This is how Diane Birch met her band: she saw them playing at a gig, and knew that she wanted them. So she went up to them and said, "I want you." It worked out well for the piano playing, classically influenced singer-songwriter. She talked of the start of her musical career and her unexpected discovery of her talent, a lucky incident that led her to the music she plays today. Her unusual understanding of the link between classical and pop music is yet another aspect that contributes to her unique style, all of which she discussed in our exclusive interview below. - Laura Yan
Singer-songwriter Diane Birch took half her lifetime, and traveled across the globe, to get to America, where she literally found her voice and made her remarkable debut, Bible Belt. Though only in her mid-twenties, Birch likes to think of herself as an old soul, and indeed there is a startling maturity in her singing and a veteran's self-assurance in her writing. Hook-driven songs like Fools and Valentino offer more than just instant gratification: they're like your new best friends you'll want to get together with them as frequently as possible. Birch mixes piano-playing virtuosity with easy-going soul, and she can strike an uplifting groove on even the most melancholy tune. Her work bears hints of Laura Nyro (when she was hanging out with LaBelle) and early 70's Karen Carpenter (when she was ruling the charts), while effortlessly incorporating New Orleans second-line rhythms, gospel fervor, doo-wop harmonies, country-blues guitar and classic AM radio-style melodies.
Bible Belt was recorded in New York City and New Orleans with a formidable team of Grammy-winning producers: S-Curve Records founder Steve Greenberg, soul legend Betty Wright and Mike Mangini. Among the players accompanying Birch are guitarist Lenny Kaye of The Patti Smith Group, bassists Adam Blackstone from The Roots, and George Porter of The Meters, acclaimed drummers Stanton Moore of Galactic and Cindy Blackman of Lenny Kravitz fame, saxophonist-about-town Lenny Pickett, and trombonist Tom Bones Malone, along with veteran singer Eugene Pitt, lead vocalist of fabled Brooklyn vocal group, the Jive Five.
Birch was born in Michigan, but at a very young age she moved to Zimbabwe with her South African-born parents. Her dad was a conservative pastor who moved his family from continent to continent. So the young Birch migrated with her folks from Zimbabwe to South Africa to Australia, following her father's mission. Throughout her journeys, Birch longed to be back in America, and finally got her wish when her family relocated to Portland, Oregon, when she was 13.
Compared to the average American teenager, Birch was truly exotic, both in terms of where she had resided and in how she had lived within the confines of a strict religious community that had little interaction with its secular neighbors. She had to be resilient and adaptable, which at times meant seeking refuge in a rich fantasy life, imagining herself as someone living in say, the eighteenth century, conjuring up imaginary friends/muses like Valentino, the subject of one of her songs, an Amadeus like-figure, somewhat more dashing in proportion than the real Mozart. Until she arrived in the States, she'd had scant exposure to the radio or television and little knowledge of popular culture; she'd only listened to classical music, opera and, of course, church hymns.
Birch initially cycled through a serious Goth phase, perfect for an old soul trying to define itself. She embraced Goth both musically and sartorially, as musical inspiration and teenage rebellion - listening to the Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, the Cure, even Christian Death; arriving at her father's church in a floor-length black cape and waiting until the rest of the congregation was seated before swanning up the aisle. Her musical education didn't stop there, though: she fell for songs from the twenties, jazz, the Beatles, psychedelic music, and Fleetwood Mac.
Since she was seven, Birch had been studying piano via the learn-by-ear Suzuki Method and had cultivated the ability to replicate a melody upon hearing it. As she explains, Ever since I was a kid, I have been incredibly fortunate in that I could hear something and then just play it.
When she was old enough to live on her own, Birch moved to L.A., with the notion of becoming a film composer: To make ends meet, she quickly learned a standards repertoire and pursued work as pianist-for-hire, eventually landing regular gigs at the Beverly Hills Hotel and L'Orangerie. Prince once saw her play and invited her out to jam with him and his band at his home an invitation she duly accepted.
Up until this point, Birch had always seen herself as a pianist and hadn't tried to sing until a friend cajoled her into taking a class. In order to have something to perform there, Birch wrote an original song, which her new classmates immediately loved. So she wrote another for the next class, then another after that; thus she became a genuine singer-songwriter.
Thanks to material she began to post on her MySpace page, Birch heard from a manager based in London and before long was able to relocate there, where she soon had both regular gigs and a major publishing deal. It wasn't long before Birch was on the move again, however, this time to ink a record deal with Steve Greenberg's S Curve Records in New York, where she currently resides.
As for the album title, The idea of Bible Belt has a layered kind of meaning for me, explains Diane. Because my dad was a preacher, the very religious upbringing I had made a huge impact on my life, in a very restraining and constricting way. I'm constantly talking about heaven, angels, and forgiveness. I'm hugely inspired by church hymns -- their chord structures, their colors. It was a form of constraint for me as a child but now I see that it has fueled my creative fire.
Over the course of Bible Belt's thirteen songs Diane Birch has served up her own portrait of American music in all its breadth and majesty, touching down on Beale Street, Bourbon Street, Tin Pan Alley, Laurel Canyon, South Philly, Brooklyn street corners and many points in between. Hers is a tour-de-force debut album.