ABOVE: BIRDY. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOO GEORGE
Jasmine van den Bogaerde, the 17-year-old English singer/songwriter known as Birdy, was given the nickname by her parents when she was a baby, because of how wide she would open her mouth while being fed. With a name like Birdy, a writer for a father, and a classical pianist for a mother, it might seem, in retrospect, that a career as a singer/songwriter was destined. At 13, she signed a publishing deal, an indirect byproduct of her winning the inaugural Open Mic UK, a televised live music competition. But, except for “Just a Game,” a song that Birdy composed for the first Hunger Games film, much of the attention that she’s earned over the last three years has been for her covers, most notably her take on Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love,” which led to her signing a recording contract. Her 2011 debut LP, Birdy, featured songs from artists such as The National, Fleet Foxes, Phoenix, The xx, and The Naked and Famous.
Fire Within, Birdy’s sophomore album, was released in the UK last September and will be available in North America on June 3. The U.S. version will include “Skinny Love,” just as her debut LP did, but the rest of Fire Within is composed of original material penned by Birdy and various co-writers. The tracks range from delicate piano ballads to glimmering pop/rock, with dashes of buoyant folk in between. Throughout, she sings with elegant gravitas that suggests a mature soul while still projecting a youthful air.
Birdy also has contributed three tracks to the soundtrack for The Fault in Our Stars, the motion picture adaptation of John Green’s bestselling young adult novel. The soundtrack will be released on May 19, and the film will be in theaters on June 6. Currently, Birdy is touring the U.S. supporting Christina Perri.
CHRIS TINKHAM: On this tour of the States, you’re playing in cities that you haven’t visited before. Have you been able to get out and see anything interesting so far?
BIRDY: I didn’t get to see a lot of it, but I really loved Chicago. My dad grew up there, so I’ve heard many stories from him about when he was younger. It was amazing to see where he was. I’m really looking forward to going to Nashville. That should be good.
TINKHAM: Your dad grew up in Chicago?
BIRDY: He did, his teenage years. His father needed to work there, so he went to high school there. He was in America.
TINKHAM: The songs for your new album, Fire Within, were they inspired by any particular events in your life?
BIRDY: Yeah. I’ve just been inspired by the past two years and having experiences and meeting new people. A lot of them are about people I know, like my friends or family.
TINKHAM: The U.S. release will have new versions of a few songs?
BIRDY: There are a few songs that have been expanded for America. There’s one called “Words as Weapons.” We’ve been playing this new version of it live, and it’s a bit more driving, and I’m really enjoying it. So hopefully that’s going to go on the album.
TINKHAM: Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons is credited as a co-writer on “No Angel.” How did that collaboration work?
BIRDY: He’s a really wonderful writer. He uses poetry at first, finds poems and then tries to write music to them, just to see what happens when you’re trying to fit the music around the words. That was really interesting. “No Angel” is one of my favorite songs on the album.
TINKHAM: With the other songs that have co-writers credited, is it a different process for each one? What about working with Sia on “Strange Birds,” for example?
BIRDY: With “Strange Birds,” I wrote the piano part. It’s actually a song I wrote when I was 10. She heard it and reworked it and found this amazing melody. So, it’s always different.
TINKHAM: Your mom is a concert pianist and taught you to play. When did the piano lessons stop?
BIRDY: I still have them every now and again when I’m at home, which I love.
TINKHAM: And your dad is a writer?
BIRDY: He is. That’s definitely where I get my love for telling stories. I grew up with my brothers and sisters inventing these incredible bedtime stories.
TINKHAM: What kind of things does your dad write? Is he a novelist or journalist or something else?
BIRDY: He’s written an autobiography [Daybreak Into Darkness], but he writes children’s plays. That’s what he loves doing most. Different kinds of things, sitcoms as well, so it’s a real mix.
TINKHAM: Your great-uncle was the actor Dirk Bogarde. Do you have any interest in acting?
BIRDY: I do. I really enjoy it. I don’t know if I’m any good at it. [laughs]
TINKHAM: Did you perform in any plays when you were at school?
BIRDY: Yeah, I loved being in the school plays. They all were musicals. There was a lot of singing, which is probably why I loved it. We did Romeo and Juliet.
TINKHAM: What part did you play in that?
BIRDY: I got to be Juliet.
TINKHAM: Where did the songs come from?
BIRDY: I don’t know. [laughs] They just came with the script that the teacher gave us. I remember, I wrote a song for our school play and performed it.
TINKHAM: What was the name of the song you wrote?
BIRDY: It was called “Stay With Me.”
TINKHAM: You’ve talked about how you got the name Birdy, but I was curious about the name Jasmine. Were you named after anyone?
BIRDY: I don’t think so. I think my auntie named me. I’m not really called that. I was called it at school, but my family’s never called me Jasmine. Some of my friends do.
TINKHAM: What was the song of yours that you posted on YouTube that caught the interest of record labels?
BIRDY: It was called “So Be Free.” I won this singing competition, and I performed that song at the final, and people voted for it. I put the video on YouTube, me playing at home, just as a thank you, really, and someone at a record company happened to see it, which is incredible.
TINKHAM: At 14, you signed a publishing deal, or was it a record deal?
BIRDY: It was a publishing deal first. I guess I was 13. For two years I was just working on writing and developing as an artist. But then I did the cover of “Skinny Love,” which was played on the radio, and then I signed with the record company when I was 14.
TINKHAM: When you sign a deal like that at 14, do you have a good understanding of what’s expected from you?
BIRDY: I definitely had people around me, like my father, looking out for me. I knew music was what I wanted to do, to be a songwriter, so for me it was really exciting.
TINKHAM: Did you feel any pressure to deliver after signing a contract like that?
BIRDY: Not really. I was writing all the time, but it never felt like I was under pressure. I was just developing. It was a time to grow.
TINKHAM: You’ve talked about how your first songs were inspired by love and heartbreak. Are you ever inspired to write when you’re feeling excited or elated?
BIRDY: Yeah. I find that it’s usually when I am really happy that a sad song comes out, which is quite weird. [laughs] I don’t know why. I guess it’s just the strongest emotion. At the moment, I’ve been writing a lot on the guitar, and the songs are much happier and brighter and lighter, so I’m really enjoying that.
TINKHAM: Were any of the songs on Fire Within written on guitar?
BIRDY: Quite a few of them were. There’s one called “Heart of Gold,” which is a piano kind of ballad on the album, but I wrote it on guitar.
TINKHAM: At your shows, you’ve been stepping away from the piano for a few songs to perform front and center. You play a four-string guitar at one point.
BIRDY: Yeah, a tenor guitar. Ben Lovett is actually the one who introduced me to tenor guitars.
BIRDY: It can be difficult to see the faces of piano players if you’re not in a good spot. Have you gotten any feedback from your fans about that?
BIRDY: I haven’t, really, but I’m so aware of it. I hear people behind me say that they can’t see anything. It’s fun to see the crowd. It’s kind of terrifying at first to be standing up instead of hiding behind the piano. [laughs]
TINKHAM: You wrote “Just a Game” for The Hunger Games. Is that any easier, to be given a task to write?
BIRDY: I can become quite lazy and never finish a song properly, but when there’s a deadline, you have to do it and you have to make it as good as you can. I quite like it, even though sometimes it’s scary.
TINKHAM: I saw a video of you performing with Johnny Hallyday. How did that come about?
BIRDY: He has this TV show in France, and he was doing lots of duets in his songs, and I got to perform with him, which was very cool. And I love the song. It was really fun.
TINKHAM: Do you speak French?
BIRDY: A little bit. [laughs] I learned it at school, but I can’t remember it anymore.
TINKHAM: What are three albums that have been important to your development as a songwriter and recording artist?
BIRDY: One would be Tracy Chapman. That’s one that I listened to growing up. My dad used to listen to it, and I’m sure I’ve been influenced by it in some way. Jeff Buckley’s Grace. It’s so expressive, and I love that about him. And a more recent one is Paolo Nutini’s Sunny Side Up, which I listen to all the time.
BIRDY PLAYS AT IRVING PLAZA TONIGHT AND TOMORROW NIGHT SUPPORTING CHRISTINA PERRI. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.