With over 10 million record sales to her name, this year pop maestro Birdy is flying high.
I remember when I first heard Birdy’s cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” on the radio, it was an icy morning and I was near shaking on my walk down Old Street to work, feeling particularly delicate after an impromptu Sunday night of drinking. The delicacy and immediacy of the chords and her haunting voice seemed to reach me in my bones. It was, as is the way with all the best tracks, like it was being sung just for me.
I speak to Birdy, full name Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde, on a vastly contrasting sun-drenched morning in Notting Hill. She’s a far cry from the sad and mystical teenager I anticipated; eloquent, friendly and confident. We spoke at length about her transformation from her fearful 15-year-old self, personal growth and the bravery it took to start penning and releasing her own tracks.
LEFT (Jacket MIU MIU, jumper GUCCI)
RIGHT (Dress SIMONE ROCHA)
Wonderland: You grew up in a very musical family. Do you feel you were always destined for a career in music?
Birdy: My mum is a concert pianist and a lot of my family are very musical.They all play an instrument, so I didn’t really have a choice; I was just surrounded by it. I think I was quite drawn to piano because of my mum and she started giving me lessons from before I can remember really. She would play classical music, and my dad would play poppier records – like Tracy Chapman and The Beatles. It was a real mix of genres!
W: When did you start writing music?
B: When I was eight, I discovered songwriting and started writing this little piano piece then started singing over it. My parents were sitting at the bottom of the stairs listening… They must have been thinking: “What’s wrong with her? Why’s she so sad?” Because they were all these really sad love songs.
W: That’s so young to start songwriting…
B: I guess so, it was weird, and it was so natural to me. I felt the need to sing.
W: Did music feel like a natural language for this emotional expression you needed to put across?
B: I love telling stories and when I was young, my dad was a writer and I always wanted to kind of follow what he did. I loved storytelling and creative writing and I think I learned so much of who I am from just music. I love that it’s a part of me and I think I just put the two together really and that happened.
W: Your first record, 2011’s Birdy, was made of covers — hauntingly beautiful covers, I might add. If you were writing from when you were eight years old, what was the decision behind reworking more classic songs?
B: I signed a publishing deal when I was 12 and that was from a video I put on YouTube of me singing one of my own songs. I signed this publishing deal and I was just working and writing, and then came across this song “Skinny Love” and I’d never really done covers before because I’d always just thought: ‘What’s the point?’ I just like singing, I just like making things up. But that one was so fragile and so mysterious, the lyrics were so beautiful. I had a go at covering it and that went on the radio and I signed a record deal after that.
W: How did that impact your life growing up as a teenager?
B: It was really weird, it was a very surreal time, but I’m so grateful because I have such a down to earth family and we lived in the middle of nowhere. So it all felt very new, but it wasn’t hard, I enjoyed it. I had a lot of friends at school and everyone really shared the excitement.
W: How did that feel to be that young have a record deal?
B: I didn’t expect anything; it was completely out of nowhere. It’s amazing. It was just me playing my piano at home just by myself, and suddenly all these people are watching it. That’s crazy.
W: It’s such a great song and Bon Iver were doing so well, and then your cover felt like it came at the right time, you know? It really blew up.
B: Yeah it was crazy, unbelievable.
W: You’ve sold over 10.5 million records…
B: Oh! Wow. My goodness, that’s amazing.
W: You seem to be really drawn to a kind of sad, mysterious musical tone. Would you say that you think about things quite strongly?
B: Definitely, I’m really sensitive. I’m not sad all the time — I’m a really happy person, but I think when I am sad, I feel things really deeply and I think that comes out in the music, when I am writing.
W: Can you write when you feel sad, or is it a case of looking back on the emotion and encapsulating it in your music?
B: It’s more of a looking back. I feel like I can’t really write when I’m sad, but a lot of it’s like a healing thing. I think when you’re feeling something for someone else and it’s on your mind, it’s a way of getting it out.You have to kind of look back on it and feel it from a different place; a different perspective.
W: How does writing your own music differ from thinking creatively about making a cover of someone else’s music?
B: I can really hear my writing changing a lot. Just musically, it’s a huge difference now on this new album. Everything feels quite whole all of a sudden — whereas before, looking back I can hear my mind going in all different directions.
W: With Beautiful Lies, what do you feel are the main themes and did you have a starting point that you used as a springboard for the record? B: A lot of it is about change and growing up and kind of not really wanting to, but also needing to at the same time and that conflict. A lot of it, the sound of it, is inspired by a book called Memoirs of a Geisha which I read at the beginning of the process really and it’s about this girl in Japan and she’s ripped from her family in the countryside and she’s growing up in the city, forced to become a Geisha. It’s just about her fight, it’s about her becoming a woman really, learning to stand up for herself and find herself. I think a lot of that resonated with me at the time just because I was learning who I was and then felt more confident all of a sudden and was able to speak my mind.
Dress ROBERTO CAVALLI
Tayuka Uchiyama using BUMBLE AND BUMBLE
Amy Conley at Stella Creative Artists using CHANEL Le Rouge – Collection No.1 and Le Lift V-Flash