Diane Birch: Starting From Scratch

Diane Birch 2
The last time Diane Birch released an album, everyone seemed to love it … except maybe Birch herself. The songs weren’t the problem. Birch had written every measure, draping pop melodies and soulful hooks over a framework of piano chords, trumpet blasts and understated guitar. Bible Belt was the sort of record you’d play on a Sunday afternoon, a leisurely soundtrack for a day spent sipping coffee and reading the paper.

Somewhere along the way, though, Birch got tagged as an old-school singer-songwriter with a knack for cranking out 1970s-inspired pop tunes. She was Joni Mitchell with a piano, Carole King with straighter hair. The comparisons were flattering, but they boiled her music down into a simple tagline, ignoring everything else – the doo-wop harmonies, the gospel overtones – that didn’t fit the bill. For someone who’d grown up in far-flung locations like Zimbabwe and Sydney, listening to opera singers and goth bands while other girls her age were aping Britney Spears’ dance moves, she bristled at being pigeonholed. Birch was eclectic. She was funky. She was buddies with Prince, who’d invited her to a jam session after watching her play piano at a hotel lounge in 2006. She wasn’t, in other words, a one-trick pony.

It was time to go back to the drawing board. Over the next four years, Birch bounced between producers, co-writers and studios on both sides of the Atlantic, slowly piecing together the musical jigsaw puzzle that became Speak A Little Louder. Released this October, the album lives up to its name. It’s big and brassy, full of songs with sharp, irregular edges. There’s neo-soul, dance-pop, art-rock and an avant-garde piano ballad called “Unfucked.” Questlove and Duran Duran’s John Taylor hold down the rhythm section on the lead single. Despite those big names, everything revolves around Birch’s voice, a raw, real-sounding instrument that cracks on the heartbroken tunes and belts out the upbeat songs – particularly “Lighthouse” – with the dance-diva ballsiness of Adele. If Bible Belt felt like a one-woman show, then this is a big-budget Broadway spectacle, filled with enough starpower to pack the house and enough oddball quirks to keep things weird.

“You can’t decide how people are gonna view you,” Birch says one afternoon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I’m inspired by artists whose careers were full of all these crazy, different phases, but overall, everything still made sense. People like David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac defined this one space that they occupied, but they crossed genre lines and boundaries within that specific space. That’s what I want. I don’t want my next album to be this all-determining album about who I am as an artist, because it’s just one body of work. As much as I’m into classic pop songwriting, I’m also into other styles, and I want to do all of it. I’ll keep doing things my way, and hopefully, it’ll reveal where I’m supposed to sit.”

Instinct. That’s the glue that holds Speak A Little Louder together. When Birch’s label began chomping at the bit in 2011, arguing that she’d already recorded enough material for a full album, she held back. The vibe wasn’t right. The songs felt fragmented. She knew it wasn’t smart business to delay the record, but what did business have to do with it? This was music.

“Songwriting is so much about instinct,” she says. “I try to go to that place where I’m as removed as possible from my physical world, where I’m invisible to the songwriting process. I’ll sing in gibberish, just mouthing syllables until words start to fall out, and the rest of the song will be informed by some sort of sentence or phrase that appears. That’s the most authentic way that I write; I let the words form themselves, and then the meaning starts to form itself, and suddenly there’s a message.”

Something similar happened with “All The Love You Got,” a breakup anthem shot through with Motown girl-group harmonies. The entire song –including Questlove’s percussion and John Taylor’s wild-boy bass – was built on a demo that Birch recorded in one afternoon, nailing her vocals in a single take. Producer Eg White handled the guitar parts, making things up as he went along.

“He was just experimenting,” Birch remembers. “He had a half-eaten bagel hanging out of his mouth and one sock tucked into his jeans, and he was sort of laughing while he improvised this part on the fly. But his guitar wound up sounding so special. You can’t replicate that. Something really does happen during the first take – that’s where the magic is.”

True enough. On Speak A Little Louder, though, Birch proves there’s plenty of magic left in second impressions.