Diane Birch talks about being the daughter of a preacher man and the gay friends that changed her life forever

Diane Birch may be the only new artist this year that sounds like an old favorite yet possesses all the freshness and allure of a significant breakthrough talent. Bible Belt is only her first album, but critics have already compared her to such iconic talents as Carole King, Laura Nyro, Elton John, and Alicia Keys. Fan response has been equally overwhelming: a week before its official June 2nd release date, Bible Belt debuted at #13 on the iTunes Pop Album chart.

Diane Birch

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. The influence of Birch’s pious, peripatetic upbringing can be heard throughout Bible Belt.

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Written entirely by Birch and produced by Grammy winners Steve Greenberg, soul legend Betty Wright and Michael Mangini (working together as a team for the first time since the first two critically-acclaimed Joss Stone albums), Bible Belt was recorded in New York and New Orleans with an impressive group of accomplished musicians, including Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith), Adam Blackstone (The Roots), George Porter (The Meters), and acclaimed drummers Stanton Moore (Galactic) and Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz).

Spanning soul, gospel, blues, and pop, Bible Belt showcases Birch’s uniquely affecting voice and deft performance on piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Farfisa. But it is her melodies and lyrics which place her in a league of her own. In tones that seem far older than her years, the singer grapples with the theologies of her childhood, musing on faith, salvation, and the Devil in the same breath as she yearns for an imaginary friend and lasting love.

Here, the singer talks about her musical inspirations, her penchant for sequined jump suits and the gay friends that changed her life.

Q: Why did you decide to call the album Bible Belt?

Diane Birch: When I was growing up, my father was a preacher, and my family was very religious. The Bible was a form of restraint for me, so the title has multiple meanings. But ironically, although I rebelled against religion, it has ultimately fueled my creative fire. It’s influenced all aspects of my music—wording, chord structures, lyrics. It’s a very personal title.

Q: Are you worried that people will think that the album is meant for the Christian market because of the title?

DB: I’ve gotten some feedback like that, but that’s a very black-and-white way to think about it. I’m not specifically talking about the Bible, and the album is not religious. Ultimately, I don’t want to tailor my artistic statement based on what people might think.

Q: Besides the church, what else has influenced your music? Were there certain artists you liked growing up?

DB: I was influenced by classical composers, first and foremost–Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven. I also loved opera singers like Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland. I grew up mostly in African and Australia following my father’s mission, and it wasn’t until my family moved back to the U.S. that I started listening to pop music. I love a lot of different things—church hymns, soul music, funky disco, classic American songwriters, people like Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Joni Mitchell. But I didn’t really have modern musicians that I was trying to emulate when I was making this record.

Q: Perhaps that’s why your music is hard to categorize. You don’t sound like anyone else.

DB: Well, the album sounds like everyone and everything and nothing and no one, all at the same time. There’s a definite 60s and 70s vibe to the songs, but it’s not straightforward pop. Maybe that’s because I didn’t really hear pop music until I was already formed. People have said, “Well you need to make this kind of music now because that’s what’s popular.” But I just decided to sound like I wanted to sound, and that’s when my music started sounding authentic to me.

Q: What kinds of subjects inspire your songwriting?

DB: It’s really everything and nothing in particular. When I have a great cup of coffee, I can write a really good song [laughs]. Sometimes, things will suddenly hit me, and I just need to write a song. It’s like when you need to pee [laughs]. I tend to write more when I’m sad than when I’m happy. In some songs, I’m questioning my own sanity: am I strong or am I weak? Sometimes, I feel like I just want to curl up in a ball, and then sometimes, I feel blissful. There are a million different sides to me that I’d like to express.

Q: How does it feel to have music critics compare you to people like Laura Nyro, Carole King, and Elton John?

DB: It’s insane. I’m really hard on myself, and for me to hear myself compared to Carole King and Laura Nyro, it’s just amazing. I pinch myself when I read things like that. The comparison to Elton John is particularly meaningful to me. I feel like I’m a pianist, first and foremost, and I’ve definitely been influenced by his style of piano playing. I love the way he’s melded gospel-style piano with pop songs. And I always loved the way he used to dress onstage in the 70s. If I had my way, I’d be wearing sequined pants suits onstage, like a modern version of Elton John’s bird suit.

Q: That would add an interesting texture to your performance

DB: Well, I tend to have an eccentric style. At one point, all of my friends were drag queens, and I starting taking style cues from them. I’m tall, so when I wore heels and got myself decked out, I looked like a drag queen.

Q: When was that?

DB: During my teens, in Portland, after my family moved back to the U.S. It was when I really began to have a connection to the gay community. I was a misunderstood teen, and my gay friends really took me in and embraced my eccentricity. They were like my family. They taught me to be proud of myself and to appreciate the things that made me different. My mom asked me if I was a lesbian at the time, because she said I was only friends with gays and lesbians. I said, “To be honest, I really like boys, but these are the people that understand me.” It wasn’t about sexual preference–we just saw eye to eye on so many things. I grew up around a mentality where people were judged for being different, so it was so liberating for me to be accepted for who I was.

Q: So, I take it that you have compiled a lot of gay fans along the way.

DB: Totally. My music seems to have really resonated with the gay community. But, I always forget that it’s an actual community because I have so many gay friends. I just look at it, like, “We’re all together.”

Q: And what’s your relationship like with your family now?

DB: My mom and dad have amazing hearts. I think that my experience and my views have helped to make them more open-minded. They know that just because I rebelled against religion doesn’t mean I’m a devil worshipper. My mom believes what she believes, and I respect that. Her model is Jesus Christ. But if you’re going to say that Jesus Christ is your role model, just remember he was hanging out with prostitutes–he wasn’t sitting around criticizing other people.

My Space page: www.myspace.com/dianebirch