Birdy Takes Flight


At the age of 12, British singer/songwriter Birdy won the Open Mic competition in the U.K. She released her self-titled debut album and single—a cover of Bon Iver‘s “Skinny Love”—three years later. The cover went on to earn platinum certification six times in Australia, and in 2012, she earned her first Grammy nomination for her contribution to a Mumford & Sons’ song on the Brave soundtrack. Now 19 years old and living in London, Birdy (née Jasmine van den Bogaerde) returns this Friday with her third LP, Beautiful Lies, following 2013’s Fire Within.

Inspired largely by Japanese culture and landscape, as well as Pre-Raphaelite artwork, Birdy sings about love and loss throughout Beautiful Lies. On “Lifted” her deep, melodic voice croons “You gave me hope / Woke my drifting soul and led me home / Won’t you just stay here / Chase away my fears … Won’t you lead the way / Through my darker days,” while on album-opener “Growing Pains” she sings “You don’t make my heart beat like you used to … We could save each other for the better.” Although Birdy co-wrote the album with top names in the industry—including Steve Mac (One Direction, Shakira, Leona Lewis), Wayne Hector (One Direction, Nicki Minaj, The Wanted), and Amy Wadge (Ed Sheeran’s Grammy-winning “Thinking Out Loud”)—the musician held her own ground. “I’ve always had ideas, but I was never confident enough to be like, ‘I don’t think that’s right. We should do this,'” she says when we meet her in Manhattan. “On this album, I was a lot stronger and everything felt better. “

Raised with her two elder half-brothers and a younger sister and brother, Birdy continues, “I always thought I’d be a writer when I was little. I always wanted to have creative writing lessons.” She would continuously craft fictional stories and at the age of eight, began writing her own music. Now, her stories are realized through songs and cinematic music videos. In terms of the video for “Wild Horses,” which was just released last week, Birdy admits, “I’ve always wanted to be a mermaid, it’s a dream. I love Ariel, I love The Little Mermaid, but in this I’m a little bit nastier.”

In addition to the 19-track album, Birdy is also the face of REDValentino’s Spring/Summer ’16 campaign and will embark on a European tour next month. Prior to the release of Beautiful Lies (Atlantic Records), we spoke with the classically trained pianist about finding confidence in herself, writing for films, and more.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: This is the first album you’ve done without huge features from other artists. What was the writing process like?

BIRDY: It’s been amazing on this one. I was more confident. I just gelled so well with the people I was working with—people who wanted to write a good song. It was never about the production, or making it something bigger than it was. I always start off with melody. I’ve got melodies spinning in my head all the time. On this album, if I had a session, I might bring in a memo on my phone and we’d work from that. Normally, the lyrics come after, because, to me, the music feels like the meaning.

MCDERMOTT: One of the people you worked with was Simon Aldred, who helped write “Silhouette” and “Unbroken.” What do you think you learned from him?

BIRDY: I covered his song “People Help the People” on the first album, so to meet him, I was so excited. He writes really dark words, but somehow the message is always really uplifting. He always has an idea or a really cool concept when he comes in, which is something that I’m really lazy at. I was really inspired by him and how he does that. “Unbroken” is one of my favorites on the album, probably more for the music and words together, not so much the actual story. I love how the words sound to sing and the way they look. It’s kind of like a poem. I feel like on the second album I was a bit lost in myself, trying to work out who I was and still experimenting, and that can be quite frustrating. This song is about realizing everything’s fine for myself—everything is natural and you’ll find where you are and what you want eventually.

MCDERMOTT: So do you feel like you’ve figured out what you want?

BIRDY: Yeah, definitely. You don’t really know what you want when you are younger. You’re so influenced by people and what they think. It takes time to figure you who you are and to be strong enough to say, “No, this is what I think,” to someone who’s been doing for music for years. This album is something that’s truly me in everything single part of the process. The production I was really involved in and the writing was always very equal, always from what I brought. I never went with anything I wasn’t sure of. That’s where I went wrong on the last one; I was just like, “Maybe, okay.” With this album I was really bossy. [laughs]

MCDERMOTT: It’s been three years since your last release, so what do you think led to some of that confidence?

BIRDY: Mostly it’s just getting older and growing up—you learn your opinions a bit more. Also, I moved to London about a year ago because I was starting to write and was there every day anyway. I have a lot of family there as well, so it made sense. It’s the first time moving away from home and being free and on my own.

I think I’m quite affected by place or where I am. Songs from where I used to live in the countryside were always really moody and really dark and sad and stormy. London seems to have given them a bit more of an uplifting edge. The feeling is so buzzy. You’re constantly doing things. You never have a moment to reflect on things, like I would at home, where I’d always be thinking, overthinking, and writing a mournful song.

MCDERMOTT: Do you enjoy the business of London?

BIRDY: I don’t know yet…Sometimes I do, but sometimes I just can’t breathe and I have to go home to the country. I think I’ll always be a country girl. I need the air. But I live in a really nice part of London and there’s lots of parks near me, so I can go there and pretend I’m in the countryside. [laughs]

MCDERMOTT: So I know your mom [Sophie roper-Curzon] is a concert pianist and your dad [Rupert Bogarde] is a writer. What is your relationship like with them, professionally speaking? Do you go to them for advice or as mentors?

BIRDY: Since I’ve been little I’ve always gone to them when I’ve written a song or wanted to play a song. They’d be the first people I’d play it to and it’s still kind of like that. I love having their opinions. When I was younger, I’d go to them and be like, “What do you think of this?” and I’d be really conscious of what they’d say. Now I’m a bit more like, “Well, maybe it’s not right.” I can argue with them a bit more.

MCDERMOTT: You’re gaining the confidence to stand on your own two feet, so to speak. And on that note, the songs “Growing Pains” and “Wild Horses” really stood out to me. Could you talk a little bit about each of them?

BIRDY: “Growing Pains” is about change—really, a lot of the album is about change. I love writing love songs, but “Growing Pains” is about growing up and growing apart from people. Like, all my friends at the moment are at university and I never see them because we’ve taken such different paths. That’s okay, that’s natural, but it’s quite hard.

“Wild Horses” is about being strong on your own without being in a relationship. I took that from people around me and what they were going through. I haven’t had my heart broken, I haven’t gone through that, but people around me definitely have.

MCDERMOTT: I know the first song that you ever wrote, when you were like eight years old, was about love, too. Why do you think you’re so drawn toward the topic of love?

BIRDY: I don’t know… There’s just a lot to say, a lot of different subjects. When I started writing at eight years old, they were always really long, sad love songs. I hadn’t experienced anything; I hadn’t been in a relationship at eight years old. [laughs] But I’m still writing about it. I just think it’s a really powerful thing.

MCDERMOTT: This album doesn’t have any covers, but so many people know you as a “cover artist.” When you choose the songs that you’re going to cover what is the process like? What makes you want to cover a song?

BIRDY: It’s hearing something that I could make completely different. I loved all the songs I covered on the first album, but I also didn’t know them that well. I was able to change them, because when you know something really well, you end up doing what it already is. The covers album, for me, was really an experiment. I was in school at the time, so it was me having a chance to work on my own writing and put something out at the same time. I’ve never been that big on covers, to be honest. That album was an experiment.

MCDERMOTT: I also wanted to talk about your work with films. You contributed to the song “Learn Me Right” for the soundtrack of Brave, which earned a Grammy nomination, and you’ve had songs on other soundtracks, like The Fault in Our Stars, as well. What was it like writing specifically for a movie?

BIRDY: [For The Fault in Our Stars,] I had read the book and saw a screening of the movie. It was so moving, obviously, and I started writing this song with the piano and then I wrote the story for it. I also wrote a song for The Hunger Games and I got to sing on the Mumford and Sons song for Brave. I love writing for film; it’s my favorite thing. I’d love to do more of it. When I’m writing [for films], I’m always influenced by the stories. Sometimes I just make stuff up, but it’s writing a story for something that you’re inspired by. I’ve always worked like that, so writing for films is really natural.

MCDERMOTT: What are some of the recent stories that have inspired you?

BIRDY: Actually, my album’s kind of inspired by a book called Memoirs of a Geisha. I was inspired by the landscapes that were described because I have never been to Japan, but I felt like I was there and I felt like I knew it. It’s about this girl who is ripped from her family and forced to become a geisha, and she’s in this completely different world from where she grew up. That resonates with me…I watched the film as well, but I read the book first.

MCDERMOTT: When you’re watching a film are you consciously aware of the score?

BIRDY: No. Actually, when I was watching The Fault in Our Stars and my song came on, it ruined the moment because I couldn’t think of anything else. Normally it just feels like a part of the whole experience. For me, a movie can be moving—you’re crying and you don’t know why—but it’s because of the music. It’s because of the combination.

MCDERMOTT: Aside from music, what inspires you? What do you do in your down time?

BIRDY: I love art. I love painting. I like painting people, drawing people and their faces, but I’m not that good. I was probably better at school because I was more practiced. I just really enjoy it. I also love being in the country. When I have time off, I just go back home because I cherish the time with my family a lot more after being away.