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The front cover of Irish born, Berlin based WALLIS BIRD’s new album features a black and white photograph of a hand. A cursory look might not reveal anything unusual, but it only takes a moment to recognise it’s no ordinary hand. In the shadows there’s a stump where the little finger should be, and something seems off about the other digits too. Some will understand its significance: they’ll have seen it strumming an upside-down, right-handed guitar, picking in unorthodox style, forming unconventional chords. The hand, you see, is WALLIS BIRD’s, and it’s there because, having spent much of her life trying to exist despite its restrictions, she’s reached a point where she recognises that, in many ways, it’s always been vital to her lived reality. With this has come a realisation of “who I am, what I am, and what I don’t want.” HANDS documents her subsequent process of change, and its consequences, with typically distinctive style, making it – hands down, naturally – one of the most honest albums you’ll hear at a time when honesty is at a premium.
If 2019’s exceptional Woman represented an ambitious state of the world address, HANDS – also known as NINE AND A HALF SONGS FOR NINE AND A HALF FINGERS – finds BIRD turning the spotlight onto herself, raising issues that are sometimes far harder to confront, only to emerge optimistic and whole. Among these are issues of trust, alcohol abuse, stagnation, self-censorship and self-improvement, some addressed through personal recollections of crucial moments accumulated over the last two years. Each, however, is delivered by a voice uncommonly blessed with joy, ingenuity and empathy.
As 2019 came to an end, BIRD found herself with time enough to reassess her relationship with her hand – and indeed herself – so decided to take a rare break. She’s released six albums since 2007, for which she’s won two Meteor Awards, Ireland’s annual music prize – mostly recently for Best Female Artist – and a prestigious 2017 German “Musikautorenpreis” (Music Author Prize), not to mention two further nominations for the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s equivalent to Britain’s Mercury Prize. In addition, she’s racked up over a thousand shows during the past decade, earning a reputation worldwide for passionate, energetic, good-humoured concerts. She began her sabbatical by quitting alcohol, a decision at the heart of ‘I Lose Myself Completely’, and four days later, she recalls, “I went to Philipp Milner (producer / musician, Hundreds)’s house to make some music, and my world opened up like an orchid.” Subsequently, she details, the album “was recorded in fifty weeks, primarily in Philipp’s farmhouse studio in Wendland, my studio in Berlin, and Marcus Wuest’s in Sandhausen, where I’ve recorded all my albums.”
HANDS was completed with ‘The Power Of A Word’, a hushed showcase for shimmering synths and a notably ethereal vocal. At the heart of the track – as with so much of HANDS – is self-examination, change and acceptance. “Up until recently,” BIRD concludes, “I simply treated my hand as something additional, not primary to my story. But, during this pandemic, when everything in my usual life was scattered, I found myself wondering ‘Who am I? What am I? What story do I leave behind?’ My story had been one of stubborn ‘I can do it just as good as anyone’, but this new chapter in my life has been about letting go of over-controlling, handing things over to others, being comfortable with my surroundings and colleagues, and knowing I’m understood. Right now, I’m a passenger, a guest in my life, because the album has been so collaborative and so out-of-bodily written, almost hypnotically. And I love it!”
And it shows. So let’s see those HANDS in the air. After all, there’s a lot to celebrate here…