I am often a little apprehensive before I attend shows that rely solely on acoustic performers. Will the singing be up to scratch? Will the artists in question be able to generate enough dynamic contrast to keep it interesting? Will the exposed nature of the performance reveal songwriting inadequacies? The acoustic singer-songwriter genre suffers from extreme market over-saturation, and in the vast majority of cases I end up feeling suffocated by wannabe-Sheeran’s mixing bad poetry with formulaic chord progressions, hackneyed melodies and cloyingly over-emoticised vocals (often served up with a side dish of bile-inducing melisma). I must also confess at this junction that this is the first interview of any sort I have ever conducted, and so my own butterflies are rustling up a quiet abdominal storm as I arrive at British Summertime Festival’s last hurrah for 2017.
It is thus a tense mindset I find myself in, leading up to my interview with up-and-coming, acoustic guitar-toting songstress, Jade Bird. Jade, a relative unknown, has just released her debut EP, ‘Something American’, on prestigious label Glassnote records, following minor YouTube success with a live performance of original, ‘Madeleine’, and relentless gigging on the London scene. With trepidation, I am frog-marched through a bewildering maze of media tents and guest areas, to the back of the artist enclosure, where l first glimpse Jade, chatting merrily away to fellow performer Jordan Mackampa. I approach cautiously, but Jade bounds over to me, all energy and enthusiasm. I am presented with a self-assured and articulate young woman, clearly the architect of her own artistic direction, and confident in her ability to talk to anyone about her work. Jade is warm in person, effervescently chatty and I find my own nerves drifting away as we settle into conversation.
KG: I guess we should start at the beginning… At what point did you become aware that you wanted to play music, and that you had something that you wanted to say?
JB: “Yeah so I think, my parents were more into dance music…”
JB: “Yeah! I’d go downstairs and I’d hear “Dooph Dooph Dooph” – they were very young parents, and my musical tastes definitely didn’t come from them. I started playing piano when I was about seven, but “getting a real job” was still very much on my mind (I was quite the driven seven year old!). But then, when I was about 12 I think, my parents divorced, and… it was, kinda like most artists have, a release in some respect. I started writing around the same time, and I just gigged everywhere I could really, like competitions and stuff. I used to live in Wales – it was like really bad gigs, you know! So I think when I kinda proved it to my parents, that’s really when it became a bit more serious. Music has always been like a direct connection for me, you know, like “plugging in” almost…”
KG: I know what you mean. So I guess we should also talk about your influences. The music you play focuses on authenticity – its very divorced from a lot of the over-produced music that is dominant these days. Was that a conscious decision on your part? Where does that come from?
JB: “So obviously being quite young, I listen to everything, and I like to be really aware of what’s around me. And man, I mean just like, everything sounds the same these days. Everything feels so co-written and like its trying so hard to relate to everybody, and in the end it relates to nobody. And I just feel that if you take a step back and try to relate things to yourself instead, by making what you wanna make, then surely that’s a step in the right direction. Does that make sense? So obviously its not gonna be like perforating your eardrums compression-wise, but that was always an intentional decision. I recorded up in Woodstock – that was also another way to try and get it as authentic as possible – I’m into my country, you know. We played with Matt Johnson, who was the drummer on ‘Grace’…”
KG: “Is that an important album to you?”
JB: “Yeah! I mean its not a direct link in all honesty – I’ve only gotten into it later. I feel like a lot of things, if you’re too young for that, it won’t hit you as hard. But listening to that, and whenever I see him in live performance videos, I’m like “Oh my god that’s Matt!” ‘Cause with me, he’s always like [here she puts on a goody mock-southern drawl] “Hey, you want some sweet potatoes man!” you know – he’s so lovely. Basically what I’m trying to say is that we got all the best musicians, to try and get it as good as possible, without having to resort to using the computer.”
KG: You’re obviously influenced by old blues and country, that comes through quite strongly. It’s a really uncommon thing for people of your generation/age to feel that influence, and you said your parents were really into dance music – so how did you discover that?
JB: “I’m not sure where the country influence comes from, but I think songwriting is the common factor in the stuff that I listen to. I think when I was 15 I found Chris Stapleton and The Civil Wars, and that was a big turning point for me, getting into Americana. I was like ‘Wow, these people really say something’ – they really connect. And Chris Stapleton is just like, out of this world, I’ve been forcing him on people for years! So yeah, I think like Alanis Morissette, Loretta Lynn and Patti Smith, strong women – I’m really into that. People who you know are really saying something. I’m so bored of hearing so many people say the same thing and not actually mean it.”
KG: So what about your creative process? Is it more a lyrics first, or music first kind of writing style?
JB: “So I was thinking about this the other day, because I was trying to guess what questions you are going to ask. So normally I start with the title…”
KG: “Wow that’s really strange, I’ve almost never heard of anybody who starts with the title!”
JB: “See I’m a bit obsessive – I’m a bit OCD. Its like any craft – you need to do it enough…”
KG: “Ten thousand hours and all that, eh?”
JB: “So true! Sometimes I’ll go through books and write down certain words to help me get a visual element. With ‘Something American’ I really had this kind of suburban story in my head – like housewife – that comes up a lot in my writing…”
KG: “Like in ‘Good Woman’?”
JB: “Yeah! But sometimes the best songs come with a bit of both. There is this song I’m really excited about – ‘Lottery’ – I was playing these two chords. That was simultaneous – the best songs tend to be a bit more simultaneous, they just kind of fall out of you…”
KG: So what do you think is the best song you’ve written and why?
JB: “Probably ‘Lottery’ – but I’m gonna say for the sake of this interview, ‘Something American’ (she laughs heartily – its infectious). Nah I’m joking. In terms of where I am with this EP though, ‘Something American’ was the standout, which is why we made it the title. I think ‘Cathedral’ had some classic pop influence, and structurally it’s very traditional and it really works, whereas ‘Something American’ was more about storytelling. I’m so excited for the future.”
KG: Are you nervous for today?
JB: “It’s quite a nice stage! I’d be more nervous if I was on Stevie Nicks’ stage! Nah I think when you’ve played, you still get a little apprehensive – and I think that’s a good thing cause it shows that you still care. Sometimes, although, I can be really miserable before a set and do really well, and sometimes when I’m the most hyped I do the worst! I think its your adrenaline – it manifests in weird ways! Plus, I’m a mega worrier…”
KG: “You don’t seem it!”
JB: “Yeah its all behind closed doors – stress and everything…”
KG: “Well, you come across as extremely confident.”
JB: “Yeah I think thats really important – for young girls especially. I don’t wanna hide behind my guitar. I am strong and I am not apologetic and I think it’s great for young girls to be like that!”
KG: So what can we expect from you in the future?
JB: “So I’m going over to the States next week, Nashville. We’re gonna do a little tour around there. Coming back in October, I’ve got my headline show at Omeara (Tuesday, October 17th). It’s such a great venue, and I had such a great time last time I was there. And hopefully releasing more music in the near future – we’ve got a huge backlog of songs that we’re whittling down.”
KG: I daresay, before last week, not that many people had heard of you. You’re taking what seems to be a really big career leap. From the outside it can look like your some kind of overnight sensation, but that’s not true at all, is it – you’ve really put in the work. Do you feel that you’ve paid your dues? How do you feel about that kind of story, that the media loves to sell?
JB: “Its the long game for me, and it always has been. I’ve done the circuit – moved to London when I was 16, and I didn’t stop playing for 2 years, and only then were labels interested. It’s not obviously going to go bang overnight – it’s not that kind of music – it requires investment on the part of the listener. Everything is so disposable now. No-one is investing in anyone in music at the moment – people are just obsessed with singles. Whilst my EP might not get me as many fans as doing the singles thing might, I think that it will be better for me in the long run, because people will really be able to connect with me through it…”
I become conscious of the time and decide to bring a halt to proceedings at this point, although not without regret, since I’ve hugely enjoyed chatting to Jade. I’m aware that she is due to perform at 2:30pm, and I want to give her space to get ready for her big show. Slowly I make my way over to the intimate Summer Stage, where Jade is due.
Her set blows me away. All my normal reservations about this genre are blasted into the stratosphere. For a one-woman show, it’s an incredibly dynamic performance. Jade has truly remarkable vocal control – she’s able to retreat from a pure and powerful fortissimo to an almost-broken whisper in an instant, and she’s constantly using this motif to induce drama in her performance. She’s a technically solid guitarist as well – there’s a lot more going on than just bog-standard strummed four chord progressions, some deft and delicate country-folk finger style is on display today. I notice that she has a particularly strong sense of internal rhythm and timing (another area where singer-songwriters let themselves down).
Mandatory folksy stage banter is present as well, but Jade has the sense to keep it short and sweet. The goofy American accent makes its return – but it’s a nice touch for comic effect – she sees the funny side of a girl who grew up in Wales making it as an Americana artist, she keeps the crowd laughing along with her. However, the voice and the songwriting are the centrepieces of this performance, and rightly so, because they’re honest and pure. She even has the confidence to withhold ‘Madeleine’ from the set, instead focusing on the fresh and more sophisticated material from the new EP. We rattle through the upbeat and engaging set, including crowd pleaser ‘Good Woman’, and several unreleased gems, including “Lottery”, before we finish with the title track ‘Something American’. Its this track that hits me hardest, utilising 3/4 waltz time, soaring, wistful melodies and a set of lyrics that hint at a painful nostalgia no-one Jade’s age should know, to raise a lump in my throat. Despite Jade’s protestations to the contrary, this song is as structurally artful as they come, but it doesn’t hold the storytelling back at all. A mark of brilliant songwriting is the ability to take cliché and make it artful. The song begins and ends with the couplet ‘We knew each other when we were very young / High school sweethearts, or something American’. ‘Or something American’ sounds almost sarcastic in the beginning, but by the time we’ve reached the end, the only thing I’m painfully aware of, is a solitary tear, rolling slowly down my right cheek.
It’s enough to make me wonder if my life is missing something American…
Jade Bird headlines Omeara in London on Tuesday 17th October. Tickets are available here.