Towa Bird Is Your New Hero

Towa Bird isn’t an American. Born in Hong Kong to Filipino and English parents, she’s only recently started putting down roots in the USA. It’s also worth noting that — according to her — she’s not exactly what you’d call “heroic.” Still, as I walk through New York City’s Lower East Side, the first track of her album American Hero, soundtracking my gaze past graffiti, skateboarders and colorful cars, I think she may have gotten the latter admission wrong. “Intro,” the wordless opening that marks the start of her debut album, is a piercing guitar track. It’s an immediate reminder of Bird’s prowess on the instrument, one she uses more like a voice than a tool. She first picked up the electric guitar when she was just 12 years old and, even then, she could wield its ability to convey thoughts better than words.

Sitting at a small table in the back of Ludlow Hotel’s Dirty French restaurant, Bird, with a grin framed by the kind of wild, pristine tresses saved for ’70s rock stars, is having mixed feelings about the impending release of her debut. She refers to the building emotions as “a wonderful cocktail of anxiety.” She counters with a smile, “But also equally excitement and joy.” Though Bird’s been making music for what seems like forever, she notes that American Hero is about “the way more recent” version of herself. “I wasn’t one of those kids that was like, ‘I’m gonna be Beyoncé when I’m older,'” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m probably gonna have a normal human job and play guitar on the weekends because I love it.’ I worked really hard at it, but I almost fell into this profession. I worked hard because I wanted to make cool music, not because I wanted to be commercially successful. That bit came later.”

At first, Bird worked for other artists, playing guitar and producing on their projects. Her shift to focusing on her own music is “pretty new” she adds, and it’s been fruitful. Bird picked up the distinction of “Gen Z’s Joan Jett” from Vogue, opened for Reneé Rapp in North American and Europe (the pair seemed to have confirmed their relationship with high-profile red carpet appearances) and took the stage on Late Night with Seth Meyers all before her debut made it to listeners’ ears. Now, she’s slated to play the gleefully queer All Things Go festival in both NYC and Maryland before returning to New York for a headline show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. It looks like, albeit unintentionally, the hard work is paying off.

Below, Towa Bird tells PAPER what led to American Hero and where she’s headed next.

When did you first make the shift to playing for yourself?

I started actually properly taking it seriously when I dropped out of Uni.

And did you do that specifically to pursue music?

It was definitely an intention. At that point. I was like, “Okay, if I’m actually going to take this seriously, I actually have to put all of my eggs in one basket and finally send it.” That was definitely an interesting conversation with my parents. They’re very ambitious people. I had to make a deal with them. My mom’s an immigrant, so she wants me to be fiscally responsible, you know, like, “Get a good job, dude.” I was like, “I hear what you’re saying, but I have this crazy idea about one of the most unreliable careers.” It’s like the worst thing you could imagine. So I told them I was going to do something that actually felt tangible and real and take steps in the right direction, and if nothing happened in a year, I’d go back to school. And, in the year, I had already been on tour and got my foot in the door. I developed my project to the point of getting signed.

What was it that allowed you to take that leap?

At that point, I just really wanted to do something for my community. There aren’t that many people out there who look like me or come from a similar background. Even in the past two years, I feel like there’s been so much more music made for queer women. I never had someone to look up to growing up. It was all boys. It was [Jimmy] Hendrix and Prince and David Bowie, these androgynous men who were still straight. And I was willing to do this, I was willing to work hard and really give a shit about making cool music. I really wanted to make something that made me happy. I wanted people to share that joy. I’m 25 and have lived in four different countries. I’m willing to take a big risk for a high reward. There’s an innate part of my personality that [believes] you have to throw yourself off the edge in order to make a splash.

You’ve talked about the male gaze in music, and how you wanted to shift that with your songs and write from your perspective as a queer woman. Why was it important for you to do that, and with such confidence, in your debut?

I just wanted to be honest and as forward as I could be because I need to do that or else, what the fuck am I doing? I’m self-sabotaging if I’m not being entirely authentic. That is also what I care about. What I want to write about is what happens to me in my day-to-day life and, obviously, it is really important at a macro level to have music that represents this community, but also this is just what I want to talk about. I’m in my early 20s. I’m figuring out what the fuck is going on in the world and in my life, and I love love, and I’m a romantic person. I’m also young, so that’s what it’s going to be about. Maybe the next couple of records can be slightly more high-concept.

Let’s talk about the title and the theme American Hero. Why did you choose that banner?

American Hero is entirely satirical. I am not American. And when I think of an American hero, I think of a very blond and blue-eyed six-foot guy like Captain America. Obviously that’s what I am [laughs]. When I think of heroism, I think of hyper-masculinity, that strength. A lot of the songs are very tender and very vulnerable. I’m showing parts of myself that I’ve never shown even some of my dearest friends. So, they are [not written] from the perspective of heroes or what that typically represents. And also, a person who comes from a mixed background and who isn’t a citizen here, which I often get reminded of, I feel like I wanted to make a new American hero. A queer mixed, non-American talking about my deepest, darkest secrets.

You have to throw yourself off the edge in order to make a splash.

Photos courtesy of Interscope Records

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