April 12, 2020

I went through a divorce quite a few years ago, which was an emotionally turbulent time, and all of the emotion has fed into this new album.

For Amy Birks, music has been all about a journey. In fact, it’s been a physical, creative and emotional one which has taken her from her home town of Stoke-on-Trent to an abode in south eastern France, via Jamaica Inn.    It was also due to take her on a nine date tour, beginning April 5th, to launch her first solo album, All That I Am And All That I Was, but this has now had to be deferred, alongside everything else, because of the Covid19 pandemic. I managed to speak to her recently, and began by broaching that very subject…

“Yeah, it’s really disappointing,” she said. “ We’ve done so much work over the past few months, trying to put the band together, with musicians coming from all over the place. It was gonna be really big, with about seven or eight musicians at the launch, and I’ve had to do an enormous amount of work, making sure everyone got their scores and pieces of music, and rearranging the album for a ‘live’ set, so this’s been a massive upheaval. But, you do what you gotta do, right ?” she said, stoically. “Everyone’s in the same situation, so we’ve just got to get through this, look to the future and hope we can rebook for the autumn.”

A red hat. A very red hat…

Amy Birks grew up surrounded by music, listening to Joni Mitchell, Don McClean and the Beatles, and “with a dad who was always singing Supertramp.” Her earliest musical stirrings were awakened by learning to play the piano, aged six, and also by singing. “As a child, I was always coming up with melodies or harmonising with people on the radio,” she said. She worked briefly as a model before university, and was managed by a photographer who also happened to be friends with local New Wave of British Heavy Metal legend, Brian Tatler of Diamond Head; he was photographing the band, so he offered to introduce Amy to him, which led to her acquiring a mentor you’d probably not guess if asked! I suggested they were a rather unlikely pairing. “Yes, totally,” she laughed, “we’re talking twenty years ago now, but Brian’s a lovely bloke. He said ‘I’ll come round to your house and I’ll show you the ropes of songwriting. I’m gonna show you how to write a song.’ I used to go to Diamond Head rehearsals and make the tea, then I’d sit on the floor and watch them go. I was about seventeen at the time, and when we started he really pushed me. I’d do something and he’d say ‘come on, Birks, you can do better than this.’ I’d come up with a melody or a lyric, and he’d say ‘you’ve gotta get the hook in there’ and he was all about riffs. He’d say things like ‘you gotta have a good riff in there, nobody writes good riffs anymore.’ He was bizarre. I don’t think it’s really metal but, in terms of writing a song and structuring songs, he definitely influenced me.” Talking about Diamond Head, she maintains, “There are a lot of great songs in heavy metal we don’t appreciate, with catchy melodies which connect to the classical world. Brian was very classical in the way he played, and some of the chords he was playing sounded very classical in their roots. There’s a kind of baroque feel coming through on some of Brian’s playing. I have one of their CDs, they signed it and called me ‘Naughty Elf’ because I’m really small,” she laughed.

Her first group was The Beatrix Players, formed whilst still a student of Music Technology at Staffordshire University, with her friends Tom Manning and Helena Dove. The Players relocated to London in 2006, with Manning and Dove eventually being replaced by Jess Kennedy (piano & backing vocals) and Amanda Alvarez (Cello). They were championed by Prog magazine and released an EP, Words In Lemon Juice. Then, in 2017, they released an album, Magnified, a work which sat comfortably between folk, acoustic and chamber music, with the Players winning the ‘Limelight’ (best new band) award, with their intriguing blend of chamber music, folk songs and a progressive style seeing them being compared favourably to artists like Kate Bush and Tori Amos.

Soon after this, however, the Players went their own way and Birks began to write and perform as a solo artist. “I needed to know if I could do this by myself,” she says. I wondered, given how good Magnified was, whether she thought the Beatrix Players had ever fulfilled their potential, or did she think there was more the Players could have done? “I’m not sure we could have done much more, really,” she opined. “A lot of the ideas and songs were started between myself and Jess Kennedy, who’s also on this new album. We were just pulling each other in different ways, we were at different parts of our lives and I knew I wanted this to be my life. I wanted to play at the Albert Hall, as well as play with people like Steve and John Hackett, and Caroline Lavelle, and I wouldn’t have been able to do this with the Beatrix Players. So, we were at the point, even only one album in, where it wasn’t going to go anywhere else. Even though it was hard, it was the right thing to do because it was getting quite difficult and it just wasn’t working, because I knew I needed more from my music life, so for everybody’s sake we needed to call it a day.”

I’ve had times when, as I’ve finished a song, I’ve sat crying.

The single artwork for I Wish

Since then, she’s spent the past period of time composing songs, writing sometimes up to six hours a day, and preparing material for what was to become her first solo album, which was released on April 3rd, entitled All That I Am And All That I Was, written mostly by herself with assistance from Jess Kennedy, who played piano on the track Road To Gordes, with Catherine and Jamaica Inn being heavily influenced by Jess’s initial ideas. Several of the songs on the album are stories with historical references or themes, though some are also rooted in bitter personal experiences, and to hear Amy talk about these, and when you read the lyrics, you’ll get more than a hint as to the genesis of the album title. “Working with Jess Kennedy is when I really began honing in on my skills, and I had a backlog of songs which didn’t make it onto the Beatrix Players album, Magnified. The last four to five years, emotionally, have been quite a difficult time”, she states, “and the amount of writing I’ve done over the last couple of years has really ramped up. I went through a divorce quite a few years ago, which was an emotionally turbulent time, and all of the emotion has fed into this new album. The songs are either very historic, with characters like Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon, or about literature, like Jamaica Inn. And if they’re not about these, then they’re about my own experiences. I’ve learned a lot over the last ten years, working with lots of different musicians, but it’s been the past few years which have been the real ramp-up in my skill-set, working with people like, as I said, Steve and John Hackett and Caroline Lavelle, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was still in the Beatrix Players, if I’m really honest. This wouldn’t have happened, so this album’s been made from a more creative environment.”

Several of the songs on All That I Am .. such as Unlike The Heart, Not Every Night and More, deal with painful past relationships and reveal a tormented heart which has undergone probably more than its fair share of emotional turmoil and upheaval, leading to her saying ‘these songs helped take me through very difficult parts of my life.’  Channelling her emotions into song must have ultimately been a very cathartic experience, I ventured. “Oh, completely and utterly,” she exclaimed. “I’ve had times when, as I’ve finished a song, I’ve sat crying. This outpouring of emotion which came up and out through me has been with me since I was fourteen years old, when I was attacked in my music class, because certain things had stayed with me ever since, and I was also taken advantage of when I did some modelling, when I was only seventeen, eighteen, so these experiences have been sat, bubbling under the surface, and on this album I’ve just allowed everything to come out. Songs like Not Every Night and With All That I Am were very much written about my experiences of going through a divorce, so I couldn’t have written this album, ten, fifteen years ago because I needed to live a life before this came.”

I’ve already pretty much finished the next album, and I’ve looked very much towards the Bronte sisters for some of the songs on it.

Album artwork

The song Say Something tells of a very unfortunate and unwanted sexual encounter, which left its mark. Lyrics like “It was okay, was it, to touch me as you did?” and “And it was my fault, was it, that you did what you did? Till this day, I tell you, my body won’t forget” tell their own story, so I wondered just how emotionally draining had it been to write a song like that, which carried emotive undertones of a very bad experience, with lyrics which must have been painful to write and sing, involving dealing with bad feelings from years ago ? Had the impact being made by #Me Too from other women coming forward help inspire her to write a song as brutally honest as this? “I was just being  really honest, and I didn’t think too much about it,” she stated. “Even with the Beatrix Players, there were a lot of tracks which’d been written about my own experiences, like Mole Hill and Never Again, a lot of stuff about what I’d been through myself. I was writing from experience and the emotion came through, and it’s easier when you’re writing about something you know about. It’s not just about my experiences, but also other people’s as well. But, it’s great these movements like #Me Too have come through. They help you to be okay with these taboo subjects and to write about it. The track Unlike The Heart, from the album, was about a friend from university, a lovely man, who was only thirty eight, and he took his own life in early 2019, which was really sad, and this inspired me to write about these things. I thought, let’s not hide them or brush them under the carpet. A lot of this album is very close to the bone.”

  Where does the inspiration to write songs like Catherine and All the fault of the Lady Ann derive from, I wondered? “I’m a big fan of Daphne du Maurier, which inspired me to write Jamaica Inn, but I’ve always been interested in historical things. I’m a huge fan of going to National Trust places, and I’ve always enjoyed books about them. In the Beatrix Players, I remember reading a book about the War of the Roses, and I wrote Rose based on this. This brought me on to reading about Henry VIII, so I thought I’d start with Catherine and Anne Boleyn. They were such strong characters, and I don’t find it difficult to write about strong female characters because they were such incredibly strong women. Some of these songs kind of write themselves because the strength of the characters lends itself to a melody or a vibe for a song, so hopefully I’ve allowed the characters of Catherine and Anne to show through. I’ve already pretty much finished the next album, and I’ve looked very much towards the Bronte sisters for some of the songs on it. I’m always drawn to strong women and strong characters and I think they need to be sung about.”

Where did the fascination with Daphne du Maurier come from? “This comes from my love of classic English literature. I’ve always been a massive fan of romantic novels, but usually something with dark undertones, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and I felt Jamaica Inn had this same kind of feel. I’m also a big fan of the part of England where it’s set, and we used to holiday down there, so when I read the book, I thought ‘there’s a song in this.’ Books and TV dramas inspired me when I was with the Beatrix Players, so I think it’ll always crop up in my writing”.

I pondered whether critics were being unfair when stating, looking at the video for the single, Jamaica Inn, suggesting Amy is 2020’s version of Kate Bush? “I think it’s a wonderful thing people saying I’m like Kate Bush,” she answered, sounding not at all displeased. “I’d never shy away from this. We should be proud to have artists like Kate Bush. She has an incredible voice, she’s an incredible melody writer and she sings about interesting subject matter. She’s a fan of the Brontes so I’m sure I’ll get more comparison with her when the next album comes out.” Was putting that video together for Jamaica Inn as much fun as it looked, I asked? “ An excuse to wear a period frock, jump on a horse, not to mention ride in a beautiful carriage while sipping on a local draught; what more could I wish for?  But, seriously I’d never really done anything like this before, and it even shocked my mum and dad,” she laughed before adopting a serious tone. “I’ve only really started coming out of my shell in the past couple of years. Even with the Beatrix Players, I was always a little bit reserved on stage but, in March 2019, I went to stay with a couple of friends in Paris, including Romain Thorel, the keyboard player in Lazuli, and I was amazed at how confident these people were on stage, and how at ease they were with their performances, and how creative they were, and it made me feel more at ease. So, I thought I’d try to do a video, and just really go for it, and it was a lot of fun, though it took a lot of nerve to do it. But I’m really happy I did it and I’ll do more, for sure.” In her work, she acknowledges the inspiration other female artists have given her. “I’ve been influenced by many strong female writers, in both music and literature. People like Natalie Marchant, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Tori Amos and Eddi Reader, plus of course the Bronte sisters and Daphne du Maurier, who as I said inspired me to write Jamaica Inn”. 

I think I’ll always be a solo artist now.

‘Hold on! I wanna see what he’s writing here…’

For Amy, the experience of putting the new album together has been one which has seen her hone old skills and also acquire new skills as she comes further out of herself, and she expressed her satisfaction with how things have turned out. “Things fell into place beautifully. Although I’d already written a lot of the parts, I just said to the musicians involved, ‘look, there’s a space on this record, see what you want to do with it,’ and it opened up this whole collaborative feel. Writing this album has helped me get through a few things, really. I’m in a much better place now. I’ve written a hell of a lot of songs in the last eighteen months. So, I’m not going to be writing beautifully sweet songs for a while. I mean, they might musically be sweet,” she laughed, “but there’ll be undertones in my writing which’ll always come back to something very real. If you deal with the dark stuff, you can kind of put it to bed and it’s uplifting in a way.”

How did she feel to be voted Top Female singer in 2018 by readers of Prog magazine? “I thought, wow, I was so shocked,” she admitted. “Jerry Ewing (Prog editor) called me up and said ‘Birks, can I have your photograph please?’ I asked him what for, and he said ‘you’ve only gone and won an award.’She sounded amazed at this. “ It must have been from the Beatrix Players, but I wanna thank all the Prog readers for this because Magnified must have hit a nerve with people”. She paused. “But, it was unexpected, put it that way, very unexpected and a real honour, and to come second again this time,” she sounded amazed, “it was incredible.”  

I had intended to ask Amy about the title of the album, and was there any significance to it, but hearing her answers to several of the questions, and to read the lyrics to the songs on the album, it seemed fairly clear what it meant. “Yes,” she agreed. “I’ve not really changed as a person, I’m just a hell of a lot stronger than I thought I was, and all the stuff I’ve been through, I’ve just popped it straight into these songs. Heart on sleeve, this is who I am. Musically, I didn’t think I’d be able to do this. I was scared,” she admitted. “I thought, can I do this? Can I write an album, mix it, arrange it and produce it? I’ve had to climb a steep learning curve, but I did and now I know I can; it was wonderful and I really enjoyed it, so there’s no stopping me now,” she laughed. “It’s all there.”

The last point I put to Amy was to ask, given how this album came about, and the fact she was hands-on all the way through, is it likely she’ll ever be in a band situation again or is she now ‘out there’ on her own? “I think I’ll always be a solo artist now. I’m working with the same bunch of musicians to form a wonderful collective of musicians, and I’d like to see where I can take it. I know there are different things I’d like to do on the next album already, and I’m picking a few different members so the soundscape will be entirely different. I’m going to stay solo now.”

She concluded by stating how pleased she was with the album and the whole process of putting of putting it all together. “It’s an album that grows on you. It’s one to sit down and really listen to and, hopefully, it gets under your skin,” she laughed. “This has been a full-on learning experience and it’s pushed me further, emotionally, technically and lyrically, than I ever thought possible, which has enabled me to be the writer I’ve been wanting to be. I’ve realised I’m a much stronger person than I thought I was, now I’ve had time to explore these feelings.”

With that, I thanked Amy for giving me her time, and providing such a fascinating window into her creative process. She is a special talent, indeed.