When Birdy stands to introduce herself and I see she’s wearing a heavy black leather jacket, my wayward-teen-starlet alarm goes off immediately. This is what happens when you have your first hit single at 14, I think. She’s going to spend this entire interview twerking before running off to ink her umpteenth regrettable tattoo.
But then she arranges herself neatly on her record company’s sofa and begins to speak, softly and carefully, and it’s obvious that this Hampshire 17-year-old is of very different stock. “I don’t really feel like I’m a part of their world,” she says of Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and other former child stars who are signalling their growth by behaving outrageously. “My friends like them so I’d hear their music at parties. I don’t dislike it but I wouldn’t choose it if I was on my own.”
Birdy was not raised on the Disney Channel but on the 1,500-acre Pylewell Park estate in the New Forest. Born Jasmine van den Bogaerde, she’s the daughter of a concert pianist and an author, and the great-niece of actor Dirk Bogarde. She’s also noted in Burke’s Peerage as the granddaughter of John Christopher Ingham Roper-Curzon, the 20th Baron Teynham.
She’s left the silver spoon behind for gold and platinum discs over the past couple of years. That upbringing of taste and refinement was reflected in her self-titled debut album in 2011, a collection of impeccable cover choices delivered on the piano that she started playing at seven. Songs by The xx, Fleet Foxes, The National and Phoenix were all in the mix, beautifully arranged and delivered in a voice that raises shivers.
The first single, Skinny Love, was more successful than Bon Iver’s original. It was used on an advert in Australia for the soap opera Neighbours and now she’s massive there, playing three nights at the Sydney Opera House earlier this year. “It’s kind of odd. They’re very loyal there,” she tells me.
She performed Antony and the Johnsons’ Bird Gerhl, a complex, difficult ballad, at the Paralympics Opening Ceremony and became one of the most talked-about musicians of the night. “I couldn’t really see anyone from the stage. It was just a blur of blue and purple, so it felt like no one could see me. It was such a beautiful thing, so emotional.”
She doesn’t deny that there was a novelty value to a 15-year-old girl who really ought to be screaming at One Direction taking on leftfield indie music. Her sound was also part of a wider trend — a John Lewis ad approach to cover versions that slowed them down and prettied them up for the fastest route to a sigh from the listener.
It’s getting tiresome now but was necessary for her then. Because Skinny Love surprised her team with its success, an album had to be made quickly during the school holidays and weekends. Now, just in time, she’s moving on — both at school, which she has left after deciding to postpone her A-levels, and with her music.
“It feels like the beginning again. I don’t really know what to expect,” she says of her new album, Fire Within. It’s a wide-ranging collection of original material co-written with big hitters such as Ryan Tedder and Dan Wilson, both contributors to Adele’s 21. “It was definitely scary. It was really strange having to share ideas with someone I’d just met.”
The songwriters all had different methods for getting things out of her. Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons helped her to write music to fit an anonymous poem by someone else, before ditching the poem and coming up with new words.
Kid Harpoon (aka Tom Hull, who wrote Shake it Out with Florence + the Machine) wrote with the David Bowie/Jim Henson film Labyrinth on in the background, so their song Light Me Up “ended up being kind of the soundtrack to this film I’d never seen before”.
Light Me Up stands out as the biggest departure from Birdy’s ballad-heavy sound. It has electronic touches, huge drums, much more of a strain to her velvety voice and an upbeat, arm-waving chorus. “It’s a bit daunting to perform,” she says, as it forces her to emerge from behind her piano. “But it’s a side I always wanted to explore. I wanted the album to be a real mix.”
Fans of old will be taken with Words as Weapons, which shifts away from the piano to acoustic guitar and is as glacial and beautiful as any of her covers. The whole thing is a gentle opening out of her sound, not a major shock, which is the only way it could be for a teenager with her head firmly screwed on. “I don’t feel like I’m going to go crazy, hopefully. I feel like this is the right time for me,” she says. Let the others have their lurid fleshy videos and songs without substance. Birdy is flying long-haul.
Fire Within is released on Atlantic on September 23.