"I really love the kind of tracks you can cry to on the dance floor," says Diane Birch. "There's a rejoicing, a liberation, and a baring of your soul." That marriage of darkness and light, of pain and abandon lies at the core of 'Speak A Little Louder,' Birch's first new album in four years. It's a captivating and deeply moving record; a window into her complex and challenging journey into womanhood documented with intense emotional honesty, indelible melodies, and rousing hooks.
'Speak A Little Louder' follows the pianist/singer/songwriter's extraordinary 2009 debut, 'Bible Belt,' which opened in the Billboard Top 100 and prompted comparisons to Laura Nyro and Karen Carpenter along with glowing reviews from The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and more. Birch, who had worked primarily as a songwriter prior to signing with S-Curve Records, honed her skills as a performer on the road supporting the album, sharing the stage with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Betty Wright and appearing on The Today Show, Letterman, Leno, Conan, Kimmel, and Ellen along the way.
Amidst the success, though, was devastating loss. At the close of the 'Bible Belt' project, Birch faced the end of a long-term relationship, recovering from the pain of heartbreak only to lose her father to cancer a short time later. "We were incredibly close and he was such a big influence on me musically," Birch says of her father, a preacher who brought her and her family around the world and served as a major source of inspiration on 'Bible Belt.' "I lost a huge force in my life."
In the wake of it all, the prospect of completing a new record felt like an impossible feat and left Birch questioning her future, both personally and artistically. "I think it’s natural, that when you’re trying to overcome these hurdles, you’re going to have to deal with some really dark periods," she reflects, "and, if you’re lucky, you come out of it learning something new about yourself. To stay strong, you have to surrender a bit to the breakdown and embrace the darker parts of your psyche and circumstances, come full circle and realize that there’s beauty in even those really difficult and testing times. If you can learn to do that, you can manifest a lot of great things in your life."
Great things, indeed. 'Speak A Little Louder' opens with the stirring title track, a rousing note-to-self to soldier on through the darkness and doubt. The song also announces a striking evolution in Birch's sound, eschewing much of the stripped-back piano and Rhodes arrangements of her debut in favor of lush synthesizers and thundering drums.
"My favorite albums, the ones I love the most, are the ones where the craftsmanship and integrity of the songwriting is incomparable but you can still dance to them!" Birch says. That love informs 'Speak A Little Louder,' a mix of driving, danceable tracks and more somber, reflective ruminations on loss and strength. "I wanted to make a record that pulls from Fleetwood Mac to The Rolling Stones to Annie Lenox. I wanted to put it all together in a way that shed light on who I am as an artist; make something that really feels like my own."
It was Daptones drummer Homer Steinweiss who held the key to unlocking the sounds in Birch's head. In Steinweiss's Brooklyn studio, she spent countless hours experimenting and collaborating, getting lost in rhythms and melodies and harmonies and pushing her creative limits further than ever before. "He has this whole other side from the Sharon Jones stuff and was at a point in his career where he wanted to try new things," she says of Steinwess, who produced the record and co-wrote several tracks. "We were both looking for a creative outlet and to try something different, and we had this magical fusion of creative energy. The timing was perfect and it just worked."
From that point on, the songs tumbled out. "Tell Me Tomorrow" faces the breakup head-on with an exhilarating rush of defiance and regret, while "Diamonds in the Dust" embraces the peace that comes with accepting the flow of life. "Lighthouse" is an anthemic ode to inner-strength and resilience in the face of darkness, and "Pretty in Pain," a co-write with Betty Wright, channels the powerful female singers Birch had grown even more inspired by over the past four years, from Tina Turner and Donna Summer to Pat Benetar and Kate Bush. "It Plays On," the final track written for the record, pays tribute to her father and his enduring inspiration on her music.
While much of the record came together in that Brooklyn studio with Steinweiss at the helm, Birch also made trips to the UK—where she recorded "All The Love You Got" with Adele producer Eg White, Roots drummer Questlove (who co-produced the track along with Steve Greenberg), and Duran Duran bassist John Taylor—and Los Angeles, where she co-wrote and cut the decidedly radio-unfriendly "Unfkd" with Aqualung’s Matt Hales (Lianne La Havas, Paloma Faith).
"I never really set out to work with a bunch of different people," explains Birch, "but I feel very fortunate about this shift in the plans. It worked out extremely well in the end. There are all these different facets that blend together, and my voice is the consistency and sensibility that connects all the songs. "
Ultimately, that soulful voice is the centerpiece on 'Speak A Little Louder,' from the belting roar of "Lighthouse" to the delicate finale of "It Plays On." It's the sound of a heart being put back together, of pain and doubt being cast from the soul, of acceptance and self-discovery. It's the sound of facing down the darkness, turning up the volume, and stepping onto the dance floor to let it all out.
Speak A Little Louder is out on S-Curve Records in the US and Warner Music worldwide now.