How the "Something American" singer-songwriter is inspired by the strong women of her past.
Jade Bird could have you fooled with her accent. Her Southern drawl translates well into her crystalline power ballad “Something American.” But that doesn’t even compare to the take Texas accent that surfaces when we speak over tomato soup at cozy lunch spot buried in Flatiron. She’s so convincing—she could be mistaken for a Southerner. It’s also a testament to how well she blends into the Americana folk scene despite being a UK native.
Bird is 20 years old but her passion for music has been embedded in her since she began playing piano at seven years old. Her mom gave birth to her at 20 as well, and Jade spent her formative years moving from place to place as an army brat. While she doesn’t go into too much detail, she says she’s been in a lot of serious situations where she’s found comfort in the catharsis of music. “It’s very embedded in my experience,” she says. At 12, her parents divorced and she moved to Wales. Her mom found romance with a new partner who played guitar. “There was something quite magical about it,” she says of the instrument. She became immersed in songs her mom’s partner would play by Mazzy Star, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Bob Dylan and eventually started writing songs herself. It became her gateway drug to Americana and country music.
Her education began at 14 with the now defunct Civil Wars. “I remember seeing them, and I lost my mind,” she exclaims. Their breakup still has an effect on her. “It really upsets me,” she says. But it was Chris Stapleton’s “You Should Probably Leave” that made her contemplate classic country songwriting, which led her to Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. She was attracted to their wry humor, but also how they overcame hardship, she says while citing Coal Miner’s Daughter. “I think I’ve always been inspired by country music stories, because these women have to find a way to work despite [country music] being conservative and white male-oriented,” she explains. “I’ve been hugely inspired by their struggles and how they weren’t given anything and it didn’t come easy.”
Despite her affinity for Americana and country music—something she showed off on her 2017 EP Something American—she’s found herself with some pop tendencies. She’s been compared to everyone from Stevie Nicks to Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Alanis Morissette. Needless to say it’s hard to pin Bird down. In January she released “Lottery,” which had pop undertones because of the albums that have influenced her, the ones she’s nostalgic for. “Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is the one I always go back to,” she says fondly. But Bird doesn’t want to be boxed in genre labels. She wants to write piano ballads as much as she does Americana tracks and pop songs. “I always respected country music for its narrative and how it’s so solid, you can get the picture in your mind,” she explains. “I feel like song structure is a real ode to that emotion.” For Bird, that emotion stemmed from the breakdown of relationships in her life. Instead of falling out of love with her boyfriend, it was witnessing her parents and both sides of her grandparents split. Because it’s so intricately detailed with her experiences, her songwriting isn’t generic. “There’s not a line I think you can miss,” she says.
The emotional maturity found in her songwriting comes from having strong women in her life, like her mom who she refers to as her “best mate.” “We’re only 20 years apart, so I’ve always been treated like an adult in my life up until now,” she says. When Bird was very young and her dad was away in the army, her mom worked night shifts and babysat her during the day. Bird and her mom had to move them twice—something she credits her mom for doing all by herself. Her grandma also had a profound influence on her when Bird when she moved in with her in Wales—she witnessed her grandma move forward after her grandfather left her. It’s the women closest to her like her mom and grandma that have impacted the types of narratives she wants in her music. “I don’t really get inspired by landscapes that much, it’s all people,” she says of her inspiration. She aims to emulate and admire the women she grew up with in her craft. “I’ve been surrounded by incredibly strong women: incredibly, unapologetically strong women, and I guess that for me has just been the biggest inspiration,” she says. “It’s just been a total pleasure to grow up with my mom.”
Jade is hoping to get her debut album out this year or in early 2019. If all goes well she says, maybe she’d get Jack White to produce her next record. But for now, she says, “I’ll have to look to the stars.”
Ilana Kaplan is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.