Interview with Diane Birch

Freedom of Choice

By: Dave Cromwell @davecromwell

June 26, 2014

" Most people, myself included, are terrified of pain, but I think of it as a lifelong cell mate in the prison of my mind. I can choose to reject it, become a victim and always be at war, or accept it and become friends. We are blessed as humans to have this choice. "

Diane Birch will be performing at one of The Deli's Ten Year Anniversary Parties at Brooklyn Bazaar on August 02. We took the opportunity to ask her a few questions. 

At the end of 2013, songstress Diane Birch released her second album “Speak A Little Louder,” which garnered a similar critical acclaim bestowed on 2009’s debut “Bible Belt.”  Establishing a permanent residency in Brooklyn (she's originally from Michigan, but she lived in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Sydney, Australia before settling in Portland, OR) has afforded opportunities to collaborate with creative forces that better reflect her evolving sound.  Daptones drummer Homer Steinweiss became that influential foil, producing and co-writing several tracks on the latest album. Though her primary instrument is piano (and her voice), many of her newer tracks feature analog sounding synths that have a decidedly retro feel, while her vocals - at times - embrace a similar synthetic sheen, giving it an otherworldy quality.

The title track of your most recent album “Speak A Little Louder” has a sound that hearkens back to the 1980’s period once called “new wave” music. Which synth did you use for this, and was it your intention to reference (at least sonically) this period of music?

Most of the synths were recorded  on a vintage PolySix.  I used that synth specifically because it had a really rich sound that only analog can provide.  To me, it just sounded better.  I never set out to make anything referential although I figure most people who, like me, love the 80's will probably get who many of my influences were for this album.  It's funny I get people coming up with so many different points of connection.  I've heard everything from Dusty Springfield, Alan Parsons, Cher, Gary Numan, and so on.  Most people are right about all of them.   The sonic palette ended up a more singular shade but the colors that they originated from were all over the spectrum.

The combination of your piano chords with that synth sound creates a mood similar to Peter Gabriel’s 1986 masterpiece “In Your Eyes.”  Are you comfortable with these comparisons, and has that song or era of music made any kind of mark on your creative choices?

I have for sure been influenced by Peter Gabriel and yes that song in particular.  For me it's all about that one chord change that happens right after he sings the word "lost".  I remember the first time I ever heard that change. It was like someone punched me in the gut whilst kissing me passionately.  It's a chordal color and style of harmonics that was way more popular in that era of songwriting than it is now.  Undeniably triumphant but out of context a little bit of a 'blush in the face' guilty pleasure.

A number of tracks on the album deal with relationships, how they fall apart and the emotional pain that is left as a result.  Is “happiness” this elusive ideal we will always be in “pursuit” of, where the best we can hope for are only temporary moments of it?

As I'm learning in my reluctant embrace of adulthood, happiness is a choice.  I've spent my whole life looking for blissful consistency & have come to understand thus far that it is: A) Impossible B) Boring & C) Unproductive.  We are, as human beings, designed to suffer and forget at times that our emotions are 'in motion' and don't stay in one place forever.  Most people, myself included, are terrified of pain, but I think of it as a lifelong cell mate in the prison of my mind. I can choose to reject it, become a victim and always be at war, or accept it and become friends.  We are blessed as humans to have this choice.

You’ve been quoted as saying that at some point in your career you’d like to be able to make a droney Brian Eno record’ or ‘make house music and rap beats.”  Have you played around with anything like this in the studio yet?

Yes I have many things cooking in the kitchen at the moment.  I feel very liberated right now.  We live in a melting pot with access to everything.  Genres seem really dated and don't represent what most people are influenced by.   I make tons of different kinds of music.  People only know 'Diane Birch' records.  As much as it might seem otherwise, my releases, to date, show only a small part of everything I am about.  I've realized the only way I can avoided being pigeonholed is to not get too caught up in defining to one genre/sound/style, or contextualizing myself.  Anyway so I've got a new lover called Ableton and we're letting instinct & creativity lead the charge. Where we travel to is TBD.

“Lighthouse” touches on that Kate Bush “Running Up That Hill” / Hounds Of Love feel.  Was that a pivotal record for you when you first heard it?  Even the emphasis on the strong rhythmic tom tom drums pulse.   Other drum drop ins sound like Roger Taylor with Duran Duran and Arcadia.  Do you know that Simon Lebon/Nick Rhodes one-off album?

I don't know that Lebon/Rhodes album.  I'll have to check it out.   I am a big fan of Kate Bush though I honestly have never spent that much time with her records.  I don't listen to female singers too much.  Sometimes it makes me feel a little crazy. She always stings because she's so good. So pure. Like Joni. I have a hard time listening to her, too.  It just hurts for whatever reason.

Album closer “It Plays On” is my favorite track of them all.  The chorus is cool – stretched out a bit.  The three big defined notes on the one word “On” (bum, bum, bum). The arpeggio keyboard notes behind gives it an open feel.  This one’s got that Lady Gaga torch song feel to it.  Lyrically it is the perfect album ender, providing a glimmer of hope for the future after so much heartbreak.  Did it in fact come at the end of the writing cycle for this record?  Anything else you can tell us about it?

Yes, it was the last song I wrote for this album.  I had loosely written it one day and recorded it as a voice memo.  That evening, I went to dinner with a friend when it got interrupted by a shocking call from my brother to tell me that my dad had been diagnosed with cancer.  I walked home down Bedford Avenue, bawling my eyes out listening to this voice memo I'd recorded earlier.  I hated it because I realized it was the song I'd write if I ever lost my dad, my worst nightmare come true.  Seven weeks later, he passed away.  I realized I had to record the song for him as painful as it was.  I make music because of him.

by Dave Cromwell