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Like a Bird

Wallis Bird told David Hennessy about her new single about the extraordinary character of Dr James Barry, her experiences performing with the late, great Shane MacGowan and Sinead O’Connor, and the negative sides of fame.

The well known and award- winning singer- songwriter Wallis Bird is back in the UK for some shows.

Wallis is just about to release a special collaborative album she has been working on with Spark, the Classical Band and just released a single celebrating the Irish historical figure or Dr James Barry.

Although she once lived in London, Wallis has long been based in Berlin and certainly put down roots there now even buying a farm house.

Wallis told The Irish World: “It’ll be good to be back. I travelled around England there last September with Gabrielle and that was the first time I’d done any kind of real touring around England in a couple of years.

“It was very interesting coming back and seeing so much of the country, but it’s just the larger cities this time around.

“I always hoped to experience the rooms that are just a bit like the Mona Lisa of concert halls.

“We’ve been really lucky to have seen the best of the best of what England has to offer in terms of venues on that tour and other support tours that I’ve done.

“It was very special.

“The Royal Albert Hall was just icing on the cake and it’s an exceptional sounding room.

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“It was a lovely occasion.”

Wallis has just released the song Dr James Barry.

It is from Visions of Venus, your project with Spark- The Classical Band.

Dr James Barry was born Margaret Barry in Cork in 1789.

As women were not allowed practice medicine at that time, Margaret would become James, obtain a medical degree and practice medicine throughout the British Empire including in war zones.

Barry is credited with performing the first caesarean section on record.

Although Barry lived as a man and no one had any idea otherwise, the truth about his birth gender was discovered when he died at the age of 75.

It is a story you have been fascinated with, isn’t it?

“Very much so.

“He began practising at the age of 16.

“The caesarean section that he learned was from being posted abroad in South Africa for quite a lot of his career and he learned how to perform this caesarean section from the local women healers.

“He was born in Cork, he was born a woman but he was sent to Edinburgh to study at the age of 12 and that’s where he settled into his life as James Barry.

“He was a visionary.

“He was avid about the rights of the poor being treated equally as those who were rich.

“He was responsible for the eradication of typhoid through vaccines.

“He got up to Surgeon General which is the highest ranking you can get as a doctor.

“Absolutely fascinating human being.

“I’m very pro trans so when I was asked to write some songs for this project, Visions of Venus with Spark- The Classical Band, I just wanted to write about people from Ireland that I’m fascinated by.

“The subject matter within the song is mostly about how he must have felt being in war torn situations, working in an extremely violent field, and being a feminist and always wanting better health care for women and better health care for the poor.

“He was just a revolutionary in the medical world and I thought even for that alone: Absolutely story worthy.

“It was very inspiring to write about and it just really began to write itself.

“The arrangement that I wrote for it is written in the style of how he might have been breathing going through his daily life.

“There’s this trepidation and suspense and constant fast pulse going through it.

“It was a real pleasure to write and sometimes I felt like his ghost came to me.

“There were waves of power when I performed it and when I was writing it.

“I’m a strong believer that the soul breathes on.
“The soul is much, much too powerful an entity for it to just pass.

“I began to open up my mind to imagine what it must have been like for him in a situation in the job that he’s in, how dangerous it must have been and how much he had to fight.

“He got into a gunfight, possibly because he was so adamant about fighting for the rights of the poor to be treated equally.

“He was always getting in trouble.

“He was known as an extremely gentle, tender practitioner, but a very stern person in searching for better rights within his career, within his practice.

“It was symbolic.

“These things are fairly rare. It’s like the perfect job or something to be given.”

Had Barry not taken on the male persona, they could never have practiced medicine and then never done so much good…

“It (the regime) was against ya, definitely.

“Visions of Venus, quite a lot of the writers are from late 17, early 1800s.

“There is a common theme of it being excruciatingly and infuriatingly hard for a woman’s music to be accepted, to be played and shared with the wider world.

“We’re only just stepping out of the extreme grips of patriarchy now, women only being allowed to vote in the middle of the last century in a lot of countries is a stark reminder that we have so, so, so far to go.

“The project is about female composers.

“I’m a female composer.

“I just want the world to know about these characters and this life.

“It’s a very comprehensive album.

“One of the composers, for example is Hildegard Von Bingen  and she’s from 1000 years ago so we’ve genuinely taken artists from across the globe, from different backgrounds and different eras of music just to give as much of a grand painting of what it was like to pass through time as a female composer.

“The album is, in my opinion, one of the finer things that I’ve ever been involved in.

“It’s loaded with information and all of it is reaching out with joy and unbridled bravery, the arrangements of the music are attacked with passion.

“It’s a very intense and comprehensive, unique collection of music which I think will appeal to anybody with a good pair of ears to be honest.”

How did Spark and you come together?

“We found each other.

“We were both invited to the German President’s dinner with Michel D Higgins.

“They were having a meeting back in 2018 and invited some dignitaries and musicians and artists, Irish and German.

“Spark were playing at that dinner.

“Daniel and Andrea from Spark had known my music and we had a brief chat at the dinner and from then on, they had the idea to set up this album and they asked me would I like to be involved.

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Of course I would’.

“I’m very lucky to be asked to be part of it but it has very much become my baby now as well.

“You know, you dive in together and we’ve just developed it together then over the past five years.”

We chatted to you about your last album Hands back in 2022, is there also an album of your own stuff to come or have you been too preoccupied with Visions of Venus?

“There’s always more hours in the day than you think.

“Yeah, I’ve actually just recently began putting pen to paper.

“I’m going to put an album together.

“Set up my studio out in the farm that we bought and my aim is to do a recording with everybody together in one room just to have this communal story based around us building a community out on the farm and building it around friends, because having lost a friend a couple of months ago, it’s just really so important to me and all of us to kind of tighten our circles.

“The theme of the album is, time is ticking and we have to look after each other a little bit better.”

It was just days before Christmas last year that Wallis lost her friend, the talented musician from Mayo, Kevin Ryan who had, like Wallis, been living in Berlin.

“Kevin and I were basically like two peas in a pod.

“We did everything together.

“He helped me record.

“We did gigs together.

“He did the artwork for my albums.

“We filmed together.

“We basically met every day and devised something.

“We were peas in a pod.

“We’re a tight knit circle of 15 people in the city here and he was the link between us all so it’s a big loss.

“Something like that really just rocks everything, it puts perspective on everything as all the cliches may tell you but it’s really changed everything about what we’re doing as a group of people in this city together as friends as well because we are our chosen family.

“Absolutely incredible musician.

“Very, very inspiring artist, poet, songwriter, sculptor, painter, carpenter: He was one of these guys that was good at everything.

“Broke hearts everywhere he went, people fell in love with him everywhere he went.

“Now that he’s gone, I’m trying to try and pick up where he left off really.”

Ireland lost two icons last year in Shane MacGowan and Sinead O’Connor.

Wallis had poignant experiences with both of them.

What was it like to sing Fairytale of New York with Shane?

“Sharon Shannon was playing some really fantastic shows around Christmas time.

“She brought me on tour with her for the whole tour and one day she just asked me, ‘Listen, do you want to sing Fairytale of New York with Shane in Vicar Street?’

“And we also did a show over in Castlebar.

“I thought I was in a dream or something: Such a beloved song so that was a highlight.

“You know, one of those highlights of your life where you go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that happened’.

“He was lovely.

“He was a delight actually.

“He was an absolute charmer.

“You can see why he was so beloved, very gentle.

“Funny, deep soul.

“I got to chat with him briefly, but I would never have considered him a friend or something.

“But we got on very well.

“In the short time that we spent together, we got on quite well.

“And with Sinead O’Connor, I shook hands with her and gave her a hug.

“We played the same gig together.

“She’s very private, but happening to be there and watch her up close as a fellow artist and just see the magic happen that you know is there and then you see it and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it is magic’.

“Magic to see these people that mean so much to somebody because there’s this innate animalistic vocation within them where they just step out of a human shell and become light and energy and power.

“Just to watch that happen, it’s enough just to be existing in the same room as Sinead O’Connor to be honest.

“There is a thing about some people with that legendary status and then you meet them and you’re like, ‘I see, I get it, there’s just something to it’.

“It’s wonderful.”

So it’s definitely not true what people say, ‘You should never meet your heroes’..

“God, yeah.

“I think people have just been quite disappointed by heroes that they met but not at all (is it true).

“I think everybody should meet their heroes.

“I don’t think it’s easy being that famous.

“I think it’s sh*t, the tiny amount of fame that I ever receive or somebody knowing me is scary.

“It’s a scary, scary, scary thing.

“I think it would be pretty sh*t being that famous to be honest with ya. I wouldn’t like it.”
Have you found a real negative side with it?

“Oh God, yeah.

“I would not be famous, but well known in circles, let’s say but there was a tipping point where it was going really, really well and I could see that I was less and less into the trappings of what it meant to be a successful musician but leading into having more fame, more visibility in the public and stuff like that.

“The more visible I got in public, the less I was into it.

“I shy away from people that act differently in front of famous people.

“Myself included, we all get excited when we see somebody that has given us raw emotion or somebody that we love their work. We all get excited about that.

“But there’s an awful lot of people that just lose themselves in front of somebody famous because simply there’s someone famous or they have that aura, distinct aura of success or fame around them and people want a piece of that.

“That’s a big deterrent for me.

“I just absolutely want to be seen as equal in a room.

“I don’t like superiority. I don’t think it suits people.

“I kind of shy away from that so any kind of fame that I have had, I always drew away from it.

“I began to get stalkers and stuff like that.

“That’s when I began to really, really pull away from it and want to be more underground making music that I love, not have to go on red carpets and stuff like that.

“Occasionally it’s nice but it wouldn’t be my bag at all.”

The Irish World interviewed the teenage singer- songwriter from Dublin Saibh Skelly last year when she told us that it was Wallis who gave her her first guitar.

“She’s fab.

“She’s great.

“She’s really, really sweet. Myself and her cousin, who was my partner at the time, got her a guitar and it was her first guitar.

“I’ll never forget sitting in a room.

“Saibh, I think was less than 10. I think she was 8 or something and she picked up the guitar and it was as if she’d had it in her hand her whole life genuinely.

“And every now and again I write to her and I go, ‘How’s it going? If you ever want to chat about anything, no problem’.

“And she’s never contacted me.

“She needs no help. She’s killing it and I’m really proud of her because she’s doing her own thing in her own way. She doesn’t need anybody’s help and she’s really successful and her style is fab.

“I’m just really excited for her career.

“She doesn’t need any help from anybody. She’s killing it.”

How great would it be for the two of you to be on the same bill at some stage?

“That would be nice.

“Actually, it’s a fair point.

“I’d love to even stand on the same stage as her just listening to her sing.

“She’s a powerful, powerful young artist.

“I have a lot of faith in her career.

“I think she’s gonna go the long mile and have a very interesting career, a very interesting life as an artist.

“She really means it, you know?”

Wallis Bird plays The Deaf Institute, Manchester on Wednesday 10 April, Lexington in London on Thursday 11 April and Fletching Trading Boundaries on Friday 12 April.

The single Dr James Barry is out now.

Visions of Venus the album by Wallis Bird and Spark, the Classical Band is out 19 April.

For more information, click here.

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