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“My heart is so blue,” sings Jade Bird on her song I Get No Joy. “I’m singing for nothing.” It’s a fakeout, of course: while the 21-year-old songwriter’s debut album certainly chases emotions from their depths to their peaks, there’s no lack of purpose here.
“I've never wavered in terms of wanting to do music,” she says. “But you often waver in terms of how you can change it, how you can add to a field that's so saturated and if it's worth it. Is my contribution going to do anything, going to help anyone? And it does. You get young girls coming up to you who want to play the guitar and listen to visceral music and play and shout, and that's sick.”
It’s not so long since Jade was one of those young girls, searching for inspiration and release in music. Born to an army family in Northumbria, she moved first to London and then to Germany, before her parents split when she was seven, and Jade and her mother moved to Bridgend, South Wales, to live with her grandmother, whose marriage had also foundered.
In Bridgend, Jade learned the piano; one of her mother’s partners introduced her to the gothic, psychedelic, country-tinged alt-rock of Mazzy Star, her first love and the first thing she learned to play on guitar. That early taste of the good stuff led her on to classic country music – Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton. “That's the stuff I really connected with, the struggling songs,” she says.
She began writing her own songs at 12, the beginning of a phenomenal drive that’s taken her around the world in the past couple of years. School in Bridgend didn’t offer her the opportunity to follow that ambition. “Unless you're bilingual, in the arts, it's impossible to get anyone to care about you,” she explains. “It was like, well, I'm 16. I don't really wanna do a science A-level… and if you do a BTec in a normal college it's kinda hard to get a good knowledge of the subject. So London was the place.”
Looking around the arts schools on offer for 16-year-olds in the capital, Jade picked on the one that seemed the best: the ultra-competitive Brit school. On her second try, she got in. “People are like, oh, you went to get famous,” she says. “Not really... or if you do, you soon realise that if you don't work hard then that school does not get you favours.”
Jade’s work ethic mean she was far from coasting – most nights during her A-level studies, she was out gigging around London. “I was constantly ill, I was constantly tired from a gig the night before,” she laughs. At the Spiritual Bar in Camden, she learned to project her powerful voice, to grab an audience’s attention, and also, through a chance meeting with a lawyer, found herself a manager. Her debut EP, Something American, was recorded in 2017, the year after her graduation, at the Rhinebeck, New York studio of Simone Felice of the Felice Brothers, a few miles from Woodstock.
“I'd never been to America,” she recalls, “and I was going through quite a bit at that point, I was having huge anxiety, everything you get when you're an 18-year-old girl, and I just always wanted to make things work. I'd seen my mum work really hard, and my grandma, and so I always had this ethic, you keep grafting. But then you stand there on this mountain, and it's so cliched, but you see the ranges and you realise how small you are, and there’s this creative spirit... it was just kind of all perfect for me.”
As well as the EP, the majority of the songs on the album were written in that storied musical area, in a barn on Felice’s property guarded by a ferocious farmdog called simply “Girl”. The rattling, rambunctious “I Get No Joy” tracks Bird’s progress from nagging worry to release, but in its sound also demonstrates a broadening of her palette from the Americana and country inspirations that helped Something American get her noticed stateside (she toured the US with country artist Brett Cobb in 2017, and bagged radio playlists and TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as an acclaimed set at South by Southwest) to darker, rockier tones. She’s “really into my 90s alt-rock” at the moment, she says – Sonic Youth are a current favourite – but her “holy trinity” are Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette and Patti Smith. “And I love what's happening in the States with female musicians in indie, like Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus.”
Jade Bird is a perfectly constructed album of tight, hooky songs, from the bluesy garage rock of “Going Gone” and “Uh Huh” to the more reflective and melancholy “My Motto”, which stretches her remarkable voice, with its raw emotional and agile musicality, to the full. The track list was whittled down painstakingly in Rhinebeck from 200 songs written over the course of a year in which she’s toured furiously, testing every song out live. She was also longlisted in the BBC’s Sound of 2018, and performed the album’s lead single, the irresistibly soaring Lottery, not only on Jools Holland but on Tonight with Jimmy Fallon alongside the Roots. “That was ridiculous,” she enthuses. Her biggest thrill on the way up, though, has been closer to home: her biggest headline show, at Electric Brixton in London in November. “My mum said to me, we've seen bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in smaller venues and got really emotional. I thought, it's true. This is crazy.”
Another huge shift for Jade personally has been overcoming disillusion and falling in real love. “I didn't really expect that, someone like me. I'm always, like 'I don't need no man!' Or if I do have a man, I kind of make sure that I've got it and then put it on the side. I'm just very driven.”
The songs on Jade Bird dive into a welter of emotions, from sharp cynicism to fear, vulnerability and the rush of possibility on the likes of Ruins. “This album's all of my past and my present,” she says. “It feels quite freeing… a lot of people say, how do you write certain things when you've not experienced it, or you're so young? My parents split and then both grandparents… so yeah, I kind of saw all that all the way through. My mum had some tricky relationships… you just see things that make you grow up quite quickly and little details that you put in your songs eventually.”
For all her experience, the feeling you take away from the sharp statement that is Jade Bird is an uplifting energy; not bubbly blind optimism, but strength for the fight. “I'm an incredibly positive person,” says Jade. “Because the facts are we're all fucked. The environment's changing, politically we're fucked. Great. But people who work in the arts are supposed to believe in magic, that's your job: to believe in magic. To believe that imagination can exceed problems... I want people to have hope for a future.”
Even death, in the album’s final closer, finds a positive spin. Why exactly is a 21-year-old singing about being transformed into a song if she dies? “My mum and I, we're close, she had me at 20, she pretty much brought me up by herself,” Jade explains. “And she always says if you left this earth, for whatever reason, I'm not staying… that's always really upset me, and I was like, oh, if I was going to write a song to try to make someone stay on the earth without me, if I've already gone, what would it be?”
More than death, what Jade fears is “my potential and the music's potential... I've always had this image of me at 80 years old, and I'm looking forward to getting old, but at the same time it's fucking scary to me, to think, oh, I could have done that, I could have done that. I could have done that free jazz album and never did it. And that's to me that's where it comes from the drive, the biggest defiance of regret... that perfect album you listen back to, that's why I'm doing it. I'm always chasing that.”
She won’t stop, of course, but listen and you’ll see that Jade Bird has left herself no room for regret in 2019, with so much more to come.