“We’ve been up to Yorkshire, where we visited Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall recently,” BIRD’s Adele Emmas (Vocals/Bass) recalls. “The graveyard’s alongside a church that’s been destroyed and built elsewhere,” Sian Williams (Guitar/Piano/Vocals) explains. “This graveyard jwas so eerie and when we were walking around Lex [Samata] our drummer was saying ‘this is such a Bird thing to do’ and we said, ‘Well, get used to it!’” An anecdote that reveals plenty about the ethereal shoegaze, dream pop trio that is Bird. Why merely read a biography about those who have influenced you when you can visit the places that inspired them first-hand?
Our meeting in a rain-lashed city centre has been called to discuss the band’s stunning new EP Ophelia. Presaged with the crashing waves of Intro (Horses in the Waves), the near-choral singing sets the scene for what follows: a breathtakingly ambitious set of songs, with the sea providing a thematic connection between the tracks.
“There’s a book that’s been in the family for years, my great granddad’s, on Mythology and Ghost Stories, that kind of magical world,” Adele explains. “I read that for lyrical inspiration; it’s got stuff about sirens and stories of the sea. I love being near the sea; it gives me a huge sense of clarity and peace; I feel really at home. We’re not very urban, to be honest; we’re more rural. That’s where most of the inspiration comes from. When I’ve been writing a lot of this EP, all I’ve had in my head is the coast and beautiful parts of England.”
Inspired by an impressively esoteric source, Pious sees Sian’s instrumental skills strongly at the fore, the slowly uncoiling piano arpeggios a homage to one of England’s most venerated early composers. “It’s our modern take on 16th and 17th century chants. I’m really influenced by Thomas Tallis, a composer in the Tudor era,” the multi-instrumentalist explains. “It’s called Pious but it’s not about religious piety per se. It’s more about being pious towards yourself and your own beliefs. It’s such a strong word, it conjures up images of being so caught up in something that you can’t really see anything else.”
Due in part to Adele’s switch from six strings to four, Bird’s new material has a weight to it absent in the band’s previous recordings. “There’s no bass at all on the old records. I love the bass now, I always used to play guitar,” the singer explains. “We’re trying to utilise more power, more volume and crescendos,” Sian notes.
Alongside these developments is the newly-arrived presence of Bill Ryder-Jones in the producer’s chair. Following his work on By the Sea’s superb debut LP, the composer approached Bird last autumn with a view to working on their next EP. “He’s been very good at going along with what we wanted but still putting his slight spin on things production-wise. We’re really appreciative and grateful,” Adele says. “He’s added some synth and soundscapes, which is perfect for us because it adds to the atmosphere.” “He enhanced the magic without squashing our signature sound,” Sian adds with a nod.
An incidental pleasure of recording with the former Coral axeman was access to his armoury of vintage guitars. “Fleetwood Mac are my favourite band,” Sian explains. “I was recording part of Ophelia on a really nice Gibson and he said ‘that used to belong to Peter Green you know’.” “Sian nearly had a heart attack,” Adele laughs.
The EPs title cut and standout moment, Ophelia marks the band’s first full collaboration. A twin tribute to the Prince of Denmark’s doomed girlfriend and John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite painting, the track glides into view on Sian’s simple yet vast-sounding delay pedal riff, held in place by Lex’s tribal drumbeats. “The music was the first thing we wrote together as a band,” Sian explains. “Adele has been messing round with the bass and she came up with the riff; I put the guitar part instantly over it, then Lex brought the drums in and it just developed.”
String-laden mini-symphony The Waltz – “About two loved ones being separated during the war” – has its origins in a trip down to Brighton and BBC classic Truly, Madly, Deeply. “I found this big box of old photos that didn’t belong to anyone and I bought a few,” Adele recalls. “There was this photo of this one guy who was in his military uniform and I thought ‘Someone’s probably clutched onto this and cried their heart out over it.’ That sparked it off.”
Alongside the rhythm section’s greater impact, another development on the EP is the distant, siren-like quality of Adele’s vocals, highly redolent of Cocteau Twins’ Liz Frazier. Swathed in generous helpings of reverb, the lyrics become all the more compelling – this certainly isn’t something that you can sling on as white noise. “You need to invest in it and really listen to it; you can’t really have it on in the background.” Adele nods.
“Lyrically, the theme throughout is about the loss of people, but finding something through that, learning lessons and finding new people,” Adele states. “It’s very much about the light and dark of life: without darkness you can’t have light. The subject matter is quite gloomy, but if you think the music’s beautiful then you’ll start to think of them both together.”
“We pride ourselves on being quite left-field,” laughs Sian. “In a way, the more weird we can be, the better, to be honest; we want to be different. We’re not gonna be making any pop tunes anytime soon.” A welcome relief surely as Bird’s voyage becomes ever more fascinating with each new startling leap their collective imagination takes.
Ophelia out now on Jack to Phono Records.