Come fly with me: How Dirk Bogarde’s great-niece became pop’s brightest young star... Birdy

The great-niece of Dirk Bogarde,  Birdy was marked as a soaring  musical talent in 2008, when she won  an open-mic talent show aged just 12. Five years on, the teenager tells  Craig McLean how she’s coped with haters and ‘cheated’ with hit-makers as her career has taken off

Standing stock-still in the basement of an instrument shop, clutching a tiny pink guitar, Birdy looks even younger than her years (17) and smaller than her height (5ft nothing).

The classically trained singer/songwriter might be in her comfort zone surrounded by musical kit here in central London’s Denmark Street for the benefit of the New Review  cameras. But the girl born Jasmine van den Bogaerde is also far from home: her extended family’s 1,500-acre estate in the New Forest.

Given her background – countryside, quietude, daughter of a concert pianist, great-niece of Dirk Bogarde – Birdy’s shy, well-spoken, super-polite reserve is understandable. But she’s unlike what we think we know of most modern teens in other ways, too. Put her on a stage, as did the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony artistic directors, and Birdy and her voice and piano can light up a stadium (she sang Antony and the Johnsons’ “Bird Gerhl”). Give her a songwriting brief, as animation company Pixar did for the Scottish-set Brave, and she’ll compose a stirring, Celtic-flavoured folk number (“Learn Me Right”, made in collaboration with Mumford & Sons). Inspire her, as she was by reading (in one week) the Hunger Games trilogy, and Birdy will write a song and submit it, on spec, to the film-makers – Hollywood studio Lionsgate promptly used “Just a Game” over the closing credits of last year’s $700m-grossing blockbuster.

Those opportunities all flowed from the international success of Birdy’s first album. Released in late 2011, her self-titled debut is a collection of gossamer-light but emotively strong, piano-based covers (and one original). The lead single, an English adolescent’s take on Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love”, gave Birdy a Top 20 hit when she was aged just 14, while her versions of songs by The xx, Fleet Foxes and Phoenix were classically framed, savvily chosen reimaginings of cool tunes by hipster bands. To date, the album has sold almost 1.3 million copies worldwide.

Now comes the next phase of the careful, well-thought-out promotion of Birdy: an album of new, co-written songs. On Fire Within, the girl who gained her nickname in infancy (she ate food like a chick, seemingly) has both broadened her sound – ringing guitars, thumping drums, belting choruses – and her songwriting palette. In studios in Los Angeles, Denver, New York and London, Birdy has worked with some of the best writers in the business: Dan Wilson (Adele’s “Someone Like You”), Ryan Tedder (Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love”), Ben Lovett (of Mumford & Sons) and Kid Harpoon (Florence & The Machine’s “Shake it Out”).

To her credit, Birdy admits that she was  initially resistant to writing with top-drawer hitmakers-for-hire. “I wanted to do it all myself,” she says in the whisper-like speaking voice  that’s in sharp contrast to her strong, resonant singing voice. “I was so used to writing on my own at the piano that it just seemed weird, going into a room and meeting someone for the first time and opening up and giving them all your ideas. It just felt kind of embarrassing.”

Plus, the kid discovered in 2008 by her record label via a low-key talent show, Open Mic UK  – and who signed a publishing deal aged 12 – had a clear-sighted, simple goal: she wanted to make music in a manner that felt, well, proper.

“I was scared that it was almost like cheating,” she says of her various writing sessions. “But actually you’re giving so much, and you’re both aware of each other’s ideas, and listening to each other. It’s not like one person is taking over. You’re sharing, and I loved that.”

Not surprisingly, the beautiful, atmospheric and punchily melodic Fire Within has elements of the best of her co-writers’ previous clients – but rounded out by Birdy’s undeniable writing skills and topped off with her richly expressive voice.

Right now, two weeks shy of the album’s release, Birdy is deep in rehearsals with her band in Bath upfront of the international touring  commitments that will stretch well into next year. “Last time I was always hiding behind the piano,” she admits with a nervous laugh. This time she’ll be playing guitar and – more worryingly for a girl who is as far from the X Factor school of performing showpony as you can  imagine – standing up at the microphone.

“I should probably get some lessons in stagecraft. Cos I can’t dance – I think I have rhythm but I just don’t look right,” admits the teenager. “I might have to work on some hand movements. That’s one of the reasons I like Adele – she doesn’t have to do much [on stage] but she’s still strong, and she’s amazing to watch.”

Meanwhile, her band of twentysomething musicians are introducing her to “old films” (recently watched faves: Top Gun and The Breakfast Club) while, in advance of a European tour, Birdy herself is gently extricating herself from the parental yoke. “My parents don’t come as much any more, unless it’s far – they came to Australia,” she says, neglecting to mention that her trip Down Under was to play three sold-out shows at the Sydney Opera House. “But my band are a wonderful team and I feel safe. I don’t need my parents as much any more anyway.”

Does she have any plans yet for her 18th birthday? “That’s next May, and I might be in America. But I’d hate to be in America then cos then you have to be 21 to go to loads of places and to have a drink. So hopefully I’ll be in Europe. I like beer, and I like wine. But I don’t like anything sweet, so I can’t drink spirits. Well, vodka’s OK, but vodka and Coke is pretty nasty,” she says with an expression that says “eww”.

So, it’s in with old-fashioned songwriting and performance integrity, and out with youthful excess for this quiet girl who is still mortified  at having to tweet to her quarter-of-a-million followers. But what else can Birdy tell us about the modern teenager?

Birdy on…

Justin Bieber

“Me and my sister, who’s 14, listen to him. He’s a bit of guilty pleasure. It’s something all my friends listen to – it’s party music. It’s not something I’d listen to if I was on my own; I wouldn’t put it on my iPod. But I do like it – it’s fun! You can hear that he’s musical. I remember watching those first videos on YouTube, and you could see then that he can sing and he can play.”

…Ed Sheeran

“I was quite starstruck when I met him. He works so hard and puts all his energy into what he does. I love that. And he’s a brilliant writer. He’s someone I look up to.”

…One Direction

“I like their music – again all my friends are listening to them. We were playing at the same awards show in France and their energy is  amazing on stage. I got to meet Harry Styles the same time I met Ed Sheeran, at the Little Noise  [charity] gigs in Hackney in London. He was really, really sweet. Could I see the attraction? Yeah, definitely! He’s really good-looking. But my friends don’t love him necessarily – they probably just love all of them.”

…juggling pop and exams

“I got my GCSE results last summer, and they were OK. Music I got an A, maths I got a B, English I got an A and a B. There was only one C, which was drama, because I just didn’t do the writing part, which was a bit silly. You had to do lots of 2,000-word essays on lots of different plays and stuff. I just didn’t get round to finishing it in time. But I was really pleased with the other results – I thought it was going to be awful.”

…putting her A-levels on hold

“I started A-level French and Art but I left college earlier this year. It was my parents who were like, just focus on one thing. And the college was really amazing. They just said that if I want to come back, I can. They knew music is what  I love doing, and cos I was trying to do both,  I was hardly ever at college. So they understood it was better if I was giving my full concentration to music or studies.”

…TV talent shows

“I’d love to sing on The X Factor! I love those shows. They can be a good platform for young artists, but it depends on what kind of person you are. It wouldn’t have been right for me  – I needed things to happen gradually. Being in the public eye so quickly, I think I would have freaked out about that. You have to be ready and I wasn’t. Also, a lot of the time it’s not about the music. That’s another reason I would never have gone for something like that. But some people like that…”

…cyberbullying

“I’ve not had it so much on Twitter, but you  see nasty comments sometimes on YouTube. It’s just important to keep away from it; there’s always going to be people who don’t like what you do. Constructive criticism is good, and  I take all of that on board. But just hate is nasty. If you get some horrible comments, it’s important not to keep going back to it – cos that’s when it can get nasty. But it does happen, and you shouldn’t take it seriously – and it’s important to talk about it with your friends. You shouldn’t just keep things like that to yourself. That’s when it becomes more of a problem.”

…social media

“Twitter is how my friends communicate.  I still read their stuff, but I’m more of an observer. But definitely all my friends use Twitter and Facebook – it is a huge part of being young. If someone was having a party, it would be on Facebook. And we all keep in touch via Facebook – that is amazing having it just to talk to them. It’s nice to be updated with what everyone’s doing. It brings you back to home and what’s going on there. I’m always quite careful about what I post. But I don’t think  a lot of them are. Your digital footprint? Most people don’t think about that.”

…not having to wear braces any more

“Yesss! That was really nice. I only had them  for a year-and-a-half – I was lucky. There was  no point hiding them, and everyone knew, so  I used to post pictures of the new colours every time I went to the orthodontist – ‘Got green today, Christmas colours!’ I definitely felt self- conscious, though, especially when doing photos. When I got press pictures done, I used to keep my mouth shut. That’s probably some of the reason I look quite grumpy in a lot of the early photos – ‘Don’t show the braces!’ The worst food to eat was sandwiches. That was really bad. Not nice. But just any food, really.”

…boyfriends

“I don’t have one. I just have to meet the right person. It’s quite easy to tell if someone’s interested in me as a singer rather than a person. It’s something I’m aware of and I can see it coming. But it’s not my focus at the moment – it’d just be a bit unfair cos I’m so busy. It’s not time.”

…being a globe-trotting teenager

“I miss the events and things that are happening at home, and being away always missing them. But I do get to go home quite a lot – I’m really lucky, and I get to join in when I can. So I’ve got the best of both worlds, which is amazing. And I didn’t get any bitchiness. I’m close with all of my friends, and we all kind of moved from school to college together, so I knew all of them. So they’ve just been great. And I’m doing what  I love, so I’m really lucky.” 1

‘Fire Within’ is out on 23 September

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own