Jade Bird: “There are so many preconceptions with me – but I am a fan of music first”

Whatever people say Jade Bird is, that’s what she’s not. Literally setting fire to an acoustic guitar and a cowboy hat – as she gleefully did during the photoshoot for her first-ever NME cover story – might seem a touch extreme, but as someone who’s been trying to shake off the folksy singer-songwriter stereotypes that have dogged her since the release of her debut EP, 2017’s ‘Something American’, she’s nothing if not committed.

“I always felt like people were really trying to box me into a genre and a style,” she says when we meet in an east London rehearsal space the day after her on-camera dabblings with pigeonholing-related pyromania. Despite hailing from the UK and having a sound that, on her eponymous 2019 debut album, pivoted from vintage Alanis Morissette rock belters (‘Uh Huh’) to dreamy Feist-lite pop (‘Lottery’), Bird was branded Americana’s new hope and a pop-country queen-in-waiting from the beginning.

NME Cover 2021 Jade Bird
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

“I’m not sure why it happened; I think it might literally have been because I’m a woman,” she shrugs. Burning a six-string and Stetson, then, sees her defiantly double down on what we should expect from Jade Bird 2.0. “It’s less about it being sacrilegious and more about me starting my own thing…”

On her forthcoming second album, ‘Different Kinds Of Light’, that ‘thing’ is an altogether heavier beast than the one she showed us on 2019’s self-titled debut. She might have spent the past couple of years deeply embedded within the Americana songwriter community – she’s sung with Brandi Carlile, Nikki Lane and Sheryl Crow, and toured with Jason Isbell and Father John Misty – but the new collection of songs takes her further away from folk music than ever before. In fact, Bird’s been drawing more from Blur and Oasis than she has Emmylou Harris.

“There are so many preconceptions with me,” explains Bird. “But I am a fan of music first. I’ve been listening to the Stone Roses since I was 14. I love Elizabeth Fraser [of Cocteau Twins] and PJ Harvey as well as Dolly Parton. And I can pull from stuff like that easily because it’s so true to me.”

NME Cover 2021 Jade Bird
Jade Bird on the cover of NME

Recorded at Nashville’s famed RCA Studio A, ‘Different Kinds Of Light’ was produced by Dave Cobb (who’s worked with Isbell, Carlile and US folk-rockers Dawes); Bird first encountered him after working with his cousin, the alt-country singer Brent Cobb. Brent was Bird’s first ever US touring buddy and it was with him she wrote ‘Feet Off The Ground’, a song initially set for the soundtrack of the Lady Gaga remake of A Star Is Born. The song didn’t make the final cut, but there was a silver lining to this particular Stetson: Dave was working on the movie, and he and Bird got on famously. “It was just like meeting a musical soulmate,” she explains. When it came to choosing a producer for the second record, Dave’s name was top of the list.

Though he’d spent the past decade plus working with trad-facing country artists such as Sturgill Simpson, Colter Wall and even the late, great John Prine, Cobb revealed to Bird that he’d once been in a Britpop-obsessed indie band called The Tender Idols. Quickly, Blur’s 1993 album ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ landed on the studio stereo and became one of ‘Different Kinds Of Light’’s key inspirations.

“People were really trying to box me into a genre and a style”

“But we pulled a lot from Iggy Pop as well – and the Bee Gees,” adds Bird, shrugging nonchalantly when we suggest there might be something incongruous about placing the Godfather of Punk and the Brothers of Disco side-by-side. “When you listen to the record it makes sense!” she insists.

Of course, she’s totally right. The album’s 15 tracks see her pick liberally and indiscriminately from half a century of brilliant music. You can almost hear a 20-something floppy-fringed Damon Albarn crooning the chugging ‘1994’ and dreamy ‘Houdini’, while the dark ‘Open Up The Heavens’ could be a Maccabees deep cut sung by Stevie Nicks. If anything verges on country music territory at all, it’s the delicate ballad ‘Red, White And Blue’, which was written about a powerful encounter Bird’s boyfriend Luke – who plays in her band – had with a Vietnam veteran when buying a second-hand guitar in Virginia.

“He’s been in a car with a guy called Herb and there were some severe PTSD signs – like hallucinations as he was driving,” explains Bird. “I was so moved, given the army background in my family.”

NME Cover 2021 Jade Bird
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Jade Bird was born in 1997 to young, techno-loving parents who raised her on the banging sounds of Underworld. Her mum and dad met while working for the army, with Bird’s mother just 16 when she joined the forces; she left at 20 after giving birth to Jade. It made for a nomadic childhood for the only child, as she shuttled from Northumberland to Germany, ending up in Wales after her parents’ divorce. Happily, this meant that when a 16-year-old Bird said she wanted to attend the Brit School, her mum was fine with upping sticks.

“Being an army family, we don’t have sentimental attachment to places,” she says. So Bird’s mum packed up and moved nearer to Croydon’s non-fee paying performing arts school, making sure her daughter promised to work bloody hard when she got there.

Despite failing her first audition, Bird was accepted on her second attempt (“I wasn’t taking no for an answer!”) and ended up in the same year as Rex Orange County, with Black Midi and Olivia Dean also rattling around the corridors. To this day, constant travel doesn’t phase Bird. In the corner of the practice room we’re in right now are the small bags she’ll be living out of for the next few months as promo for the new album picks up and she plays a run of festivals and live shows.

NME Cover 2021 Jade Bird
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

“Some of them have already been cancelled, though,” says Bird, mentioning Kent’s Black Deer Festival, which Jade should have been playing the weekend we meet, but was pulled due to covid restrictions. “We’ll see what happens! I’ve got an American tour coming up in October… I’m kinda busy”.

At the end of last year, Bird finally put down something approaching roots, finding four walls to call her own in the city of Austin, Texas. “I didn’t go to university; I just went straight out on tour, so for the past four years I haven’t really had a home,” she explains.

Austin itself was kind of a fluke. Her tour photographer was renewing the lease on his place there and Bird decided to grab the chance. “I’d always felt really attached to the music scene there anyway, so I just made the move mid-pandemic, weirdly.” She might have only been there a little over half a year – with much of that time spent touring and recording elsewhere – but Bird has made herself comfortable, helped along by her new dog, a border collie mix called Tea. “I was meant to foster her, and then she became my soulmate, so I adopted her,” she grins. “We went to a big shelter to get her – kind of like everything with Austin, I feel like I’m just getting embedded into the scene, into the way of life.”

“I love Dolly Parton. She stepped into a male-dominated world and changed it and succeeded”

Jade Bird was obsessed with the States long before she’d even visited, writing ‘Something American’ a year before she ever touched down on US soil. When she finally got there, everything fell into place. “It felt sort of like coming to a second home,” she says.

As with her debut album, a lot of ‘Different Kinds Of Light’ was written in the bucolic countryside of upstate New York. Recording in America was also non-negotiable thanks to the fast and furious work ethic Bird found across the Atlantic, as well as the powerful pull of its legacy acts. Bird explains of her joy at recording in Nashville’s legendary RCA Studios: “I think the UK is definitely moving forward in sound, especially when I think of Beabadoobee and other female guitarists, but I am quite sentimental about past artists and music. For me it has to be done in a certain way – in a very big room – and I like to work very quickly, which means you need some pretty hefty musicians.”

It’s no secret that Nashville is crawling with the world’s greatest session players – of the ease in which consummate professionals can be called upon at a minute’s notice, she says: “I bought in the guy who played drums on the last John Prine album, you know?”

NME Cover 2021 Jade Bird
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Given that she’s unaccustomed to staying in one place for too long, it’s no surprise Bird says her new home isn’t stacked full of clutter. But there are a few prized possessions in her cosy, yellow-painted east Austin home – and all of them are books, including signed poetry collections and first editions by her hero, Patti Smith.

“I ran away from her once at a festival,” remembers Bird, tripping over her words as she remembers being in the punk polymath’s presence. “She’s just too much of an idol. I was just like, I just couldn’t… She has to stay in this, like, ethereal deity zone. I’ve watched loads of interviews and she’s almost got this whole world – like you have when you’re a kid – this imaginary world, and she lives in it. Which I think is why her poems are just so incredible.”

Running wasn’t an option when Bird was faced with another hero two summers ago, as she joined Dolly Parton to sing ‘9 To 5’ at the Newport Folk Festival alongside a who’s-who of furious female vocal talent, including fellow Brit Yola, as well as Brandi Carlile, Maggie Rogers, Lucy Dacus and Courtney Marie Andrews. “She came on in this canary yellow suit with two big diamanté wagon wheels on it and was shaking all of our hands,” Bird remembers. “And I ballsed the handshake up! She was like, ‘Hey, doll!’, and I was like, ‘You killed it, Jade – well done. you’ve ruined your one moment.’ She’s magical in real life, though; she doesn’t take any illusion away.”

Bird’s love of Parton doesn’t just stem from the icon’s willingness to overlook a dodgy handshake: “The thing I love about Dolly is she stepped into a world that was very defined by a [male-dominated] narrative and changed it and succeeded in it. Her early stuff like ‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Throw Rice’ are my favourites.”

Indeed, Bird is following in the footsteps of a long line of female artists who’ve actively disrupted what’s expected of them: “That’s why I admire Dolly – same as Loretta Lynn. Her story is incredible. It’s not just a gimmick.”

NME Cover 2021 Jade Bird
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

It was Brandi Carlile, another woman who has inspired Bird in more ways than one, who invited the young star to be part of that monumental gathering of artists at Newport Folk Festival. As well as Carlile’s commitment to hard graft, Bird is deeply impressed by the way she balances her life.

“I just didn’t think it was possible to have a family and tour with a family,” she explains. “I was really under the illusion that we get pressed with – that you have a career and then you give it all up and have a family. But the first time I met Brandi and her wife, I also met her two kids and her band’s kids. They all tour together and have been doing since they were babies. For me it was just a huge revelation.”

Though modern women are regularly told they can have it all, in reality it’s a struggle. Recent statistics show that three in 10 mothers have reduced their working hours because of childcare, compared to only one in 20 fathers, while it’s still not uncommon for women to leave the job market entirely to raise a family. Though being a Grammy-nominated rock star is hardly your typical line of employment, it was still a powerful thing to see Carlile in action.

“That’s the biggest thing about heroes – they make things possible”

“That’s the biggest thing about heroes, they make things possible,” says Bird. “When I listen to Patti Smith’s poetry at two in the morning and I wasn’t sleeping, she made it possible [for me to write]. And Brandi made that lifestyle seem impossible. Knowing that I don’t have to give up the biggest love of my life for another one is amazing.”

Bird received advice from another badass woman while performing with Nikki Lane at the Luck Reunion festival in Texas back in April. The duo performed ‘The End of the World’, a song written by Kentucky-born country singer Skeeter Davis, and backstage Bird bumped into Nikki’s best mate, Lana Del Rey. “I just can’t ever remember words [to songs] under pressure and I hate harmonies!” Bird says. “Lana really just took me under her wing. She was like, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’. She was really down to earth… We were just talking about our lives and then, at one point, all these fans somehow knew she was back there and she went down and she took all the photos and was dancing along to Nikki. She was just really nice! It was a weird Texas night!”

NME Cover 2021 Jade Bird
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Jade Bird’s dedicated feminism has been part of her process from the very start. On the propulsive new album track ‘I’m Getting Lost,’ she gives voice to a particular fear shared by so many women – that after the sun goes down, the act of walking alone is fraught with danger: “Don’t go away too far on your own at night / You never know what kinda people you could find”.

“It was about the frustration of getting to a city and not feeling, as a young woman, that I can go and explore it at night,” says Bird. “I love things at night. I love the apocalyptic feel, the untouched feel, but I just didn’t feel safe enough to do it.”

The songs was written before the kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in south London in March this year, but speaks to the same worries millions have about male violence against women. After Everard’s disappearance, Bird shared an open letter to fans on social media. “It’s no secret we walk with car keys between our fingers,” she wrote. “No secret that some of us will not walk home alone. Will not explore the city at night. Will live in fear. I will continue to raise women up, but I am not in a position of power to protect them.”

“I’ve always chosen to be open about and to be at the forefront of women’s rights”

Speaking today, Bird is crystal clear on why she uses her platform to speak out. “Women’s rights is something I’ve always chosen to be open about and to be at the forefront of,” she says. “I grew up with my mum and grandma in one house and I watched them suffer at the hands of a lot of shit men. I also have a lot of personal health things that I feel very unsupported in.”

However, this is a stance that sits uneasily with her life in America: “I live in a state where women’s abortion rights are being rolled back and it genuinely hurts.” ‘Candidate’, a ferocious track on her new album, sees her deftly skewer chauvinism with some heavy shredding and Janis Joplin-esque hollering: “Every man takes me for a fool.” She tells NME: “When I sing songs like ‘Candidate’ I feel like I’m singing for my friends and the things they tell me they can’t say.”

Bird is tirelessly dedicated to activism and doing what she can to support her pro-choice stance, as well as to charities focussed on making the lives of women better. In addition to working with the Tori Amos-affiliated RAINN, American’s largest anti-sexual-assault non-profit, she recently played a show in Texas for the volunteer-run empowerHer, which supports young girls who have lost their mothers. For Bird, it’s about doing things that have a tangible effect, rather than mere posturing.

NME Cover 2021 Jade Bird
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

“I don’t want to showboat activism,” she says. “When it feels right, I’ll do a post and when it doesn’t feel right, I’ll go to a charity and ask what I can do.” A recent spotlight on the UK’s low conviction rates for rape knocked her for six. “It fucking hurts,” she sighs. “Every woman knows it. It’s so hard to see and to be part of, even though we’re supposed to have come so far…”.

When it comes to her music, Jade Bird might enjoy keeping us guessing, but when her politics are at stake, she’s beyond dispute.

Jade Bird’s ‘Different Kinds Of Light’ is out August 13


Hair and makeup by Sara Bowden