May/June 2022

by Jemilah Ross-Hayes

Wiri Donna: Coming of Age

by Jemilah Ross-Hayes

Wiri Donna: Coming of Age

Wiri Donna emerges from folk seedlings into an indie riff-rock sunflower with her new EP ‘Being Alone’, due out at the end of May. Touching on lessons often learnt out of loneliness, Te Whanganui-a-Tara-based Bianca Bailey shares her experience through a storytelling writing style combined with an exclamatory rock front. She talked with Jemilah Ross-Hayes.

Bianca Bailey made her first statement as Wiri Donna in 2020 with double-single Sprouts and Manuka Money, but two years on she says that, in some ways, new EP ‘Being Alone’ feels like her first release.

“There’s been more of a plan to everything that’s happening. This project is more considered, so this is the first time that it actually feels like I’m actually presenting something to the universe, as opposed to just popping something online.

“I’ve been describing the EP as a coming-of-age, youthful essence EP. There are things that I have learned, which I thought were things that you would learn growing up, but they are more things that you learn when you are by yourself, so I’m really looking forward to being able to share it with people.”

Bailey grew up playing the drums, so has always had a strong rock influence, however, she also has strong folk roots.

“All through high school I was a drummer, and even when I first moved down to Te Whanganui-a-Tara I played drums in other bands. But I also grew up going to the Auckland Folk Festival and being very connected to folk music, so when I wanted to start my first solo project and picked up the guitar, that felt like the most natural place for me to start.

“I love songwriting, and folk music is all about storytelling and being able to share your own stories through music.”

The shift to Wiri Donna’s more indie riff-rock sound began with a vision for how she wanted her live performances to be experienced.

“I wanted to start having a live show that was really energetic and enthusiastic. Playing the drums and growing up in rock music, it was the natural place for the kind of shows that I wanted to put on. So that led to the evolution from folk to a larger rock sound, slowly being able to connect the dots between this very special songwriting process and then being able to have those big rock music shows.”

She will be touring the EP around NZ with six shows planned for later in 2022, her first solo tour – which she is both “really excited” and “absolutely terrified” about.

“I’ve done a tour with Dartz and Dale Kerrigan before, and I had an awesome time, but I’m going solo. I love playing in different cities, it’s the only way you get to see who else is vibing to your music, which is going to be so much fun!”

That transition from folk to rock comes up again when she explains that, as excited as she is to share her new sound with the world, she always wants to remain connected to her folk artist self.

“I’d like to think that I will always keep those softer elements of the first project, and I still love those songs and listening to that kind of music.

“I used to get really worried when I first started playing live shows that I was playing both folk and rock songs – and some songs down a completely different track altogether – and people are going to come to my shows and think my sound isn’t cohesive and that I don’t know what I’m doing. Then I had a conversation with my drummer who said, ‘I think that you will find that the only person who thinks those things is you, because all anyone else is hearing is your style of songwriting and your music that you’re making, and because it made by you it’s always going to have the same tone to it.’

“So I’m less worried about that now, and I’m going to write songs the way I want to. and have fun with the different ways that that can sound.”

No Follow Through, the first pre-release single from her six-track EP, strikes a balance between indie-folk and big guitar sounds by alternating the two. Bailey wrote the song about the widely relatable experience of not being able to follow through on everything she set out to.

“It was in late 2020, which was the year that I started so many things – and didn’t necessarily meet the end of any of them! I felt like I had set all of these goals and expectations for myself, and sort of got towards the end of the year and couldn’t feel like I had made any progress on any of those things.

“I was coming to the realisation that actually, no one else cared that I hadn’t done all of the things I had set out to do. People will just see the finished project, and they never get to see the behind-the-scenes and what really goes into making something happen. They get this shiny polished thing that gets delivered to them.

“Coming to the understanding that actually, it didn’t really matter that I hadn’t finished those things because I’ll get to it when I need to. And that it was also a year when no one was really finishing anything, and no one had any expectations that any of us would do anything that year – so just maybe realising that it’s okay, it’s fine.”

The video for No Follow Through was produced by Sports Team with cinematography and editing by Callum Devlin and production design by Annabel Kean. Filmed in a small Auckland apartment it follows a plot where Wiri Donna creates scarecrow puppets that eventually turn real and torment her, before she gets rid of them.

“I’ve been a big fan of their music videos for a long time, so I was stoked that they wanted to work with me. I didn’t want it to be a pretty band sing-song video in which it was just us playing the song, and it looks nice. And I didn’t want it to be a sort of direct or literal translation of the lyrics, or true meaning of the song in any sense. I wanted something abstract that people would be able to walk away from with their own meaning, or a little bit more meaning of the song.”

“When I first read the plot, it reminded me of several house parties that I had had at the flat that I used to live at with Harry, who plays bass in the band. I thought it was hilarious because I had never told them about it. I just thought it was so perfect, it was the most wonderful chaotic scene. I’m really happy with how it came out. It gives me big smiles and warm fuzzies! It’s a horror, but it’s not really. It’s hilarious and so perfect.”

No Follow Through, indeed the whole ‘Being Alone’ EP, was co-produced, recorded and mixed by James Goldsmith at The Surgery in Newtown, Wellington.

“That was my first time working with James, and I’ve decided I want to do every project that I ever do with him because he’s so passionate about the music that people make. It was the first time I’d gone into the studio to record an entire project of my own, and it was just an awesome space to be in.”

“I had my really awesome band playing on the EP, which is Harrison Scholes and James McEwan, and we had Theo [Spike Salmon] from Daffodils come down and add guitar too, which was very much a Hail Mary moment!”

The EP’s second single, Dream Of Me, is lighter than the others, Bailey agreeing it feels like it should be a summer release, while the rest of ‘Being Alone’ will reveal her “heavier, grittier” songs, like the confrontational, confessional title track.

“I think I’m holding on to that stuff for as long as possible because that’s the part where I’m sharing everything, and that feels a bit overwhelming,” she admits.

“I’m a little bit scared that people will be like, ‘Okay, let’s talk about this’. And I’m like, ‘Well, you could just listen to the song, because that’s everything,'” she laughs painfully. “But it will be okay.”

support nzm