Singer/songwriter/pianist 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.
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 rather than just town to town. 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. At first, says Birch, "it was really disorienting. When you don't live in America you have this idea of it as an incredible Disneyland type of place. My brother, who was considerably older, and had long left home, had married an American and I just idolized her. But when we moved here, I had a really hard time. The culture was so different and I felt like I was an outsider."
Her alienation was understandable: 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. Getting the opportunity to hear American radio and watch MTV via the friends she eventually made, Birch received a crash course in the last 50 years of pop music, from classic rock to contemporary hip-hop. Nothing was retro to her; everything existed in a thrilling here and now.
Birch initially cycled through a serious Goth phase, perfect for an "old soul" trying to define itself. ("Valentino had been my perfect man," she sighs. "Then I discovered Robert Smith.") 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, Fleetwood Mac. Everything she came across was a fabulous discovery: "I'd hear these artists, and it was as if I was hearing them for the first time when they were new. I hadn't grown up with all this music so it's not really in my subconscious. What is really ingrained in my memory, however, is the classical side and because I was exposed to classical music I learnt to appreciate melody, which in turn influenced my writing.
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 I got older, I'd improvise all the time - classical music, movie themes, pop music, jazz. Whatever was in my brain at the time, I played." While Birch was living in Portland, an astute agent starting booking the precocious teen, still dressing in Goth regalia, for various private functions. Birch says, with a laugh, that she used to perform without a set list - or any real songs, for that matter: "I would sit down at the piano and start moving my hands across the keys and it sort of sounded like this dreamy, weird piano music. And people would always say, 'that's great, what is it?' but I wasn't really sure. It was just something I was coming up with at that moment and they seemed to really dig it - thankfully!"
When she was old enough to live on her own, Birch moved to L.A., with the notion of becoming a film composer: "I had this visual idea of how I wanted to live my life and how I wanted music to be the canvas for all the things I was going to do. I thought film scoring would be a great way to do it, though I didn't know anything about what was involved." To make ends meet, she quickly learned a standards repertoire and pursued more work as pianist-for-hire, eventually landing regular gigs at such posh spots as the Beverly Hills Hotel and L'Orangerie. She made quite an impression even in those settings; Prince once saw her play and was intrigued enough to invite 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 and then another - and before long, a genuine singer-songwriter had been born.
Thanks to material she began to post on her MySpace page, Birch heard from a manager based in London and, soon after was able to relocate there, where she found gigs and, within months, a major publishing deal.
As it turned out, going to London would, in a roundabout fashion, be the means of getting her closer to New York City and a record deal. Her publisher flew her to Miami for a songwriting session with soul legend Betty Wright. Witnessing Birch's talent, Wright called long-time friend and collaborator Steve Greenberg (founder and president of S Curve Records); Greenberg met Birch, and by March '08, they were hunkering down in the studio working on what would become her debut album Bible Belt.
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, in their first project together since the trio produced Joss Stone's acclaimed debut, The Soul Sessions and its follow-up, Mind, Body and Soul. 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, who also wrote horn charts. Wright contributes backing vocals, where Diane is not signing them herself, along with veteran singer Eugene Pitt, lead vocalist of fabled Brooklyn vocal group, the Jive Five.
As for the album title, "The idea of Bible Belt has a layered kind of meaning for me," explains Birch. "Because my dad was a preacher, the very religious upbringing that I had had a huge impact on my life in a very restraining and constricting way. While I have a good relationship with my parents today, I had to rebel against that life then. Now that I'm older I notice that all these things I rebelled against have crept into my work. I'm constantly talking about heaven, angels, and forgiveness. I'm hugely inspired by church hymns -- their chord structures, their colors. I feel like all of these things are a part of me. It was a form of constraint for me as a child but it has fueled my creative fire."