A full 12 years on from her debut single, the prevailing narrative of Birdy as a folk-pop prodigy is in desperate need of an update. Now 27, the Hampshire singer-songwriter born Jasmine van den Bogaerde not only released her fifth studio album last week, but with it she stepped away from the stripped-back sound that has already earned her upwards of five billion streams.
Billed as a “liberated leap into the unknown”, Portraits sees Birdy swapping the intimate, Laurel Canyon-stylings of her last LP for 80s-inspired sophisti-pop, featuring some of the biggest choruses of her career. Indeed, at last night’s intimate launch party in Dalston she told fans, “The last album was emotionally intense and this time I just wanted to make something we could dance to.”
Set opener Ruins I proved a challenge in that respect, its stately rhythm eliciting a slow sway at best from the sell-out audience. Recent single Raincatchers was more successful, powered by staccato synth stabs eerily reminiscent of the strings propelling Cloudbusting. Kate Bush’s influence extended to the night’s visuals too, which largely foregrounded stark, black and white footage of Birdy in silhouette, swaying impressionistically.
Helping bring her dry-iced drenched musical vision to life was a four-piece band featuring three multi-instrumentalists. Birdy herself moved quietly between two banks of synths, seemingly oblivious to the evening’s oppressive heat in her black, rhinestone-studded catsuit. Her largely impassive performance suited the innate iciness of the Eighties aesthetic, while the walls of synths only served to emphasise the rich, deep timbre of her voice.
Unsurprisingly, it was that velvety coo that remained the focal point throughout. It proved particularly spellbinding on I Wish I Was A Shooting Star, a cello-embellished, Weyes Blood-esque epic that she introduced as her favourite track on the album. For Heartbreaker she used a loop pedal to layer live vocals, quickly conjuring a choir of exquisite vocal harmonies.
Concluding with a rapturously-received one-two of debut single Skinny Love and 2013-smash Wings, there was no question that fans still prize Birdy’s early output above Portrait’s more dramatic direction. But who knows, give them another decade and they may well have formed similarly unshakable emotional connections to songs from this era. By that point Birdy will have moved on, of course, because if performances like last night’s prove anything it’s that, artistically, this industry veteran is fully committed to forging forward.