Veiled by the moniker Jealous of the Birds, Naomi Hamilton is on an escalator which seems to only go up. Originally from Portadown, Hamilton is a familiar face in the Belfast and wider music scenes in Ireland.
“By the time I was recording ‘Parma Violets’ [her 2016 debut album] I had only been writing songs for about 6 months. I’d been playing guitar and learning other people’s songs since I was 12. My thing, when I was a teenager, was writing poetry – and then I would play guitar on the side. Then when I was in my late teens, my parents gifted me some recording equipment. I think I just thought why don’t I start combining these two things I really enjoy seeing as I now have the means to. It was late 2014, early 2015 when I actually started noodling around, recording my own songs. It became this new discovery, combining these two loves of mine and that’s what inspired me to put together my first EP Capricorn. I put it out on Bandcamp and just shared it with friends and family.” Since then it has been pretty non-stop for Hamilton and the rest of her band; gigs, tours and a steady release of EPs and singles. Now, after four years of slow burn, her awaited sophomore album ‘Peninsula’ is about to be released pre-empted by five singles.
“A lot of the main arc of the album is looking at the idea that no man is an island. Peninsulas by their nature are out at sea but connected to the rest of the land so it taps into this extended metaphor that you can have this sense of individuality and autonomy but still be connected to a bigger thing. So a lot of the songs fit into this idea. What’s also cool is in Marrow [a song from her 2019 Wisdom Teeth EP] there’s a lyric ‘you call me peninsula, an island no more’ so it ties in. This idea has been in my head for a while.”
The ever-cool Hamilton recorded the album in Strongroom Studio in Shoreditch between February and March of this year. “We did the bulk of the recording in two parts. In February we recorded for two weeks, did some mixing and then came back to it in early March to do the second half of the album. That first session went really smoothly. There were murmurs of the pandemic but it wasn’t something that we were overly conscious of. But in the March session it was really surreal. Things were going really well in the studio – we were just in our own little bubble working away on our own thing. The producer on the album is Italian and had heaps of family over in Italy and so we started hearing news from her about how things were getting really intense over there. There were rumours of UK lockdown when we were just getting the recording finished. So from then it was a rush to get home; my flight back to Belfast was cancelled and once we got back it was mere days until lockdown hit.”
Jealous of the Birds had just announced they were to join Grouplove as support for their US tour which was supposed to take place in May. It, along with everything else, was put on hold. “We have the same label – Canvasback. Grouplove had been pitching for support acts to do their US tour and we got put up for that and they liked my stuff. We were meant to go from recording the album to being on tour again. We were really looking forward to that especially because there were some beautiful venues. It was definitely disappointing but completely understandable.”
It would not have been the first US excursion for Jealous of the Birds. In September last year they conquered a residency tour. “It is fun; we get to see new places and the states is just a riot. It can be hard in terms of time differences and trying to stay in touch with people back home. But the more we do it we get into a rhythm with it. The residency tour taught me a lot about how touring for that length of time works for me. It’s also a very humbling thing because with gigs back home we have some sort of fanbase and its very community driven. Over in the states it’s like starting from scratch with that. They just see us as a group of Irish kids wanting to play some music but we got good responses; people seemed to like our stuff which is really cool.”
Travel and movement are not just commonplace in Hamilton’s physical life but also in her songwriting. Her songs are peppered with reference to Chicago, Nagasaki and Australia, but she is not limited by this new imposed stillness. “I journal when I’m travelling and bring those notes home and write songs after. I think with ‘Peninsula’ I spent so much time writing and recording before lockdown that by the time it happened I was ready to decompress for a bit. It’s only now that I’ve started to get back into writing and demoing from home. It’s presented a new challenge in stretching perimeters about what to write about. But I think if you are paying attention enough, there’s always going to be stuff to write about. Now it’s about seeing how far your imagination can stretch with that.”
Despite new songwriting being on the backburner throughout lockdown, Hamilton has been ever present in the local scene. A particular highlight was a soundtrack feature in the now Emmy nominated ‘Normal People’ for her song ‘Dandelion’. “I hope that my songs have this contemporary edge. Because I was so young at the time there was lots of stuff in the writing process that was a revelation to me when writing that song. I think a lot of artists tend to swing towards nostalgia, trying to make things sound very traditional or classic or from a different time and that’s fine. However I’d like to think that I will continue to write music that television can see as contemporary and more modern. It just happened to work out with ‘Normal People’ and that was really lovely because when the show came out everything had grinded to a halt for me. That got to be a little moment of ‘yay that happened’.”
Hamilton wrote a short piece on her hobby of painting for the first issue of Stuart Bailie’s Nordy culture magazine Dig With It. “I’ve always been interested in visual art. The more I was able to travel around and visit art galleries and museums and see other people’s art I felt motivated to try it myself. It just seemed like this other thing I could spend time with and learn. It’s cool to gather a few more strings to your bow and try to learn something new again. I think when you’ve been doing something for a while you can really get into ruts and routines with it whereas it’s nice to turn to a completely different skill that you’re a beginner at and have no idea where you are at with. Painting is really infuriating but it’s so gratifying whenever things turn out well so I think it’s something I am going to try to keep going with.”
More recently, this month she also partook in Hot Press’s Rave On Van Morrison campaign, covering the 7 minute long ‘St Dominic’s Preview’. “I am rooted here and based here and these are the people who are part of this music community with me. Of course I want to spend time being a part of that. Jealous of the Birds are dipping our toe in the more international side of things with touring but I am still an Irish artist and I want to participate in my local scene. Anytime anything like these opportunities come through, if they are an ethos I admire and can get behind, then I am in.”
Now it is her time to be the host new content. With her second album and the rhythmic drip of singles we have already seen, Hamilton maintains clever, poetic songwriting that at once rings full of literary, mythological and real life references. “Before writing I love to watch movies and read books and poems to get an input but in the writing it’s all output and what comes out is just whatever is milling about in your head. Sometimes it’s really good to recharge whilst doing that and what I really like to do is just have a scroll through Poetry Foundation. At the beginning of the pandemic I found it really difficult to focus in the same way on reading books. I found it so much easier to watch an episode of something or watch a documentary instead. I read ‘Insomniac City’ by Bill Hayes who was the partner of the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. It’s set in New York City and in a really conversational way it tells about his relationship with Oliver. However, in terms of lyricism in songs; I don’t want my songs to be a rap sheet of literary references. I think it is cool to make it a bit more personal and weave in things that you care about that are specific to your everyday life. Oddly enough, I think the more specific you are, the more people can pull generalities out of that and relate their own experiences to it.”
With the album exploring the relationships between being an individual and part of a bigger whole, Hamilton’s summer singles ‘Young Neanderthal’ and ‘Something Holy’ both pull on the ideas of creating boundaries, both in herself and in her industry. “Music was something I fell into and enjoyed and just went with. Over the past few years I’ve had to transition from just playing gigs on the weekends when I was in uni to this being my full-time job now. I have to adhere to release schedules and touring schedules and recording. The vibe to ‘Young Neanderthal’ was about me setting boundaries and relinquishing the naive parts of myself from when I was younger and less experienced. Now I know what I want more in going forward.” The song is an anti-manifesto of negated wants listed to herself and those around her.
‘Something Holy’, like its title would suggest, is more gentle and reflective in its melancholic questioning “when did I become blase / about the crocuses?” in the face of burnout. “It’s about setting boundaries for yourself in terms of work ethic and personal life. I find when you’re in a creative industry your art can become very saturated in your entire life and it’s hard to separate the two. So for me it’s about now treating it like a 9-5; getting up in the morning and doing emails and admin stuff, trying to write and then clocking out and not thinking about it. You can sustain things better that way. Your work flow tends to have more longevity when you temper it with rest instead of doing work, work, work and not seeing anybody. Plus I think your work actually thanks you whenever you take care of yourself.”
This summer saw a lot of conversation around abuse in the Belfast music scene. After months in lockdown, social media was the platform of choice for discussion and support of victims. During this time Hamilton issued a statement regarding one of her former band mates. Having been the elephant in the room, “I think it’s something that I am glad it got brought to the surface so we can have the conversations about it. The key to moving forward is openness and transparency in what is going on in our music scene whether that be during gigs or anything surrounding that. Our scene should be a place where people are being open and vocal about how others are being treated and how to respect those you are working with. Everyone needs to feel like they’re on the same page and that it’s okay to call people out – even if they’re your friends. If behaviour is not okay then we need to bring that to attention. I want anyone who comes to see Jealous of the Birds to feel safe and included. Everybody just wants to have a good time at a gig and it hurts me to think that anybody from our crew or in the wider community would make anyone feel unsafe.
Despite the difficult parts of the job; having to have these serious conversations and having to prevent career overflow into real life time, Hamilton continues to be inspired to write and to make music. “I think Elliot Smith said that he called that album ‘Figure 8’ to present this idea of music as the symbol of infinity where you are doing it infinitely for its own sake. The act of making music or creating anything in general is a pleasurable one. When I get up and write a song I feel so fulfilled and gratified, like I’ve added something to the world even if nobody hears it. So to have that platform to have other people listening and getting something from it is the most wonderful joyous thing and that’s why I keep doing it.”
Jealous of the Bird’s new album Peninsula is available on all streaming platforms or is available to purchase here.