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Tonight: Diane Birch, a rebellious spirit with a soulful bent

September 16, 2009 |  8:00 am
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Soul music has become a burgeoning youth movement of sorts. The best new artist trophy at the Grammy Awards the last two years has gone to Adele and Amy Winehouse, two-younger-than-30 artists steeped in vintage sounds. 

Like the aforementioned artists, Diane Birch is drawing from the decades before she was born. Titled "Bible Belt," Birch's debut pays homage to the sounds of the South -- "Photograph," for example, sways from a comfortably floral orchestration to a full-on gospel coda, and famed gospel-soul singer Betty Wright was an executive producer. 

But Birch's brand of piano-driven soul is more cosmopolitan than it is gritty, elegantly at ease with its stylistic diversions and retro debts. A bluesy frolic like "Don't Wait Up for Me" stands comfortably next to the breezy hand-clap merriment of "Valentino." 

Owning a soft voice with a pointed center when needed, Birch also possesses classically trained piano skills that have made her adept at weaving pop melodies. "Rewind" begins with a drizzle of piano notes, creating a mournfully reflective base for the crisp horns, redemptive guitars and Birch's post breakup lyrics, touching on the limits of technology and the narrator's arrogance. On a recent cross-country flight, I listened to this song for three hours straight, held captive by spacious piano hooks. 

Based in Brooklyn, the mid-20s artist was born into a conservative religious family. Her father a well-traveled preacher, Birch spent a significant portion of her childhood in Africa, but her show tonight at Spaceland is a homecoming of sorts. Among the myriad cities she's lived in, Birch once called L.A. home, working the lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

On Monday afternoon, Birch spoke to Pop & Hiss from San Diego. 

You did some time in Los Angeles on the hotel bar circuit a couple years ago. What stands out when you reflect back on that period?

At the time I was very bitter. I felt very misunderstood. I felt very used and abused. 

Now I look back, and I kind of miss that. I kind of miss playing in a hotel, where people are eating food and I'm playing songs for hour after hour. At the time, I couldn’t wait to clock in and out, but it was really special for me to sit there -- watching people and observing what I did that would make someone react. When I was off, people were off. When I picked it up, I could affect all these people around me.

That gave me the confidence to realize that I have power over people, if I can tap into it. I think that’s one of the most important things I learned.

There’s a full novel somewhere in your bio, having lived around the world and having a strict religious upbringing. At what point did music enter the picture?

I started playing classical piano when I was 7. Ever since I can remember, there was classical music playing in the house pretty much 24 hours per day, seven days per week. On Saturdays, we would go to church -- every week. There was a huge emphasis on music in church. I didn’t really play music in church a whole lot. I kind of rebelled. The music was mine, and I didn’t want to share it with people.

But I do think I am really influenced by church hymns and choirs, just the sort of grandeur of a lot that kind of music. It’s always been a part of my life. I was serenaded in the womb by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

There are a couple of songs on the record where religion does play a role. Or rather, you’re pondering what role it should play. In "Rise Up," there's almost a brief exasperation at being lectured by a parent. You’re able to articulate these topics in a pretty universal way.

I really rebelled when I was a teenager. I don’t consider myself particularly rebellious anymore. I’ve been there, done that. But I have discarded a lot of the political things about the religion. I can’t help but be influenced by all the things I have rebelled against. I do use a lot of that lingo, and the way that I talk. I think about angels, even if I don’t believe in it as literally as it was taught to me. You can’t get that out of your head.

There’s a whole struggle when you’re raised like that. There’s a guilt, a fear that’s instilled in you. A lot of those things propel my creativity, and as much as I’ve struggled with it, it is a huge part of what I do. A song like "Forgiveness" is about a lot of things, but it’s partly about learning to appreciate the things that really gets you through it, whether that’s an establishment or an idea. It’s embracing the fact that I have struggled. That’s given me a gift, a fire that I have worked out in my art.

You were able to work on this album with Betty Wright. Pinpoint something she brought to the album. 

I think she was really good at identifying what I did best, and what I did naturally, in contrast to someone who is trying to make somebody into something. I think she sat back. She made the environment conducive to creativity and exploring. She’s got a real free spirit. Her energy makes you want to delve into all the different things about yourself as an artist. It was freedom. She was very much like, "Let’s see what you got. Do it." That was really inspiring.

There's been a number of young soul singers over the past couple years, including Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele. Yet soul is a music that's sometimes equated with experience. Talk about working in a genre where youth isn't always viewed as an asset. 

Betty Wright was 13 or 14 when she cut her first soul track. If she’s too young to be singing with that much emotion ... you know?

Honestly, I never thought people would consider this a soul record. I’ve never considered myself a soul artist. I love soul music, but I think of Betty Wright as a soul singer. I think of myself as a little voice, and I write songs and stuff. I haven’t really written this album based on the musical climate around me. I think for a long time I felt I wasn’t going to embraced by people because I didn’t have a sound that was seemingly relevant. I was listening to all the people around me and I was thinking, "I just don’t really sound like them and I should sound like them. What should I do?"

I finally just got so fed up and I just thought to myself, "I can only do what I can do."  ... Similar things are happening with other artists, in terms of the soul thing. A lot of the things that people are saying about the record are the last things I would have thought of. People are saying, "You have this big soul voice!" Are you kidding me? I didn’t even consider myself a singer until a few years ago.

I only set out to make an honest album, and when you sing from your heart, it’s soulful. Whether you have pipes like Duffy, who is an incredible singer, or a voice like Neil Young. I feel his emotion -- his soul -- when he sings. It’s a timeless thing.

-- Todd Martens

Diane Birch plays Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., tonight. Doors at 8:30, show at 10:00 p.m. Tickets are $12.  

Photo credit: S-Curve Records

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