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Jade Bird

Like falling in love, break-ups start slowly and then happen all at once. For Jade Bird, the end of her relationship gathered pace and crashed into reality in 2022, resulting in the beautifully temperate EP EP Title. It is a short collection of songs that paint the various stages of grief that come with the end of a relationship in devastatingly astute but carefully optimistic strokes.

Bird has always railed against being pigeonholed and wary of collaboration. Having grown up in the UK, she was influenced heavily by Americana and hailed as a powerhouse performer. Even as she was compared to country-folk titans, in those early days she was determined to be fully Jade Bird without any shades of anyone else. Every note had to come from her. But for EP Title, she worked with Alex Crossan, known better as Mura Masa, finding freedom and joy in writing and experimenting with ideas in his modest home studio. Gradually, the songs found form and her emotions tumbled out into notes and melodies, shepherded by Crossan’s unique and encouraging ear.

She had met her ex-fiance when she was just 18. He was a musician and she was newly signed. “It was an unsaid thing that it wouldn’t have worked unless he kind of joined my band and we toured together, so things evolved very quickly,” she says. So for the next few years as Bird’s career took off, they did everything together: recording, touring, writing, everything. “Every cool memory I’ve got musically, he’s in that. The second record is about him.” He was enmeshed in her life in a way that few of us experience. “When you’re in a relationship like that, when it’s good it’s so good. You’ve got support at work, you’re on the road together: it’s this romantic ideal. And when it’s not good, it becomes a bit of a living hell.”

Even as they got engaged and moved together to Austin, Texas, things began to break down. “There’s been so many times I’ve been on stage and I’ve just sort of had a bit of a breakdown, crying or whatever, because the songs are so interwoven into my experience.” Bird began writing the songs that make up the EP just after the hardcore lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic ended. “I think we were all going through something,” she says of those early writing sessions with Cossen. During one of the last writing sessions before the break-up, she wrote the song Burn The Hard Drive, a sultry, sorrowful song. “There’s no good goodbye, no right way to die,” she sings on the chorus before offering a digital Eternal Sunshine solution of destroying all evidence of a relationship. “I listened back to it with Alex and was like, ‘Oh my god this is a premonition of ending my relationship’.”

Writing has always been a way to talk things through with herself. “I think that was me getting it out on paper, getting it out through music and telling myself the things I couldn’t do in a more matter of fact way.” With Cossen’s help, she interrogated the emotions the song had thrown up, feeling her way through the memories of times when she didn’t have a voice or a safe space to express what she’d been feeling during the dying days of an intense relationship. “Before I knew it, that was the exact concept for the EP, which was honing in on every little piece of the break up.”

Though a sad, reflective kind of EP, it begins on a hopeful note with Breaking The Grey, the final stage of grief when you realise you’re going to be okay. “It’s about getting out of a bad spot,” Bird explains. “I often find in a room, there is a level of empathy, where I find myself worrying what the room is going through and I think with Breaking The Grey we were all feeling the murkiness of the pandemic, the clouds of that – so the chorus was about finding our way out of that while the verses are more personal.” Over a jaunty piano line, she sketches out tiny scenes of a different kind of grey – “The look on your face as you hold me close, your feelings have changed”. “There was a purity to the process,” she recalls. “I could get super in my head as a writer, zigzagging past my feelings. But with Alex, he was just like ‘It doesn’t matter what this is for, we’re just creating’. So it allowed me to tell stories that are different to my usual kind of ‘rage’ narrative – it’s a lot more vulnerable.”

It’s quite a departure for Bird, much gentler than her previous two albums and with more twisting, mesmerising riffs than the hard strums that have become a kind of trademark. “Rage became a huge point of contention for me – I grew up in a high conflict household so I think my albums have been about getting that out – but with Alex, for some reason, that wasn’t what was coming out. It’s a little different. I think it’s exploring the emotions before the rage,” she says, before adding with a grin: “I’m saving the rage for the album.”

You can still hear the fire of classic Jade Bird though – C’est La Vie has a huge stadium-worthy chorus that is solely Bird and her guitar. But there is no song more markedly unusual for her than You’ve Fallen In Love Again, twinkling gently across a winding bass line with otherworldly synths popping in and out of focus. “I think we tapped into the dissociative mood I was in – I felt like I was hovering above myself,” she says. The song suggests a fear of finding herself back in an unhealthy relationship, the trap of falling in love. “I think that is probably the most relatable feeling, as opposed to the heartbreak. I needed to be free.”

It’s a short, reflective record, one that seems to send Jade Bird off on a new trajectory. Life has taken a turn too. She relocated to LA, started seeing someone new and has been embracing more pastimes outside of her career – at just 26 she’s already been a working musician for almost a decade. Even as her most collaborative work yet, EP Title sees her finally feeling like herself. It’s been a transformative time: and from the darkness, light has come.

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For Jade Bird, the second that lockdown lifted, there were no aimless summer days spent meeting friends in parks; no languorous evenings in pub gardens. She was headed straight back to Nashville to complete her second album — albeit via a strict two-week quarantine in Mexico City. She allowed herself to see no more of the Mexican capital than the local store and a leg-stretching walk around the block, not wanting to jeopardise any chance of being allowed into the States to finish what she had started with Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb (Brandi Carlile, John Prine, Lady Gaga). The highlight of her stay in Mexico was literally her boyfriend pointing out a particularly gnarly spider he spotted as he had a cigarette on the balcony. “I move on really quick,” Jade explains of the urgency she felt. “My partner always says there’s no in between with me whatsoever, it’s on or it’s off. My feeling was: I’m in it, I love these songs, I want to sing. That’s why we made heaven and earth move so I could do that in that moment.”

For Jade, moving fast was about staying connected to the music that she had written (as always), not capitalising on momentum or anyone else’s idea of a career plan. She had a taste of the UK hype cycle, making the BBC’s 2018 Sound Of… poll and being tipped everywhere from Vogue to Rolling Stone. Her self-titled debut album arrived a year later. Despite those early garlands, she didn’t become an overnight success. “I was really glad,” she says. “Musically I was not ready. Lyrically I was not ready. And mentally I was not ready.” Nevertheless, Jade Bird — as barnstorming an album as came out in 2019 — received plaudits from the likes of Pitchfork and NPR. And it showed Jade, an obsessive at bettering her craft, how she wanted to build on the foundations she had laid. She was grateful that her label, Glassnote, was invested in letting her develop album by album. “If you lose a sense of who you are, to re-establish that is really difficult,” she says of the pressures hype puts on developing artists. “And the time that it takes for you to re-evaluate your life, your sound, who you are, the UK doesn’t have time for that either.”

That mature perspective is typical of Jade, who even at 21 was wise to how young female musicians are expected to become cute ambassadors for feminism. (“I’m not sure how to do anything but what I’m doing because what I’m doing is feminism,” she told the Guardian. “You don’t need to wear a hashtag T-shirt.”) Still, as all 21-year-olds tend to, she thought she had life pegged. A standout from her debut, Love Has All Been Done Before, looked at her mum and her grandma’s respective divorces and confidently concluded that any relationship of hers would also end up doomed. She proved herself wrong: she’s been with her boyfriend (he’s also her guitarist) for three years. “I ended up realising I’m really happy and stable,” she says.

Her new song, Houdini, puts to bed the part of her past where she was obsessed with literal abandonment. If her debut reflected on “literally every male family member being absent, present, absent, present,” she says, Different Kinds of Light reflects on what it means to stay, to love, to allow yourself to be loved. It’s about “being with somebody who you adore more than the whole world that hasn’t got the foundations to believe in themselves,” she says. “Hasn’t had people supporting them in a way that their potential can be realised, ’cause they’ve been crippled by the people or environments that surround them.”

Jade translated these conflicted emotional states into sharply observed narrative vignettes that show her flair as a storyteller: the guy oblivious to what’s in front of him, the escape artist who confesses to being “asleep at the wheel my whole damn life”; the wastrel burning through their promise. “If I had a penny for all your potential, I’d be left drowning in my mouthful of metal,” Jade sings on Now Is the Time. It speaks to how quickly her writing has matured from the more polemical storytelling of her debut. “When you’re young, you sit in a chaos of emotions and desperately try to write out of it,” says Jade, who’s still only 23. “But when you’re older, you work out what’s affected you and why more clearly. It’s amazing what two years can do: it’s like you’re writing as you’re watching instead of writing to see.”

Different Kinds of Light was properly born in a rental in upstate New York in January. (When Jade finished her day’s writing in the shed and walked back to the house, there were often bear tracks in the snow.) Some came from the song-a-day project that she undertook during lockdown, which she spent with her boyfriend, her mum and grandma at home near Gatwick. In Mexico, she pushed herself to write more and found her British influences — the Smiths, Cocteau Twins — coming out. She used to road-test songs live; not being able to do so this year brought out a different side of her writing. One new highlight, I’m Getting Lost, “is quite a bizarre riff to jam out,” says Jade, “so it helped me evolve at the same time.”

After a session together earlier in the year that minted their studio chemistry, Jade returned to Nashville with more new material to bring to life with Dave Cobb, though she maintained an equally monastic lifestyle, moving strictly between her apartment and the studio to protect herself and her collaborators. She and Dave had clicked in an earlier session thanks to how he treated her potent yet weathered vocals. “I love anyone who can make you sound so imperfect in a great way,” she says. They let her sound find its groove, joining tough 90s alt-rock and the melodicism of Blur and Oasis at their sweetest to the taut rattle of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. “That rock element that I’ve been missing and deeply love,” is how Jade describes it. “If I’m in the car, that’s what I put on.”

There’s also the spirit of Fleetwood Mac’s pop epics. Stevie Nicks’ Storms inspired Different Kinds of Light’s title track, written last summer while Jade toured the US with Jason Isbell and Father John Misty. “It says so much: ‘did not deal with the road,’ ‘I have always been a storm.’ There’s so much in that record that breaks my whole being,” she says, melting. She had experienced her own hard times on tour. Anxiety would come and go: a side-effect of being hyper-productive, as she’s observed in many young women. “The problem with me is that if you push me, I tend to do well,” she says. “The line where I’ve had enough is hard to find. I think so many artists are crippled by guilt, ’cause you know that opportunities aren’t handed out every day so you end up trying to do them all. It’s toxic, but it comes with the nature of the industry.”

Last summer, that blind work ethic resulted in Jade sometimes becoming physically unable to perform and having to cancel shows. It felt devastating at first. “After that tour, we went to Cornwall and I remember sitting on a rock and listening to Storms over and over and over again, crying and crying and crying, and it being really cathartic,” she says. It wasn’t that the skies cleared and suddenly everything was fine. “What frustrates me is that if you have a mental illness, it gets marketed like it’s going to go away,” says Jade. “I think it’s counterproductive to a lot of families who are dealing with people with mental health illnesses, like depression — you know you’re going to love that person that way for life, you love them with it, and you’ll never love them without it. That’s who you are and that’s why you love them.”

In the US, Jade became part of a community of songwriters and career artists who showed her that a happier, more holistic and sustainable way of working was possible. The likes of Isbell, Sheryl Crow and Jade’s friend and champion, Brandi Carlile, promote a nurturing environment, she says, and often tour with their families in tow. It was inspiring. “Especially for a young, female artist, knowing that you can be happy and do your job is really underrated,” says Jade. (Also inspiring: for a truly life-affirming vision, look up footage on YouTube of Jade, Brandi and Sheryl performing 9 to 5 with Dolly Parton, Linda Perry, Maggie Rogers, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and more at last year’s Newport Folk Festival, a vision in jewel-coloured pant suits.) Jade resents the modern idea that musicians are also expected to be marketers and businesspeople; for her, musicians are meant to be artists. She admires Brandi’s longevity: “It took her six albums before she hit By the Way, I Forgive You. The work ethic! The belief!”

Hence why Jade and her partner are moving to the US — flying out on the date of the 2020 election, no less. Plus she’s young and she’s never lived away from home before, bar the many months spent on the tour bus: why not? They’re starting in Austin, moving in with a photographer friend, but Jade calls it “the move before the move” — next they might go to Nashville, or Portland. Jade isn’t releasing Different Kinds of Light until autumn 2021, in the hope that touring is possible again by then. (You’ve never heard anyone sound as unconvinced as Jade talking about how it’s been to perform virtually.) “I want the album to have a moment,” she says.

In the meantime, maybe she’ll work on the punk album she’s been making with iconic songwriter Linda Perry, a concept record inspired by the B-52s, the Raincoats and riot grrrl, and based on feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian 1915 novel, Herland, about a society composed entirely of women who can reproduce asexually. “It’s in my back pocket,” says Jade, brimming with excitement. “Third album, fourth album.” There’s no rush. The trepidation she felt about her profession on her debut has dissipated. “I never felt like I could call myself an artist — like, we’ll see. Whereas I know that’s my occupation now. That’s who I am, and that’s incredibly reassuring.”