Flyte, Justin Moody
“My heart is so blue,” sings Jade Bird on her song I Get No Joy. “I’m singing for nothing.” It’s a fakeout, of course: while the 21-year-old songwriter’s debut album certainly chases emotions from their depths to their peaks, there’s no lack of purpose here.
“I've never wavered in terms of wanting to do music,” she says. “But you often waver in terms of how you can change it, how you can add to a field that's so saturated and if it's worth it. Is my contribution going to do anything, going to help anyone? And it does. You get young girls coming up to you who want to play the guitar and listen to visceral music and play and shout, and that's sick.”
It’s not so long since Jade was one of those young girls, searching for inspiration and release in music. Born to an army family in Northumbria, she moved first to London and then to Germany, before her parents split when she was seven, and Jade and her mother moved to Bridgend, South Wales, to live with her grandmother, whose marriage had also foundered.
In Bridgend, Jade learned the piano; one of her mother’s partners introduced her to the gothic, psychedelic, country-tinged alt-rock of Mazzy Star, her first love and the first thing she learned to play on guitar. That early taste of the good stuff led her on to classic country music – Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton. “That's the stuff I really connected with, the struggling songs,” she says.
She began writing her own songs at 12, the beginning of a phenomenal drive that’s taken her around the world in the past couple of years. School in Bridgend didn’t offer her the opportunity to follow that ambition. “Unless you're bilingual, in the arts, it's impossible to get anyone to care about you,” she explains. “It was like, well, I'm 16. I don't really wanna do a science A-level… and if you do a BTec in a normal college it's kinda hard to get a good knowledge of the subject. So London was the place.”
Looking around the arts schools on offer for 16-year-olds in the capital, Jade picked on the one that seemed the best: the ultra-competitive Brit school. On her second try, she got in. “People are like, oh, you went to get famous,” she says. “Not really... or if you do, you soon realise that if you don't work hard then that school does not get you favours.”
Jade’s work ethic mean she was far from coasting – most nights during her A-level studies, she was out gigging around London. “I was constantly ill, I was constantly tired from a gig the night before,” she laughs. At the Spiritual Bar in Camden, she learned to project her powerful voice, to grab an audience’s attention, and also, through a chance meeting with a lawyer, found herself a manager. Her debut EP, Something American, was recorded in 2017, the year after her graduation, at the Rhinebeck, New York studio of Simone Felice of the Felice Brothers, a few miles from Woodstock.
“I'd never been to America,” she recalls, “and I was going through quite a bit at that point, I was having huge anxiety, everything you get when you're an 18-year-old girl, and I just always wanted to make things work. I'd seen my mum work really hard, and my grandma, and so I always had this ethic, you keep grafting. But then you stand there on this mountain, and it's so cliched, but you see the ranges and you realise how small you are, and there’s this creative spirit... it was just kind of all perfect for me.”
As well as the EP, the majority of the songs on the album were written in that storied musical area, in a barn on Felice’s property guarded by a ferocious farmdog called simply “Girl”. The rattling, rambunctious “I Get No Joy” tracks Bird’s progress from nagging worry to release, but in its sound also demonstrates a broadening of her palette from the Americana and country inspirations that helped Something American get her noticed stateside (she toured the US with country artist Brett Cobb in 2017, and bagged radio playlists and TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as an acclaimed set at South by Southwest) to darker, rockier tones. She’s “really into my 90s alt-rock” at the moment, she says – Sonic Youth are a current favourite – but her “holy trinity” are Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette and Patti Smith. “And I love what's happening in the States with female musicians in indie, like Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus.”
Jade Bird is a perfectly constructed album of tight, hooky songs, from the bluesy garage rock of “Going Gone” and “Uh Huh” to the more reflective and melancholy “My Motto”, which stretches her remarkable voice, with its raw emotional and agile musicality, to the full. The track list was whittled down painstakingly in Rhinebeck from 200 songs written over the course of a year in which she’s toured furiously, testing every song out live. She was also longlisted in the BBC’s Sound of 2018, and performed the album’s lead single, the irresistibly soaring Lottery, not only on Jools Holland but on Tonight with Jimmy Fallon alongside the Roots. “That was ridiculous,” she enthuses. Her biggest thrill on the way up, though, has been closer to home: her biggest headline show, at Electric Brixton in London in November. “My mum said to me, we've seen bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in smaller venues and got really emotional. I thought, it's true. This is crazy.”
Another huge shift for Jade personally has been overcoming disillusion and falling in real love. “I didn't really expect that, someone like me. I'm always, like 'I don't need no man!' Or if I do have a man, I kind of make sure that I've got it and then put it on the side. I'm just very driven.”
The songs on Jade Bird dive into a welter of emotions, from sharp cynicism to fear, vulnerability and the rush of possibility on the likes of Ruins. “This album's all of my past and my present,” she says. “It feels quite freeing… a lot of people say, how do you write certain things when you've not experienced it, or you're so young? My parents split and then both grandparents… so yeah, I kind of saw all that all the way through. My mum had some tricky relationships… you just see things that make you grow up quite quickly and little details that you put in your songs eventually.”
For all her experience, the feeling you take away from the sharp statement that is Jade Bird is an uplifting energy; not bubbly blind optimism, but strength for the fight. “I'm an incredibly positive person,” says Jade. “Because the facts are we're all fucked. The environment's changing, politically we're fucked. Great. But people who work in the arts are supposed to believe in magic, that's your job: to believe in magic. To believe that imagination can exceed problems... I want people to have hope for a future.”
Even death, in the album’s final closer, finds a positive spin. Why exactly is a 21-year-old singing about being transformed into a song if she dies? “My mum and I, we're close, she had me at 20, she pretty much brought me up by herself,” Jade explains. “And she always says if you left this earth, for whatever reason, I'm not staying… that's always really upset me, and I was like, oh, if I was going to write a song to try to make someone stay on the earth without me, if I've already gone, what would it be?”
More than death, what Jade fears is “my potential and the music's potential... I've always had this image of me at 80 years old, and I'm looking forward to getting old, but at the same time it's fucking scary to me, to think, oh, I could have done that, I could have done that. I could have done that free jazz album and never did it. And that's to me that's where it comes from the drive, the biggest defiance of regret... that perfect album you listen back to, that's why I'm doing it. I'm always chasing that.”
She won’t stop, of course, but listen and you’ll see that Jade Bird has left herself no room for regret in 2019, with so much more to come.
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The best bands are formed not by people who decide on music as a viable career path, but by people who have no choice.
“When I was ten I got a nylon-stringed guitar and a Beatles songbook and that was it: I was going to be a songwriter,” says Will Taylor of Flyte, who have just made an album of perfectly constructed songs rich with deep harmonies, sunny melodies, and the happy/sad uncertainties of life and love. “I didn’t even do my A levels. I love reading, I’ll continue to educate myself, but I was so sure I wanted to be in a band that staying at school seemed completely pointless. Mum was a bit upset, especially as she’s an English teacher, but I think I made a good case for it.”
Flyte’s debut album shimmers with a very English melancholy. There is ancient, churchlike resonance to the choral harmonies of Annie & Alistair, a tale of the twelve-step programme at Alcoholics Anonymous. There is something of Orange Juice’s sun-dappled innocence to Victoria Falls, and shades of Simon & Garfunkel in the beautiful acoustic ballad Orphans of the Storm, but also the spirit of the English outsider, romantic and hopeful and never entirely satisfied, running throughout the album. You can hear it in Sliding Doors, a Talk Talk-inspired tale of a suicide, and in Cathy Come Home, in which the parents of a girl whose boyfriend has been beating her up beg her to return to the family fold. Not so much drawing on his own life as seeking experiences to then reflect upon, Will’s style of writing has as much in common with George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh as it does with Nick Drake, Ray Davies, or any number of songwriters who have tapped into the English malaise for inspiration.
“Being an English songwriter is tainted ground,” says Will, “but all the poetry I’ve mustered is about the sadness and mournfulness that penetrates English life. Cathy Come Home, for example, is about empty nest syndrome, and the pain of seeing a child moving into adulthood. Orphans of the Storm gets its name from a chapter in Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps it is because I come from Winchester, which I have a massive chip on my shoulder about because it is so incredibly safe and middle class and my dad taught at the college for clever people, while I went to the local comp, but I can’t get away from that kind of sensibility.”
Flyte’s story begins at that comprehensive in Winchester when Will, aged thirteen, formed a band called the Ashbys with drummer Jon Supran. (“We had a tiny bit of hype. Lily Allen said she liked one of our songs.”) Needless to say, there was still much growing up to do, and after leaving school, after spending six months in San Francisco and a year in Paris with his then-girlfriend, Will reconnected with Jon and bassist Nick Hill, another school friend. Then in 2013 Will spotted Sam Berridge, the band’s classically trained keyboardist and guitarist, busking at Tottenham Court Road station. Ten years of waiting for something to happen, forming a band with three other musicians gifted with great singing voices, and a serious case of heartbreak — Will’s girlfriend ended things not long after Flyte came together — gave the band all the ingredients they needed to hit the ground running.
“My soon to be ex-girlfriend made a video on an iPhone of us playing Faithless,” says Will. “It snowballed from there.”
Once the band had a deal in place with Island Records, after releasing their first single on Transgressive, and the time to devote themselves to making a great debut, Flyte released a flurry of alternative-indie anthems including ‘We Are The Rain’, ‘Closer Together,’ and ‘Light Me Up’, amassing millions of streams and a dedicated live following – having started their own sell-out Chasing Heaven club night, where friends are invited to play at intimate London venues, with many artists passing through such as Beatenberg, Toothless, and Grace Lightman. But it was one Christmas night that spelled a Flyte-movement – when Will and Sam uploaded a cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ to their Facebook page. The heart-wrenching interpretation racked up over 1M streams, with fans wanting more sessions. The band began carefully curating covers in London landmarks with towering acoustics, including Heaven Talking Heads, and Archie Marry Me by Alvvays, which features on the record.
Earning a reputation for their trademark vocal arrangements, the goal was to come up with a sound that acknowledged the music they loved, from Nick Drake to Mac DeMarco to Vangelis’s soundtrack to Blade Runner, without being derivative or overly reverential. Sam says Flyte found their voice by “forcing restriction on the music, and by making the most of having four singers in the group. When we realised it was a unique thing to have four people who could sing in harmony we emphasised that. We knew it wasn’t going to sound like anything else.”
“We would be in the studio and say to each other: ‘wouldn’t it be great to have some strings here?’, or, ‘Let’s get a wicked synth line on this track,’” adds Will. “And we always conclude, ‘No, let’s do it with the voices because it will always work that way. And it’s our way.’”
No album worth its place in the pantheon is made without the spilling of much blood, sweat and tears. Flyte don’t make life easy for themselves. They never use Pro Tools, instead practising intensely, honing and crafting each song until they know they can do a great live take of it in the studio. Harmonies are captured by having three voices sing into one microphone rather than using the more common modern technique of layering with overdubs.
“None of the albums that inspire us as musicians are heavily edited, polished or overproduced,” says
Sam, “so we didn’t want ours to be either.”
Each member of the band contributed to the music, to which Will then added the words, but that doesn’t mean it was plain sailing. “Our process of making music is democratic but frustrating,” Will explains. “Dreams get crushed on a daily basis because everyone has a say, so you have to let go of something you might be particularly proud of. There is a lot of arguing, crying and hating each other and I want to die most of the time, but the end result makes it worthwhile.”
“We do endless jam sessions and if something sticks, then someone goes home and gets a melody to go on top of it,” says Sam. “But over the past year, we’ve realised the best point in a piece of music is when you’ve just come up with it. From then on until the end of time you’re going to hate it. You want the album to be perfect, which is impossible. The propensity for going totally insane is very high.”
“Even the other day, Jon got obsessed by how there was slightly too much top end on his hi-hat on one track,” says Will. “But we’re all like that. We’re just upset that we can’t have an infinity to turn our album into the most perfect thing ever made by man, woman or child. As a result I think we’ve ruined our career and everything will turn out awfully.”
Now you listen to Flyte’s life-affirming album of tightly constructed songs, which flow by with the ease of a summer breeze while holding stories that go to the heart of what it is to be alive, and decide for yourself if that scenario is likely to happen.
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