A moon rising above a fragile lake; a sinister figure on a black horse; drums in the deep, and a scream from somewhere simultaneously callous and beautiful: all images evoked by the suite of songs that forms My Fear And Me. At last, BIRD have made good on the promise of recent years: their first album is, at times, breathtaking.
“I’m running out of words to describe forests,” says Bird’s vocalist, bassist and chief dreamer Adéle Emmas sheepishly, as we bring up her obsession with the night. She’s sitting in the half-darkness of Café Tabac, eyes glistening in an oval face that looks profoundly, bafflingly spiritual, like a Pre-Raphaelite Madonna. It’s not often you meet someone who immediately strikes you as the full package, but here she is. Fantasy and idle talk often melt into pragmatism during our conversation, a result of Bird’s quick rise to the mainstream radar since Bido Lito! last caught up with them almost 18 months ago. Back then the band was a three-piece making decent pagan rock with glimmers of greater aspirations. Adéle’s voice, still the centre of Bird’s gravity, has lost none of its melodrama; what has changed, however, is the ferocious and, at times, downright heavy musical storm that now sweeps at her back. Forget the gentle waves of the past, this feels like a coming cyclone, one that the rest of the country is starting to notice.
“We felt we’d taken it as far as it could go. There were lots of songs that needed another pair of hands, so we started advertising for people.” Adéle, Sian Williams and Lex Samata were certain that a bunch of demos they produced last year pointed to a more expansive sound than previous EPs Shadows and Ophelia could contain, as they went through various potential members who let other commitments get in the way of ideas on the edge of fruition. Enter Christian Sandford, an easy-going 27-year-old impressed by the band’s professionalism after a chat in Leaf. “Adéle and Sian were sat in high back chairs, with a clipboard,” he recalls before Adéle nixes the clipboard part, putting an end to a mental image of Dragons’ Den-style interrogation. She is adamant they had to be careful though: “It’s two or three months of your life gone for people to fuck you off. We were asking things like, ‘Are you sure you can fit this into whatever else you’ve got going on?’ Of course, we’d invite people for a jam too.” She catches herself at “jam”, a term that drummer Lex apparently can’t stand; he isn’t here today, so I’ll take her word for it.
Once Christian was recruited, the group jammed – sorry, practised loudly – in Lex’s mum’s house to the likely disdain of her neighbours. Christian’s outsider perspective on bits and pieces of songs Adéle had kept back for a while was invaluable to turning those demos into the roaring finished products that form My Fear And Me, Bird’s debut on Baltic Records, an assured collection that thrums with spectral energy. Listening to it is an intense experience – it’s at times claustrophobic, taut and slyly inventive, unafraid to pursue truly cinematic imagery. I Am The Mountain and Sea Of Trees delve into an endless well of atmosphere and textures, with the odd time change or sound effect dropped in here and there to further muddle the mood. Blue, in particular, has a striking opening passage: a radio message from someone lost at sea, overheard on the boat of a family friend Adéle went sailing with one day. “It was probably really bad of me, but I thought ‘this would sound amazing on the album’, like an SOS at the end.” She shrugs. “So I recorded it.” As well she did, because those sixty seconds are amazingly evocative, teased out over a piano and advancing footsteps.
Of course, Bird have always had a fondness for escapism. They admit to “creating a world for people to dip into”, yet acknowledge they are in some way interpreting the worlds of others. I’m talking here about the romanticism and symbols of deathly transcendence My Fear And Me obsesses over, bringing to mind the novels of the Brontë sisters, Wordsworth, Shelley, and numerous touchstones of high Gothic literature. Again and again the album confronts us with a yearning for annihilation, the feminine apocalypse spread thin under starlight and the ash of falling trees. That half of the studio sessions were scrapped and churned to a darker hue comes as no surprise. It’s what Christian calls the “big and meaty” side of the group, eternally in conflict with poppier preoccupations, although I try to argue it already feels like some common ground has been reached. Are they scared of the urban influence that increasing touring demands will press upon their rural soul? “It’s possible we’ve gotten slightly more industrial,” explains Adéle, “but all the stuff about nature is still there. We’ve definitely changed. When I listen to the album now, I get a picture of run-down, broken, urbanised England. It’s very much a personal thing. Can you see where I’m coming from? Probably not, because I live in my own head half the time.”
Bird are by no means political; what they manage to conjure is a scrapbook of desires pulling in different directions. 2014 has been a seminal year in their evolution, seeing them gain nationwide exposure from playing the BBC 6 Music Festival, and further opportunities off the back of supporting Rodriquez during his European tour. Lauren Laverne is now a fan, as is Rodriquez’s grandson, a “fat kid who loves being fat”, prone to getting his head stuck in lampshades to the amusement of others. Conceptually, the band are broadening their horizons too. The video for The Rain Song merely shows Adéle getting drenched in an ungodly amount of water, her upper body resplendent with rivulets of running makeup. The idea was to start with something immaculate and then ruin it, or as the accommodating Miss Emmas herself points out, expose “the other shit that’s always going on beneath our exteriors.” Colour projections made it into the initial take but, rather like those distressed landscapes Bird are drawn back to time after time, it ended up in black and white.
So, what’s with the album title, what are they afraid of? “Dead birds,” is Christian’s answer, prompting a discussion on the perils of a pigeon-racing grandfather. Adéle is more succinct: “Fears and anxieties are universal. Finding who you are and being OK with that. Bad leading to good. I don’t want to put us across as too much of a heavy band . . .”
That shouldn’t be an anxiety to have at this stage in their career. For all their mysticisms, Bird are genuinely confident and focused enough to make a bid for stardom. There is a light building at the end of the darkness. The good is winning.
My Fear And Me is out now on Baltic Records.