more information about Wallis Bird, her tour dates and music and more, here: https://www.wallisbird.com
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Show Review: FAI Showcase: Wallis Bird Takes Audiences “Home”