Meet Towa Bird: 23, four singles out, living the life of a rock star. She’s got effortless glam-rock curls that bob to the beat of her music, and a deep voice that drips over the phone. Every night, she clambers on stage to the cheers of rabid fans, where she’s currently touring the US with breakout pop sensation Reneé Rapp. There, her painted nails dance along the fretboard of the guitar that she plays like butter.
During the pandemic, Bird uploaded videos where she brilliantly riffs over classics like Childish Gambino’s ‘Redbone’, or Supertramp’s ‘Breakfast In America’ refrain. She’s carried that over to her music, too: ‘Boomerang’ and its solo features bursts of exuberant shredding and wailing notes that audiences have gone wild for. Pretty quickly, the musician found herself as the new Internet girlfriend to over 900k people: “I will say, it never feels bad for people to call me hot!” she laughs.
Lately, that obsession has reached fever pitch: “People will try and flirt with you, especially on this tour – someone invited me to have a threesome with their partner,” Bird tells NME from her tour bus on the way to Philadelphia. It’s not just fans, either – Billie Eilish has even sung her praises on social media (“gimme kiss”, the singer playfully pleaded). Bird eventually met Eilish, that information playing on loop in her head: “Yeah, it’s pretty hard to ignore, but we both played our cool cards. It just felt like I was talking to a mate.”
But whether it’s people who proposition her or the world’s biggest popstar sliding into the comments, Bird says she respectfully turns them down. She might be the latest femme fatale, but Bird’s newest single ‘Drain Me’ forms a journey to her debut album – an ode to her girlfriend.
Born in Hong Kong to British and Filipino parents, Towa Bird originally planned to stay in London. She’d lived in Hong Kong and Thailand, where she grew up playing dive bars and street festivals, taking her inspiration from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Prince. Then, she moved to London, where she started a degree at Goldsmiths University and played as a guitarist for rising alt-punk star Cassyette.
That all changed when she got a call from Olivia Rodrigo, who had seen her TikToks; she’d invited Bird to partake in her documentary Driving Home 2 U (A Sour Film). You can now see Bird playing alongside bassist Blu DeTiger to ‘Brutal’. Bird eventually dropped out of her degree and upped sticks once again to LA to sign with Interscope (who also signed Rodrigo): “I went from making songs in my room in London to landing in LA and being on this massive production. I was like, ‘Wow: this is what life could be like for me.’”
It was a fantastic start, but pretty quickly, reality began to set in. Bird was in a new city in an overwhelming industry, and a culture that didn’t always appreciate her British sarcasm (“it didn’t really stick”, she winces). Bird also found America more “insular”, something that unsettled her compared to the more international cultures she’d previously been surrounded by: “I went to an international school in Hong Kong; all of the kids looked like me and had this mixed up accent. I could relate to people. In the US, you don’t see so much of that.”
“I want people to dance to [the album], I want them to cry to it”
As a result, Bird began to feel alienated in the US. “In the UK,” she explains, “I don’t feel like an immigrant, whereas here, I do. I very much do.”
Talking to other Filipino musicians like Rodrigo and fellow British-Filipino Beabadoobee helped Bird notice the different ways immigrants interacted with their respective cultures. Bird hung out with Bea and had some “really deep chats” about their identities; Bea, who speaks Tagalog (the most widely-spoken language in the country), “is incredibly proud to be Filipino.” In America, however, she felt this wasn’t the case; she stresses these were broad observations and not specific to Rodrigo.
“I feel like some parents potentially encourage their kids to be American, to be white and speak English and grow up with that culture because of the discrimination they received,” she explained. “Whereas in the UK more generally, I’m seeing a wider acceptance of growing up within your Asian roots and having that be celebrated around the house.”
So Bird started from scratch. She called up every friend she knew of, including “gaysian icon” Deb Never, and found a roommate. Slowly, but surely, she started to form a friendship group: “The one thing that we all have in common is that we’ve all come to LA with a purpose. We’ve all left something behind and sacrificed something to be there. We find that sense of comfort, family, and community in each other, which is very special.”
On top of that, Bird was navigating a long-distance relationship with her partner Liv, who she met on Instagram. They’ve been going out for two and a half years, and have been primarily long-distance, as Liv resides in NY. “She is literally one of the coolest people I’ve ever met”, Bird gushes. “She’s so funny and incredible and kind. Even though we have this tough context right now, I just don’t see myself being with anyone else in the way that we are together. I’m absolutely down to sacrifice it for her, you know?”
Bird has made good on her sacrifice so far, having released four singles in the run-up to her debut, which she called ‘American Hero’. The title is injected with a healthy dose of irony and self-awareness: “When I think of those two words together, I think of a 6’4 white guy, Captain America – blonde, blue-eyed,” she jokes. “That’s nothing that I represent as an androgynous queer person. I am the anti-American hero, but because I’m an immigrant, that almost makes me an American. I’m sharing parts of my life I’ve never told anyone before; because I’m being vulnerable, I’m almost a hero.”
So far, Towa Bird has released four snippets of the album. There’s a slew of lovesick anthems ranging from the fabulously carefree (‘Boomerang’) to the rambunctious and sexy (‘Drain Me’). There’s also Bird’s first single, April 2023’s ‘Wild Heart’, which is so catchy it sounds like it’s straight off a noughties British teen romcom soundtrack. But there’s also space for the more anxiety-riddled ‘This Isn’t Me’, inspired by Bird being thrust into her entirely new world, bursting into a dreamy Phantogram-esque chorus. There’s even some impressive guitar tapping thrown in right at the beginning, just in case you doubted Bird’s abilities.
Along with her relationship with Liv and her new, unfamiliar environment, Bird’s north stars for the album were “being a personality on the stage” and “the guitar”, her eternal love. “I wanted to make an album that would feel good to play live and that the crowd will love,” she says. “I have written a lot of my choruses with a crowd in mind.”
To do so, Bird enlisted the help of Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith from Kiwi indie legends The Naked and Famous, who she calls “mentors”. Bird stayed with Powers and wrote nine out of 10 songs with him, spending almost a year in his studio in LA. She also cites Xayalith being an early inspiration: “I remember being young, looking at Alisa: she’s an Asian woman, she’s in rock, she’s got this big voice and she’s powerful. Having the opportunity to write with her was so cool.”
“You don’t hear that many songs about queer sex like ‘Drain Me!’”
The album’s been kept tightly under wraps, but Bird tells NME to expect “big riffs”, “big beats”, and “a lot of vulnerability and heart”. It’s the first time Bird will be writing about a romantic relationship, something which she says is “surreal”. Bird’s latest single ‘Drain Me’ is a nod to steamy lesbian sex: “Tip of my tongue/Sweet and sour/Back of my car/In the shower”.
“To me, I was just writing love songs,” she says. “You don’t hear that many songs about queer sex like that. It’s my sense of normal, but I suppose to the outside world, it represents much, much more. So in a way, I’m happy I can be that representation, that I can put out a rock song about lesbian sex.” However, Bird also teases that there’s some “mid-tempo, slow jams” on the record: “I’ve saved the more vulnerable songs for last so people can hear the whole project.”
Bird singles out the unreleased ‘She’ as an example, which will see the singer open up about a part of her life she normally keeps hidden. “It depicts the first two days of meeting Liv. I can’t believe I’m actually sharing the story, it’s so private. But I’m also so excited for people to know because I can’t think of any songs that are doing this kind of stuff. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but there is just a lack of representation of it in this world, and that’s really unfortunate.
“So to hear a diary-entry song about meeting your partner and all of the little details, that spark, I think it’s quite nice.”
According to Bird, “the whole bloody album is about her”, with the exception of one “fuck-off” song: ‘Bills’. It’s the song Bird loves to sing live, where she gets people in the crowd to shove two fingers up at landlords (something which, to her delight, perturbs the more rural American crowds she’s played).
“It’s about saying to all the billionaires, landlords, bosses and big corporations in the world: fuck you,” she explains. “All of these kids are in massive student loan debt, there’s a massive recession happening. It could be contextual, but also, the song goes off. It’s a very fun, riffy, playful song about a heavy topic.”
Bird wants to use her experience growing up in disparate cultures to create a queer love story for the ages – and ultimately, for her to connect with people who might not know her yet. “I want people to dance to it, I want them to cry to it. I hope it evokes the same amount of emotion that I have, but I also hope people can feel my heart in it.”
Towa Bird’s ‘Drain Me!’ is out now on Interscope
Listen to Towa Bird’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music
Writer: Alex Rigotti
Photography: Alanna Taylor
Styling: Stefani Colvin