Diane Birch: The 'Bible Belt,' In Eclectic Song The songwriter and pianist, daughter of a globetrotting preacher, grew up with church music on Sundays and classical records in the household. Her debut album draws on all that — not to mention a teenage imaginary friend.
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Diane Birch: The 'Bible Belt,' In Eclectic Song

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Diane Birch: The 'Bible Belt,' In Eclectic Song

Diane Birch: The 'Bible Belt,' In Eclectic Song

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Sometimes when you hear the opening notes of a new CD, your ears are hooked for the duration. Listen to this.

(Soundbite of song, "Fire Escape")

Ms. DIANE BIRCH (Singing): (Singing) Goodbye my love, I'll be seeing you when the lights go, when I put my head on the pillow…

HANSEN: That's Diane Birch. She sings, she writes songs and she's just released her first CD called "Bible Belt." Here's she's singing the opening track, "Fire Escape." And now Diane Birch is in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program, Diane.

Ms. BIRCH: Thank you so much for having me.

HANSEN: "Fire Escape," the first tune in, it's - you open the door - it seems to be the first of many songs about heartache, love, happiness. Is there a storyline to the entire recording?

Ms. BIRCH: I had actually just found out that my friend's father had passed away and we'd been sort of chatting back and forth for a while. And then he told me about 20 minutes into our conversation, and I just felt so sad and I just went straight to the piano and started writing it.

(Soundbite of song, "Fire Escape")

Ms. BIRCH: (Singing) My crimson dove, wish that I could save you from the sadness. But honey, all around me lies the madness, oh, of your love.

HANSEN: It reminds me of the doo-wop and the dark fire escapes of New York and people singing out their troubles.

(Soundbite of song, "Fire Escape")

Ms. BIRCH: (Singing) The fire escape, when all that I can do is ache 'cause you've gone away, oh, you've gone away.

I hear a lot of the sort of sadness in a lot of that music and that's the sort of melancholy nature of it. And I think it comes across a bit in this song, too.

HANSEN: Yeah. Next track, "Valentino," though, boy, we get to dance our troubles away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BIRCH: That's a sad one, too, though, ironically.

HANSEN: Well, then, the music doesn't really let us know that.

(Soundbite of song, "Valentino")

Ms. BIRCH: (Singing) Well, I passed the wishing well and I threw my penny in. Said a prayer on up above that you will come my way again. Yeah, I've seen some better defames and the next one you are there. Running circles through the graveyard, throwing daisies in the air. Oh, oh, Valentino.

Valentino is actually my imaginary friend when I was a teenager. I was kind of obsessed with the 18th century and I felt very misunderstood and like I'd been placed in the wrong time period. And Valentino was a sort of character that I created as a sort of muse. In a way, this song is sort of like a little ode to my innocence. It's like a farewell song to that childish imagination. He looked very much like Mozart.

HANSEN: Yeah. How do you write? Do you keep a notepad with you? What's your process?

Ms. BIRCH: I just kind of wait for this feeling. It just sort of hits me. And I could be anywhere anyplace and I'll make sounds with my mouth and they're not actually words - and it sounds very strange. I'm really a big fan of a sort of lyrical flow. I think it's really important not to just stick a word in a slot because it fits - it has to, like, work musically. And then I'll go back and start to say, okay, it sounds like I'm trying to say a word like this. And then I look back at it, I'm, like, oh, that really makes sense.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BIRCH: So I definitely tap into a different place.

HANSEN: Is there a sound thread as well as the storyline?

Ms. BIRCH: My dad was a preacher, so I was so influenced by church hymns, you know, their chord structures and the harmonies. I think it's a huge, huge influence to me musically.

(Soundbite of song, "Choo Choo")

Ms. BIRCH: Heaven, angels, you know, devil, miracle, forgiveness, you know, all that kind of thing, it's kind of hard to get those things out of your head once you've been around them so much as a kid.

(Soundbite of song, "Choo Choo")

Ms. BIRCH: (Singing) Just when I think I'm on the road to heaven, I see it's just another road to hell. The devil's got my baby. Somebody help me please.

HANSEN: You've lived in Zimbabwe, you've lived in Australia, I mean, moving around the world, was music a constant companion of yours throughout…

Ms. BIRCH: Oh, totally. I mean, I don't remember a time where classical music wasn't blaring through the house. I mean, it was classical and opera 24/7. I'd wake up to, like, Joan Sutherland screaming in my ear.

HANSEN: That's a great alarm clock, man.

Ms. BIRCH: It's an amazing alarm clock. I mean, that's the best kind of scream.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JOAN SUTHERLAND (Opera Singer): (Singing)

Ms. BIRCH: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

HANSEN: You got to meet the musician who is known now again as Prince, who is an amazing talent of his own. How did you meet him?

Ms. BIRCH: I was playing piano at the Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A. and he came in this one day and I was playing and so I made sure to play my grooviest little piece on the piano. And so I kind of, like, you know, was hamming it up extra special. I think he liked what he heard, obviously, 'cause a couple of weeks later some people came and got my number. And they were like, yeah, Prince wants to hear you play piano at his house. And I was, like, kind of pinching myself, hyperventilating and I calmed myself down and drove on over.

HANSEN: "Fools," the song - oh, it's such a great pop song. And, you know…

Ms. BIRCH: Thank you.

HANSEN: …sometimes people go, oh, pop songs. But pop songs, let's think about that, I mean, Carole King and Fleetwood Mac. And you sound like Carole King on this, and I hope you take it as a compliment.

Ms. BIRCH: Oh, completely. I'm a huge fan.

(Soundbite of song, "Fools")

Ms. BIRCH: (Singing) Fools knockin' on my door, calling out my name, tellin' me to change my ways but I know two hands in the fire won't put out the flame. Yeah, I got your number. I know your game.

The art of pop songwriting is just incredible. I mean, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, unbelievable songwriters. I don't really feel like I've tried to sound like anything or any kind of era. I just think I naturally write songs that evoke that same kind of feeling.

(Soundbite of song, "Fools")

Ms. BIRCH: (Singing) Why should I lay it on the line?

HANSEN: Diane Birch joined us from our New York bureau, and her CD is called "Bible Belt." You can hear more songs by Diane Birch at npr.org/music. Thank you so very much.

Ms. BIRCH: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Fools")

Ms. BIRCH: (Singing) You look me in the eyes. But honey, I would rather stand out in the rain.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of song, "Fools")

Ms. BIRCH: (Singing) Fools lying in my bed, laughin' in my head, telling me my dream's gone cold, but I know one city of angels, it ain't goin' put out my flame.

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