“I’m a real big fan of words,” says Jade Bird with a giggle, speaking over the phone from a tour bus en route to Portland, Ore. The 20-year-old British singer-songwriter is becoming known on stages across the Atlantic as the class clown of live performers, but when it comes to her career, she’s far more serious. Inspired in her early teens by Americana-based songwriting of The Civil Wars, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, Bird now prides in writing the kind of sharp, lean lyricism she says you “can’t shatter with an axe.”
Take her breakthrough hit “Lottery,” which released earlier this year. The folksy, guitar-helmed track follows a (somewhat real) barside conversation between Bird and an ex, propelled by hyper-specific references like the pub’s real address and a soaring chorus: “You used to tell me / Love is a lottery, but / You’ve got your numbers / And you’re betting on me.” The song itself has been posting numbers: “Lottery” previously spent three weeks atop Adult Alternative Songs (it settles at No. 3 this week), making her one of only five solo women to command the chart as a lead act since 2010.
Looking back, though, it’s fortuitous that Bird stumbled into the alternative, Americana-inspired lane at all. Though born in Hexham, a small town in England known for its farmers’ markets, she traveled through Europe often with her father in the military. Her young parents (her mother had her around age 20) favored EDM pioneers like Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers, which Bird remembers them blasting in the car, much to her grandmother’s annoyance: “The music was so loud, it vibrated the whole driveway.”
While she got an early taste of country from her grandmother (“‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’ was my jam when I was three,” she jokes), it wasn’t until middle school that Bird discovered her now longtime favorites like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills & Nash through a family friend. At the time, her parents were going through a divorce, and Bird found comfort in blues. “A theme [in my songwriting] was the breakdown of relationships — my family was going through a similar narrative,” she explains. “The first song I ever wrote that I liked was called ‘When You’re Alone.’” She sings the somber first verse into the phone — “Do you think of me when you’re alone?”
By 16, Bird settled in South Wales with her mother, where she began gigging at London pubs after school. Going up against “big, burly guys” onstage wasn’t easy, but she credits those early experiences for her natural (and often silly) stage presence today. She even shouts-out her favorite venue, a rustic Ferdinand Street haunt, in the first verse of “Lottery.” “I’ve never had an audience I couldn’t relate to,” she explains. “Live, I just tend to connect.”
Around the same age, Bird found an unlikely muse in the “fighting spirit” of Americana heroes from Johnny Cash to Chris Stapleton. In fact, her entire debut EP Something American, which she recorded with producer Simone Felice (The Lumineers, Bat For Lashes) in the Catskill Mountains of New York, is a love letter to the genre. The title track’s chorus says it all: “We’re all reaching for something American,” Bird sings wistfully, connecting romantic ideals to the ethos of the American dream. Early demos caught the attention of Daniel Glass last year, who signed her to his Glassnote Records in March 2017, releasing her full EP four months later.
Ever since, Bird has taken flight. She played her first U.S. festival at Stagecoach in Indio, Calif. last month, and recently kicked off a summer run in the states supporting First Aid Kit, Anderson East and Colter Wall. She’ll stop by festivals including Bonnaroo, Firefly, and Mountain Jam along the way. As she tours, she’s working on her yet-untitled debut album, finding inspiration in everything from books (Patti Smith’s Just Kids is her “holy bible”) to everyday conversations: “I [left] an airport and someone said, ‘You always bring the rain,’ so I wrote a song called [that].”
Contrary to her bubbly personality, though, her favorite moment onstage is the quietest. Often, while performing an acoustic cover or piano ballad, Bird revels in the hush that comes over the crowd. It’s a sign she’s doing something right. “I never get nervous, but I get shifty, like, ‘Am I going to do a good job?’” she says. “That’s the more meaningful moment for me– when I can silence a room.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 19 issue of Billboard.