Jealous of the Birds – the musical moniker of Northern Ireland-based singer-songwriter Naomi Hamilton – has earned worldwide critical applause for her resonant lyricism and surprisingly volatile musical approach. Hailed by NPR for her “remarkable gift for converting spare and common ingredients into a sound that’s utterly her own.” PENINSULA, Jealous of the Birds’ new album, now sees this artist expanding her welcoming, deeply thoughtful songcraft. A poet and painter, songwriter and musician, Hamilton has crafted an evocative work of creative contrasts, combining spellbinding sonic turbulence and dramatic lyrical depth. Songs like “Something Holy” and the anthemic, optimistic “Pendulum” traverse the space between naïveté and experience, their themes enhanced by enveloping atmospherics and dynamic arrangements.“I feel like there are extremities to being a completely isolated individual and to being completely dependent,” Hamilton says, “whether that’s on other people, on a system, on labels, on whatever you want to be dependent on. PENINSULA encapsulates the idea that you can have some sort of autonomy but also be connected to others; you can be connected to something bigger than yourself while still having some sense of independence.”
Born in Portadown in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, but now based in Belfast, Hamilton started writing poetry and playing guitar at 12, influenced by Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, and such musical artists as Fleet Foxes, Pixies, Nirvana, and Elliott Smith. She began making music of her own in her second year studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Queen's University Belfast. Hamilton first lifted the curtain on Jealous of the Birds with 2015’s CAPRICORN EP, followed the next year by her acclaimed full-length independent debut, PARMA VIOLETS. The album “shatters any preconceived notions,” raved The Irish Times. “PARMA VIOLETS progresses from whimsical folk-pop to atmospheric indie post-punk of real substance…Hamilton rises to the occasion time and time again.”
2017 saw Hamilton enlisting local friends to join her in presenting a live version of Jealous of the Birds, with tours supporting Elbow and The Divine Comedy, multi-night North American residencies, and landmark performances at such events as BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend and South By Southwest (SXSW).
“Touring and playing live changes how you approach your songs,” Hamilton says, “and also how you approach writing the songs that you’re going to play. Because I had only really started songwriting before PARMA VIOLETS, they are simple songs. I think that’s one of its strengths but also it pushed me to strive to write songs that are a bit more complex.”Jealous of the Birds followed PARMA VIOLETS with a pair of equally well-received EPs – 2018’s THE MOTHS OF WHAT I WANT WILL EAT ME IN MY SLEEP and 2019’s WISDOM TEETH, both evincing the considerably more expansive sound that had emerged on stage.
“The EPs were almost like stepping stones to this record,” says Hamilton. “I wanted a much bigger, fuller sound. I was cautious about that in the writing process - even the demos had string sections I’d written, there were a lot more bass dynamics in the songs. Hopefully that comes across. I just wanted to make a conscious effort to show a maturation of the kind of music I’m interested in, both in listening to and in playing.”
In August of 2019, Hamilton continued her creative evolution by teaming with producer Marta Salogni (Björk, Anna Meredith, Georgia Ruth) on two standalone singles, “The Grass Begins to Eat Itself” and “Ode of Fire,” and with producer David Wrench (The XX, David Byrne, Marika Hackman) on “Young Neanderthal” and “Always Going,” both of which appear on PENINSULA. These songs mark Jealous of the Birds’ continuing progression from bedroom recordings to more expansive and inventive use of the studio.
“I felt like it would be a good and interesting thing to work with other producers and meet other people in the industry,” Hamilton says. “Marta was really interesting to me, not only because she’s worked with people like Björk, but also obviously because she’s a woman. Any time I see a female sound engineer or a producer, it’s kind of like manna from heaven, I just don’t see enough of that.
“She’s so down to earth, so open to just approaching the songs in the same way she’d approach anything else. She just wants to make really good records. And because she’s a mixing engineer as well, she has a kind of cohesiveness in producing and engineering the record but also mixing it, because she’s had that intimacy with the songs.”
“David Wrench was a joy to work with. The fact that, along with being a producer and mixing engineer, he’s also a musician, meant that there was an affinity between us throughout the whole creative process. Not only does he have an intimate understanding of the concerns of the artist, but also the language and skill to facilitate their experience in the studio. I felt very seen and united in a passion to make something great.”
Hamilton spent late 2019 writing songs and recording demos for what would become PENINSULA, including a successful writing retreat in Lisbon that yielded the songs “Always Going,” “Something Holy,” and “Kodachrome.” In February 2020, Jealous of the Birds and Salogni reunited at Strongroom Studios, Shoreditch, London to build upon the already detailed demos. The duality of Jealous of the Birds’ songcraft was accentuated by two separate sets of backing musicians, with Hamilton’s touring band featured on more straight-ahead songs like “Something Holy” and session players used on tracks requiring piano parts and string arrangements.
PENINSULA – which takes its title from a key lyric in “Marrow,” found on WISDOM TEETH: “You call me peninsula/An island no more” – is fueled by Hamilton’s hope for human harmony, its songs pondering how one maintains true individuality while successfully navigating the collective experience. Indeed, the hustle and bustle of life can be felt in the chaotic swirl that begins “Hadron Collider” or explodes the climax of ‘Kodachrome.’
“I really love playing around with dynamics, where the verses are really condensed and chill, and then you get into these big explosive choruses. The kind of things where it starts quite classical and soft and then you build into this giant avalanche of sound – the final part of ‘Always Going’ is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. I don’t even know how it happened, it just did. The song starts with just an acoustic guitar and then it just explodes. The dynamic shifts and you just go somewhere else.”
Similar swings of mood and meaning exist within Hamilton’s finely etched lyrics, with songs like “To The Rind” and “Pendulum” veering between the contemplative introspection and pointed directness. “Shiloh Chandra,” a rousing piano-driven tale of a Gypsy traveler, sees her engaging alternate perspectives through narrative, searching for shared commonality by placing herself in another’s shoes.
“Sometimes, especially with singer-songwriters in the classic sense, a lot of it is very egocentric,” Hamilton says. “First person, you’re just yourself, moaning about your feelings. Almost manipulating the listener to feel the way you do. I find it interesting to get rid of the ego and just assume another character – What was their life like? What would they do? What’s their story? I think that also taps into this idea of individual versus collective. Empathizing with somebody else or trying to tell a story from somebody else’s viewpoint.”
The Strongroom sessions continued into mid-March 2020, by which time they were haunted by the rising threat of pandemic. Indeed, the final days were both harried and hurried, with Hamilton and her team racing against the clock to complete the recording.
“We had just a couple of tracks to go when it started getting kind of hairy,” Hamilton says. “Everything was done apart from a few vocals. We just about managed to finish it before heading home. The UK hadn’t gone into lockdown yet but there were rumors that London was going to go that way soon. My flight got canceled; I had to reschedule twice because everything was so volatile and weird. Three or four days after I got home, then the UK went into lockdown, so I kind of got out just in time.”
“I’m noticing more and more that there’s a theme in my songs of the future,” Hamilton says. “Of it being this kind of oasis somewhere over there, somewhere you’re trying to get to, like this place where your current struggles don’t exist. That’s probably a very millennial thing – people my age crave security more than some might think. Like, what is happening? What is my place in the world?
“The more this job has afforded me to travel, it’s kind of affected my worldview. I think that’s natural – the older you get, and the more opportunity you have to travel, you see and experience more things. You realize you’re not the only person out there. Everybody has stresses and concerns. I would hope that the songs would reflect on the idea that we’re all just human and we all need compassion and tolerance the same as everybody else.”