On stage in one of Los Angeles’ many small venues, rising rock star Towa Bird is nailing the kind of incendiary guitar solo that was once a common showstopping part of gigs. More recently, though, that shredding style has fallen out of favour, and is largely considered to be an uncool move in modern music. “It’s a little bit of a wanker move, pulling a guitar solo,” the 24-year-old laughs to NME the morning afterwards. “But, at the same time, I think if you’re self-aware about it and do it with intention, it’s OK.”
During her childhood – which was spent between Hong Kong, Thailand and London – Bird fell in love with artists like Jimi Hendrix and Prince: two flamboyant masters of performance and bona fide rock stars. “They had this amazing balance of being frontpeople and being songwriters and singers, but they also had this additional flair to them – they could step away from the mic and continue to sing, but through the guitar,” she says. “That was always inspirational for me, to be able to watch them and see the two voices they had.”
After making her mark on music through her work as a producer and songwriter, Bird then began to wow TikTok users with her pandemic-born videos of her jamming along to other artists’ tracks. The musician is now honing her own creative voice through her riotous solo work, with April single ‘Wild Heart’ presenting an energetic new rock’n’roll star.
As Bird prepares to release her second single ‘Boomerang’, NME caught up with her to talk about expressing herself on stage, working with Olivia Rodrigo and her upcoming album.
NME: It was a Jimi Hendrix documentary that partly inspired you to start making music. What was it about that film that struck a chord with you?
“I think seeing how Hendrix expressed himself on stage was the main thing. Live shows drew me to music in the first place, and being able to be a personality on stage and show parts of yourself that people don’t get to see when you’re just having a conversation with them. I think that I present as a generally calm person – or at least that’s what people have said about me – but when I’m on stage I’m like the complete opposite. So it’s nice to be able to have that side of who I am and get a moment to express myself. Watching Hendrix do that – set his guitar on fire and just do crazy stage stunts while also keeping a beat and having the audience engaged – was really inspiring, and just filled me with so much energy.”
Did you need an outlet for that energetic side of your personality when you first started playing live?
“Yeah, I think I’ve repressed that side for a really long time. I wanted to be seen as quite cool, collected and put together – but I don’t think anyone is really cool. We all have sides of ourselves that are completely unravelled and very intimate, and I think performance, songwriting and music in general is a way for me to access that and break down the wall that I’ve built so perfectly.”
You’ve previously worked on other people’s projects as a producer, songwriter and guitarist. What have you learned from working with other musicians that you’re now bringing into your own music?
“There’s a lot of stuff. I think playing with Cassyette, for example, and just watching her on stage – she’s such a lovely person, so charismatic and so in touch with herself, and that really comes across in her performance. It’s so natural, and I really enjoyed playing with her for that reason because it just felt so authentic and she sings like a motherfucker. Being able to watch that every single night and it be consistently great was really inspirational for who I want to become on stage.”
As well as performing with Cassyette, you appeared in Olivia Rodrigo’s Driving Home 2 U (A Sour Film). What was your reaction when you got that call, and what was it like working with her?
“[Rodrigo’s] so nice: she really cares so much and is so amazing with people. She just makes you feel so welcome. She was totally accepting of who I was and what energy I was bringing, and then we bounced off each other in that way. Getting that call, I was like, ‘Shit, this is crazy’. I was in London in a shitty room in Pirate Studios hearing all the details like, ‘OK, you’re gonna be in the desert in California, it’s being backed by Disney…’ It’s this whole other world that I just had never experienced, and I’d never been on a set that big before or with a crew that large. It was great.”
Rodrigo found you on TikTok, where you’ve built up a huge following. What impact has that platform had on your career so far?
“It’s been great. It’s opened all of these doors for me post-pandemic, especially as I’ve started to embrace the artist side of myself and see myself as an individual, rather than supporting someone else. Although there is that crazy pressure, it also gives artists individualism in the content they create and they’re able to get their voice out there to potentially a mass audience. I don’t think that really existed before, especially for unsigned artists.”
“I think that I present as a generally calm person, but when I’m on stage I’m the complete opposite”
Your debut single ‘Wild Heart’ illustrates the person you once were. Who were you in the past and who are you now?
“I think I was a bit of an arsehole. I was definitely someone who was more insecure. I was exploring who I was as a person and my sexuality, and I think I maybe led some people on and wasn’t the most communicative person. I think that now I’m slightly more reformed. I think I’m a better partner and I’m trying to be more in touch with my emotions. I was a little bit of a playboy back in the day, and that’s what the song is about – just being surprised at yourself and knowing that there’s a part of you that’s a bit of a free spirit, and having someone come in and change that about you.”
Your next single ‘Boomerang’ is a bit more melancholy, but also has some acceptance in there. What was the inspiration behind that song?
“It’s about being long distance with my partner and the push and pull, back and forth of that. [You’re] so happy and elated to be in a relationship that’s so accepting and so nurturing, but then there’s also the frustration of being like, ‘Fuck, I can’t even be with you physically’. So there is that juxtaposition in the song, and I hope that people can hear it both sonically and lyrically.”
You also have a full album on the way. What can you tell us about the rest of the record?
“There’s so much excitement there and so much energy. We’re kicking the door down with ‘Wild Heart’, which is ridiculously fast – 196 beats per minute, which is stupid. So there’s a lot of energy, fun and playfulness, but then it slows down and there’s space, intimacy and vulnerability as well. There’s real pain and real happiness, too. It’s more just showcasing sides of my personality, which I’m really excited to start sharing with people – more dimensions of me.”
Towa Bird’s new single ‘Boomerang’ will be released on May 26 via Interscope Records