Jealous of The Birds interview: the Northern Irish songwriter discusses the experiences and inspirations that went into her new EP
Friday saw the release of Wisdom Teeth, the new EP by Northern Irish singer songwriter and poet Naomi Hamilton who records as Jealous Of The Birds. It’s her first body of all-new material since her debut album in 2016, and sees her expanding in confidence and style, while also hinting at even more to come on her next LP.
Even in just 5 tracks Jealous Of The Birds captures the imagination from all sorts of angles, Hamilton pontificating on sexuality, romance, travel, philosophy and more, with each idea delivered in emphatic pop rock missives. We caught up with Hamilton towards the end of 2018 when she and her band were wrapping up their first UK tour, to discuss all that’s gone into the creation of Wisdom Teeth.
As we speak you've just finished your first UK tour, how did it go?
It went really well! It was our first UK tour at all; it was the first time we brought the band out. It was really good because usually because we've played a few gigs before in the UK but they've always been pretty scattered, so it was nice to just have a string of shows together. We got a van for the first time and it was just really nice, I feel like we really bonded as a band.
Did you fight over the stereo?
Actually we were pretty democratic about it. No big fights happened.
2018 has been a very busy year for you, do you think 2019 will be as busy, considering you've got the new EP Wisdom Teeth coming out?
I think it'll be even busier, especially with the live side of things. I think we're definitely gonna give it a good push. We just got confirmed for SXSW, so we'll be playing that again, and probably a lot more shows and festivals in the summer.
You put out an EP in July that was mostly made up of older tracks, and then you've got another EP coming out in February - was it by choice that you've done two EPs in a row?
I think it made sense to follow the momentum of what the previous EP was setting up for. And also just to give me more time to write more songs and really refine the songs that I have for the next record. Also I feel like something about EPs and the bite-size nature of it is really cool, especially when you're starting out. I feel like it would be a waste if I wrote a whole record and it wasn't hitting the right audience, because the songs only have a certain shelf-life, so it's always cool to deliver it in a more bite-sized way.
Do you have any favourite EPs?
There's a lot of local bands from back home who started with EPs and built it up. When I released my first EP on Bandcamp I would just search through random EPs on Bandcamp that I really loved. The main one I'm thinking of is Fazerdaze, which was really nice.
I wanted to ask if you consider yourself a songwriter first or a poet first? As I know you do both.
I feel like maybe both equally. I definitely think of songwriting and poetry as two distinct things. I know there's people who feel they're both interchangeable...
Other artists that I've spoken to who do both say the same as you, that it rarely crosses over.
Yeah, exactly. When I was at uni I was doing English with Creative Writing, and I did a big poetry dissertation, and all those poems are written in a very different style and different mind-set than I bring to writing lyrics. I definitely strive to make my lyrics feel as much like poems as possible, but I definitely think of them as a different kind of animal too, because they're always married to the music and those things enrich each other. With a poem there's only what's on the page, so I think poems have to be more muscular.
Your songs are quite fun and sexy, but you talk about your poems quite seriously - or are they also sexy?
I think a bit of both, but maybe just a bit more refined. I think in songs I kind of give myself more freedom to be a bit more loose with it, just because there's more to focus on and more to interplay, especially with the music.
In 'Plastic Skeletons' you sing "do you want to love like a poet can?" - so what is special about the way a poet can love?
There's different ways to interpret that, but when I wrote the line I was thinking about a certain intensity that poets - or maybe more romantic people - bring to their life experiences.
Let's go on to the new EP, Wisdom Teeth; have you been writing a lot since the debut album Parma Violets?
I've definitely written a whole bunch of songs since then, and only those 5 that have ended up on Wisdom Teeth got through to the EP. That's one of the things I was really excited about, because it had been like 2 years since new material had come out, and I've learned so much in that time about songwriting and the live side of things. I think about different things compared to when I started out, because I have that experience. I definitely feel like the songs on Wisdom Teeth show that maturing.
Instrumentally as well?
I hope so! Because now we've had more of a chance to play with a live band, I'm thinking more about "this is what Peter will play on bass," or thinking about what is interesting and trying to push my approach to the instrumentation a bit more.
Let's talk about 'Marrow', the opening track of Wisdom Teeth, which is a really awesome song, but the bit that always gets me is in the middle is the part "There's a schism, a chasm of language/ Between the taste and the thought of this sandwich," because I feel like that's quite a profound thing that doesn't come up in pop songs much. But I guess to ask the most basic question, why a sandwich?
I think I just I really love food [laughs]. But it taps into that thing of sometimes your expectations of what's really gonna be delicious or really gonna be good doesn't always meet the reality of it. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing; sometimes it'll exceed your expectations and sometimes it'll be like "I really bigged this up for no reason." I think the sandwich line makes it a bit funnier [laughs].
It does! Have you had a lot of disappointing sandwiches?
I mean, yeah! You go some places down south, you're not gonna get the best sandwiches [laughs].
Alright, good to know! I noticed in both 'Marrow' and 'New York Has A Lump In Her Throat' there are a couple of Buddhist references, is that something you're interested in?
For sure, yeah. I think a lot of Buddhist thought, especially when it relates to compassion and mindfulness and being steady and calm, I find that really grounding. I meditate sometimes as well. You've never been hassled by a Buddhist, nobody's ever trying to convince you to be a Buddhist. It's definitely something that I relate to and it resonates with me.
It also seems like America has left a big impression on you, because you mention several American places throughout your lyrics. Have you been many times?
In the spring of 2016 we went over for SXSW, I played a solo show there. In the past few years I've had more cause to be over there. It's just the nature of travelling, you're absorbing all this stuff, especially in a place like America where it's overwhelming and you're like "what is going on?!" I couldn't help but have that filter into the songs in some ways.
Do the songs then become a bit of a travelogue? Do the songs remind you of places?
For sure. On 'New York Has A Lump In Her Throat' we took some field recordings of walking through the streets in New York, and also combined that with back home ambient country noises from home and blended them together. There's a part at the end of 'New York' where there's a guy whose child is screaming on the street and crying, and he's like "if you get lost, what are we gonna do?!" When we listened back and that came up I was instantly transported to the street corner where I saw that man and his daughter. I liked having found sounds filter into this EP more.
We have to talk about the spoken part in 'New York Has A Lump In Her Throat' that almost seems like an essay excerpt; it starts "The same energy which created a symphony by Mozart is shared by The Beatles in making Sgt Pepper. It is the same intuitive impulse of the imagination..." and goes on for a bit about artistic inspiration. Was that something you wrote?
Yeah, I just wrote that. I feel like it's just one of those things where I'd been getting a bit more meta in terms of the craft of songwriting in a song. I've seen that happen in poetry a lot, where poets are referencing the art of poetry in their poems, and especially when I was writing a lot of the songs for this that was in my field of awareness a bit more, so I wanted to include a bit of that process or a bit of the thought behind not only writing a song but listening to music.
I like that you reference a lot of other music you like in your songs; the part about "listen to Kurt singing in the pines" from 'Tonight I Feel Like Kafka' is my favourite. It makes me relate more, it puts me in the room.
Yeah, I feel like when I'm listening to music and I hear a reference or something that gives me a little window into that artist's network of their own tastes I find that really cool.
In 'New York Has A Lump In Her Throat' you repeatedly sing "wail me down," so I have to ask what that means?
Any time I'm in a big city, especially in New York, it's like an onslaught. So much is happening, so much could potentially happen, and I feel like that's just like "wail me down." I was thinking about Alan Ginsberg's poem ‘Howl’ and the massive existential "what is going on!?" when I'm in a city.
Cool, I'm glad I asked. I thought it was a Northern Irish saying that I didn't know.
Oh no [laughs].
'Blue Eyes' is probably my favourite song on the EP because it's such a sugar rush of fun. What inspired it?
I feel like it was just me being more open about female sexuality and sensuality and celebrating that, especially from a queer perspective, instead of always having guys objectify women and their sexuality in songs, having that being a bit more reversed and self-reflective.
Nice. I can imagine it being used in a TV show too, as there's a lot more TV shows about that kind of thing now, it could be perfect for a montage of two young women falling in love.
Is there any relationship between 'Blue Eyes' and following track 'Kosiskelu'? Becuase I kind of hear them as a series; 'Blue Eyes' is the fun and exciting beginning of the relationship and 'Kosiskelu' is a bit further in...
That's really cool! It definitely wasn't intentional that they were a pair, that probably happened naturally though. 'Kosiskelu', I found out that that word in Finnish means "courtship," so I just liked tapping into that idea and making it as dream-like and washy as possible.
Have you been to Finland?
No [laughs]. Every time I say that word there's probably some Finnish person thinking "that's not how you say that."
There's a dreamy part at the end that sounds like someone else singing...
Oh no that's me, we just fucked around with the vocals a little bit.
It's pretty cool. The EP ends with 'Clementina'; is there any significance to the name Clementina?
That's a little Elliott Smith reference, that's pretty much where it came from.
Is that song a pure fantasy or was there a real inspiration?
There's definitely a literal inspiration for it, but at the time I was thinking about when you're in a relationship you often project your future desires into this oasis over there where everything happens, and kind of imagine the life you'll have with that person, so I wanted to explore those ideas.
Very nice, and a perfect way to end the EP. It makes you want more.
Aw, that's really cool!
Do you have more songs written?
Yeah! I've got a sneaky handful of songs, and I'll definitely be working on more and writing new stuff in the new year.
Cool. I have to ask about the cover of Wisdom Teeth, did you paint it yourself?
Yeah, I did a little canvas. This is typical with me where I'm just like "I wanna try that!" I just started painting a lot, just buying loads of canvases and trying stuff. So that was one of the paintings that I did; I just looked at it and thought "that might be cool for something eventually," and then when it came to picking a cover I was like "what about this?"
What do you do with all your paintings?
They're just hanging up in my house. I recently moved house, and part of the reason I was painting a lot was because I wanted to decorate my house [laughs]. I just figured "well, I can try and do it..." and pretty much everything I've painted has a little spot in my house.
Do you name your paintings?
No, I'm not that vain at this point. I don't think they're that good. There's something about painting that is very humbling, because I'm not proficient in it, but I just love it; I love looking at paintings and other people's work.
You're a literary person, so I have to ask about any books you'd recommend, perhaps something that inspired the EP?
I love the Beat Generation and their poetry, but I had never read On The Road before. So recently I read it, and I did not like it. There were passages in it where I was like "this is so inappropriate or misogynist or really boring." I didn't expect to, because I love that whole vibe and Alan Ginsberg for example. So, maybe not read On The Road, or if you do please convince me that it's actually cool.
What about books that you actually like then?
Anything by Virginia Woolf; I relate a lot to her impressionist style of writing. I like that stream of consciousness vibe.
I've read To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and I think I maybe understood only about half of what was going on, but I really liked it anyway, it's quite evocative.
I feel like that's the point. Half the time I don't know what's going on either, but I always find with Virginia Woolf's work it's just like a wash of goodness. I might not know whose perspective we're currently on in the book, but it's always interesting to me.
Jealous of the Birds’ Wisdom Teeth EP is out now via Hand In Hive / Canvasback.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 4th February 2019.