Lauren Bird is a singer-songwriter out of Belfast. She plays a mean ukulele. Her songs are beautiful tragedies, dripping with heartbreaking emotion. After speaking with her about her introverted nature, I came to see that her songs are both a shield and a weapon she uses against everything the world throws at her. Lauren Bird is a reminder that, as Frou Frou once said, “There is beauty in the breakdown.” She is also a testament to the healing power of music.
Lauren was kind enough to play a couple songs for us at a a nearby park in the heart of Belfast. Take a listen to “Toxins” and “That’s the Truth.” You can also listen to her whole album, The In Between, at https://laurenbirdmusic.bandcamp.com/album/the-inbetween. Learn more about her on her website: https://www.laurenbirdmusic.com. And of course, find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/laurenbirdmusic/.
Were you born in Belfast?
I was born and raised in Strabane. I moved to Belfast at 19 to study music at the university for three years. I was absolutely petrified of ever playing for anyone–and I didn’t play for anyone, ever, until my final year in uni. Then when I graduated I started to get gigs. I’m about 90 miles from Belfast, so now I’m always driving up and down the road at least once or twice a week playing up here.
You meet other musicians around here, you find cliques of people and you bring each other up. I’ll support you, you support me–that kind of way.
So there’s a good sense of community?
Yeah, there’s a really big music scene here. For such a small country, there’s a lot of music coming out of it.
And how do you find your music style fits in with what’s going on here?
I don’t want to say it doesn’t, but there’s not a lot of songs about Depression played on the uke anywhere else here. But there’s a lot of really good folk music here.
I think I kind of tend to play more pop music than what’s the biggest genre around here; but for the most part, I seem to be getting gigs okay, so I guess I fit in somewhere.
How would you describe Belfast in a word or a sentence?
That’s a hard one. I guess in a way, it’s a very divided city in terms of a lot of things–in terms of culture, music–there’s a really big band scene, and there’s also a really big folk kind of songwriter scene.
And of course, there’s also a lot of politics involved around Belfast. It’s a weird city. There are loads of liberal people and then loads of very conservative people, which is why we don’t have same-sex marriage legal here. And say I was pregnant, and I was told that the baby wouldn’t live; I wouldn’t be allowed to have an abortion.
It seems like a very liberal city, but there’s kind of an undercurrent of very conservative politics. So it’s very weird. I don’t think we’re getting there, but hopefully we’ll get there soon. Ireland has just passed same-sex marriage last year, but we haven’t. It’s weird.
Our MP’s voted for [same-sex marriage], but then there’s this thing called the Petition of Concern. Because half of Northern Ireland wants to be part of a whole Ireland, and half of Ireland wants to be part of the UK, there’s a clause called the Conscience Clause, which says that if one side of the community feels their values are being pulled away, they can drop it. Then 60% of the people have to vote to get it. And because only about 52% voted for it, they dropped it and we didn’t get it. So I don’t know if we’ll ever get it.
Some politics for you in the middle of a music interview!
One last question about Belfast. Is there any cuisine that is local to here?
Yeah, there’s something called the ulster fry. It’s basically just very bad for you. It’s bacon, sausages, black pudding, beans, eggs. There’s a debate between having I think either beans or eggs. One’s an ulster fry, one’s a full English or something. There’s a little cafe called Maggie May’s. They do a very good one–so I’m told! I’m not the biggest fan.
Black pudding–I don’t know if you’ve had that before. I haven’t either. Just the idea of it–it’s like blood pudding. Pig’s blood. That’s a thing here. I’ve heard it’s good, but I’ve never tried it. I’m too scared.
On Her Music:
You said you were very nervous to play your first gig. What was it like?
For a long time, I was playing open mic nights. First in a group, and then a couple times on my own. It was very scary. The very first proper gig I had that wasn’t an open mic night was very bad. I was so nervous that I was sick for five days, and I couldn’t eat properly. Then the day of, I was just so scared that I forgot my words. There’s video of it. I feel so sorry for 21 year old me. She really struggled through that. It took me maybe a year of gigging before I didn’t feel sick before a gig. It took a long time to get over it. Now I’m fine. Now I’m excited most of the time, but it’s still weird.
It’s weird, especially if you’re an introverted person. It’s very weird. I’m so introverted, but I feel like I have to come out of my shell to do this, but it’s weird because I don’t like to.
I get it. I often feel introverted as well. I don’t like having the attention focused on me; but I feel like when you’re performing, that’s kind of a necessity!
I know! But I’m like, “Don’t look at me! Just listen.” I don’t like being in my music videos, I don’t like getting photos taken. So when you said it was an audio interview, I was like, “Great!”
Do you have any tricks, or has it just been practice that helped you get over the fear?
My old music teacher once told me this thing where you imagine yourself, and then imagine your room, and then imagine house, and then imagine your street–and then you realize how small and insignificant you actually are! Then you get over yourself a little bit! But for the most part, it’s just been the more I do it, it’s less scary. It’s just routine now. Not that I’m a machine! It’s just, “Oh, I’m doing that today. I’ve done that before, it’s not scary anymore.”
What sort of influences do you draw upon for your writing?
The three that were the biggest and that I talked about most when I was recording the album were Feist–
That’s true! I actually met her.
Yeah, I met her last year. She was so nice. The nicest person.
I’m kind of in love with her.
Oh, me too! She’s so nice!
It’s such a weird story. She didn’t do a concert here. She did a talk. She never does concerts here, but she did a talk. I found out last minute, and I went, and I was the first person there. I went by myself because none of my friends wanted to go. The woman who worked there I think kind of felt sorry for me, and so afterwards I asked her if Feist would be coming out and if I could get an autograph. She was like, “I’ll just go ask her.” She went backstage, and Feist was like, “Bring her in.” I was the only one, and it was so weird.
I had a copy of The Reminder with me, and she signed it for me. She doesn’t do photos, really. She talked to me for like 5 minutes, and I was literally losing my mind. She asked for my name, because I told her that I played music, and she laughed. I had a business card randomly, and she read it. It said “ukulele enthusiast” on it, and she laughed at that. I was like, “This is the best day of my life!” Then she told me that if my hands are too small, I should use a parlour guitar. I had just bought one, so I can’t even say, “Feist told me to buy one, so I bought one.” But yeah, she was lovely.
That whole album. You know “1234” sounds so happy, but it’s actually so sad. The first time I properly listened to that song and read the lyrics, I cried. I thought, “Okay, so sad songs don’t have to sound sad.” That was the core of most of my songs.
Production-wise, I was really into Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds when I was recording. I kept trying to write better harmony lines. I really wanted to make Graceland! So we got some really cool rhythms in there!
In terms of writing, I mostly just write about whatever I’m thinking about. I don’t think I’m going to make a song like this, it sort of just–these are four chords, then this is what I’m feeling, and I just put them together.
Do you remember what the first song you wrote was?
No. I do remember being 7 and re-writing the words to “Tearing Up my Heart” by N’Sync. That wasn’t technically the first song. I don’t remember the first song I wrote, and I really hate that. People ask that question all the time. It’s awful.
What’s changed for you since your first EP?
I found somebody who I wanted to collaborate with as a producer. I really liked and trusted him and his instincts with songs. Before that, I was like, “These songs are mine, and no one else should touch them.” Whenever I met Cormac (O’Kane), who did the album, he was really into the same music as me, and we got on really well. He’d be like, “Just try this,” and I’d be like, “Okay.” We bounced ideas off each other, and I think it worked better. I felt bad for the producer on the first album, because I wanted to do everything. I also have OCD, so everything was always wrong. I’m trying to stop that, but it’s always hard.
Is there one song on the new album that’s dear to your heart more than the others?
There’s one on the album called “Thoughts.” It was the last song I recorded. It was the most recent one I’d written. First of all, it was on the guitar, and everything I’ve done around here has been on the uke, so I didn’t know where it’d fit on the album. It was also very personal. Most of my songs are personal, but this song was really personal. I played it for Cormac, and he was like, “No, that one has to be on the album.” He forced me to record it, and I was petrified to have anybody listen to it, because the lyrics are so depressing.
The first time I played it for my best friend–she’s one of those people who will tell you honestly how it is, and I need someone like that. She was like, “I love it! That’s the best song you’ve ever written.”
It’s still very scary to play live. The album only came out in May, and I hadn’t played the song before the album came out. It’s also on the guitar, and it’s tricky. But I think that one’s closest to my heart. Arrangement-wise, I think it also went really well.
Can I ask what the song is generally about?
Well, I had gone through therapy, and I came out the other side of that. It was just a six week course thing, because it’s hard to get on the NHS here. I was trying to think more about mindfulness and trying to get out of my head a little bit. So I bought this book that’s about practicing mindfulness. One of the first lines in the book said, “You’re not your thoughts. Your thought are just thoughts. “
I was like, “I don’t really have much else going for me right now except my thoughts.” So that’s the first line in the song–“A book told me I’m not my thoughts, but honestly, they’re all I’ve got.” It goes on about all of my worries and fears in life. It’s not masked metaphorically at all, because I’m not smart enough to write in metaphors. It’s just everything I’ve ever worried about.
But I think that’s what the best pop songs are.
Yeah, I think so. It’s scary, but it’s cool when people come up to you and they relate to you. Then you think, “Okay, so I’m not the only one who thinks that I’m crazy.”
That’s why the songs are so powerful though. The other day, when Chester Bennington died, we were driving and listening to a few songs from Hybrid Theory, and I literally had to pull over because I couldn’t stop crying. The words just speak to you.
Yeah, I went back and listened to that album. It’s crap because he was so open and he wore his heart on his sleeve.
The appeal of the music is the honesty and openness and clarity there.
And sometimes you don’t realize it’s even there because the music is so heavy! I know people give them a lot of crap for their new album, but that song “Heavy”–I know it’s kind of a pop song, but it was saying things pop songs aren’t saying.
Can you think of a time when music really helped you through a difficult time?
I find music really emotional in general. There was this one time where I applied for this thing–I don’t want to be specific about it. I applied for this thing, and I worked really hard and done a lot to try and get it. I was waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and the stress was building. I didn’t get it, and I was so gutted about it, because I thought that was my chance. It would be a good thing for me and my music.
Then I thought, “I’m allowed to be upset about this, because I care so much about this. I went upstairs, and I just–I have this playlist that if I’m ever really anxious and have a panic attack, I listen to these songs and they build me back up again. I had this moment where, “I love music, and music kind of tore my heart out today, but it also kind of built it back up.” There are a couple songs. “Better Son Daughter” by Rilo Kiley–that song , for me, is everything. It’s golden. “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes. Love that one. “For You Now” by Bruno Merz. Any time I feel like crying, I go to those three songs.
Is there a musical possession that is close to your heart.
My uke. I’ve had this one maybe four years. My parents got it for me for Christmas. Santa got it for me for Christmas. I’ve had other ukes before this one, and I’ve had many guitars–I’ve been playing guitar since I was 10–but I’ve just played so many gigs, recorded the album, just had so many things with this uke. If my house was on fire, I’d probably die trying to get this in my hands before I left.