[7 December 2009]
In the press materials accompanying her debut release Bible Belt (S-Curve Records), singer/songwriter/pianist Diane Birch says this about the album’s title:
“The idea of Bible Belt has a layered kind of meaning for me. Because my dad was a preacher, the very religious upbringing I had made a huge impact on my life, in a very restraining and constricting way. I’m constantly talking about heaven, angels, and forgiveness. I’m hugely inspired by church hymns—their chord structures, their colors. It was a form of constraint for me as a child, but now I see that it has fueled my creative fire.”
Thus, the clever reclamation of a term commonly used to describe an area of the United States with a large evangelical Christian population becomes both a symbol of the ties that bind (literally and figuratively), as well as an acknowledgment of roots that run too deep to deny. It’s a finely calibrated balance of soul and craft, that title, a delicate dance of substance and showmanship which can also be felt in the music and aesthetic on the record itself.
The songs on Bible Belt were all written by Birch and feature an earthy, keyboard-driven pop-soul sound that has critics everywhere name-checking songwriting heavyweights like Carole King, Laura Nyro and Carly Simon. The detailed production (which sonically telegraphs some of the comparisons mentioned above), was handled by Steve Greenberg, soul legend Betty Wright, and Michael Mangini. With a savvy, proven hit-maker like Greenberg (Hanson, Jonas Brothers) and a boatload of session ringers in her camp, it would be easy for lazy cynics to only locate the powerful industry push at work here, and that would be a shame. Even a cursory listen to the record, and a reading of recent interviews, reveals a talented young artist with an interesting mix of influences and a thoughtful way of articulating her ideas.
In an interesting way, Birch, and what she signifies in terms of potential, also reminds me of Mariah Carey a bit. Remember Carey’s similar arrival on the national scene? Beautiful young songstress with a compelling back story, a golden voice, super-producers at the helm, a retro-sounding first single? At the time, no one could have predicted she would eventually bust loose from the Sony machine and become one of the most important figures in modern pop, let alone break all kinds of sales records and collaborate with everyone from Snoop Dogg to, yes, Carole King. Though on the surface the similarities don’t run much further than that, my point is this: judging from the many things she gets right on her first record, I believe Diane Birch is in this for the long haul. I wouldn’t be surprised if she keeps pop music lovers delighted—and pleasantly surprised—for years to come.
What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
The first pop song I reeeeaalllly fell in love with was “Charlotte Sometimes” by the Cure. I still love it and whenever I listen to it I feel the same way I did when I first heard it.
Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
One of my favorite artists is David Axelrod, who was and still is an incredible composer, arranger, producer etc, mostly recognized for his work in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many hip-hop artists, like Dr. Dre, have sampled his music, which I can most simply describe as an epic fusion of funky beats and basslines with lush strings, horn sections and psychedelic keyboard and organ riffs.
Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
The first genre of modern music that I was really inspired by was Goth. Bands like Bauhaus, the Cure, Sisters of Mercy and Joy Division were some of my favorites and they inspired me in the same way classical music had during the early part of my life.
Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
For me songwriting is like running: it’s not always easy, sometimes you’re in the mood, sometimes you’re not, but when you hit your stride there is nothing in the world that feels better.
Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
I think “The Youth” by MGMT is a really amazing song that is really intelligently written, both musically and lyrically. In general I think they have a really fresh and modern sound that seems classic already.
Diane Birch’s voice sounds fantastic on Bible Belt, and if her TV appearances are any indication, she’s even better live. Check out dianebirch.com to find out when she’s playing near you, and take a listen to the streaming songs from Bible Belt while you’re at it.