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.