Birdz: “It was fight or flight, I could run away or I could rise to the challenge”
From hip-hop to composition, it seems that there’s nothing that Birdz (a.k.a. Nathan Bird) cannot do. From his 2013 debut till now, the Northern Territory-raised artist has been writing tracks that echo with air-tight rhythm and enough heart to circumnavigate the globe.
Fresh off the release of his latest single, we sat down with the artist to discuss family, mentors, and his recent journeys into composing for Steven McGregor’s documentary Look Looky Here Comes Cooky.
HAPPY: So Nathan, I heard that you recently asked to write a track for Steven McGregor’s, upcoming documentary Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
NATHAN:Yeah, I guess I was approached probably at the start of the year, January, February, and then, yeah, just told me about the project and that they wanted to sort of share the story through music. I thought it was a really dope concept and a really dope idea and hearing everyone that was involved, like all the different artists; Alice Skye, trials, Mau Power, and Mo’Ju. It was, I think, an incredible opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
HAPPY: Totally. So, trials from A.B. Original, yourself and your cousin Fred Leone, you ended up doing a track, didn’t you?I can imagine it was quite a personal experience. What were the challenges and the highlights of that?
NATHAN: Yeah, definitely, going into a studio especially if you haven’t worked with people before, sometimes it can be a bit daunting. If there’s cameras there, there’s like a new level to that. So being really good mates with trials and Fred being my cousin, there was just a sense of being really comfortable at home there. It made the whole experience just that much smoother. I think it really translates into the performances in the recording.
HAPPY: You wrote the song from the perspective of a young warrior watching Captain Cook sail past Fraser Island, is that correct?
NATHAN: Yeah. So, there’s a story about the Butchulla people witnessing Captain Cook sail past Fraser Island. They see each other on Fraser Island and he keeps sailing. There are some other stories passed down by the elders that are more cautionary tales; who’s this, why is he coming, and what’s he planning to do? It was drawing inspiration from that, but also trying to tap into the mindset of someone that’s preparing for war, preparing for invasion, and having your livelihood under threat.
HAPPY: For someone who’s trying to educate themselves on the importance of the project and what it means for you to take on that role, what would you say to them?
NATHAN: I think as Indigenous people, we’ve been banging on the door for so long, sharing our story, standing up, and speaking out, always willing to meet Australia halfway. I think this project was really special because of the method and the way the music and the motive were really engaging.
I think it’s a really dope way to connect with the youth and young Australians. I’ve had a lot of people from the older generations hit me up and say how much they enjoyed it. Also, Steven’s humour is really accessible. I think he’s done a great job capturing all these different elements and aspects of who we are as blackfellas and presenting that in a really respectful way.
HAPPY: How did it feel from a composition standpoint, composing to picture. You’re writing a piece of music to convey the emotional tone for the film, can you tell me a little bit about that and how the process works?
NATHAN: Yeah there was a bit of pressure to come up with a song especially when you’re working to a production schedule. When someone is trying to put a box around it, I’m a real spontaneous sort of creator, I guess. If I’m not feeling something, or if I’m struggling too much to find words, I’ll just leave it. The songs that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, the ones I consider to be meaningful, getting there can be challenging, but the process is organic.
I actually told Fred about this project, when I was approached because of the concept and how they wanted a Butchulla perspective.I really need my cousin Fred because, you know, in terms of cultural business and in terms of the songs and the dances and the knowledge, he’s the closest person to me that I know that knows that stuff. He showed me the chant he sings and I immediately thought, oh, that’s amazing! Can you sing it over this beat? He literally sent it back in 10-minutes a voice memo of him singing over the beat and I nearly got tears. I showed trials and we all knew straight away that this was the song.
HAPPY: Tell me a little bit more about the relationship you have with your cousin Fred Leone?
NATHAN: He’s always been a mentor for me, ever since I left the territory and went to Brisbane to reconnect with family: that’s where he’s from. He was one of the first cousins that I really reconnected with and just happened to be into hip hop music as well. So, it was magic, he was one of the first people to give me an opportunity in music.He helped me make connections early on, guiding me and teaching me how to write songs. He’s always been really instrumental.
HAPPY:So, on this project, you found yourself working with two different types of mentors: one who is a family member who you looked up to growing up, and one who you met through performing and recording music recently. It must have been an eye-opening experience, can you tell me how it might inform what’s coming next for you?
NATHAN: Yeah, just on the composing level, I write a lot by myself in my own space where it’s really comfortable. But this was a new experience composing in a room full of people.The challenge of performing and rising to their expectations was, at first, really challenging. It was kind of fight or flight, I could either run away or I could stay and rise to the challenge.I’m glad I did stay because I think I ended up making the best work I have done so far.