Famed European singer visits Philly with U.S. debut

Wallis Bird is ready to break big in the U.S. The out singer-songwriter has released five albums in Europe, but her latest record, “Woman” (out Sept. 27 on AntiFragile Music) marks her stateside debut. She sets off on her first tour in the States later this month and will appear locally as part of the Philadelphia Folk Festival (Aug. 15-18).

Speaking from her home base of Berlin, the Ireland-born singer-songwriter discusses her musical influences, performance styles and excitement about touring the country.


PGN: Have you spent much time in the U.S.?

WB: I’ve spent some time — a little bit in Los Angeles, a little bit in New York. I did a small tour with [musician/composer] Anaïs Mitchell in Vermont, and I’ve played at the Irish Center in New York City. But it’s been ages since I’ve been back — the last time was about eight years ago.


PGN: How did you end up booked at the Philadelphia Folk Festival?

WB: I have some friends who work between Ireland and America and who have brought the Folk Alliance International [a musical nonprofit organization based in Kansas City, Mo.] to Ireland. There was a large conference in County Cork, and that’s where I met everyone — people representing many different festivals all over America and from around the world. They have built this beautiful community that brings folk all over the world by exchanging artists. So it came through mutual friends, which is kind of how it all happens — somebody knows somebody else.


PGN: How would you describe your musical language?

WB: This is my sixth record, and I’ve gone through multiple different transitions — from pop to jazz to folk and back again. It’s a very varied spectrum that I write music in, and it’s always been stories coming from a personal angle of how I see the world. It’s always looking at the hard things and the simple things in life from a positive angle. I focus on songwriting rather than production, so the song has to come through, and it’s played on natural instruments. I would describe “Woman” as a retrospective based in folk, moving through Irish traditional music, along with soul and a little bit of funk as well.


PGN: Who are some of the artists you have been drawn to throughout your life?

WB: Growing up, I listened to a lot of rock and soul — people like James Brown, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton. As I became a teenager and started to find my own voice,  I was listening to Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and primarily Ani DiFranco, because she’s an extremely strong guitar player and a really beautiful human. She was always very candid and fearless. As I’m getting older, it’s more Bjork and Radiohead. They continue to push the boundaries between avant-garde and pop, and I’m so glad that is considered mainstream music, because it’s so far-reaching. Another Irish band called Villagers is one of my great loves right now. Their music is just so beautiful.


PGN: What do you love about living in Berlin?

WB: People who come here speak freely about a vibe. There’s something in the air here. The streets are filled with graffiti, and they’re filled with anonymous, low-key, practical folk who walk slowly. There is a depth of intellect in this city that stems from the governance of the people and the history that it’s had. It searches for something within the soul rather than anything shallow. It cares not for capitalism or status, really. It’s also quite a poor city, and art is strongly valued. You can see it. It’s wild, and it’s quiet at the same time.


PGN: Lastly, I’m curious about how you approach live performance. What does it mean for you to be in front of an audience?

WB: My approach is to be completely open, because that’s the best way I can be. I have my tools, I have my strengths, and I have a standard that I bring to each show. That standard is to find the common language between all of us in the room. I arrive with open arms and a smile on my face, and I just want to make people happy. I’ll figure out if the audience likes dirty jokes or not. If they want a more gentle approach or if they really want to dance. Regardless of how many hundreds and hundreds of gigs I’ve done, I treat each one as a brand new way to experience a connection with people. 


Some responses have been condensed and edited. The Philadelphia Folk Festival runs Aug. 15 through 18 at Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township. Tickets and information can be found at pfs.org.

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