It’s been nearly four years since Diane Birch performed her quirky hit “Valentino” on Ellen and mom bloggers went berserk for her debut album, Bible Belt.
Since that time, the singer-songwriter — who was discovered by Prince in 2006 while playing piano at the Beverly Hills Hotel — jammed at Daryl Hall’s house, sang with the Roots on Fallon, opened for Stevie Wonder and became a fixture in the Brooklyn music scene.
But her personal life has become more complex, and Birch is back with a new album, Speak a Little Louder — on it she taps her inner Goth girl, expands her musical palate and pays homage to her minister father, who died of cancer earlier this year. She describes the album as a “blender” of influences ranging from the Chopin and Debussy that she learned to play on the piano as a missionary kid in Africa to the darker sounds she dug after moving to Portland, Oregon as a preteen.
“I found camaraderie with street kids and Goths and punks,” Birch, 30, laughs of her Portland years. “It’s kind of textbook preacher’s daughter behavior, when you are shielded from anything that’s dark or secular, obviously you’re curious to find out more. For me, [finding] the Cure, the Sisters of Mercy and Joy Division was massive.”
If Katy Perry (also an evangelist’s daughter) went the Betty Boop route after breaking the chains of her own sheltered childhood, then Diane Birch is the opposite: she wants her music to make sense of the past, not create a cartoon persona to erase it.
2009’s Bible Belt was hyped as a rebellion against her Adventist upbringing, yet “the music was soft,” she says of its mix of Seventies soul and piano pop. On Speak, it’s a different sound, a different story.
Remnants of hymns lurk in the wilds of “Pretty in Pain” and “Frozen Over,” the synth-heavy “Staring at You” recalls the primal scream of Siouxsie and the Banshees and “All the Love You Got” is a guitar-driven groove featuring Questlove on drums and Duran Duran’s John Taylor on bass. Another standout, “Lighthouse,” bursts into a gallop not unlike Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
But the album’s centerpiece is the minimal composition “It Plays On,” a tearjerker Birch wrote just before her father told her he was ill. It’s a kismet moment in which the songwriter finds her way through the musical decades of her influences, where she excels with soulful verses, dissonant piano flourishes and a power-ballad chorus. It’s like “Freebird” for the black-eyeliner set, but with heart.
“With the first record, so much of my bio was hyped around my rebellion against my religious upbringing and my father being a preacher,” Birch says. “Going through losing somebody was a very spiritually transformative experience to me, so some of the songs [I had initially planned for Speak a Little Louder] didn’t feel relevant. Hanging on to that facet of rebellion in my past became irrelevant.”