The guitarist and songwriter speaks on her TikTok following, discovering Jimi Hendrix at age 12, and knowing her worth as a queer woman in the music industry
Towa Bird has accumulated a considerable following since London’s first lockdown in March 2020 through her TikTok videos showcasing her incredible musical talents. Effortlessly playing the guitar while rocking a free-flowing curly mop nostalgic of a ’70s rockstar, Towa’s enticing charm and nonchalant attitude provide her with an irresistible je ne sais quoi that her fans just can’t seem to get enough of.
I met up with Towa when she came by my flat on a rainy Thursday afternoon. Accompanied by her girlfriend and a bottle of white wine, Towa walked in sporting her usual black platform Doc Martens, olive green corduroy trousers secured with a gem-adorned leather belt, a printed mesh top, a velvet brown shirt, and a lengthy black leather jacket. She had accessorized with jewelry consisting of silver rings on her fingers, chains and necklaces around her neck, and a tab from a beer can and a safety pin attached to hoop earrings.
We went for a walk down the streets of North London, taking photographs and trying to gain the attention of a few uninterested street cats, then headed back to sit down and talk. Towa answered my questions with touching honesty, in between sips from a bottle of Peroni and occasional drags on a cigarette.
Mathilde Favel: How are you feeling, Towa?
Towa Bird: I’ve got some allergies going on and I’m sneezing quite a lot, but I’m good, I’m happy!
Mathilde: Let’s start at the beginning, where did you grow up?
Towa: I grew up in Thailand, Hong Kong, and the UK. There was a lot of back-and- forth between the three places. I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, languages, amazing food, music, and art at such a young age. My identity of home is a little different, perhaps, to some of my friends who have grown up in one house or a couple houses. For me, it’s about the community and the people around me rather than a physical house. I feel very privileged to have had such an exposure at such a young age but I’m also curious as to what I would be like if I had [grown up with] a very set structure around me.
“Everyone else sees the product that I make but I just see myself looking at my phone. It’s very pragmatic—I have my little system, I put the music on, I do it, and I upload it. I’m not getting any kind of live feedback, I’m not getting the adrenaline of going on stage.”
Mathilde: That sounds incredible, do you speak more than one language?
Towa: No, which is the pretty fucking embarrassing part of being an international kid. It’s almost too over-stimulating to focus, I can barely even speak English. I can probably order us a nice meal in Filipino and get us a cab back home in Cantonese, but can I actually hold a conversation? Absolutely not.
Mathilde: So how did you get into music in the first place? Where did this love for music come from?
Towa: From my parents, initially. They had loads and loads of CDs. Me and my dad used to drive around and listen to music in the car all the time. He’d say to me, ‘You should listen to this and listen to the way this person is singing, you should watch this live show…’ He has a really great eye and ear for that kind of stuff, he was the first person who taught me the C major chord on the guitar. Growing up around that was really inspirational. Another kind of key point is when I watched a Jimi Hendrix documentary when I was 12 and realized that’s what I want to do. I then spent the weekend jumping on the sofas and playing air guitar, watching this documentary over and over again. I thought to myself, Holy shit! I am obsessed with this, I want to perform like that, I want to be like that!
I wanted to be a professional football player before that. I mean, I was, like, 11, so what did I know?
Mathilde: Do you still play football?
Towa: Yeah, I played football at uni. We were so shit. We once lost 19-nil! We did it because we wanted to go to the pub and get drunk together. It was like a big friendship group rather than an actual football team.
Mathilde: So when did you move to London? And what’s it been like moving to L.A.?
Towa: [I moved to London] when I was 16. I love London, it has such a great vibe and the people are great, the banter is great. It felt like a good base for me and I’ll always be returning to visit. My sister is here, so that’s important. I just moved to L.A. [in September 2021], which has a different set of opportunities for me and has been really great so far.
Mathilde: Career-wise, how would you best describe what you’re doing at the moment?
Towa: That’s a good question! I’ve taken a break from the producer-songwriter role for a bit to fully focus on my own project as an artist, and have been working on a lot of original music which I’m excited for people to hear this year. Obviously not being able to gig feels like it’s setting me back a bit because when I’m kind of forced into these live spaces I have to deliver to a certain extent, I’ve found in the past that it can be quite helpful.
Mathilde: How exciting, I can’t wait to hear you sing! Did you do a lot of gigs before COVID?
Towa: Yeah, I was part of a band and we went on tour around the UK. Performance felt like a really big outlet for me as a musician. After having that taken away, I had to find other modes of musical expression.
Mathilde: Do you think TikTok, and social media as a whole, kind of replaced gigs in a way for you?
Towa: As sad as it sounds, probably a little bit.
Mathilde: Why do you think that sounds sad? What is your relationship with social media like?
Towa: My relationship with social media is good. I love making videos but it can become a bit monotonous, I want to push [the medium] forward. Interacting with a phone, all you see is yourself. Everyone else sees the product that I make but I just see myself looking at my phone. It’s very pragmatic—I have my little system, I put the music on, I do it, and I upload it. I’m not getting any kind of live feedback, I’m not getting the adrenaline of going on stage.
Being able to tap into international audiences is probably the most exciting thing that comes from social media. Connecting with people on an international level is pretty damn crazy.
“I finally realized that I can dress like a boy and that was okay. I just ran with that, really—combining my dad’s and my sister’s styles, being this weird androgynous teenager. I was finding my androgyny and discovering my sexuality, expressing gender through my clothes.”
Mathilde: Has your newfound social media following changed how you view the industry and making music? Does it motivate you or do you find it has its setbacks?
Towa: It definitely motivates me knowing that there are people on the receiving end who are excited about my art. I’m extremely lucky to have people who give a shit. It’s kind of crazy and a little bit surreal. Everything is [still] kind of existing in lockdown, I haven’t really felt the effects of it properly. It’s hard to imagine what these numbers look like in real life. But it’s extremely motivational and kind of humbling.
Mathilde: I love your style. Do you think music affects the way you dress? Do you think there are parallels between musical and fashion expression?
Towa: I feel like they’re quite separate. Fashion is another mode of self expression—but perhaps they do link more than I think. My style came to me quite naturally, observing the older men and women in my life and how they dressed. My older sister was probably a big style influence for me; as was my dad and the way that he dressed when he was my age, looking at old pictures of him. Obviously, like I’ve mentioned, my dad is a big influence for me. I wanted to dress like him but I would think, I’m a woman, I can’t dress like a man! But then thinking later on, Actually, fuck that. Whatever dude, I’ll dress like whatever!
Mathilde: That must’ve been liberating.
Towa: Yeah! I finally realized that I can dress like a boy and that was okay. I just ran with that, really—combining my dad’s and my sister’s styles, being this weird androgynous teenager. I was finding my androgyny and discovering my sexuality, expressing gender through my clothes.
Mathilde: How do you identify now?
Towa: As a queer woman!
Mathilde: As a queer woman, how do you feel being in this industry that is still heavily male-dominated?
Towa: It’s kinda shit. There’s a massive under-representation of women, full stop. Let alone, you know, women of color, Black women, queer women. I think it means having to really understand your worth—or, at least, pretending like you understand your worth—before you do anything. Thinking to yourself, Actually, you know what? I am good at what I do, I am here for a reason, because the energy in the room will tell you that you’re not good at what you do, and you’re not here for any reason. Even if it comes from a fake place, just having the confidence to say to yourself, ‘You know what, I’m good, I am the shit. I can do this. This is my job and there’s a reason why I’m here.’ I’ve been in so many rooms where the energy tells me that I need to prove myself. I can only speak from my perspective, but it does feel like my male counterparts don’t receive that as much. Especially being a female producer or guitarist—only something like 2% of producers are women, it’s crazy under-represented.
When I do get in a room with all women, or in a writing or recording session with all women, I’m thinking, Wow, why does it not feel like there’s so many egos in this room? Why does it feel safe? In this industry, feeling like I’m having to talk a little louder and dress a certain way, and having to consider those factors before stepping into these rooms, becomes so internalized and so normalized. I think this is an important question.
It’s just those men’s attitudes when they say, ‘Oh, you did this all by yourself? Oh, you made this beat? Oh, that’s you playing the guitar?’ And women get this in all kinds of industries, not just the music industry. I’m sure you can relate to this. Getting talked down to, being spoken to like you’re a child or a dog.
“In this industry, feeling like I’m having to talk a little louder and dress a certain way, and having to consider those factors before stepping into these rooms, becomes so internalized and so normalized.”
Mathilde: Yeah, sadly, it is very relatable.
On another note, what would you say is most important to you right now?
Towa: I’ve really found value in the people I surround myself with. The people that I live with and the people I hang out with are a massive influence. Being able to have creative friends and engaging in conversations [with them]—I’m so lucky to be friends with so many brilliant artists. We talk about process and what inspires us. There’s a sense of solidarity and empathy, it’s really beautiful. My surroundings are becoming even more of an inspiration as things are starting to open up, COVID-wise—actually being able to see people and not having to worry as much, realizing I’ve missed out on all these wonderful people this past year and a half.
Mathilde: Is there anything you want to achieve in 2022?
Towa: Obviously, there are factors that are totally out of our control [because of] COVID, so it’s hard to know what can or cannot be achieved at this time. However, one thing I definitely would love is for people to hear what I’ve been working on. I’m writing music that I’m genuinely so proud of and I’ve been creating work that feels really exciting to me. I’m looking forward to having people hear that and hopefully being able to perform these songs to a real-life human audience! That would be wild.
Mathilde: What other plans do you have for a hopefully COVID-free future as restrictions are being lifted?
Towa: To gig a little bit, to write more. I’ve spent the last year on my laptop—on Zoom—with people all over the world, which is great but I couldn’t hug them or introduce myself properly. So, going out there and meeting all these wonderful people that I’ve met online. Being able to travel more, hopefully. Just getting out, man, seeing people! Being able to hang out, interact with and hug people.