Towa Bird on queer representation and her debut album 'American Hero'

Interview Towa Bird: “I think people want queer music”

The guitar polymath is redefining what it means to be a modern pop star on debut album ‘American Hero’.

“Waterfall, super soak / Do or die, crazy,” bites Towa Bird in ‘Drain Me!’ – the unfettered, sapphic anthem that sent TikTok into a frenzy back in October. It’s been merely a year since her debut single – last April’s ‘Wild Heart’ – and yet the British-Filipino musician is already becoming the queer representation that she wishes she’d had growing up.

Born in Hong Kong, before spending much of her childhood in both Thailand and London, Towa’s early life saw her move between different countries and schools, all while coming to terms with her identity. It was the sound of her dad’s classic rock records, however, that remained a constant. With The Who, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles soundtracking drives to school each morning, Towa’s admiration for time-defying guitar music grew from a young age. After picking up her dad’s slightly disfigured three-string guitar at twelve-years-old, it quickly became a vessel for her own self expression.

“It’s tough enough being twelve anyways, just kind of like coming to terms with my sexuality and other parts of myself,” she begins. But, faced with feeling isolated from those around her, the instrument was a source of comfort and consistency throughout her childhood. “Like, I have this one thing that I know I can always rely on,” Towa nods, “which is music.”

Having studied music at Goldsmiths, and later played as a touring guitarist with Cassyette, the hesitancy to launch her own project nonetheless remained into adulthood. “I never saw myself in this position. As a woman and as a queer person, you’re constantly being told you’re not allowed to have that dream,” she explains. “You can help people, but that’s not going to be you and there isn’t space for you in this scene.” It would take the encouragement of Towa’s close friends who saw her potential as a soloist to push her into the spotlight. “I just had to have someone be like, ‘You can do it!’” she says.

Now, with an emphatic stream of singles, tours across the US and Europe alongside Reneé Rapp, and nods from the likes of Willow Smith and Tyler, the Creator to her name, it’s a statement that is certainly ringing true. With a TikTok fan base of over one million and counting, Towa’s rule-bending pop vision has already been eagerly received. “To me it means that there’s a niche or there’s this space because the demand is there for it,” she reflects on her rise to internet stardom. “I think people want queer music. I think people want guitar and band music again.” And it’s the integration of these worlds that sits at the forefront of her upcoming album.

“Maybe I am the new American hero, as an immigrant, as a non-citizen, as a queer person, as a person of colour?”

The title alone, ‘American Hero’, prompts questions. Far from fitting the stereotype of “a 6ft4 Chris Pratt, blonde hair, blue eyes dude – macho, big muscles,” Towa leads with striking candour as she deconstructs what it means to be an American hero in the modern day. “Maybe I am the new American hero, as an immigrant, as a non-citizen, as a queer person, as a person of colour?” she reflects. Embracing the intersections of her identity, the album finds the 25-year-old carving her own path amid an ever-changing landscape. “Maybe I’m part of this new wave of heroism that looks different to perhaps what we would have seen previously?”

Written over the past two years, Towa’s debut captures the period of acclimation surrounding her move to Los Angeles from London. Across the 13-track record, themes of queer love and celebration are placed alongside the mental turmoil of being catapulted into the limelight. “It feels like a proper introduction to me because this album is kind of a Towa 101, where now finally people will actually be able to hear and see my perspectives through my art,” she says. From the anti-capitalist rage of ‘B.I.L.L.S’, to the carefree hedonism of ‘Ew’ and acoustic sombreness of ‘A Party’, Towa embraces the full spectrum of emotional experience.

Leading with her electrifying riffs and signature shreds, the album brings the brawn of classic rock guitar to Towa’s own brand of alt-pop. “In pop music, the lead vocal is always the hero,” she suggests, whereas ‘American Hero’ strives to challenge this dynamic. The multi-instrumentalist’s self-proclaimed “fuck-off guitar solos” hold as much importance as her huge choruses. “I feel as though it’s the closest thing to emulating a human voice in the way that you can play it,” she continues.

This synergy between Towa’s “physical voice” and “guitar voice” is equally one that characterises her live performances. “For me, it was really important to have the album feel really live and for people to listen to it and be like, ‘Oh, I want to go to that show!’” Towa notes. And indeed, since forming her own band at the age of fourteen and playing gigs at dive bars and street festivals, the euphoria of being on stage has continued to shape her sound. “I hope that I can harness some of that energy, put it into these records, and maybe translate some of that whole feeling to whoever consumes it.”

Having grown up with few artists like herself to look up to, Towa is among a new generation of musicians occupying the spaces that they wished to see when they were younger. “The industry and the rest of the world are allowing space for queer artists, specifically lesbian artists, to be part of that mainstream wave,” she smiles. With Chappell Roan, boygenius, MUNA and Reneé Rapp all riding high, Towa is in good company. “It feels really cool to be part of the Lesbian Renaissance,” she laughs. 

'American Hero' is out on 28th June via Interscope Records. 

Towa Bird plays All Points East alongside Mitski (18th August) where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/festivals for more information.

Tags: Towa Bird, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the June 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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